At the Headwaters With Elijah McLaughlin

The first three albums from the Elijah McLaughlin Ensemble feel like a growing tree, emerging each season with massive new branches and forming elegant skyward pathways. Melodies from another time mesh with inventive song structures and engaging timbres to create a still-unfolding narrative. Their latest, III, expands the ensemble’s aural worlds with new sonic elements and collaborators. It’s another leap forward in the compositional approach, and as the palette opens further, countless possibilities are ahead.

III is out now on Astral Spirits.

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

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?

I remember hearing “Purple Haze” on the radio and being completely blown away by the energy of that song; the song just leapt out of the speakers in a way that just mesmerized me. I must have been around 10 years old. After the song finished, the DJ did not announce the artist/song after playing the track, so I loaded a blank cassette into my boombox and kept the same radio station playing in my bedroom all day in hopes that I might catch the song again to record it. I soon after learned it was Hendrix and really got into his music. Jimi Hendrix is an artist that I have been able to appreciate at every stage of my life. He continues to inspire me to this day.

Did you always want to be a musician? 

I think so. At a young age, I constantly wanted to connect with music as a listener, as I draw a lot of enjoyment/inspiration from the act of listening. I always had my headphones on. I guess playing an instrument was a natural extension of that, a desire to be continually immersed in music and act as a conduit for that energy. 

What impetus pushed you to pick up a guitar (or whatever instrument came first!) and start creating your own sounds?  

My friend started taking guitar lessons, and I remember thinking, “What a wonderful idea,” and that I wanted to do the same.

Who were some of your favorite guitar players growing up?

Growing up, mostly artists like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, and Jerry Garcia. In high school, I started expanding my listening to many more genres and digging into artists like Miles Davis, Aphex Twin, and Radiohead.

So let’s get right into it and talk about the new record, III. How did you approach writing this record differently than the last? Obviously, some of the same component parts are there, but the overall feeling of this record seems different to me, not to mention the expanded sonic palette…

I had been working with synth textures and had collected a handful of tracks that I was using as modal foundations for layering acoustic music on top of. I also built a tape delay by cutting a tape loop and running it between two reel-to-reel machines. I was inspired to build the reel-to-reel set-up because I love the Eno/Fripp record “Evening Star.” I wanted to experiment with similar textures. I was enjoying the process of creating textural work, and this material became more prominent in the record. 

I was also really blown away by the synths on III, especially on the b-side, “Coloring of Lake/Sky.” How long have you been playing synths/keys, and what pushed you to incorporate them, as well as tape loops, into this record?

Thanks, yeah, I enjoy playing synth because I don’t completely know what I’m doing from a technical point of view. Digging into the parameters of a synth to find certain sounds/textures can be like going down a rabbit hole, but it can also yield interesting results. I used an old Roland Juno 6 on this record, which has a great sonic palette to draw from. This is the synth you hear on “Coloring of Lake/Sky.”

Let me ask about the ‘usual’ ensemble cast of Jason Toth and Joel Styzens. How did you all meet and start playing music together? What is it about the connection with those two that has stuck for all this time?

Both Jason and Joel are incredible musicians, and they bring a lot to the sound of the records. The ensemble at its core is really Jason and I. Jason is a great collaborator and highly talented musician I feel lucky to have as a band member. We started playing music together back in 2017. When it came time to record the first album, we brought Joel in for the recording sessions, and that’s how he initially entered the fold. On this particular album, the trio ensemble of both Jason and Joel is really only on two tracks. 

Notably on the new record are the guest appearances. Katinka Kleijn is incredible (I was just thinking about her unbelievable performance on that record with Mark Feldman from last year. Anyway…). How did you come to work with her on this record?

The funny thing is that I initially met Katinka at that very show. My friend Caleb Wilitz runs a recording studio at the Fine Arts Building, and he recorded that performance as a live event at his studio. Later, I asked Katinka if she would join me for a studio session for this record, and she was kind enough to do so.

Her cello playing brings such a different element to this record, and it really adds a new timbre to the music and adds to the feeling of urgency that permeates a lot of this music. What was your approach with the cello parts – did you have ideas written or in mind, or was it more of letting Katinka do her thing?

Yes, I wanted Katinka to do her own thing. All of Katinka’s playing is improvised on this record; I did not give her anything that was written. I arrived at the session with a few themes and song structures that I had worked out on guitar (as well as some prerecorded synth material), and we just ran those themes in a stream-of-consciousness live performance type of recording session. After the session, I edited down the studio takes into the arrangements that you hear on the record.  

And I’m not going to forget Adler Scheidt’s piano playing because it also adds another striking texture to the record. When did he get involved with the project?

I wanted to bring in a piano player for the long-form piece “Lake/Sky,” so I reached out to Adler. We had a couple of rehearsal sessions (Jason, Adler, and I) that had a good energy, so soon after, we went into the studio and recorded a bunch of material based on the interlocking themes we were exploring. This material became the finished piece.

What things surprised you while making this album?

Making field recordings is a good time; using X-Y mics while walking around in nature is like a microscope for your ears.

The year is still just getting started. What are you looking forward to, or are you hopeful for, in 2023?

I’m currently working with Caleb Willitz to complete an album of electric material that I am excited to finish. The album features a number of great Chicago improvisers, and the sound of the album is expansive… I’m very much looking forward to getting this one out into the world later in 2023

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