As for many 17-year-old males, my last year in high school was a complete waste of time, frittered away busting zits, making model airplanes, and trying to come to terms with the fact that I was never going to get laid—at least with Gillian Anderson.
Not so for Nick DiSalvo, guitarist for Massachusetts band Elder. At 17, together with his 18-year-old bandmates Jack Donovan (drums), and Matt Couto (bass), he was already putting the finishing touches to the band’s first album in his parent’s basement.
Later, following a positive review of their self-titled “demo” record on the now defunct website Stonerrock.com, the band was picked up by Meteorcity. A re-recorded version of that album with a different selection of songs was duly issued and received a huge reception from fans of stoner rock and heavy psychedelic all over the world.
Fast-forward three years and the band delivered Dead Roots Stirring—sonically a massive leap forward with more dynamic and original composition, and musically just a far more interesting listen. With more glowing reviews, the band’s reputation was firmly established.
Barring a live album, though, and a compilation of demo material (plus an excellent two-track EP titled Spires Burn/Release) the band’s forthcoming album Lore is the first proper full-length studio recording in four years.
BNU caught up with Nick as he prepares to embark on a US and European tour to talk musical influences, and why the band likes taking its time with each release.
BNU: You were only 18 when you recorded your first album. Did your dad or mom have great taste in music, or you had a cool uncle or something? How the hell did you get hip so fast?
Ha! I haven’t heard that one in a while. We were indeed 18 when the first album was recorded (I was actually 17), but now we’ve reached the ripe old age of our mid twenties.
My parents had awful taste in music, I’m always joking with friends that I inherited the worst record collection of all time for a kid who was destined to get into music; I think the best things I picked up from them were a few Yes records, Houses of the Holy, and an Alice Cooper album. Jack definitely had the cool uncle (with an ELP tattoo, so I hear), but he played no great role in our development.
I count two figures in my musical development: my older brother, who showed me punk rock, and Adrian Dexter, my personal mentor in all things heavy. Adrian has been a friend since elementary school and now does pretty much all our artwork. I remember him showing me Come my Fanatics when I was 15 years old, which I really didn’t get at the time, but rediscovered after stints with power, black, and death metal.
The guys and I basically grew up together, we’ve been playing music since we were 16 or so… we were weird, I was always interested in skirting the mainstream, though I wouldn’t consider myself an outsider necessarily. We kind of grew up with the internet, you know? That opened up a lot of possibilities for discovery, stuff that you needed a cool uncle for once upon a time.
When you get in the practice room with the band, which one of you takes the lead? And who takes it to the next level? Or do you all work the parts out separately?
Lately we have been all about the business. Jack is living in New York City, Matt in Boston, and I’m in Providence, so when we convene for practice we don’t have much time to fuck around. As far as songwriting goes, I write all the music and send it to the guys, we all internalize the parts and feeling, then return to the practice room to work on it together in a live setting.
We’ve been in business mode the past few months since Lore was recorded, making sure all the songs are ready for live settings and figuring out how to reduce multi-tracked songs to fit a three-piece format without sounding too sparse. I definitely am the coordinating factor and take the lead as far as practice goes, but we all have equal direction in how and what we work on.
Normally there’s an unhealthy amount of jamming, drinking, hanging out, and having fun.
The production on Dead Roots Stirring was spot on. I mean, I guess you recorded it on a budget, but whoever did it knew what you guys were going for. It sounds really fucking good. Was it a fun or painful album to record?
We recorded Dead Roots Stirring on a budget of $500, if I remember correctly. Luckily we hooked up with Clay Neely (drummer for Black Pyramid) who ran a cool recording studio out in the woods near where I went to college. We had known each other for years through playing shows and he was awesome enough to cut us a deal to produce the album.
We had a total blast hanging out there for three days, putting in really intense sessions and trying to make the album as good as possible within the framework of time and money. It was our first time in a real studio as the first LP was recorded in my parents’ basement [laughs]. At Clay’s suggestion, we brought in Justin Pizzoferrato to mix and he really brought the whole project together. We have worked with Justin ever since.
On the mighty tree of rock, Elder seems to be a leaf on the Sabbath branch. But there is a lot more going on. You seem to have gotten into Dungen from an early age. Are there any other bands that inform your writing process?
We are not interested in commercial success unless it happens entirely on our terms
I love Dungen and Reine Fiske is one of my favorite guitarists of all time. Motorpsycho, now our labelmates (I am proud to say), is another huge influence. Their album Lucid Little Moments helped me re-imagine composition for rock songs. Colour Haze was a big inspiration for a lot of the guitar work in Dead Roots Stirring, which probably comes as no surprise.
There are truly too many bands and musicians that have inspired and informed us to name. For a few… John Bonham’s massive drums, Bo Hansson’s mystical atmosphere, Thin Lizzy’s melodies, Goatsnake’s tone, Sabbath’s riffs! So I guess anything and everything…
If you had a choice between being commercially successful now, like the whole works, or being recognized for your genius when you are old and decrepit, which would you chose and why?
This is the main reason we’ve happily opted to work with Armageddon Shop and Stickman Records, who are two labels entirely devoted to independent music with a DIY spirit. It is certainly rewarding to be recognized for what you do, it validates and motivates you like nothing else.
I doubt I’ll be listening to stoner rock or heavy psychedelic music when I’m “old and decrepit” anyhow. If that was really the choice of two extremes I think I’d take success now, take the money and run, you know? I’d build a recording studio and become a hermit.
You have a new album out and I’ve only heard one song off it so far, and it’s another progression forward for the band. It seems to be extending into kind of more space-rock or prog territory than say, the stoner you were lumped with initially. Can you share what concept you had in mind when you went into the studio
Thank you for your praise! The idea was precisely to make a record that was heavy, melodic, captured all of the elements of the previous records, but somehow freed the band from the tag of “stoner rock” or any kind of super-specific tag for that matter (plain old “rock” suits us fine).
It’s a bittersweet era for rock music, that’s my honest feeling
To do this, we struggled for a really long time. Over the course of a whole year of living together and practicing very frequently, we wrote only two songs and discarded numerous ideas. Last year I left the country for a year and during that period of time I had a lot of new ideas which crystalized into the other remaining three songs for the album, hastily reconstructed upon my return to the US last summer.
I had a perfectly clear vision for 90 percent of how Lore should feel, but again we were recording on a limited budget of money and time, and some ideas got replaced or improvised, so that changing my vision but left us with an album that is nonetheless exciting for its raw qualities. Even if nothing turns out perfect or the way you plan it to be, I love working under time constraints; it means you need to be well-practiced and it leaves room for honesty—no polishing or digitally retouching shitty takes.
I feel deeply resentful that I wasted all my money in the my 20s on the CD format, touted to be vastly superior to my dad’s dusty old records, and now I am left with a crates of half-smashed scratched-up bits of broken plastic shit. And so now I download for a fraction of the price, but have nothing to hold in my hands. That takes you full circle back to vinyl. With digital, you can be in a band and you can make it happen without a label. What are your thoughts on analog versus music via the internet?
Every sort of media is being affected more and more by the expansive steps internet development is making, music is no exception. We grew up alongside the internet and have it to thank for the steps we’ve been able to make as a band.
I love the accessibility the internet grants to become exposed to all sorts of music, as well as the possibilities new technologies afford fledgling artists. In a way, I see it as a leveling of the playing field for bands. There’s no doubt that major labels still are hugely influential enterprises, but artists no longer need big label money and support to make it. If you’re good and you play your cards right, you can still get out there as a musician, and I love that.
On the other hand, everyone and their grandmother can force their horrible music down your throat; can pay for intrusive Facebook advertising, can send you annoying emails. The merit that you might have needed to land a deal in the ’70s is no longer the biggest factor—if you’ve got a gimmick you can still catch people’s attention. You don’t have to cut a record live and be talented musicians, because every computer comes standard with recording and editing software.
It’s a bittersweet era for rock music, that’s my honest feeling, but I’m speaking from the vantage point of a 25-year-old who missed out on the “golden era” of rock and roll.
What’s the next stage for Elder? You guys look like kids on BMXs about to launch down a huge hill and do some sweet jumps. You’re headed for Europe?
We should get some BMXs and ride them around on stage. We’re doing a lot of touring beginning this March in the States and heading to Europe for a long run in the summer. In between we’ll hit up the west coast of the US in May and do some Canadian dates in April.
Between all of that we’re trying our hardest to retain our sanity and maybe not go broke. Hopefully we make it back with our minds intact (or not) and make some cool new tunes again soon.