Elkhorn & The Growing Landscape

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Elkhorn never rests. Jesse Sheppard and Drew Gardner have been playing music together as a duo for nearly a decade, but that’s no reason to rest on their laurels and start mailing it in. With each album, new tendrils spin off into their own focused worlds. Their music is an ever-growing organism. On their latest album, Distances, they set the compass toward the horizon and pressed on as deep into the sunkissed abyss as possible. With two drummers – Ian McColm and Nate Scheible – drafted into the studio with them, Distances emerged like a golden monolith ready to cast its gleaming shadows onto the landscape. The spaces between us might look enormous, but with openness comes connection, and Elkhorn is here to harness those intersecting points. 

Distances is out tomorrow, September 16, via Feeding Tube. It’s one hell of a triumph. Catch them next month opening for the legendary solo banjo player George Stavis on these dates:

10.22 – Philadelphia at the Rotunda

10.23 – Takoma Park, MD at Rhizome DC

First, how have y’all been holding up these last few years, and what’s been helping you make it through?

JS: I’d say we’re holding up about the same as most folks. Some pain and disappointment… both personal and global… but also lots of experiences where we’ve seen creativity and community overcome tough situations. We were halfway through a tour of the East Coast in March of ’20 when we started seeing festivals shut down and then smaller and smaller venues. Turns out our expectations are figments of our imaginations, just like all the events on our calendars that we thought were so important. But looking back, it feels like having some time to draw inward, think, be with the ones we love, and separate the music from performance a bit; was not a bad thing. We learned a lot, and we’re still learning from the last few years. I had time and opportunity to go back and pick up the electric bass after many years away from it. Drew took a deep dive into fingerstyle guitar and studio recording techniques. We all found a thing or two that got us through. But there’s no doubt the music, whether sitting with a guitar in bed or playing an outdoor show to a field full of kids and dogs, has been a major part of surviving all of this. 

Alright, let’s dig back even further. What are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

JS: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. What do those earliest musical connections mean to the music I’m making now? As the child of middle-class hippies, there was always a steady diet of Dylan and the Stones when I was growing up. My father was on the sound crew at Woodstock and regaled me with stories of standing on stage with Canned Heat. Apparently, he had to leave before Hendrix played to get back to me in utero, which has been a lifelong guilt – Ha! Like the rest of my generation, I was a Free To Be You and Me and Schoolhouse Rock kid. But I also remember playing my mom’s copies of Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concerts and the Paul Winter albums, and I think some of that can definitely be found in the Elkhorn grooves. 

DG: My parents only had a handful of records in the house I grew up in, but among them was All Things Must Pass and a record of Charles Ives songs. I’m still trying to reconcile these two sounds. 

What was it, then, that pushed you to pick up a guitar (or whatever came first!) and start to play music?

DG: I was really into KISS when I was in grade school. I wanted to be Peter Chris AND Ace Frehley.

JS: I remember learning “If I Had a Hammer” in 5th grade and having a crush on my guitar teacher. Fast forward to high school, and we’re all listening to Joy Division and passing instruments around. I gravitated toward the bass because no one else was playing it. I think I liked the idea of providing the music with a solid foundation to lift off from, and that still means a lot to me in the music I make today. I shifted to the 6- and then the 12-string in the early aughts when I moved from New York to Philadelphia and got snared in the web of Takoma School guitar. American Primitive music definitely destroyed my life.

So how’d you all meet and start playing music together, anyway?

JS: Seems like this story has been told a few times, but Drew and I were in a band together in high school in Central New Jersey. It sounded sort of like a cross between The Cure and Sonic Youth. Released a few cassettes. Played a few gigs on the Lower East Side. But the singer and guitarist got married and Drew and I are still playing together, so the project had legs!

The new record, Distances, is out soon on Feeding Tube, and it feels like such a different beast. How’d the idea of having two drummers play on these songs first come to mind?

DG: The double drummer thing is like having two huge outboard motors on a boat.

JS: The idea had been in our heads for a while. In fact, the Sun Cycle album was going to be with two drummers, but the pieces didn’t come together. Over the years, we’ve thought a lot about how the music works differently with and without a percussionist in the band, and we wanted to lean heavily into the drums the next time we worked in the studio. Ian McColm and Nate Scheible were both in DC at the time and had been doing music together. When Drew and I would come through town, we would play shows with them individually and together as a quartet. Those shows were next level, and we knew we had something worth capturing.

On the technical side, it’s such an incredible sounding record, too, especially the guitar tone. It feels like anything is possible, and things can go anywhere at any moment. What’s the secret to the sound?

JS: Obviously, a big part of the sound of Distances is Jeff Zeigler at Uniform Recording in Philadelphia. He just brings so much experience to the table, along with a deep understanding of how all the elements in the recording work together. I think the challenge we set out for him was creating a cohesive, organic band sound out of very disparate elements. Elkhorn has always had a very wide dynamic range, but this recording takes that even further. The massive drums stand shoulder to shoulder with the delicate 12-string guitar. There are some places where you can hear me breathing louder than I’m playing, and others where it’s just a wall of searing electric heaviness. Whether it’s rock or folk or jazz, I couldn’t tell you; but it’s clearly pushing out into new directions, and that was important to us.

DG: We could tell you the secret to our sound, but we’d have to kill you afterward. 

Distances incredible cover art by Jake Blanchard

One thing I’ve always admired about you guys is that none of your records necessarily sound the same, but I feel like they’re always instantly recognizable as Elkhorn. Distances is an excellent example of that because there’s a different vibe going on, but that same heart is still there. I’m curious what you all view as the thing that ties it all together, beyond it being the two of you and whoever else? I mean, what is it about the connection you guys have that keeps this thing cohesive but also a space for exploration and pushing yourselves?

DG: There are two parts to our process, the having ideas part and then turning your brain off and being in the moment part. We’ve played together so long that it’s easier to not think when we’re playing. Being able to turn your brain off is important creatively, and it’s not so easy to do. 

JS: You’ve gotta figure we’ve been playing music together for over 30 years, so a certain amount of muscle memory is at play here. But I think the fact that both Drew and I have very strong musical conceptions that are complimentary but come at what we are doing from different directions has a big role in tying the music together. I’m writing and playing in these massive open tunings, and sometimes I’m not even sure what notes are under my fingers. Drew is great at figuring out what scales work over what I’m doing and finding the space to weave his lines through. And over the years, we’ve been able to play a bit with that structure…. Moving me to the front or Drew switching to acoustic fingerstyle. I think a lot of the sound is about creating enough structure to give the music a direction while leaving things loose enough that they keep the music flexible and alive. And, of course, both of us value what collaborators bring to the table. We’ve been honored to work with some of our favorite musicians. We don’t really think of them as guests as much as temporary band members with an equal voice in what we are creating.

Speaking of pushing yourselves, y’all really went for it on Distances with how you play and how these songs are built and flow. It’s such a belter of a record. What were the sessions writing and recording these songs like, and was there something different that really made you all want to push way out into new zones?

JS: The whole idea is to get into new zones. The music has to be exciting and challenging to us before it ever gets into your ears – Ha! But this material came together slowly over a long period of time. I vividly remember driving home from Black Dirt Studio after the Sun Cycle session and thinking that we needed to write a big rocker for drummers to jam on. After playing with a bunch of great drummers on the road for a year or so, that idea became the first tune on the new album. You are totally right that we were consciously trying to create a band sound on this one, but it also had to feel like a unique statement. Obviously, the 12-string ties a lot of what we do together, but the sound also has a lot to do with how we interact, what we are listening for, and of course, working with musicians with whom we feel a real personal and creative connection.

What were some of the biggest challenges in making this record?

JS: The biggest challenge was just how long it took for all the elements to come together. We recorded in the summer before the pandemic, then with everything moving in slow motion, it took a while to mix, then we had to find a home for it and get it pressed as things were starting to come back online, and the entire record world was under extreme stress. As you can imagine, it’s easy for creative projects to come undone with all the logistical hoops you have to get them through. But now, when I hold up the record and put it on the turntable, it feels incredibly cohesive. Jeff’s work, the whole sound of the band, working with the great Feeding Tube label, and of course, the amazing cover art by Jake Blanchard, just feels so focused and true to the vision we had before we started. It’s kind of a beautiful miracle. This record is in no way a commentary on the pandemic, but it definitely applies some of the lessons we’ve learned over the past few years…. Patience will out.

And what surprised you the most about it?

JS: See the answer above. But for me, it’s always a beautiful surprise that the completion of one project is really just the beginning of the next one. Drew will tell you that I often find myself thinking, “That’s it. We’ve said what we have to say.” But now I’m just excited for folks to hear this music and add it to the overall conversation that we’ve been having. Drew and I had our first gig as a duo in May of 2013, so we’ve got a bit of water under that bridge… but there’s still a lot more to say and more music to come.

So the record is coming out, as mentioned on Feeding Tube, and then are there any tours, shows, or anything planned? What else is happening?

JS: See the answer above – Ha! I’ll just say that we’ve got a few different projects in various states that will be coming out next year. This is stuff recorded over the last couple of years and reflects that, along with everything else, our creative lives got tossed in the air and settled back down in new and interesting ways. Different ideas had a chance to filter in, and we were able to capture some of them beautifully. Now we’re looking forward to sharing that with all of you out there. In addition, as we prepare to head out on the road for a few Distances gigs, we’ve been able to pick up on a few threads that we had to lay down when the world paused. Ian was slated to play with us the week we had to cancel all our shows in March of 2020, and now we are about to play a bunch of shows with him, which feels really great. So there’s a lot of music, and we just want to keep doing what feels true to us because we know that’s the only way we will have a real impact on the people who are out there listening.

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon or subscribe to The Jewel Garden.