On the day I was preparing questions for US prog-doom monoliths Elder, news broke that Neil Peart of Rush had died. The first time I met bassist Jack Donovan we bonded over our love of the Canadian trio, spending an afternoon on a bench outside The Black Heart in Camden geeking out on our shared knowledge of the minutiae of the band’s history. Jack was one of the first people I thought of when I heard about the Professor’s passing.
“My love for Rush was solidified when I was 14 or 15,” says Jack. “Back when my friend PJ and his father, Roger, brought me to the R30 concert at the Tweeter Center (I think it’s the Xfinity Center now) in Mansfield, MA. I had only listened to a little bit of Rush before this, but I left the concert absolutely floored. The musicianship, the stage production, the giant skeleton singing the underrated rap part in ‘Roll The Bones’ – I became a fan for life. It was actually Roger who informed me about Neil Peart’s death. He sent me a text message that said something like, “I’VE BEEN WATCHING YOUTUBE VIDEOS ALL DAY GUY. RIP NEIL.” Upon looking up the news and confirming what I feared, I thought the only right thing to do was to pop Caress Of Steel on the record player and zone out remembering one of my rock heroes.”
I ask Jack about which bass players he’s grooving on in these strangest of times. “During these slow days of quarantine, I find myself listening to more upbeat music to keep things moving. Some bass players who fit that mould are Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy, Steve Harris of Iron Maiden and even Sting from The Police. Each of them not only have their own distinct playing style, but they also successfully drive the sound of the bands they play in. Imagine listening to Iron Maiden without Steve Harris galloping along behind them, it just doesn’t work. These players are now inspiring me to really hone my playing style, one that is unique to me but an essential piece in the sound of Elder.”
The influence of these legendary figures feeds into Elder’s latest record, though you wouldn’t know it. Omens sounds to these ears like the destination the band have been promising to arrive at since 2011’s Dead Roots Stirring. If Lore (2015) and Reflections Of A Floating World (2017) were the building blocks, Omens is the finished product and a staggering summation of all that makes this powerhouse quartet so essential in 2020. It is, put simply, a modern progressive psychedelic masterpiece. The album rewards repeat listens, and is full of both wide-open spaces and intricate details.
I caught up with frontman Nick DiSalvo as the band prepared for the album’s 24th April release.
Congratulations on Omens. As a long-term fan I think it’s your best work with ease. The band sounds confident – mature yet full of a renewed vigour. It appears you’ve arrived at the place you’ve been looking to get to since Dead Roots Stirring. How are you feeling about Elder in 2020?
Nick DiSalvo: Thank you! There has never been any destination in mind, and with the release of every album it’s felt like we’re right where we need to be. It’s been a weird half-year to be completely honest, beginning with the departure of a founding member [drummer Matt Couto], re-gaining our bearings and making a record with a new lineup, and now with the pandemic putting the world on its head again. I think musically the band is extremely strong and I’m really anxious about getting back together to keep our personal momentum going – and to play some shows!
You’ve said the writing process was long, tedious but rewarding. Was this a hard album to give birth to? Did you write as you have done in the past, with you bringing in the riffs before jamming around them? The songs sound incredibly focused (despite all being long).
The writing process somehow never gets easier for us, that’s for sure! Omens was composed in much the same way that Reflections… was, with me doing the bulk of the songwriting from my home studio in Berlin and sharing the ideas with the guys once demos were recorded. Things changed conveniently for me when Mike [Risberg, guitars / keyboards] decided to stick around Berlin as well after a European tour, so we had a lot of time to actually flesh out ideas together in real time. Finally, once the record was written, we spent about a month and a half rehearsing the songs, tweaking and reimagining parts altogether. We tried our best to make compositions that weren’t complicated for the sake of being complicated, but had a real and purposeful organic flow despite their progressive sound. Many people, ourselves included, felt that to some degree Reflections… was like Lore part two, in that it was stylistically similar. Part of what made this album difficult to write was wanting consciously to take another step forward and not make any more sequels or trilogies.
One of the many wonderful things about Omens is the keyboard work: synths, piano, Mellotron and Moog can all be heard. How much of this was Michael and which bits are Fabio Cuomo? I hear Michael is a technical wizard – can you tell us about that?
Most of the keyboard Parts with a capital P were written already by the time we entered the studio, but none of us are really great with the piano and often the parts I write are pretty basic. We wanted Fabio’s contributions to elevate the performance of the keys on the recording to the level of everything else. Fabio probably did 90% of all keys, with Mike and I doing a small portion (mostly creating textures and ambience/midi sequencing a few things). Aside from the pre-composed parts, we threw Fabio at a bunch of different sections and just asked him to jam and improvise, which he did without hesitation.
Mike is also not primarily a keys player but does handle some parts live. He is our band Swiss Army knife, having experience in building amps, pedals and guitars as well as being a great musician. It’s like having a guitar tech on the road, except for the snarky comments every time you ask him to help fix something. Maybe a paid tech would do that too… I wouldn’t know.
How did you find new drummer Georg Edert and what has he brought to the party? The lightness of touch he brings to songs like ‘In Procession’ is sublime.
We met Georg some years ago while on tour in Germany. At that point he was living in Dresden, and we played with his other band Gaffa Ghandi at a club in that city. When I moved to Berlin a few years ago he had also recently relocated here, and we started jamming. When Matt left the band, he was our natural first choice not just because he’s a great drummer, but he’s also a good friend, which has always been paramount to us functioning as a collective. Georg certainly operates in a different dynamic spectrum than Matt that worked with the new material we were writing – he’s got lots of groove and that lightness you mention, but can also lay into it when needs be. We also vibe really well just improvising together, which is going to be huge moving forward in a live setting.
To these ears Omens is by far the best-sounding Elder album: every instrument breathes and has its own clear space in the mix. How much of this was down to Pete Deimel, and what was it like recording with him away from home? Your vocals are clean and crisp – was it a conscious effort to move towards that type of vocal sound?
Thanks! That’s basically exactly what we wanted to do for this record production-wise. When recording an album with so many layers and trying to get each one to sound massive, at the end of the day you’re often left with something very oversaturated. We can definitely attribute the record’s spacious production to Peter, and we chose to record at Black Box with him because we specifically wanted to make a great rock record that sounds clean and lucid. We took pains to have the production reflect the dynamics of the music itself, which means less slamming everything into the red and going easier on the ears. As far as the vocal production, we all wanted them to be more present than before, not simply an element shouted from the background but a confident part of the mix. As such, we didn’t use much treatment or many effects.
A lot of your lyrics over the years have focused on the idea of the meaning of life and what the hell we’re doing as human beings. That questioning has often been quite dark and even at times exasperated. Are you finding any answers as you get older?
I think the older I get, the easier it is to slip into complacency and even ambivalence about my own place in the world, or a great meaning of life. That’s probably because I’ve really believed all my life that there is no meaning or grand reason, nothing special, unique or interesting about us as specs of cosmic dust, and that might feel hard to accept when you’re young but seems easier to grasp every year. It certainly makes it easier to deal with your own mortality when the majority of humanity makes you want to take off in a spaceship.
Adrian Dexter’s album art is ace again. What inspired the front cover?
We went over several concepts together for the artwork while writing the music, but ended up discarding them relatively late in the game. Adrian joined us for the recording sessions (he’s currently working on a film in France) and we had a lot of time to talk about music, art and themes. For the first time since our first record, we made an album that had something of a clear narrative and wanted to reflect that with an evocative piece of artwork, as opposed to the sprawling landscapes of the last records. The Greco-Roman statue is a recognisable motif for most people and immediately calls up associations with fallen empires and the transience of greatness. Opting for a sparser layout was also intended to highlight this album being different in our catalogue and the stylistic jump.
Last year in an interview you were questioning “are we gonna try to live by the book and have normal, satisfying lives, or are we going to throw it all away and play rock music?” Have you found the answer to that question yet?
I remember clearly asking myself and each other that around the time we recorded Lore, and us all essentially making a pact to prioritise our musical exploits above everything else. I’m really happy to say that that decision has paid off – maybe not always financially, but certainly in terms of enriching our lives. We may not tour 300 days a year, but music has been our primary occupation since then and we aren’t starving yet (and I wouldn’t change that even if we were).
It’s been 13 years since your debut album. How does older you look back on young you, both in terms of the music you were making and the person you were back then? Did growing up in Marion reflect itself in your music back then, and for those of us who’ve never been there what was/is it like?
In a lot of ways I’m still the same kid I was then, obsessively listening to and making music. My aspirations have obviously changed quite a bit. As a teenager, there was no greater goal than getting a record pressed – hell, I’d even settle for a CD. I hadn’t found my own creative voice by the time we started Elder, and that took time to develop, and our spurts of success as a band really motivated me to get to the core of my own identity as a musician. Because hey, people are into it, so there must be something to it, right? Anyhow, as far as Marion goes (and I’m impressed you did that much research, haha!), my time there as a kid definitely impacted me somehow. At the very least, it was a very quiet town with a lot of nature and not a whole lot to do. Playing music was an escape from boredom, and running around in the woods and swimming in the ocean gave me an appreciation for the wonders of nature, which have always inspired me.
Hopefully Covid-19 won’t put paid to your touring plans. Do you look forward to hitting the road for long stretches these days, or do you look at a big list of tour dates and silently cry inside?
We’ve currently been off the road for the longest period in some years and are all absolutely fiending to get back. Now that the pandemic is ramping up, we’re expecting some disruptions for sure. That’s the real reason to cry inside… but not much we can do but watch the news and act accordingly.
Elder’s lyrical themes of society and civilisation seem more pertinent that ever, especially in light of populism’s rampant charge across the world in recent times. Are we all screwed?
If only I had some answers! It’s so hard to know what actually happened in a time period until you can look at it with some hindsight, and as a musician – not a political scientist or sociologist – I try to keep a lid on predictions. In the present it’s hard to be optimistic, especially when looking back at my own home country. In some morbid way, the current outbreak of Covid-19 has provided a bizarre moratorium on worrying about the looming problems of right-wing nationalism and environmental destruction. If you had asked me this half a year ago, I’d have doubtless said “YES, we’re fucked!” Now the best-case scenario seems to be a rethinking of the way we as nations and societies are setting our priorities. No matter what, fuck Trump.
Omens is out on Stickman Records on 24th April. Order here.
Words: Andrew Field