It’s pretty obvious that we have a lot of love for Elder around these parts: their combination of soaring progressive rock, trudging doom metal, and overall attention to the moment-to-moment beauty of their tracks makes them a pleasure to listen to and dissect for hours at a time. I guarantee you that their new album, Reflections of a Floating World, will be on our year-end list, and that it’ll be pretty damn high up. It’s a phenomenal album – and they just did an excellent tour with King Buffalo to support it. I met Nick DiSalvo, the band’s creative force, outside of Reggie’s – one of Chicago’s finest metal venues – and talk to him before the show. Read on to find out about the writing process, lyrical themes, and why album art is so important to him as a musician!
Have you been pleased with the reception of Reflections of a Floating World so far? Is there anything that it leaves to be desired?
We’re really stoked that people are listening to us and getting more interested in our music as time goes on; we’re still doing things on a pretty small scale – not a big label and a lot of promotional force behind us – and it’s pretty cool seeing that bands can still do things on that level and get listeners. The only thing that’s a little annoying is that we keep getting thrown in with the stoner world, which is, to be fair, definitely where we came from and where our roots are, but it’s annoying that we can’t seem to break away from that no matter what we try to do. But really, the reception’s been fantastic overall.
The change in sound from Dead Roots Stirring to Lore was pretty large; the change from Lore to Reflections much less so. Was that just an organic thing where Lore found you guys settling into that niche and you stayed there, or did you intentionally start writing Reflections with the idea of it being more-or-less a direct sonic followup in tone, production, and overall style to Lore?
With Lore, I felt that we had hit upon a sound that was somewhat unique to us and we were writing the songs that we wanted to write, but that record was sort of thrown together, and in a lot of ways I didn’t walk away completely satisfied. I just felt that the songs were not completely, you know, all there. Reflections was never a conscious followup but it was clear in the writing process that there were definitely more things that needed to be said regarding that sound. I really wanted to perfect this sound that was really progressive and really doomy, and sort of psychedelic and heavy – we don’t really know what it is, but it feels like Elder, you know? It’s sort of a Lore part 2 in that sense; we really caught some ears with that record and I figured that if we could just make that album but a little better, a little more fleshed out, it would be the record we’d been wanting to make for some years now.
It’s interesting you call it a more “fleshed out” version – one of the things that really caught my attention this time around was how much more stripped back and reserved Reflections is over Lore in some places.
Yeah, I guess “fleshing out” is a pretty vague term. Well, really, the idea was there on Lore – to be a heavy metal Yes, to borrow another person’s term – but the songs didn’t really come full circle for me there, they weren’t really as coherent as I wanted. I think that’s what got “fleshed out” – the songwriting got a lot tighter and more focused. It’s definitely not as much of a noodly record as Lore, and the focus isn’t solely on the guitar: there’s a lot of keyboard there too, and a lot more jammy parts – we had a bunch more time in the studio this time around – and it’s just a more… complete record.
It’s hard to answer this question in a straightforward way since when you’re making music it’s never completely intentional, you know? What comes out just comes out and that’s that.
The visual component of both Reflections and Lore has been extremely strong both in quality and in presentation. How do you approach the visual components of an album’s aesthetics and overall feel? Is it important for you to have that component be such a strong one?
It’s definitely really important to us. Even going back to my childhood, when I was buying records, I would walk into the record store and go to the metal section and buy something based on the most badass cover artwork. I never really understood why you wouldn’t want your packaging to represent your music, you know?
Our artist, Adrian Dexter, he’s a longtime friend of ours, I’ve known him as long as I’ve known our bassist, which was since we were in elementary school, and he got into visual arts around the same time we got into music, and so that’s been a partnership, if you will. He’s always getting demos of our material, and it’s like we trade sketches – he gets the music and then we get the artwork and we go back and forth. We work together to make a really great package. I always think of the Roger Dean/Yes partnership, you know? These albums that I thought looked the coolest.
Yes has pretty kickass artwork.
Yeah, and that’s the thing with a lot of people now buying vinyl records, or even just buying physical media of something because they like to have it in their hands, if it’s just thrown together and not something that’s thought out, then why bother having it in your hands? It should look good, feel good, sound good, the whole package. It’s a medium you can do a lot with and you’re missing out if you’re not embracing that.
But also, we don’t tell Adrian what to do, you know? We maybe give him a bit of a direction but he hasn’t yet given us anything we’re not happy with, so we just let him do his thing.
Has he done the artwork for everything?
He didn’t do the artwork for the Spires Burn/Release single, since that was a record store day thing. It was kind of a one-off and we didn’t really know where it would lead us, but that was a local Providence artist who works with our label pretty closely. So definitely another close connection.
What’s inspired Reflections’ lyrical themes?
I’ve been really stuck on a couple themes since Dead Roots Stirring, which have to do mostly with the meaning of life and what the hell we’re doing as human beings. As someone who’s never really lived in a religious environment, I’m fascinated by the concept of spirituality – it’s something that changes your perspective so strongly on what it means to be a human.
It seems sort of far-fetched and arrogant for rock music but the themes are always these big literary themes. Reflections of a Floating World is based in how I feel like, in the Western world at least, we’re living in a very consumerist, empty, shallow society, just kind of scratching the surface of the potential for living. A lot of it came from our personal struggles: 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? So it’s very hard to say there’s one consistent theme but it’s about, essentially, finding your path and living your life in a world that seems more and more focused on everyone doing the same thing.
What is the Floating World?
It’s a term for a period in Japanese society: after Japan was opened to the Western world in the 1800’s, there was a period of relative prosperity and technological advancements, and so there was a flourishing in the arts but also this rise in a very hedonistic lifestyle. So the Floating World is this artistic and lifestyle period where there was this flourishing of culture but an increasingly hedonistic society. I was very interested in some of the art I saw coming from this period and I read up on it some and that sort of connected with all these thoughts I was having about the period we’re living through right now. We live in sort of an empty society, you know, and the Floating World is just the very shallow surface world we live in, working jobs and making money, destroying the environment, just going through the motions. At the end of it, what remains of the time you have on this world to really, you know, figure it out?
And once we started becoming a band that’s been touring heavily, we started seeing the other side of touring. We play music because we’re so passionate about it but sometimes you go on tour and you just wanna party, get drunk, you end up just losing sight of what you originally went out there for. I’m not saying there’s one right way or one line to follow, but these are all just ideas expressed in the songs.
A lot of the themes are pretty dark, because I have a pretty bleak outlook on the world as it is today, but there’s definitely a ray of hope. We’re the makers of our own destiny, and we can definitely choose to be better in the future. It’s very nebulous, though, and I try to not be dogmatic or act like I have all the answers. Anyone in this world who professes to have all the answers is full of bullshit.
What do you think is the “proper” way to enjoy Elder? In your mind, what’s the optimal way for people to listen to your songs?
Like, thinking about what’s the way for us to best get our vision across?
Well, Reflections is a really studio-heavy album, and all of those songs sound pretty much exactly how we want them to, so I would say the best way to listen to that is definitely at home with a nice pair of headphones. But we’re also definitely a live band: it’s loud and you feel the music in a way you definitely wouldn’t otherwise. So I think if you can listen to the record and come see a show, you’ve got the full deal. We don’t hide out in the studio, but we also aren’t just a live band.
Are there different parts of the music you try to emphasize live?
Sometimes, depending on the set or the song, we bring in a little improvisation, but now that we’ve got a second guitarist we can’t really do that as much. It’s really hard to strike the right sonic balance every night, in a different room, with a different crowd, so we just focus on staying tight and close to the record. There might be a bit of improvisation but in our 70-minute set, 60 to 65 minutes is rehearsed material. We’re unfortunately not such virtuosos that we can go full Grateful Dead and just fuckin’ wing it for as long we want. We’ve got these long songs with a lot of parts, so if we didn’t stick to it, it’d be pretty easy for us to get lost.
So, this is our traditional final Heavy Blog question. How do you like your eggs?
Over medium, with Frank’s Red Hot. Sometimes, eggs gross me out – it’s a texture thing – so I’ve been going with over medium with some Frank’s Red Hot for the spice.