Elder statesman + an interview with Nicholas DiSalvo
TBR: Your first album was a very strong debut but Dead Roots Stirring is a major leap. Tell us a bit about what’s happened between now and then.
Nick: The easiest way to sum up the changes between our self-titled album and Dead Roots Stirring is, unfortunately, by using the clichéd term of evolution. The material for that album dates quite a while back, as we had recorded it in 2007. Still, it didn’t see the light of day until 2008, by which point we were already getting a little tired of the songs. Anyone who has listened to Elder can see the extent to which we wore our influences on our sleeves, and we were eager to take the band in a different direction. When we started writing for Dead Roots Stirring I had just returned from a year abroad and was full of new ideas, especially regarding the sort of “philosophy” of heavy music if you will; there are certain bands, certain musical motifs which are able to convey this heaviness without being the loudest band, playing with the biggest amps, fuzzing out everything to the point where nothing is distinguishable beyond a single note. I think it’s possible to be heavy simply by emoting it, be it with melodies, lyrics, dynamic shifts, any number of factors only limited by one’s creativity. This is not a new concept, but I was just then beginning to realize it. I still feel that to create our own sound, we need to look past the riff or a simple song structure to other more evocative means.
TBR: How did you guys approach the early conceptual and early songwriting stages with Dead Roots Stirring. What sorts of things did you guys talk about in terms of how you wanted to steer things?
We essentially took the same approach to songwriting for Dead Roots Stirring as we had taken for our previous releases, that is, taking a central riff or idea and just developing it. We never think within a traditional song structure and try to feel it out as we’re writing it; that’s what leads to the winding nature of our compositions. Sometimes they feel like they’ll never end, or should never end – which I guess is a good or a bad thing, depending on who’s listening. Of course as a general guideline we used the new sort of philosophy I had mentioned earlier and talked a lot about how we could make the band more dynamic, melodic and just more interesting in general, then tried to apply our ideas to the songs. One of the biggest things we discussed was actually how to produce that sort of indescribable feeling when music is so powerful as to give you goosebumps. That’s a very subjective thing, obviously, but the album is really the greatest expression of ourselves as artists we’ve yet produced, and the melodies are tailored to our own tastes.
TBR: Did it go more or less the way you intended to? What sorts of spontaneous developments were there in the creative process?
Nick: Yes and no. Elder has always been productive in spurts; we began work on the songs that would become The End, Dead Roots Stirring and Gemini back in 2008 when we were all living in Boston, but when I moved back to southern Massachusetts we stopped practicing regularly… I think we were in sort of a creative slump. We essentially fleshed out those songs to their finalized versions over the course of a year, but I was working on the other songs on the album more or less in solitude. When it became clear that I’d be leaving the States to go abroad for a year, we decided we needed to record the album before that period interrupted everything. So when we decided to book some studio time with Clay, it set a deadline like we’d never really had before, and it forced me into a real necessary period of creativity; I think “III” was written within the course of a week alone, which is really fast for us. Other than that, the vocals for “Knot” completely changed during the period of recording, which I think are one of the furthest changes in sound from the [first self-titled album].
TBR: I’m not sure that this information is really out there, so let’s talk a bit about the band’s history. First, what sort of early musical history did you guys have? How did your family influence your musical upbringing? Who or what were some of your earliest musical influences?
Nick: As a child, music didn’t play a huge role in my life. I never had the cool uncle who showed me his LP collection, never had a dad who was blasting KISS on the way to daycare or whatever. I first really discovered music through my brother when I was a little older in elementary school. He had just gotten into punk rock and was probably hooked on its energy like every pubescent kid in the world, but it exposed me to a world that was far removed from my conceptions of music as either radio pop or classical music. Growing older, I started getting bored with the genre and began looking for something “harder”. My friends and I were getting into hardcore, which was really sort of a gateway to metal, and by the time I was in high school I had completely shed all of my punk inclinations and was listening to black metal, doom, grind, that sort of stuff. Only when a good friend (and now album artist Adrian Dexter) offered to show me something “really heavy” one day and threw on Dopethrone did I get exposure to stoner metal.
TBR: Had any of you guys played in other bands before Elder?
Nick: As long as I’ve been listening to music I’ve been playing in bands, even though my earlier exploits aren’t really deserving of that title… In high school I started going to shows in New Bedford, back when there was actually a relatively active scene. This really made me want to form my own band; playing a show, even in the local VFW club to 20 or so kids seemed like the most thrilling thing in the world! The first band I started played something akin to metalcore or metal-influenced hardcore and was called Tchaikovsky. Jack actually played bass in that band, and we met Matt when he joined on rhythm guitar. When that project broke up, we also played together in a hardcore/black metal mash up which was really just kind of a joke. Only really after this point did we start to become decent enough musicians to put together some semblance of a respectable rock band…
TBR: How did you all meet up and form the band?
Nick: Jack and I have known each other since elementary school, we even took guitar lessons together as kids! Another one of bandmates in Tchaikovsky knew Matt and suggested him as a guitarist, which is how we met up. There was always a rotating cast of members in the bands (and many “side-projects” I was starting up weekly), but I guess Matt, Jack and I became the most solid core. I think our musical interests combined interestingly as well, which made playing with those guys really fun.
TBR: As I recall, you guys were pretty young when the first album was recorded and released. How has your age affected your experience as a band to this point? Do you ever look out and see that your fans or musical peers or people in the business side of things are significantly older and think, “Hmmm… This is unusual”?
Nick: Elder was recorded when we were not even in our twenties, which does show how young of a band we really are. That being said, it was actually sort of unbelievable when MeteorCityoffered to release it. Here we were, essentially a bunch of kids with no experience in the scene, but we had apparently created something of interest to people other than ourselves. There was a sort of astonishment that went along with the release, but it also gave us confidence and inspired us. Now, five years, many shows and one release later, played with bands that we used to worship, met awesome people and had some amazing experiences. We’ve also met those jaded by the industry, burnt out on tours, uninspired… We’ve had the advantage of youth, but we don’t operate with the sort of “let’s conquer the world” mentality that a lot of bands of the internet generation are plagued with; I think we’re all just still filled with enthusiasm for what we’re doing and where it could take us. But the world of stoner rock, or doom, or even rock for generality’s sate – that world belongs to the old, the established, or so I thought growing up. I don’t think it’s strange to be surrounded by people even twice my age at shows, or to play alongside them – it’s often humbling. But the most surprising thing is the support from and warmth with which the “older” scene has welcomed us.
TBR: As best I’m aware, you guys have toured a bit. After getting out there and meeting with others, tell us a bit about how your environment might have influenced your outlook. Do you tend to identify more with Boston or do you guys see yourself as being from a different place in terms of the band’s identity?
Nick: I often notice a sort of regionalism incorporated by bands; descriptions like “southern sludge from the swamps of Alabama” or “cold blasphemy from the northeastern cult of ____” are especially easy to find in the metal world. Though our surroundings have certainly shaped our sound, I don’t think that there is any real reason our music could not have been developed in another environment. I personally don’t identify with the Boston scene musically, nor do I see us as being part of any sort of cohesive scene in the area, but that’s not meant to be diminutive at all. I just see our music as the outgrowth of ourselves as people, and thus it’s only influenced by our environment inasmuch as we as people have been. Of course, when we go on tour, I’ve noticed that we become Elder “from Boston”, I even tag us that way ourselves without even thinking about it. I guess it’s only when you leave your stomping ground that you need to fall back on it to identify yourself.
TBR: We’ve long been impressed by a number of the bands coming out of the underground scene in MA: Black Pyramid (R.I.P.), Elder, Phantom Glue, Olde Growth… I’m sure that I’m forgetting a bunch.
Nick: We’re really spoiled here in MA, but also in the whole of New England including RI and CT. Witch, Hackman, Riff Cannon, Kintaan, I could probably continue your list but it’d take up far too much column space; let it suffice to say that especially within Boston and Providence there are leagues of extremely creative musicians and incredibly inventive sub-scenes. There must be something in the water in Providence, nothing else could explain how many weird bands and DIY venues crop up there all the time…
TBR: How would you guys describe the local musical community? Who are some of the local bands and people that have influenced you or that have grown with you or helped you guys along?
Nick: I can’t talk in relative terms, because I’ve never really been active in a music scene other than in Boston/Providence, but I have the feeling that it’s somewhat close-knit. Bands that have similar tastes or a similar draw eventually get hooked up, which is how we’ve met a lot of those we love playing with: Black Pyramid, We’re All Gonna Die, Cortez, Riff Cannon, etc… Those are all names of groups that’ve helped us get exposure in the area, but I’m neglecting an infinite number of bookers and general music enthusiasts to whom we’re indebted. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence either that a lot of sound guys for venues do booking for stoner rock shows – those who know sound tend to be slaves to the riff.
TBR: In terms of the recording of Dead Roots Stirring… WOW! Tell us a bit about how you guys chose the producer (who the hell was it?!?) and the studio and a bit about the recording sessions.
Nick: We recorded the album with Clay Neely at Black Coffee Studios. Most probably know him as the drummer of Black Pyramid, but he’s also an excellent sound engineer. For the final mix, we had the pleasure of working with Justin Pizzoferrato (who has worked with Dinosaur Jr., Witch, etc.) and Matt Washburn took care of the masters. Between all parties we had some really great sets of ears, and I think that’s what makes the production so fitting. Working with Clay was great because Black Pyramid and we have played quite a few times together, so he was really familiar with our live sound and could help us capture that as best possible. As far as the sessions go, we did the whole thing except for some minor vocal and synth parts in the course of three days, morning until night. That made the whole thing pretty intense, but a great experience overall. We’re thrilled with the way the album sounds.
TBR: The sounds that you guys got were really, really good and suit the band to a T. Tell us a bit about the equipment that was used: Guitar rig in particular! There are a lot of things that make up the sound ahead of this, but I’m interested to know about what pickups were in your main axe!
Nick: Thanks! I think it’s also a strength of the recording that the guitar sound was represented as naturally as it is live; we didn’t want any digital wizardry mucking up our sound… I used a Gibson 61′ Reissue SG with 57′ Humbuckers for the guitar tracks. I love both the fatness of it’s tone and how it well it cuts through the mix. For an amp we used my modded Sound City 120, which is now really more akin to a Hiwatt dr103, and played it through an Avatar 2×12 with Vintage 30’s. Jack used a Sunn 190L and I unfortunately can’t tell you anything more about his rig because I don’t remember… haha. Matt used one of Clay’s kits for the recording, a HUGE Ludwig maple John Bonham reissue kit with all Paragon cymbals. One of the nicest sounding kits I’ve heard yet. TBR: What sorts of other things did you guys focus on and learn about in the studio this time?
Nick: We learned that it’s a huge advantage to go into the studio only when you’re completely ready to record. In retrospect, it was actually pretty ambitious to record a full length album in three days, but we were solid on the material and it went very smoothly. It was great to work with professionals who knew how to tease out facets on the recording that we might’ve overlooked, but it also inspired me to get back to home recordings myself. I love the idea of recording and producing your own music – it only seems natural to want your hands on 100% of the process – but we’re lacking right now in both funds and know-how to make it sound as massive as in a professional studio. Maybe in the future, we’ll have to see.
TBR: It’s tough to really tell until things are mixed and mastered, but were you guys ever sitting there in the middle of the session and thinking, “Wow! This really seems like magic!”
Nick: We were really happy with the way things were sounding during the sessions, but yes, it’s extremely hard to be sure of how things will really sound outside of the studio when you’re not in a soundproofed room with nice monitors. When we got the rough mixes on a CR-R, we got out into the car and threw it on the stereo to put it to the test of everyday listening, and it sounded really nice. That was a very rewarding and in some ways relieving experience.
TBR: Lyrically, Dead Roots Stirring is interesting in that it doesn’t seem that you guys felt obligated to write songs with conventional song structures that rely as heavily on tons of lyrics. What sorts of things were you dealing with in the lyrics?
Nick: The lyrics on our newer songs are much more personal than on the self-titled, and deal with a bit of different subject matter, what I’d perhaps sum up as timeless themes… “Gemini”, for example, deals with the sense of alienation or loss of identity that we experience while “growing up”, I guess – for me it had to do with my time spent living abroad in 2007/2008. The other songs were actually very inspired by War and Peace, a book I was reading at the time we were writing those songs. It really moved me the way no other book has and offered some inspirational insight into life’s “big questions” – who are we, why are we here, and how do we live with the knowledge of our impending death? The title track is about the feeling of inner rebirth or rejuvenation after a the dark night of the soul, the discovery of love and the healing effects of its really very irrational nature. The lyrical content certainly influenced the sound of that song, making it one of the most uplifting we’ve ever done.
TBR: Even though you’ve dialed the lyrical content back a bit in terms of how much you’ve used, do you guys tend to put a lot of emphasis or focus on your lyrics or not so much?
Nick: I don’t know that there actually are less lyrics now than before, or at least it’s never occurred to me. There is certainly a tendency to write as many lyrics as can fill up every open spot where it feels like they should go based on current musical conventions but I like to only use as much or as little vocals as I feel are necessary to complete the song. There’s not a big focus on the lyrics and I keep them intentionally somewhat vague, as I want them to contribute to the atmosphere of the song but take a back seat to the music.
TBR: Dead Roots Stirring has only been out for a short while, but tell us a bit about people’s initial reaction. I was immediately blown away and certainly don’t imagine that I was the only one.
Nick: There’s been a really great, positive initial reaction to the album as far as I can tell, but much of that perception is based upon reviews I’ve read on the internet and those who have picked up the album so far. I was expecting a much more mixed bag, because it’s quite a departure from its predecessor, and some stoner/doom fans who live for the riff and don’t really care about melody probably are disappointed. A few people have written it off as derivative again or have complained of its tendency to meander, and I don’t think everyone has the attention span for such long songs. But yeah, we’ve been really amazed at how well people have taken to it, and totally grateful for all of the praise it’s received!
TBR: What are the tour plans for getting out and supporting it?
Nick: Unfortunately, we don’t be able to tour immediately to support the album. We’re locked down for the remainder of the year – I’m finishing up school – but we plan to get out on the road as soon as possible, perhaps a shorter stint this winter and definitely a longer tour in the summer. Elder is reunited spatially again for (hopefully) the last time, and all of our efforts are focused on developing the band and getting out to a wider audience.