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Elder's Earth-Shattering 'Reflections'

Elder mastermind Nick DiSalvo talks about the band's records and constant evolution

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    Courtesy of Stickman Records
    Elder perform at Brick By Brick on Monday, Aug. 20 (Jack Donovan, Matt Couto, Michael Risberg and Nick DiSalvo pictured left to right).

    To call Elder the most important band in heavy rock & roll right now might be a bit hyperbolic -- but in this writer's opinion, it may not be too far from the truth. The band, I'm sure, would laugh me out of the building for saying that, but hey, to each their own.

    The band (currently consisting of vocalist/guitarist Nick DiSalvo, drummer Matt Couto, bassist Jack Donovan and new addition multi-instrumentalist Mike Risberg) began as a trio in coastal Massachusetts back in 2006 and set the stoner-rock/doom scene abuzz with their self-titled full-length debut in 2008 and its follow-up effort, 2010's "Dead Roots Stirring."

    Elder soon outgrew the limitations of the genre, and their 2015 album "Lore" was a monumental milestone for the group. A five-track masterpiece, they tore through 60 unadulterated minutes of heavy, melodic, progressive, psychedelic rock thunder that distilled Sabbath riffery with mid-period-Zeppelin adventurism. A fearless effort, it took Elder way beyond a stoner-rock scene sorely lacking imagination.

    Only two years later though, they followed it with the sprawling "Reflections of a Floating World" -- an even more ambitious record about a society devoured by consumerism. Somehow, they'd made an earth-shattering album like "Lore" (which, by all means, would've been any band's catalog crown jewel) seem like a mere footnote.

    On "ROAFW," the band's songs got more intense (and lengthier), riffs got gnarlier, arrangements got more complex, even more psychedelic elements were thrown into the mix -- the band basically took everything that made "Lore" great and expanded on it exponentially. Unsurprisingly, outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to the Wall Street Journal (of all places) lauded it as one of the best records of 2017. [Buy/listen to it here]

    With Elder scheduled to make a rare San Diego appearance at Brick By Brick on Aug. 20, I recently corresponded with DiSalvo via email (he currently resides in Germany) to discuss the band's latest records, songwriting/recording process -- and the search for answers in an absurd world.

    Dustin Lothspeich: "Reflections of a Floating World" is an incredible effort, especially following up an album like "Lore." I've read that you largely wrote the songs by yourself, and then sent them to your bandmates for refining -- do you find that process to be more conducive to writing songs than getting together with the other guys in a room?

    Nick DiSalvo: Thanks! The way we're working these days is indeed a lot more isolated than traditional bands who rehearse and write together regularly, you've pretty much summed up our process. There's been a gradual shifting of songwriting responsibility from a collective process to me as the primary writer with the others as listening ears and editors and I feel that's allowed our songs to become more complex and involved. I'm basically recording demos of our songs in my home "studio" and that gives room for endless revision that wouldn't be sane or normal in a rehearsal room. I think we could also write songs together, but at this point the evolution of the band is resting heavily on my vision for the songs, which we all agree is working well.

    DL: How do recording sessions work? Are you playing all together, or tracking separately?

    ND: We always multi-track everything and only do some basic guitar work and drums together. Because of how the songs are written, it feels more natural to put them together the same way they've been constructed during the writing process rather than tracking live together. Ironically, our new songs never really get super tight live until we've been playing them on tours for a while, not the other way around as it probably is with most bands.

    DL: You've said before in interviews that "ROAFW" feels almost like "Lore" pt. 2 but that you've felt like "Lore" wasn't quite as coherent as you wanted. Is that a result of time having passed and having a fresh perspective on the album? Or did you always have a sense of dissatisfaction (for lack of a better word) with the album even when it was first released?

    ND: I think the only thing that bothered me out the gate with "Lore" was some mistakes we made with mixing and production that I would have done differently the second time around. The whole record was quite rushed in the studio and I wish that we had given ourselves a little more time to experiment with sounds and tweak things, given the reception of the record in retrospect. But the experience of rushing things and being dissatisfied gave us a new perspective on recording, which was valuable in its own right. Another thing with that record is that two songs were completely re-written in the week preceding our studio time, and I think the whole album isn't as interesting start to finish as I would like.

    DL: With "ROAFW," you included more musicians and featured more instruments like Rhodes, Melloton, pedal steel, etc. -- and I read that you've got a new band member filling out the pedal steel parts for the live show. What do you contribute the incorporation of these different sounds to Elder's sound to? Is it just a desire to branch out? Or have those elements been something you've always envisioned for Elder's music?

    ND: Our new member, Mike Risberg, actually plays guitar and keys live, and having another guy to fill out the sound makes a world of difference. I love experimenting with new sounds and textures, especially ones that wouldn't necessarily traditionally fit into heavy rock, because I'm getting tired of the same formulas of heavy guitars and drums. There's only so much you can do in your genre confines before you start to bust out somewhere. The new material we're writing has tons of synths and new instruments. None of that was part of a master plan but just felt natural trying to make new music and challenge ourselves.

    DL: Do you imagine future Elder songs will get further away from the style/sound you’ve written to this point? For example, I think "Lore" and "ROAFW" technically sound like they were created by the same band -- there’s themes and a style that sound very much like 'Elder.' Do you feel any need to switch things up at all?

    ND: Writing music is an incredibly rewarding and frustrating experience. I genuinely like "ROAFW" and think it's the best music we've ever made, but at the same time, if we were writing songs that sounded exactly like the material on that record, it would feel like spinning our wheels. We definitely feel the need to switch things up. I can't really put into words where I see the band going with the next record, which is indeed already well underway, other than it's going to be different in its own way.

    DL: You've talked about how the lyrical themes on a lot of Elder albums (even dating back to "Dead Roots Stirring") have come from a rather existential place -- have you found any answers over the last few years? Has anything become more clear to you? Or is it all even more confusing?

    ND: I find that the world we're living in today is extremely confusing to the point of absurdity. The only comfort in this is the knowledge that every generation suffers from the same temporocentrism and somehow the earth keeps on spinning. The older I become, the less I know and the more unstable some of my convictions become, but at the same time I think that's fine. There's something comforting and anarchic in the idea that life is absurd, so just do what you want.

    DL: Knowing the theme of the album and its title, was your move to Germany a reaction to how you feel about Western society? What are the most striking differences between living in that part of the world and living somewhere like the U.S. -- and do you think it has any effect on your music/writing?

    ND: My move to Germany wasn't really a reaction to anything in particular about the U.S. except perhaps a quality of life as an artist that's barely achievable in the U.S. anymore. Here, it's actually possible to live and work as an artist with some standard of living, to have the time and energy to be creative without having to hustle to keep the roof over your head. That is a very real difference between the States and Europe -- the culture of appreciation of the arts and music on an institutional level, and a more human approach to capitalism that doesn't allow for total exploitation of the individual. Just having the time to work on music every day has a very real effect on our music.

    DL: My out-of-print, original pressing of "Lore" is one of my greatest treasures as a vinyl enthusiast. Hoping to pick up "ROAFW" at the San Diego show. Am I wrong to assume you're into vinyl too? Are there any albums in particular off the top of your head that you're stoked on?

    ND: You're certainly not wrong, though it's a habit that I wish I could give up before it takes over my apartment! I've been constantly playing the latest record "The Diary of Robert Revery" from my new favorite band Needlepoint. Some of my other recent favorites are "Suuliekki" by a Finnish band called Sammal, as well as some recent discoveries from my new favorite label Höga Nord (check out Fontän and Tross for spacy, krauty goodness). Oh, and Minami Deutsch! And I'm waiting anxiously for the new record by Vinyl Williams. Actually there are too many things I'm stoked on at the moment...

    DL: After this tour wraps up, what's next for Elder? Do you guys have any particular plans further out in the year or for next year?

    ND: Writing for the next record is going well and I hope that we'll have something new in 2019 already. In the meantime, we're going to unveil another project, so keep your eyes peeled for announcements soon!

    Elder play Brick By Brick on Monday, Aug. 20, with Red Fang and DVNE. Tickets are available here (for the time being).

    Dustin Lothspeich is a San Diego Music Award-winning musician, an associate editor at NBC SoundDiego since 2013, talent buyer at The Merrow, and founder of the music equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.