Hills Like Elephants was founded in 2011 singer/keyboardist Sean Davenport. The bourbon-based modern Motown bluesman is a Bonita born pianist who spent the better part of his young adulthood stumbling from Boston to New York to L.A. and back to San Diego, tripping over women who kicked him when he was down and leaving behind a trail of soul-heavy lost love epitaphs via ex-bands Abigail Warchild (in NYC) and Gun Runner (San Diego).
“I think Hemmingway and maybe Bukowski are the only writers who I’ve read all of their books,” says Davenport, whose project is named after a Hemingway reference. Raised a bottle-toss away from Tom Waits' old turf, the candid crooner finds solace in a place where heartbroken vocals, Pavement guitars, and driving drum machines meet in a curious exploration to see what would happen if soul had a synth, and if synth had a soul.
Davenport began prepping the debut Hills Like Elephants full-length just before Gun Runner announced a “long term break up” in late 2011. The expression is consistent with the heart-on-sleeve mood of HLE’s The Endless Charade, a concept album “about certain girl situations.”
“A girl kind of messed me up. I was dealing with that for a while and the music became therapeutic,” says Davenport. “Lyrically, I felt like I made breakthroughs because I was having such a rough time and things were just coming out. A lot of honesty.” The full-length features cover art by Jon Kruger (River City).
“The album’s called The Endless Charade and, from one end of the album to the other, it shows you that as bad as it gets, it’s going to be OK, and you learn along the way. The games never stop - you have to learn how to play. It’s not spiteful. It’s more just if you can relate.”
Davenport’s “Motown album with drum machines” includes live drums by Matt Lynott of The White Buffalo and engineering by Gun Runner’s go-to, Christopher Hoffee at Chaos Recorders in Escondido.
“Every time I give Chris a musical reference, he always knows exactly what I’m talking about. He’s the other part of the album. He’s good at identifying what I normally go for and gives the album continuity. He knew that for guitar I usually go for something Trip Hop where maybe two notes can be the whole thing, and for keys I go for Talking Heads or the old school Wurlitzer organ. He knew how the vocals would sound. So we’ve been able to work very quickly. He’s phenomenal.”
As The Endless Charade makes use of vintage drum machines, Moog plug-ins, an old school pump organ, and an “‘80s synthesizer with fans blowing in your face to cool it down,” Davenport says the real challenge thus far has been making what happens in the studio happen live with a lineup which included at that time Andrew Armerding (River City) emulating synths with guitar and effects, former Gun Runner trapsman Carlos Ortiz, and guitar/bassist Danny Gallo.
“The idea was to make a keyboard album where the guitar is textural rather than the main drive of the song,” Davenport says. “I didn’t want to do a Sea Change or Bon Iver thing, where the music matches the mood, which is sad. I wanted to keep it dancier. So the album is like a remix of the songs I started with. None of them sound like how they started.”
A new single, “Invisible Ink,” was released in June 2012. That August, they won Best New Artist at the San Diego Music Awards.
In 2013, the lineup including Davenport, Andrew Armerding (River City), Greg Theilmann (Dark Shapes), and drummer Carlos Ortiz (Gun Runner) geared up for a nationwide tour: first stop, SXSW 2013. Not all their gigs have been so so stellar. “The worst show was at the Constellation Room up in Santa Ana, or wherever the hell it is. People were showing up, the audience had a great vibe, and due to a scheduling conflict, our set got cut short and the soundman turned our mics off in the middle of a set...we drove two hours to play for maybe 15 minutes. The sound guy told us that was our problem.”
Their sophomore release, Feral Flocks, was released via Requiemme Records/BMG Chrysalis in March 2013.
The title comes from a prerecorded zoo segment that Davenport overheard while interviewing with FM 94/9 host Tim Pyles and refers to lost birds of prey forming feral flocks to migrate home. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, Davenport agrees, disclaiming: “I’m not trying to be profound. Like, if I wouldn’t say it to you at a bar, I won’t say it lyrically. I’m not going to start spouting poetry.”
Davenport says Feral Flocks strikes an upbeat contrast to the laments of his debut. “On The Endless Charade, I was harping on the idea of past relationships, but I was also trying to move on,” Davenport says. “Feral Flocks is more about noticing the subtleties of life.”
“Ninjavitus,” a video from Feral Flocks, was shot in North Park and directed by Eric Casas of the Visualists.
Early 2014 found the band welcoming a new drummer, Michael Hams, and releasing a new EP called Bedroom Colonies Volume 1, which was recorded, mixed, and mastered by Greg Theilmann. “After splitting ways with our old label,” says Davenport, “we were told, even though it was them saying they didn’t want to work with us, that we were ‘in breech of contract’ if we put out another full-length. Since the band has no intention of stopping, we decided to keep putting out music anyways.... We’ve been sitting on these [songs] for a while, so we are going to start putting out EPs.”
Bedroom Colonies Volume 1 debuted March 8, 2014 at the Casbah. A followup was released in 2016, Tacet, though the band split after a final show on August 27, 2016 at the Whistle Stop in South Park.
“We had that one last album in progress, and we decided to do one last show. We wanted to tie up all the loose ends,” explains Michael Alan Hams, “and do it right.”