Whitney Lyman and William (Bud) Ransom remember vividly the first time they played together to a big audience. The PONCHO Concert Hall at the Cornish College of the Arts was full of students, faculty and community members to watch the Scores of Sound Student Music Festival, a non-curricular recital for Cornish students who choose to present their work to a crowd outside the classroom.
Lyman and Ransom performed four songs they wrote together. Both nervousness and excitement occupied their thoughts as they showed the public the fruit of months of rehearsals.
“When we got off the stage, there was this huge thrill,” Lyman recalls. “People were telling us they really liked what we were doing, and that was a good sign.”
Good signs of success are what bands like Lyman and Ransom’s are looking for on the journey toward broader acclaim. The duo started playing together in 2007 as music students at Cornish, and in 2010, they officially formed their neo-folk band, The Elderly. The story of The Elderly is an example of what local musicians go through to break out of the pack and gain recognition outside the Seattle area.
While Ransom writes the songs, plays the guitar and sings, Lyman creates the harmonies, sings, and plays the banjo and the percussion. The mix of string acoustic instrumentation and light tambourine beats creates an unhurried, rustic sound. The Elderly’s songs abound in vocal harmonies, and lyrics communicate idyllic settings. Occasional claps bring playfulness and reveal the easiness of the duo’s songwriting style, which always seems to arise from a walk in the park.
American folk-rock from the 1960s and ’70s inspired the band, and the name The Elderly is a nod to that influence. The band sounds like a male and female version of Simon and Garfunkel, with deft guitar playing and carefully placed banjo arrangements.
“In the 70’s, my mom and her four sisters had a folk music band,” Lyman said. “That was the first music I grew up listening to – folk music inspired by the times of the 70’s, but I was listening to it when I was a kid in the 90’s.”
“All the music I listen to is old,” Ransom added. “Don’t think of ‘the elderly’ as old people; think of it as sepia photograph.”
While the band’s influences ooze from the past, its drive to create music and perform is very present. In the last few months, three new musicians joined the band: Judd Wasserman (bass and vocals), Nick Ptacek (guitar and vocals) and Devin Anderson (drums).
“The new band members open up a lot of options,” Lyman said. “They bring their own ideas – which would have never been created if it was just the two of us. Musically, the sound is different, but it’s the vision Bud and I had from the beginning.”
In addition to drawing more members, The Elderly has been an active participant in Seattle’s music community, a must-have pass for gaining local influence.
“Being part of the community is how you get people to find you,” Lyman said. “It feels like it’s a group of friends – having this personal connection is important because people go to your shows because they like you as a person.”
Bassist Judd Wasserman added: “There are different circles interconnecting. When there’s a show of any band inside one of these circles, everybody from this circle goes to the show because they know they are going to get good music.”
This community environment makes it easier for the success of one band to prompt the success of another. When folk band The Head and the Heart signed to record label Sub Pop last November, the entire local music scene got a boost of visibility. With its origins in the Seattle independent circle, The Head and the Heart now tours across the country – as well as in Europe – playing shows and expanding its fan base.
Wasserman is friends with the folks on The Head and the Heart. “Just seeing what happened to them over the past year is unbelievable,” he said. “The Head and the Heart opened a big door for a lot of acoustic music.”
Wasserman believes the band reached national success for a mix of reasons including its members’ business savvy, smart use of social media, honest chemistry between band members and the public, entertaining live shows, and personal connections with influential people.
“The Head and the Heart was the first to stand out,” he said. “I’m sure there will be many other local bands that will break because of them.”
As The Head and the Heart attracts new fans in distant places, The Elderly has been enjoying a period of fair visibility among local concertgoers and press. The Seattle Weekly recently reviewed the band’s show at the High Dive on March 29 calling Lyman and Ransom an “intriguing couple” who clearly has “the tools both lyrically and musically to distinguish themselves from the flock with an infusion of texture, variety, and risk.”
Although getting a review on the paper is a required checkbox for any band that wants make it big, it is certainly not enough for a band to secure national prominence. The Elderly – as most independent bands – is not a profitable enterprise. All band members have day jobs that allow them to reconcile their strenuous rehearsal schedule with their need for money.
“We want to play music for living,” said Ransom who bartends part time. “It’s a way of going through life; to do music as a lifestyle.”
Lyman, who cooks pizza in a restaurant in Capitol Hill, added, “Our goal is not fame or money, but to share what we create. It’s communicating without talking. If this could be our job, we’d do it.”
While fame and money may not be the band’s main goal, these themes constantly permeate its members’ thoughts.
“Of course we’re not close to there yet,” Ransom said. “I worry a lot about my band members. As we’re are trying to make it, tons of bands are doing the same.”
“Choosing a music career is an emotional roller coaster,” Lyman said. “There are the extreme highs and the extreme lows. You get really excited about something, but it doesn’t happen. The challenge is to keep your motivation going. You have to remember the wonderful high moments to help you carry through.”
As The Elderly’s ride continues, the band matures and its dreams grow. “We want to reach as many people as possible, affect people in a positive way,” Lyman said. “Maybe the next step is doing a full-length album, or get on tour.”
On Friday June 10, the Elderly will play at the much-hyped Columbia City Theater. For many bands, playing there is a steppingstone to shows in festivals and broader visibility.
Although the band feels it’s moving in the right direction, all members know the unspoken truth: making it nationally is for a lucky few.
“The challenge is to convince myself that it doesn’t matter if we make it or not,” Ransom said. “It’s hard to stop and let go of the fear of not having done everything we have to do. I have to convince myself that we all have jobs, we all love each other and playing music together, and that’s what matters.”