Isaac McElderry emanates a certain vagabond quality. He's a charming musician with dark eyes and a disarming grin—a laidback type who once, in January 2005, bought a roundtrip ticket to Hawaii to visit a friend and ended up staying for four years. That decision cut short his career as a student at the University of Montana, but it was exactly the sort of semi-permanent vacation from school he was looking for. In Hawaii he played acoustic guitar in fine dining restaurants like Torchy's and Rooster's on the beach, and he also worked as a carpenter.
"Musically, I made decent money," McElderry says. "Enough to get by. But my main income came from learning how to build houses."
The good pay and good surf kept him tethered to the island for a while, but after four years he got the itch to come home again.
"Island fever set in," he says. "It's a common thing. I was feeling claustrophobic."
Still, it was the time spent in Hawaii that drove McElderry to push his musicianship further. After his return to Missoula he played coffee shops and solo shows, including the 2008 Rock Against Racism show at Caras Park where he was the only acoustic musician on the roster. That experience convinced him to start up a full-on band.
"I felt kind of weird because I was the only guy at the show with an acoustic guitar and everybody else was rockin' out and going crazy," he says. "I thought I should get a band together, so I put an ad on Craigslist."
That band, Airstream Safari, is currently compromised of the original bass player, Miles Cottrell, and the group's fourth drummer, Jacob Allington. The band has played several shows over the last few years, bringing in solid crowds—a built-in fan club of friends—and landing coveted opening spots playing with local stalwarts Secret Powers and Volumen. The band's new eponymous album (which features drummer Ryan Weingardt who recently quit the band due to time constraints) offers up an array of songs about God, drugs and friends—themes McElderry says continue to pop up in his songwriting.
The band's name fits McElderry's adventurous, easy-going demeanor perfectly, but the musicians went through several ideas before "Airstream Safari" ever came up—despite the fact that Airstreams were right under their noses. At the time of their formation, McElderry had been putting the carpentry skills he honed while working in Hawaii to good use. In early 2009, he helped his friend Rory Burmeister start up a business called Mintage Airstreams in East Missoula renovating Airstreams.
"It's his brainchild," says McElderry, "but we went in on a trailer together and bought it and fixed it up, tried to flip it really fast and make some money. He decided to go for it. He got some investors and now he's doing all right."
McElderry refurbished Airstreams by day and practiced with his unnamed band in the loft above Mintage Airstreams by night. At the time, NASA had just discovered water on the moon and the musicians discussed calling themselves Moon Water and, when that seemed not quite right, Cold Smoke. McElderry laughs at his attempts and failures to pin down a good moniker.
"For one show, Rock Against Racism , we were called Isaac's Lazer and the Gnarly Charlies," he says. "And that wasn't very good either."
McElderry knew he wanted "Airstream" to fit into the name somehow, and sitting next to a 1957 Safari Airstream in a garage one day smoking a bowl, one of McElderry's friends suggested Airstream Safari.
"And that was it," he says.
Airstream Safari's sound is, in some ways, just as the name implies: the sort of bright, hooky rock and roll that makes for a good road trip soundtrack. At the same time, it's not so easy to pinpoint. Reggae riffs evoke mid-1990s jam rock bands, but there's also an Old 97s' Americana undertone in songs like "The Ride," and a 1950s pop sheen in songs like "Bombshell Breeze." And though some of McElderry's lyrics offer free-flowing stories of friends and drugs, there are also songs about murder, like "Memento," and others, like "Tuesday Morning," which correlates the empty pleasures of cocaine to the emptiness of religion. In that song he sings: "The devil's son was a friend of mine, hand in hand we would walk the line you've been drawing since the beginning."
The rebellious tones of those songs run deep for McElderry who grew up in St. Ignatius in a religious family. After his parents divorced, he eventually drifted from his parents' church to find something else he could believe in.
"I started to realize what was going on with religious people all over the place," he says. "I've always felt forsaken and cheated and lied to through the church and I think that really comes out in most of my songs, realizing people are living for something that doesn't matter. What matters are your experiences and your friends, having good people around you."
If anything, says McElderry, music has filled that spiritual role for him. In the short term, Airstream Safari is planning a summer tour and working on songs for another album. But McElderry's long-term sights are, like many other bands, set on one day making a living playing music. And with a name like Airstream Safari, the musicians could go the distance.
"If we were ever to get big and Airstream came to hunt us down, I don't know how that would work out," laughs McElderry. "Maybe they'll sponsor us. Maybe they'll give us an Airstream to go on tour."
Airstream Safari plays a CD release party at the Top Hat Friday, Feb. 11, at 10 PM with Secret Powers. $5.