Awash in solos and complex lead riffs, Dead Roots Stirring — the second full-length from Massachusetts trio Elder — marks an unexpected shift in approach from the heavy rocking three-piece. Where their 2008 self-titled debut, which, like the new album, was released by MeteorCity, found them following in the plodding footsteps of Sleep‘s grooving chug, their sophomore outing is richer, more intricate, and surprisingly tinged with psychedelia.
The guitar of Nick DiSalvo (also vocals) is still very much at the fore, but the methodology is different. Songs like “Gemini” and the stunning, 11-plus-minute title-track range farther than one might have expected Elder to go after the first record. Groove remains formidably present, but Elder have begun to show their personality musically through these songs, and with elements and influences from the current European heavy psych scene, they’re honing in on an increasingly individual take. It’s not really a shock that Dead Roots Stirring, which was engineered by Black Pyramid‘s Clay Neely, would wind up as one of the year’s highlight records, but the avenue it took to get there is another story altogether.
Elder is DiSalvo alongside bassist Jack Donovan and drummer Matt Couto, and Dead Roots Stirring has been a long time coming. As early as last year, I recall hearing Massachusetts locals bragging on having heard the album and touting its change in direction. The band shopped the record around, but eventually wound up sticking with MeteorCity for the release, which was further delayed in the mixing and by DiSalvo‘s studies abroad. When it came out in October, topped with gorgeously painted Adrian Dexter artwork, I imagine there was some sense of relief in the band that it had finally materialized. I know there certainly was on my end, hearing it.
The interview that follows was conducted a few days before the release, and in our conversation, DiSalvo talked about the research that led him to Germany and away from the band, the recording process for Dead Roots Stirring, what was behind some of the stylistic growth shown on the album, and much more. I know it’s been a couple weeks that I’ve been trying to get this posted, and I thank you for your patience in waiting.
Complete Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.
Thanks a lot. You’re not the first person to say they’ve been waiting for it. We had our share of difficulties in firstly getting material together, then recording and mixing. There were big delays, especially in ending up coming back to MeteorCity to do the release, so it was a long time coming, but we’re very satisfied. We’ve had nothing but a positive reception so far, and it’s all been rewarding in the end.
What was behind some of those delays? You did some traveling?
The biggest delays were between our recording of the album, which took place I guess now that would be two winters ago, so the winter of 2010, and mixing and mastering. We had a big gap in there because we were actually sort of shopping the record around to see if we couldn’t get a label interested and maybe help us out financially with some of the mastering costs and stuff like that. We’re still pretty broke, but we were pretty broke at that point. We were hoping that we could get out to a bigger audience, and we had some sort of false leads from a couple labels, and so we weren’t really trying to rush anything, and so we decided to take our time and see if we couldn’t find a label that would put it out. We eventually ended up going back to MeteorCity, like I mentioned before. Once that was decided, it was sort of in the bag. We just found someone to master it and got on with things.
You did go abroad though, right? You went to Germany?
I was in Germany this past year. I was going to school, doing study abroad, not just traveling. I just returned about two months ago or so.
What were you studying?
I study German, actually. Language and literature. I was just attending a regular university over there, actually through my school here. I go to the University of Massachusetts, and they have a partnership with one of the federal states over there, so you can just enroll in the school over there and take classes. I was in Freiberg. It’s in the southwestern-most part of the country, sort of on the border with Switzerland and France. I kind of concentrated in contemporary German literature. I’m working on translating a book right now, so I was essentially there to help polish my skills and I think that had the desired effect. It was a great time.
Going into the recording for Dead Roots Stirring, did you know you wanted something different sound-wise?
Yes. The first album – we were pretty happy with it when it came out. At that time I think we had sort of immature expectations of a sound. We actually also recorded that on no budget; it was self-recorded and self-produced. And the more we let it sit and listened to it, the more, at least for me, it took on a sort of metallic or artificial, very cold sound to it. I know in comparison to modern metal or rock productions or something like that, it was a warm record tonally, but it wasn’t really indicative of the sound aesthetic that we wanted for the newer material. It was very clear off the bat that we were going to go to an engineer who knew the sound we were going for and we also had more of a focused idea of how we wanted it to sound, so we were going to take those ideas and shop around, and we ended up finding Clay, the drummer of Black Pyramid. He runs a studio up here, and we played with Black Pyramid a lot before they broke up. So he was a guy we were very familiar with, and he was familiar with our work, and he seemed to be a perfect fit, actually.
How long were you in the studio?
We were there for three days. Three days recording, and then another two days mixing, or something. It was a real compact session. Again, we didn’t have a lot of money to do it, and we also knew the material very well, so we weren’t in there trying to make a perfect record with a thousand overdubs or something. There are errors on the album. But I guess that’s sort of charming in a way that a lot of older analog records are anyhow. We tend to look at the negatives of having little studio time in as positive a light as possible.
I think you got a good balance sound-wise out of that. The sound is warm, but still modern. It doesn’t sound like a throwback.
We didn’t have really the means nor the technology to make a real throwback album, nor would it have necessarily suited the kind of music that we play. I think we’re much more modern, and it would sound very affected, very fake, if we were to try to make a record that sounded like Black Sabbath’s self-titled or something. We weren’t out to do that, either.
Was there some change in the songwriting process that preceded bringing out the different sound in the recording?
The songwriting process has always sort of remained the same. I think I may have dialed back the creative input from the other guys on the new material, just because of sort of spacial issues. The other guys live in Boston and I’ve always been out of the area. A lot of the songwriting for that album was done when I was also in Germany, 2007-2008, so it was a lot more of an independent process for me, giving half or three-quarters-developed ideas to the guys and then us all playing around with them to see what we could come up with, how we could polish it. And you know, that undergoes numerous revisions, but if anything, it was a little bit more independent, I guess.
It’s interesting, because I wanted to ask you about your technique as far as soloing goes. There are so many runs on the guitar that made it onto the album, and some feel written out and some feel more spontaneous. When you’re writing those songs by yourself, do you work on those solos at that time, or do they come later?
The actual solos usually always develop in the context of us jamming or playing shows or something. There are a lot of solo-esque riffs, where the guitar is playing sort of a repetitive pattern, but it’s more complex in contrast to the plodding bass or drums that are in the background. Those are very written out. I’m speaking to parts like the end of the title-track – there’s sort of a long run with more complex guitar work. But the solos. Even on the recording, there are some elements of spontaneity and improvisation with those. I have formulas that I use as a framework, but it’s always boring to see the same show twice, so we kind of took that mentality with us to the studio. We never play any song live just like it is on the recording, and I hope we keep it that way too.
Do you have some idea of directions you’d want to go from Dead Roots Stirring? Do you have new material? It’s been so long since you recorded.
Right, it has. We’re actually in the process of working on two new songs, which will become a hopefully new release materializing next year. There’s no official word on that, but the sort of developments in sound away from the self-titled release, more dynamic, more melodic, more interesting, some people say more psychedelic – to note the more positive adjectives – that’s the direction I see us continuing down. That’s certainly reflected in the new material we’ve been working on. I guess it’s sort of a cliché to say something like, “Looking both backward and forward.” Backward to more subtle classic influences, but also forward to be more progressive and break out of what can be very formulaic patterns found in a lot of stoner rock or stoner metal or whathaveyou.
If you’re speaking in terms of a band identity, it’s sort of the over-arching goal. I feel like we made great progress in finding something like more of our own sound, but there’s always going to be comparisons drawn, and I think that’s very fair. Hell, to a certain point, that’s also very flattering, when we get comparisons to bands that we’re very inspired by and very much love. But if we could at the same time forge our own name, where people aren’t necessarily tempted to draw back to the first name that somebody reminds them of, I think that’d be great to try and come up with something that hasn’t been done before, create our sound, completely. I think we’re still a ways from that, but we’re definitely conscious of it.
And you feel like the new material is moving more towards that?
Yes, I do. And part of me says there’s just new influences, and those influences are coming out, as opposed to the older ones, but part of it is definitely developing our own sound.
What are some of those new influences?
I think the biggest joint favorite band that comes out in this is Colour Haze. For me, they’ve been one of my favorite bands for years, even back when we were writing stuff for the self-titled. Or even another band that’s very influential in a strange way is Dungen, from Sweden, who don’t play anything close to stoner rock. But these bands can really evoke something what you might call “heavy” without having to dial the distortion to 10 and fall back on many fuzz pedals and playing as loudly as possible. They’re melodic and they’re extremely powerful, but in maybe more subtle or emotional ways. That’s to give a broad definition. Those are the bands that have really influenced the methodology or the philosophy behind the new direction.
It’s awesome that you mentioned Colour Haze. In listening to the album, it’s almost intangible, the way that’s worked in there, but it is. I guess in some of the guitar, you can hear it, and in the low end and the bass, there’s that warmth to it, just touching on what they do.
Likewise, I’m glad to hear from someone who’s familiar with the band, because they don’t get the respect and the reverence that they should. They were an influence, but we hope to not be too derivative, and yeah, you’re absolutely right, the sheer warmth of their music without overdoing anything – they’re just masters in songwriting, as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve had the good fortune of seeing them live a couple times, and that’s also sort of a magical experience. Trying not to sound too much like a fanboy here, but I’m a convert.
Do you guys have any tour plans?
Touring is, aside from the new material, our number one priority. We’re planning on getting further out west. Not a national tour or anything of that scope, but we’d like to do something like two weeks this summer. I’m sort of the factor in holding us back right now. I’m finishing up my degree and I have neither time nor money to hit the road right now, but this summer, we’re definitely going to try to cover as much ground as possible. Planning for that is actually already in the preliminary stage.
Will you record with Clay again?
I don’t think so. We haven’t really talked about it too much, because our material isn’t that far. It was a great experience, but we’ve been thinking about even trying to self-record and self-produce again. There’s something nice about having all say in the creative process and having as much time as possible. Another possibility is Justin Pizzoferrato, who mixed the last album. He’s also based out of Western Massachusetts, but he’s building a studio right now. He’s done recording work with Dinosaur Jr., Witch, that kind of circle. He did an awesome job on the mixing. While we’re satisfied with everything Clay’s done, we feel like his work also really brought out the best elements of the recording. He’s a possibility for someone we might record with. He does a lot of analog recording as well, and I’d mentioned that’s not necessarily what we’re going for, but he’s also got a great know-how of the subtleties. It’s definitely not like a simple mix. It’s not something I would do on a home recorder. Working with educated professionals makes me realize my ignorance of sound, as much as I may like to think I know something about it.
Tags: Elder, Massachusetts, MeteorCity