Elder Follow No Path but Their Own
Elder are tough to put in context. They’re a heavy band, but not necessarily a metal band. They’re progressive, with constantly shifting, epic songs, but it doesn’t feel right to call them prog rock. And they’re psychedelic, but the music they create doesn’t sound much like the archetypal heavy-psych bands of the '60s and '70s, such as Blue Cheer or Blue Öyster Cult. Yet, perhaps because of guitarist Nick DiSalvo, bassist Jack Donovan and drummer Matthew Couto’s unique fusion of heavy riffs, sprawling compositions and accessible melodies, the release of their 2015 album, Lore, proved to be a turning point for the Massachusetts-based band. An increase in media attention followed, as well as festival appearances at Psycho Las Vegas and Roadburn, and after a decade of D.I.Y. work ethic and heavy touring schedules, Elder found themselves in front of the biggest audiences of their careers.
Elder’s fourth album, Reflections of a Floating World, is being released on June 2 via Armageddon / Stickman, and finds the band evolving even further, with a set of six gargantuan tracks that fuse spacious post-rock instrumentals with hard-driving stoner riffs and some of the strongest melodies they’ve written to date. It’s also the first with newly added fourth member Mike Risberg, who adds more atmospheric elements with guitar and keyboards. We spoke to DiSalvo via Skype from his newly adopted home of Berlin about the hazards of being road warriors, figuring out your own path in life and why a great album deserves great artwork.
Lore was a big album for the band. When you started working on Reflections of a Floating World, was there any idea of where to pivot from that? Or did you start with more of a blank slate?
I think we felt like, for the first time, with Lore we had hit a stride. We put together the pieces to finding our sound. Something a little bit less derivative and a little bit more natural. If that still exists. There’s never a direction when we write music — just whatever sounds pleasing at the given time, whatever’s interesting to play, know what I mean?
The idea’s always present that we want to do something different. We always want to surprise people and surprise ourselves. And push ourselves. So, I think as a frame of reference of what we’ve done in the past, sure. But everything we write is basically taking a blank slate and seeing what comes out. It’s hard to describe the writing process because it’s all so different. We all move around so much that sometimes we’re jamming together, or sometimes it’s just me, a continent away, with a guitar and a keyboard or something.
It’s my understanding that “floating world” comes from a Japanese phrase about decadence and indulgence. How does the title of Reflections of a Floating World tie into the album? Is it a statement of observation about our society?
It is, and the lyrical content, a lot of it had to do with the place my own head was at after Lore came out. We basically went into full-time touring and quit our day jobs, and just lived by music. It was really liberating. It changed my perspective on a couple things. One of the things was that this idea of, your reality can be whatever you want it to be. I didn’t come from a background where it was encouraged to try and be an artist in the world. It was more like keep your head down, study, get a good career. But the idea that you didn’t have to follow anyone’s path but your own was groundbreaking for me, and altered my perception of what you have to do.
The other thing was being out on tour all the time and meeting fucked-up characters. And just living, you meet a lot of directionless people, and sometimes it’s just part of becoming an adult: questioning your place in the universe and what to make of everything, what the point of living is. And just seeing lots of people staring down the end of a bottle or wasting away and not doing anything productive. Or just living in a place like America where consumerism is so depressingly evident. These are just sort of sketches or, like the title sort of implies, reflections of what I’ve seen in our current society.
Do you feel more confident in your own direction or place in the world?
Absolutely, and it’s been a really powerful experience just kind of only thinking about music and not worrying about so much other stuff. So much good has come out of that. The music has done quite well, people have been quite receptive, and I think that’s all part of a synergy effect. Trusting in yourself and trusting in what you want to do — just giving 100 percent. Even me, moving to Germany on a moment’s notice was just like, “Oh no, what if, what if, what’ll I do here?” But you know, fuck it. Just try, and if you fail, get back up and try something different.
Lore definitely took off in a much bigger way than your previous records. How much did that change things for the band or open up new opportunities?
At the time, it was definitely a game-changer. We got a lot more recognition and did a lot more touring. It was really cool and really surprising at the time, because I didn’t know it’d be accessible to that many people. We were approached — and sometimes continue to be approached — by bigger labels, in quotation marks, but that never really changed the direction of the band because we have kind of a do-it-yourself ethos about the whole thing. I think our fan base is really cool and has been growing in a really organic way, fueled by interest in the music and not controlled by image or advertising or anything. It has changed and it hasn’t changed. We’re still doing things with the same people; it’s just, I think there’s more people listening.
One of the people you’ve worked with over the years is Adrian Dexter, who designs all of your album art. How closely do you work together?
We work really closely. I used to say he was the fourth member of the band; now he’s the fifth member. He’s a super close friend of all of ours.We grew up together. He and I exchange ideas on an even more frequent basis than I do with my bandmates. From the moment songs are conceived, he’s already working on the artwork. So, it’s synchronized. I couldn’t tell you how much money I spent in record stores before the internet, just based on cover art. That’s really something that got through to me after so much money and so many allowances wasted on something that looked cool and didn’t live up to it, or vice versa. So, it’s always been really important to the band to have artwork that represented the contents.
In the past couple of years, you’ve had a pretty hefty touring schedule. Will that continue after Reflections is released?
While we learned a bit about how we perform best, mentally and physically, on the road, we’re definitely going to tour as much as we can where it makes sense, and hit some new places as well. But none of us are really interested in living in a van for two months on end. I start itching to get out and have a normal life. We might do [the U.S.] in two installations. It’s a big country with not many notable pit stops between the coasts.
That drive can be pretty sparse the farther you get from the coast ...
It’s cool. We only did that once, but it was a really fun experience. We had some really crummy shows, but I’m not sure why that was. Maybe it was a promotion issue. But it was fun. You drive through these stretches for 10 hours where there’s nothing, and then you pull up at a gas station and you’re the first male with long hair that they’ve ever seen there. “Y’all in a band?” [Laughs]
Elder tend to be discussed as part of the metal world, though it’s definitely not a metal band by any conventional definition. Do you see the band as fitting into any specific place?
That’s hard to say. Every time, when I listen to the records, there’s definitely a lot of heavy stuff going on. And it is, in a way, heavy metal-ish. But when I describe the band in my own terms, I don’t even mention it. I could throw a bunch of terms together: It’s psychedelic, it’s got heavy elements, there’s some doom stuff and heavy guitars. But I don’t know where that leaves us. I usually just say we’re heavy rock.