Tim Levinson on 20 years of Elefant Traks: “It’s important as a label to work with people achieving something beyond pure commercial sales”
20 years ago, Tim Levinson hadn’t become Urthboy and readily admits, “I had no idea what was going on in my life.”
He was in the process of moving down to Sydney from Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains and “messing with some lyrics.”
His elder brother Matthew’s collection of hip hop records – in particular, Run DMC’s Tougher Than Leather – resulted in a life-long passion for the music and short-term legal matters concerning graff spraying, shoplifting and stealing cars.
Growing up in a single mother family from the age of nine, there was little money.
“So the idea of going to university was a big deal. I thought more about the luxury of going into university than what I was suggesting [Communications] and I didn’t even go into the field I was studying.
“I had the fortune and luck of randomly coming across other people who had decided to start a little label and I fell in with that crowd.”
One was Kenny Sabir (aka Traksewt) a computer programmer who developed the DASE (Distributed Audio Sequencer) which allowed musicians to jam in near real-time over the internet, and a former manager of Newcastle’s Sound Summit.
The other was Richard Tamplenizza (aka Sulo), who now produces and writes film and TV soundtracks and ads, working for innovative production house Broken Yellow.
From here came Elefant Traks.
The name came from Sabir whose folks are from Sri Lanka. According to Levinson, the alternative was Rhinoceros Traks.
Now, Elefant Traks are announcing a series of events to celebrate their 20th birthday, which include their intimate ET20 festival hitting up Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, and a series of talks surrounding the journey of the label and its artists.
How long have you spent putting together these 20th-anniversary gigs?
“It’s been a few months in the making.
“We wanted to do something that wasn’t overly ambitious but just focussed on the bands on the label rather than have a huge extravaganza.
“Originally we thought about doing a festival, but it didn’t feel appropriate given that we’re releasing new material and managing artists’ careers.
“That job is different to that of the festival environment.
“We’ve been putting on shows since 1998. But I don’t know if we need another festival for the sake of having another festival!
“There are some great creative ideas coming out in festivals but we thought it would be a distraction and we wanted to do something more intimate.”
How many reunions will we have (on-stage)?
“I don’t know. But a lot of people who had an intense relationship with music in their younger days will use the shows to come and reunite with friends and relive the intensity of their gig-going relationship.
“The shows have young artists as well as older artists, so we’ll also have audiences that are really in the thick of it.
“It’s going to be an interesting vibe. We have generally, for the most part, have had great audiences for a lot of our acts.
“It’s important for Elefant Traks as a label to work with people who are achieving something beyond pure commercial sales, and that is reflected in the people who are attracted to our artists.”
In the first half of its 20th year, Elefant Traks has had a quiet start with the exception of new Horrorshow music.
But a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff will surface, including B-Wise in September, Jimbalah’s new project Homeward Bound, with new works in progress from Okenyo, Hermitude and a debut from Newcastle DJ and producer Jayteehazard.
What are your thoughts on Elefant Traks turning 20?
“The major motto for Elefant Traks is ‘Hanging in there’. Nothing sums it up better.
“Sometimes you go through moments when what you’re doing is unclear.
“I’m a songwriter you cannot conceive of the fear and dread that comes with uncertainty, and uncertainty is one of the hallmarks of being a musician… never understanding where your next meal is coming from, and I’m speaking broadly, because you don’t have super, you don’t have holidays.
“So you need to take a sideway step to be that foundation you can rely on, and that you can work together on, so I think ‘Hanging in there’ more succinctly sums up the key to us hanging around for so long.
“I don’t see it as ‘reaching 20 years’. It’s more the artists that we work with continually give us reason to think ‘This is a cool job, this is a job worth doing.’
“It’s a job that continually changes and is not stagnant.
“We got equity in this business, we’re not working for somebody else or someone’s share portfolio; we’re doing it for ourselves.”
In its 20th year, Elefant Traks has lived up to its original mantra that it would only stay relevant by reflecting the world it was living in.
How has the world changed in 20 years from Elefant Traks’ perspective?
“I don’t know if there’s been a more dynamic time where voices that were previously shut out of public conversation are getting louder and louder. They’re not able to be pushed aside any more.
“There’s such a new dynamic in what we talk about, and with it comes fear from the status quo because they’re not in the same positions of power. It’s really exciting, it’s an inevitable transition.
“For instance, I always thought we were really constructive and on the right side of history in terms of gender representation.
“It has been on our mind since we developed the label. We’ve always come from a highly eclectic background, we’ve always been multi-culturally diverse.
“But in recent years, listening to the women speaking out about what it’s like to be a woman in the music industry, it’s been a massive learning curve for us to go, ‘We got work to do, we’re not really where we thought we were.’
“The climate changing in the last few years has been really helpful. Because we’re not in control, we don’t get to decide whose perspective is shared.
“We have to be actively on our toes, and that’s really good because we’re growing as a community and learning to make meaningful dialogue.”
One of the interesting aspects of Elefant Traks is that it has remained the maverick, still outside of the mainstream music industry.
From Levinson’s answers below, being an insider is not in his vision.
When was the last time a major label approached you about buying out, or into, Elefant Traks?
“Never. Never. Never. I think we’re not neatly palatable enough,” he laughs.
“What is an independent label anyway? I think the only relevant thing is popularity.
“The biggest hip hop act in Australia [Hilltop Hoods] are with Universal, and I’m pretty sure they don’t need Universal.”
Who are the people in the music industry whom you admire and regard as role models?
“The Archie Roach-Ruby Hunter story really inspires me. These are artists who have truly lived exploring their songs.
“They are giants in the scheme of things, and I find them incredibly inspirational. From the musician side and the business side.”
Levinson also cites Lindy Morrison and Jenny Morris who, aside from being career musicians, have used their networks and music business connections (respectively Support Act Ltd and APRA) to help musicians with their issues.
“There’s an integrity and dignity to have an involvement that is very important to younger people, even if they [the younger ones] haven’t quite worked out the bigger picture.”
Is there an Australian hip hop sound?
“There’s always been one, and what’s made it so exciting in the last five years is that it’s really changing… and changing by the day.
“We’ve become a real force. We don’t funnel the expectations of one community.
“That older sound has been associated with white males and been prominent.
“Now it’s really diversified, and we’re doing a much better job of hearing a whole lot of different communities because they’re actually doing it
“It’s opening shit right up and there’s never been a better time for Australian hip hop, no question about it.”
Friday, 9 November – The Corner Hotel, Melbourne
The Herd , Okenyo, L-fresh The Lion, Homeward Bound, Jayteehazard, Pasobionic, Astronomy Class Feat. Vida Sunshyne + more to be announced.
Saturday, 17 November – The Valley Drive In, Brisbane
The Herd, Horrorshow, Hermitude (One Off Live Band Performance), Urthboy, Okenyo, Homeward Bound, Jayteehazard + more to be announced.
Saturday, 8 December – The Factory Theatre, Sydney
The Herd, Okenyo, L-fresh The Lion, Jayteehazard, Homeward Bound, Astronomy, Class Feat. Vida Sunshyne, The Last Kinection + more to be announced.
ET20 Talks: The Elefant In The Room
Wednesday, 7 November – The Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne
Friday, 16 November – The Triffid, Brisbane
Monday, 19 November – The Giant Dwarf, Sydney
Tickets and more info at: www.etturns20.com