Private Playlist: Dante Elephante is slowing down his life with sides of vinyl

Dante Elephante. Photo courtesy the artist

Private Playlist is a listening session with Southern California’s most notable musical figures in their private creative environments.

A native son of Goleta, CA, Ruben Zarate received his education in a musical family in the shadow of UC Santa Barbara. For Zarate, that homegrown influence inspired him to bypass the town's party-oriented music scene in favor of the introspective and aspirational writing of heroes like Harry Nilsson and Alex Chilton. In 2010, Zarate miraculously found a group of kindred spirits and formed the first incarnation of Dante Elephante. The band’s earliest efforts were captured on 2013's "German Aquatics" cassette, whose production was threaded through with nostalgic surf-rock influences. Their 2015 full-length debut, "Anglo-Saxon Summer," took a harder-edged approach. Zarate's restless creative spirit led to another stylistic sea-change with their latest album, "Mid-Century Modern Romance," which wraps his smart but heartfelt songwriting in gauzy disco fabrics.

For this edition of Private Playlist, Dante Elephante’s Ruben Zarate shares songs from every stage of his musical evolution, including his grandmother’s beloved Eydie Gorme, Scottish post-punks Orange Juice, and (of course) Harry Nilsson.

“I’m not bringing King Crimson into a bar. It’s just not gonna happen.” — Ruben Zarate, Dante Elephante

RUBEN ZARATE: Before the pandemic, I was DJing weddings, so I was listening to the same songs over and over and over again. And there was a moment at the beginning of the quarantine where I wasn't really listening to music at all, [and] I wasn't playing music, and I was like, "Oh, this is the perfect break." [But] I have found a new love for records. I took my DJ turntables out of my car and put them in my room. And that has slowed down my life a lot, in a good way. Especially because [I'm playing] records I don't DJ. I'm not bringing "In the Court of the Crimson King" to a bar and playing some King Crimson. It's just not gonna happen. So it has been really nice to sit down and listen to these records I either grew up with or I'm just discovering. 


"Sabor a Mi" by Eydie Gorme and the Trio Los Panchos is super-important to me. Every Sunday, my grandmother used to put it on while we'd clean the house. It’s a very popular song in Mexican culture, and it’s one of the first records I put on when I got my record situation set up in my room. It takes me back, like it's 1995 all over again and I'm with my grandmother. It makes me feel like a kid again. My grandmother was also a self-taught musician. She played guitar and taught herself piano as well, and the harp. And music was a big part of our life. Almost every day, she’d play music and we’d do things around the house.


Video Age, from New Orleans, released a new record in 2020. And I love bands that put out stuff last year, even though everyone told them not to, because it just wasn't a good time. Even my label got a little scared, so we pushed my [new] album to 2021. But, for whatever reason, Video Age still did it. And it's amazing, because there's still art to put out. We’re creatives, and we have to put stuff out.


I am a huge Tim Buckley fan. I think, if you're a certain age, [first] you found out about Jeff [Buckley], and that leads you to Tim. So I found out about Tim through Jeff, and immediately fell in love with his music. He has one of those career arcs that I adore. Tim Buckley started off like the pretty Bob Dylan, then he does avant-garde jazz, and it ends up being this sex-funk on the last couple records.


I discovered Harry Nilsson when I was in high school on one of those Time/Life "Songs of the '60s" compilations. I wasn't allowed out of my house past 10 p.m., so I would stay up late and watch those commercials. I was 16 or 17, so I searched for his music on Limewire and found "Everybody's Talkin'", and it led me to finding out more about him.

Fun story: I recorded my first album, "Anglo-Saxon Summer," in Westlake, and we recorded it with Jonathan Rado of Foxygen. We were just hanging out the first day, talking about what artists we really like. And I was like, "Oh, I love Harry Nilsson." And he said, "Me too! You know, he's buried here." And I was like, "He is?! Oh, we gotta go see Harry Nilsson, man. We gotta go pay respects." And we never did because we got so busy with recording. 

But one night, I was sleeping on Jonathan Rado's mom's couch, and Nilsson came to me in a dream. And he was in my dad's house, which is really weird, and he had a piano. And I was like, "Harry, what are you doing here?" And he said, "What song do you want to hear?" And that's it. That's all he said. He wasn't like, "Nice to meet you" or anything. I was like, “‘This Could Be The Night.’ Could you play that one?” And I heard it and woke up and was like, "That was a weird dream." And now I'm wondering: Was that him?


Paul Cherry is one of those artists that came into my life at a really weird time. I was on tour going to South by Southwest. And I saw an article where they called him "the psychedelic Paul McCartney." And I was like, "I love that." But I didn't actually listen to it on tour. I was like, "I'm gonna save this for when I get home. I'll be home in three weeks." 

And when I came home, I heard his album "Flavor" from 2018. And I was like, "Oh my god. This guy and I could be best friends if we ever meet each other. This is my vibe, I love this." I was completely blown away. And I was trying to figure out a way to get this dude's attention. So I booked him a show in Santa Barbara. I figured that's the best way to meet people if you want to connect. And then I asked him, "Hey, man, would you ever be interested in producing my band?" He said yes, we flew him out from Chicago to LA, and we made my new record.


"Rip it Up" is a song that has meant a lot to me over the years, [and] I'm slowly seeing more people know it. Before, maybe in 2013, it was just me. I was constantly showing it to people. But now people just know it, and that's crazy to me. It's awesome, because it's such a good song, but I kinda liked it when it was my little secret gem. Now everyone knows "Rip it Up." That's beautiful, though. More people need to know about it.

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