In the summer of 2016, Eli Elkus felt the clay of stagnation hardening around him.
His band, People Like You, was recording songs sporadically, playing shows around the Seacoast, and building a reputation as a major group in the local music scene. But, after recording a batch of brand new songs, Elkus and guitarist/co-songwriter Andrew Polakow cancelled a slew of shows and decided to hit the road.
“You know, things just got kind of stagnant around here, and I just have trouble staying in the same place for years and years,” Elkus said. “You end up wondering what the hell’s going on with the rest of the country or the rest of the world.”
Elkus and Polakow both headed out West separately. Polakow traveled all the way to Alaska, where he played folk music at a reenactment site for a few months. Elkus jumped on the band’s infamous purple bus with only $400 in his pocket, snaked through the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, and trickled his way down to the badlands of South Dakota.
Throughout his travels, Elkus sustained himself by busking on the streets and playing gigs at dive bars in anonymous cities. He spent his nights camping in national parks and squatting in buildings in abandoned villages he found along the way.
“There ain’t really law enforcement for a 100 square miles, so it’s pretty wild woods,” he said. “I ended up bartending at this dive bar … in a town called Interior Badlands and overheard people talking about ‘so-and-so blew so-and-so’s head off because he was lookin’ at my lady the wrong way.’” Elkus let out a nostalgic laugh and sighed.
During this travels, Elkus corresponded with People Like You keyboardist Justin Sheriff, who was producing and engineering tracks for the band’s latest album. Once Elkus and Polakow had returned home, the band reconvened to mix and master “People People,” an 18-song collage juxtaposing the high-soaring melodies of alternative rock with the grounded, gritty energy of gypsy punk.
Though the Portsmouth-based quintet shuns the “gypsy” label, the genre’s characteristics carry through in their music. “People People” draws inspiration from the genre’s leading players, from gypsy jazz godfather Django Reinhardt all the way up to modern acts like Gogol Bordello. People Like You harnesses the jaunty Eastern European scales revved up to the speed of rock and roll songs. The album serves as a suitable soundtrack for communities with only a wagon, a tent, a guitar, and sing-song tales of the old country to their name.
The band’s sound also serves as a vehicle for the sort of folklore storytelling that comes with the traveling gypsy culture. “Gypsy Queen” tells the story of a busker who has his mind stolen by a gypsy and is forced to sing the same words for eternity. The macabre “Welcome to the Circus” details a show in which the animals take over and use their human “masters” as the attractions.
Perhaps the band’s most defining song, “Oh, the Places We Will Go,” is a raucous jam that spans five minutes, with little time to catch its breath. A screeching violin rings like a warning signal before the doors of madness are kicked open by foot-stomping rhythms, polka-esque basslines, and dizzying guitar licks.
Yet the band shows impressive range, paying dues to their alternative-psych influences. “Name After Name” carries elements of power pop, while the Sheriff-penned track “Spinning In Your Head” serves as a hungry alternative rock ballad.
“Any musician who chooses the pigeonhole becomes the pigeon,” Elkus said. “It’d be boring and insincere to be a ‘this kinda band’ or a ‘that kinda band.’ If we didn’t have to identify, we sure wouldn’t. But people love labels.”
To tie some of the songs together, Elkus inserted soundclip vignettes from various people he met on the road. The vignettes showcase men with names like Kul Ice George in Madison, Wis., and who told stories about “chicks with (expletive) pentagrams carved on their chest” in Tacoma, Wash.
Just like a community of gypsies, the band is always on the move, staying one step ahead of everyone else. Elkus said that by the time of the new album’s release, the band had been playing the songs for years, working and experimenting with them as they developed their psychedelic stage show.
People Like You is now in the process of writing and performing new material, which they plan to release in June of next year.
“People People” will be available for national and digital release on Friday, Aug. 25. People Like You will perform with Consider The Source at The Stone Church in Newmarket on Saturday, July 29, at 8 pm.