Elephant Days: a new documentary for The Maccabees looks at life in Elephant & Castle

Premiering at the BFI London Film Festival next month is Elephant Days, a new film commissioned by The Maccabees, which documents the life of residents in Elephant & Castle in London and the making of the band’s fourth album. We spoke to singer Orlando Weeks about the film and how the area inspired the new record, its artwork and a trio of music videos…

Marks to Prove it was released in July and recorded over three years at The Maccabees’ Elephant & Castle studio, a former office which the band converted into a recording space. Director James Caddick was asked to document the area at the time the album was being made, and spent two years filming residents and the band.

Produced by 2AM Films, Elephant Days premieres on October 12 and offers a heartfelt look at the lives of six groups of people, from the Peckham Pride basketball team to guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds, the owners of the 100-year-old Arments Pie and Mash Shop, a philosophical tailor named George and, of course, The Maccabees.

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The band produced the score for the film and appear throughout, but the hour-long documentary co-directed by Caddick and James Cronin is as much a reflection on the threat of gentrification in the area and its rapid regeneration as it is about the making of an album (the demolition of the Heygate estate proved controversial back in 2013, and new developments are appearing at an alarming rate).

The recording process is just one story in a collection of tales about a diverse part of London that is often dismissed as run-down and devoid of character. Residents are filmed going about their daily routines and reflecting on life in the area, and the film captures a real sense of community, as well as locals’ apprehension about the borough’s future.

“We wanted to document the area in the time we’ve been making the record,” explains The Maccabees’ Orlando Weeks. “In our initial conversations, we envisioned having lots more stories, but James felt it was important to focus on just a few.

“At first we thought the film would take around a year, but we kept scrapping songs and the team would have to come back and document that, so it was a big ask,” says Weeks. “We got to know them really well, and they’d come in and watch us rehearse, but they didn’t show us any of the film while they were making it. They had previously made a video for us, a documentary about cheese rolling in Gloucester [for track Can You Give It], and it was so sensitively handled that we knew they’d do a good job with this, so it was very much their film,” he adds.

Elephant Days also offers an honest look at the long and frustrating process of making an album. While the band was keen for the record not to be the main focus, several scenes show The Maccabees struggling to come up with new material and engaged in an arduous process of writing, re-writing and starting over. “The realities of making a record are actually really boring, it can be very repetitive,” concedes Weeks.

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Elephant & Castle’s influence on the finished album is subtle: there are no explicit references in lyrics, but the chaos and constant change in the borough gave the band some much-needed inspiration for songs. “I don’t think people will listen to it and be immediately transported to the Elephant & Castle roundabout,” says Weeks, “but a lot of songs come from the place [where you write them], from overhearing someone saying something, or shouting a line down the road, and building on that,” he adds.

“I don’t think that’s specific to Elephant – if you live anywhere long enough, you’ll spot its eccentricities – but our neighbourhood happened to be Elephant & Castle, and there is so much change going on there. It’s really an area at the tipping point of losing an identity, and discovering a new one, and we wanted to capture some of that in the film and artwork,” he adds.

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Weeks says Caddick’s film and the album’s artwork also aim to show another side to an area which is often described as rough or ugly due to its dated shopping centre, endless stream of traffic and the area’s Brutalist architecture. The album’s cover features an image of the Michael Farady Memorial Building taken by David Busfield over 50 years ago, which the band says is both an ‘extension of the album’s intended association with the area’ and a celebration of an often overlooked but beautiful piece of architecture. ‘It’s this photograph’s ability to have made us look again and reappraise, that ties it in so perfectly with the themes of the record,’ reads a statement on The Maccabees’  website.

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“We wanted to try and make some kind of installation [for the album art], but it was going to be too expensive,” adds Weeks. “When I found that image, it did everything we wanted. It said, ‘here is this extraordinary thing that you’ve probably gone past dozens of times and never given it much attention’,” he says.

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The single artwork for releases Marks to Prove It and Something Like Happiness are taken from a previously unpublished series of images by British artist Andy Goldsworthy titled Summer Snowballs: in 2000, Goldsworthy installed 13 giant snowballs in central London, which he had made during the previous two winters in Scotland. Designed to remind city dwellers about the beauty of the countryside, they were kept in cold storage and planted in London on midsummer’s day, before melting to reveal natural materials hidden inside, from chalk to Scottish pine cones and Highland Cow hair.

“Our last record had an Andy Goldsworthy image on the cover and I wanted to reference that,” says Weeks. “I emailed and asked if he might have time to make something in Elephant & Castle, but he was too busy, so he sent me some pieces, and carried on sending me work he’d already done, and eventually I saw the snowball pictures. It was the first thing I’d seen of Andy’s in an urban setting and I loved the mystery of these giant white snowballs appearing in central London overnight, revealing something more and more as they melted.

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“It felt relevant, a kind of nod to past records and artwork, and feeling totally different in some way. The colours are sort of unnatural, the grey background against the white and red, and don’t feel like they come from any landscape that I’m aware of,” he adds.

Goldsworthy’s imagery is striking, and while his images weren’t created in Elephant & Castle, they capture the idea of finding something unexpected in urban environments, a concept which informed both the album artwork and Caddick’s film. Both the single and album covers were designed by Matthew de Jong of Go De Jong, who works with Weeks on all of the band’s cover art.

The concept also inspired a trio of music videos for single releases by director Joe Connor, who has worked on films for Paul Weller and Paul Smith. Two promos have been released so far and all three will feature scenes shot in and around Elephant & Castle, interspersed with footage of the band performing.

“We usually always feel like we’ve let ourselves down with videos, because there’s not much cohesion,” says Weeks. “We make a record as one body of work, and the artwork reflects that, but with videos, we’ll put a lot of energy into the first and by the second and third, we’re on tour, and can’t be there to put it together. This time, we made them all at once. “[Connor] filmed us performing all the songs and at that point, we had to guess what singles would be released, so we filmed more than we needed,” says Weeks.

The fast-paced and frantic film for Marks to Prove It combines timelapse footage of Elephant & Castle’s roundabout and scenes shot using a point-of-view camera. Mid-way through, the film’s protagonist slips through the ground and into a pool of water, away from the chaos and noise.

The second film, for Something Like Happiness, shows a more serene side to the area, focusing on architectural details as well as green spaces and plants growing in deserted alleyways. Trees are rendered in white and the sky in shades of grey and brown, creating an oddly wintry, dream-like feel.

“We wanted to show Elephant in as many different guises as possible, and not in ways you’d imagine,” explains Weeks. “In the first film, we show how it is a place a lot of people travel through and never stop. We wanted to show the manic side of it, then a kind of calm during the storm as the actor drops into a puddle. That was Joe’s idea and as it turns out, Richard [Reynolds, from Elephant Days] emailed me and said there is a hidden river that runs under Elephant & Castle, which Dickens once referred to as the ‘Venice of drains’. In the second film, Joe makes Elephant & Castle look like the images you’d see in a coffee table book about architecture. He made it look totally empty, the total opposite of the first.”

Weeks says scenes showing the band playing in each film were inspired by Lindsay Anderson’s surreal 1973 comedy drama, O Lucky Man! starring Malcolm McDowell, which featured a soundtrack by singer-songwriter Alan Price and would often cut to footage of Price performing tracks with his band. The third film, which has not yet been released, will document the Elephant & Castle underpass, which features a beautiful series of murals by David Bratby that are sadly being filled in to make a new pedestrian crossing.

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As Weeks point out, both the film and music videos capture an area on the verge of huge change. Caddick and Connor’s films present the busy, noisy and chaotic side of Elephant & Castle, but they also offer a more uplifting look at a place that is rarely portrayed in a positive light, showcasing not just the buildings, but the people and communities that make up the borough.

Marks to Prove It is out now on Fiction Records

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