The Relevant Elephants have a world of opportunities. Their music carries beyond the subway walls. Street music is an integral part of Boston culture, and the Relevant Elephants are one good reason why. The band is planning an Australian tour this November, but they got their start in the Boston underground.
While the Relevant Elephants have found an audience in Boston, none of the members are from here. Detroit native Zack Hankins, the vocalist and guitarist, grew up in a family who played music; he was inspired to come to Boston for the music scene, and that was how he met the four other members, Taylor, Mack and Adam who play guitar, drums and bass respectively. Their name is the brain child of none other than Stephen Colbert, of Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.” They attended a show in 2011, and during a question and answer session opted to ask Colbert for an idea of what to name their band. Without missing a beat, Colbert responded with “the Relevant Elephants” and the band we know today was born.
Typical methods of getting a performance are talking to booking agents and public relations representatives. Those endeavors are not always successful nor are they profitable. But busking is a valuable resource in the DIY music game. The word “busking” or “to busk” comes from the 17th century, meaning “to seek and perform”. It’s appealing because your time is the largest investment you make, and in the end, you walk away with more than a monetary gain. The nature of it is that you’re performing for money, not from ticket buyers or producers, but train-riders and tourists. Hankins estimated the average pull of a full band like the Relevant Elephants is fifty dollars an hour. Tourists often give the most money, along with the 30-40 year old demographic. Seasonally, summer is the most profitable time and for any sporting events, the Relevant Elephants are sure to be nearby. Intoxicated Bostonians are also extremely generous; some could even say that drunk locals are the ones keeping the local scene alive. People have attempted to jump over the tracks (and occasionally fail and need to be rescued before the next train) to throw their dollar bills into the Relevant Elephant’s guitar case.
Hankins said most of the money made from busking goes back into the band, for general equipment upkeep and batteries for their amps as they are prohibited by the Subway Performer’s Program from using MBTA power sources so bands that need to plug in (for example Taylor’s guitar and Adam’s bass) rely on battery powered amps. Drums are also prohibited, so percussionists like Mack elect to use a cardboard box. Because of this unusual material, he has to use his hands. This is a contributing factor in the length of the Relevant Elephant’s performances. Hankins refers to “the unspoken rules”, where after two or three hours you step aside to let another musician get their time in the subway spotlight. Buskers support each other but there’s still competition for the best places at the best times. Hankins laid out the better spots for performances, like Downtown Crossing and Park Street on the red line, but not Park Street on the green line. The difference being the size of the performance areas. On the red line, they can play in a more enclosed area and the acoustics have more strength from bouncing off the walls, while on the green line Park Street is a wide open space and the acoustics get lost.
“99% of people ignore you,” Hankins says, but he has seen the positive side to it. If people don’t like you, then they keep moving and there’s more people within minutes. There are few consequence and mostly rewards. It helps you to develop a thick skin that comes in handy when performing at venues. Busking trains them in the art of environmental improvisation, they’ve learned to work off their environment to engage their audience. “You can’t go in there with any expectations because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s never bad.” MBTA workers have only checked his permit once or twice. The band has played with a drunken homeless piccolo player; Hankins even had a real live parrot placed on his shoulder while he played!
He also tells the story of Free Burrito Day in 2010, when he and some friends were playing outside a boloco to the throngs of people waiting in line. When the marketing director heard them, they asked for a “burrito-specific song” and on the spot, Hankins delivered. Boloco loved it so much they ended up recording it along with filming a music video for it that you can find on Youtube. It’s titled simply “Boloco”. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VcafUeihrW4&feature=youtu.be] Now Hankins enjoys free burritos for life.
The Relevant Elephants have even expanded their presence from the red line to online, which is where creative networking hits its stride. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook are the three arrows in the quiver of online branding. Musicians, alternative poets, teenagers, moms, even dads are taking to the web to promote their beat. Hankins says, “People will tweet “I need some new music to listen to,” so I reply to them”. This was how they landed an Austrailan tour slated for the fall. They’ve gotten radio play on four continents including North America. They’ve done Skype interviews with radio stations in Argentina, and playing the subways and streets of Boston took them there.
Their journey isn’t commercialized or industrialized like so many other musicians in this day and age. Busking is not a main source of income for them; they all have jobs, but they’re becoming professional musicians because of busking. They found their ticket to some classic fame and fortune as easily as I happened upon them. When the Relevant Elephants get off at Park Street Station, they arrive at Park Street Theater, just one of the nicknames they’ve given to the dingy stations they can almost renovate with their music. While people use the subway as a way to get to their destination, the Relevant Elephants made it their destination; and now only time will tell how far they can go.