Expanded Palettes, Berlin Architecture and Pandemic Recordings: In Conversation with Elder’s Nick DiSalvo

Photo: Maren Michaelis Photography

“It was during a period of frustration, I think around November 2020, where the pandemic had been going on long enough, I just needed a concrete thing to do or else I was going to go insane. It seemed like the perfect time to do this album.” Nick DiSalvo, Elder frontman and the band’s main songwriter, is talking about how the pandemic led him, under the guise of Delving, to write and record his first solo album Hirschbrunnen. As we know all too well, the coronavirus pandemic has had a huge effect on our scene, especially on artists’ ability to tour. As of yet, Elder have yet to take their stunning 2019 release Omens on the road, which resulted in DiSalvo, a compulsive creative, having the time to take a step back from his main band and focus on his first solo venture.

A pandemic project in every sense, Hirschbrunnen is a wonderful listen, an instrumental album filled with a variety of influences including psych rock, prog and even jazz. Though it’s not as heavy, guitar-led or as instant as Elder, fans will find much to love here. Astral Noize spoke to the frontman from his Berlin home shortly before the album’s release to find out a little more about DiSalvo’s creative process, how Hirschbrunnen came into being and what fans can expect from the next Elder album.

Was it initially the pandemic that gave you the idea to write and record a solo album?

I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a while, because I write a lot of music that doesn’t really fit with Elder. I often just sit down at my computer and start recording music and oftentimes there are things that I want to express that I couldn’t do with Elder. I mean, we’re a band that say we’ll always explore whatever musical territory, but we also know we’d piss off a lot of fans if we went too deeply into a lot of lighter genres that people just don’t want to hear. And so I was collecting this material for a while, and telling myself that one day when I have the time I’ll make an album, one day I’ll start my solo project and do these songs justice because I thought there was some cool stuff there.

So some of these songs were already written even before you decided to make a solo album?

Yeah a couple songs were already laying around, and a couple songs were composed specifically for this.

Tell us about the title, Hirschbrunnen. I believe it’s the name of a park monument near where you live in Berlin?

Yeah it’s like the centre of what looks like a Victorian park, although I guess that’s out of place for Germany. It’s a really regal park and there’s this crazy golden statue of a stag on top of this pillar in the centre where I was going for walks all the time, where I would throw on some headphones, listen to some demo material and try and process it. I think during those first couple months of the pandemic, we were super sedentary, we didn’t go anywhere and if I was going out it was just like any place you could walk or ride your bike to. That definitely led to a lot of more introspective thought but also you know you walk around the same streets everyday, look at the same buildings and the same green spaces, and I don’t know, maybe that bent my mind somehow.

The album artwork, created by Artour Ette, seems to capture that vibe well too. Did you have something in mind for the art beforehand, and do you know the artist behind the work?

Yeah, he’s a friend from Dresden. I’m totally not a visual artistic person, everything I do creatively is from a musical side. I have a hard time coming up with a visual representation of the music. It’s always more fun for me to see what an artist I love comes up with, and oftentimes, like maybe it doesn’t 100% meet your expectations you had before you see it, but it’s a part of the whole process. He’s a good friend, he’s very into graffiti and modern art and he’s a super sweet guy and I just thought everything about this project is so down to earth, and like about the local surroundings, I just wanted a friend to do the artwork to keep everything under the same hat so to speak.

Did you find being confined to one area inspiring, considering you’re used to moving around and being on tour so much?

Yeah, there’s a lot of beauty and a lot of interesting dichotomies between old and new and, like the brutal Soviet architecture and then the buildings from the 18th century or whatever. I think it’s an interesting place to be, even walking around or biking around never gets old. But I’m an American you know, so being in Europe is always interesting to me, there’s so many architectural styles from different eras and a lot of history everywhere you look. In America we were building out of wood for so long, it burned down many times before we got it right you know.

What led to Hirschbrunnen being an instrumental album, was that a conscious decision?

It was a conscious thing, yeah. I didn’t really see these songs as needing lyrics, especially as they’re not very topical, they’re more connected to sights and memories and moments than like actual lyrical topics. I could have sung over it, but there was also an idea of maybe having guests or a guest vocalist but I was very clear that I didn’t want my own voice to be on this record because I didn’t really think it was fitting, like the timbre and character of my voice I didn’t really see sitting in these tracks. That’s always the part of music making that I enjoy the least, so I was happy to just leave it out. A lot of Elder fans always say ‘we want more instrumental material’ so maybe this was a good opportunity to do that.

When it came to recording the album, was everything played by you?

Yep, I mean there’s a few guitar tracks where [Elder guitarist] Mike Risberg played some experimental noodly stuff, but everything else was me.

“The next Elder album is already written. It’s a lot heavier than Omens.”

How did you find that, especially considering you usually record with a band?

Well, the actual recording process could be a little stressful, especially with an instrument like drums, because I am, or at least I was, a drummer; that was the first instrument I picked up before guitar. But since playing in Elder which has been going on for so long, I haven’t really played drums seriously. Getting back in the groove, no pun intended, to play those tracks was a little bit of a struggle, but in general, I would say it was a liberating thing. I mean, every band has a moment where you butt heads, or have to make compromises. Elder is for the most part still my songwriting vehicle, but it was nice not to have to run any ideas by anyone or explain anything, just whatever I wanted to do I just did it. And I think some of the songs came out stronger for that, just because sometimes when you have a vision, it can hurt it to have it revised by five other people before it finally hits the tape. And also there was no expectation of like ‘oh this is stuff I have to play live’ so if I wanted to put ten keyboards on it, it was like sure, do whatever you want.

Did you discover any new ways of writing or recording during the making of Hirschbrunnen, or did it feel more like a continuation of what you do with Elder?

I don’t think so really, because behind the scenes this is the way I’ve been making music for the better part of the last decade. Even back getting a four track recorder during my teenage years and then when I got a computer and got involved in primitive digital recording and now having a decent-ish home studio, that’s always been something I just love to do. This way of stacking ideas, recording and creating, has always been important for my process, so if anything it was nice to be able to plan this out methodically, do pre-production at home then head into the studio and knock it out in a week. Even the first Elder records was less worrying about like, not that you ever ask your fans for feedback or permission, but back when we were first making music, it was just a hobby with no expectations. So this is kind of back to that, back to the root of the whole thing. Plus, very rarely will I have a concrete idea before I sit down. With this Delving stuff, it was very piano and keyboard based – there’s stuff you can’t do with a guitar that leads to different ideas. The stuff I write with Elder is always pretty guitar based, but this was a different approach. You know, exploring different chords, because there’s some stuff that’s easier to play with ten fingers on the keyboard than just the five on the guitar you know. I also spent a lot of money on plug-ins at the beginning of this quarantine so a lot of it was exploring and playing with different sounds.

Of all of Elder’s work, Hirschbrunnen probably has the most in common with The Gold And Silver Sessions, would that be a fair comparison?

Yeah, that album was just sort of jammed out over a couple of days on tour, whereas our other stuff is painstakingly written, every part composed and we were actually pretty shocked to see how many people liked that record because it was totally different to what we actually do. I think these songs on Hirschbrunnen, I think maybe they are deceptively composed, like there’s a lot going on, at least from my perspective there’s a lot going on in the mix and I think the songs have a nice arc to them. And sometimes, you don’t even have to give it your full attention, you can just kind of zone out and nod to it. It’s not super heady music, it’s not an academic exercise, it’s like light groovy music I guess. I mean these songs were fundamentally conceived differently. Elder always has this way of writing where we end up with these very convoluted song structures just completely linear, there’s almost no repetition and making this record, again when I started I actually thought it was going to be a lot simpler than it ended up being, I was just going to turn on my sequencer and groove for like twenty minutes and just jam on it, but it obviously got a lot more complicated than that. So yeah, it was more about building on these themes of repetition, things we’d normally shy away from in Elder, because we’re an intentionally complex band at this point.

Hirschbrunnen is much lighter in tone than Elder, with a more free-flowing feel. Do you think this style will bleed into what Elder do next?

I can definitely see moments of overlap with many of these ideas. The next Elder album is actually written already and we’re going to get it recorded in August and I can tell you there are perhaps some similarities, but the Elder stuff is a lot heavier, we’ve probably gone back a little bit, it’s a lot heavier than Omens. I think maybe doing this lighter project helped me get that out of my system so I can turn on the heavier side of my brain for Elder. I mean, speaking of Elder, we had a bit of a strange year recording Omens. I mean this past year has been strange for everyone, but the one before that was strange too because we had a serious lineup change and a new member. And I think a lot of internal stuff the band was going through. It was a very weird time for everyone, and I think it coloured the way that record turned out. And I do feel we’re bouncing back, coming around the sun again, reaching a new normal and I think we’ve developed a new way of working with the new chemistry that’s a little better so I’m stoked about the way everything has turned out so far. I think these new tracks, I think they’re typical Elder, they’re pretty complicated, pretty non-standard, I think the way we write songs is changing. I don’t think there’s this big an influence on flashy playing as there is in evoking a mood or atmosphere. There’s definitely more piano riffs and arpeggios than there were on previous records, but I don’t know, I always feel a bit incapable of describing Elder properly, I just spend so much time on it, I just get too close to it I don’t even know what the hell I’m talking about anymore.

And how would you describe how the writing process has changed for Elder since the lineup changes?

It fundamentally changed the way we act, it changed the fundamental chemistry of the band. You know, Jack, Matt [Couto, ex-drummer] and I, we all grew up together and we’d been playing in shitty local bands when we were teenagers and we were just best friends. Just three dudes, three friends playing music together. So much had changed since those days though, I moved over here [to Berlin], we weren’t even living on the same continent to one another, and breaking that down even further, like half of the band is now non-original members, and also just personality types and playing styles. It was a lot to deal with, for a while I thought that Elder wouldn’t go on if it wasn’t the core three of us, because it was always just about that chemistry, but when Matt left I didn’t feel we had said all we were going to say with this band, also it was another chance to kind of expand the musical palette. I guess the short answer is, everything changed in some ways.

It sounds like Elder are entering a new chapter now?

It does, yeah. I think that was also, without sounding too melodramatic, it was kind of a darker period in the band. Like there was the hope of starting a new thing but also there was a lineup change even though we’d already written Omens, and integrating a new member into the band and not being able to fully tap into his talent for what it is because we’d already written everything. And also, getting to know each other musically, like we’ve known Georg [Edert, drums since 2019] for a long time, and then there was a lot of pressure with recording times and tours, and then of course everything collapsed with Covid, and it took a lot of the pressure off. I mean, not in a super positive way because we lost a lot of money and we’ve been spinning our wheels for a lot of time, but I do feel like we’ve had some valuable growing together time, and I think that our next record is going to play to all our individual strength much more because of that. It’s just going to be a much more relaxed affair creating the whole thing.

And in terms of Delving, do you see yourself stepping outside of Elder to do this again?

Definitely, I certainly plan on it. Again, this is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, because I have a lot of ideas that could potentially be interesting for someone other than myself. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant, but I like to write music and a lot ideas just sit on the hard drive, and then of course it was establishing a band, getting on the fucking internet, doing all this leg work. It’s kind of annoying to do all that stuff, but I’m already working on ideas for another album and yeah I’m going to be here for at least another half a year, so maybe I’ll even get it done before the next Elder tour.

With gigs a little up in the air at the moment, are there any plans to perform Delving material live?

We are actually going to play this stuff live. It’s nothing I ever intended when I was making it, like I was talking about how hard it would be to play this stuff live without a bunch of keyboard players or whatever but our Elder agent dug it too and he was already surmising tours on a normal scale wouldn’t be happening any time soon so he put together a short run between Germany, Switzerland and Italy, neighbouring countries for late November-December. I’m not expecting a huge turn out with the Covid conditions but it’s just something else to do. I’ve actually got a lineup together, we haven’t practiced together yet, but we’re all set to. I think a lot of people are hungry for live music.

Hirschbrunnen is out 11th June via Stickman Records and can be purchased physically here and digitally here.

Words: Adam Pegg

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