Nicol Eltzroth Rosendorf’s Countless Offerings

I can’t overstate the vastness and intensity in every thread of Nicol Eltzroth Rosendorf’s new album, Internal Return. Musically, it’s detailed and immense. But the emotional core? That’s another monster entirely. Rosendorf stitches together stirring narratives through resonant fields that are heavy and filled with dramatic tinges, but the complexity is never overwhelming or inaccessible. His ability to weave all these tendrils together is inspiring. Internal Return is a sonic wonder. 

Rosendorf can be reached via his websiteInternal Return can be ordered HERE (vinyl is shipping soon).

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

I always like to start at the beginning, so 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?

One of my very earliest memories is jumping on my parent’s bed while listening to Elton John’s “Honky Cat.” In my memory, I am in slow motion, illuminated by shafts of golden light, dust motes vibrating in the charged air. In reality, I was just an excited child being inexplicably allowed to jump on the bed. My cinematic, memorialized version is much better. 

My other music memory is equally magical but requires less self-mythologizing. I am 6 years old, and my mother has cajoled me into cleaning my room. I decide to put on my favorite record – the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever – to help me through the onerous task. At that exact same moment, my mom switches on a radio in another room. The radio and record player were playing “Staying Alive” EXACTLY IN SYNC. This got me extremely excited, but I lacked the vocabulary to adequately communicate my amazement to my mom; I just sort of ran around and babbled in an over-stimulated frenzy. This led to my mom trying and failing to explain Jung’s theory of synchronicity to me. I wish I had been able to focus and understand. Ok, the Jung bit is more self-mythologizing, but I do remember the spine of the Jung book on the bookshelves in my childhood home. I also remember the spine of “Naked Lunch,” which held much fascination for me. I was told that this was a book for adults – an absolute truth. One day a couple of years later, while home from school sick, with my mom at work and mind-altered on cough syrup, I pulled it off the shelf. My prepubescent mind had absolutely no context for what it was experiencing. It was frightening and exciting. And incredibly confusing. I’d like to think that it cracked open some sliver of possibility in me. 

It’s funny you would ask about early music and sound experiences, as I have previously put quite a lot of thought into the topic:

Growing up, did you always want to be a musician?

It began early. As soon as I was able, I became involved in the school band – playing drums, then violin and French horn. Drums were always my main focus, though. I had this book that was a sort of illustrated encyclopedia of musical instruments. I would spend hours studying that thing. I was particularly interested in the oddball instruments – bass clarinet, bassoon, etc. But I always came back to drums, which I think I felt were higher status in the elementary school pecking order. I was a strange and anxious kid, so having music as something to form an identity around was incredibly important.

What started you down the path of learning about and digging into more experimental and outsider music?

Devo. My best friend’s older brother was the coolest. I remember being at my friend’s house as his brother was getting dressed to go to a Devo concert. He was wearing a white fencing jacket, and he and his friends were talking about how it was cool that it looked like a straight jacket. They had crazy hair and studded leather bracelets, and I could tell they were possibly the same sort of awkward, bookish nerd as I was, but this new wave stuff somehow set them apart into another, less socially fraught category. This was 1981, I was 10 years old. Devo led to Adam and the Ants, which led to The Clash, which led to hardcore which became my world. 

My first band was called L.D.S.C. for Little Destructive School Children. I was 13, our lead singer was 12. We played unbelievably earnest and awful hardcore. We had songs about being grounded. My Dad would drive us to our gigs with the gear in the back of the family Volvo wagon. I cannot thank him enough for this; I know he was not at all comfortable at the hardcore shows.

In the early 90s, I had a band called Rise. We almost “made it big.” The end of that band was what was supposed to be a label showcase at the Atlanta outpost of the Limelight. We were gonna “Get signed”! This is 1991 or so. After soundcheck, I see the club manager walking towards me, accompanied by Ted Turner. Turns out Ted and Jane Fonda are having some sort of private event in another part of the massive club complex, and the unwashed and loud 90s cyber-industrial vibe is disturbing them mightily. They offered – although there was no choice in the matter – to pay us double our guarantee to not play, as well as refund all advance tickets. Well, ok. This actually worked out for us, as my band’s charismatic and utterly fucked singer went missing until well after midnight. He really did love heroin. Turned out we probably would have completely botched that label showcase anyway. This is the most 90s Atlanta story ever. 

After this failed attempt at music careerism, I made a swerve into an actual career in commercial filmmaking and didn’t make any music for a long time. I thought about music a lot and listened to music a lot, but there was no making through the 90s and 2000s. Consequently, any instrumental skill I once possessed atrophied, which might actually be a good thing.

Post Nirvana, the idea of punk/hardcore, etc. being experimental or outsider does seem a bit quaint, but I was very lucky to fall in early with a friend group with extremely catholic and non-judgmental tastes. Black Flag connected seamlessly with Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, and The Grateful Dead. The way the local college radio stations in the 80s scheduled their programming had the hardcore show leading into a show called “Destroy All Music,” which blew my ideas of music apart as much as reading Burroughs on Benadryl at 9 blew my mind apart.

When did the ideas and conceptual framework for Internal Return begin? 

I tend to work very slowly. It’s a circular process of making, listening, taking tiny moments and expanding upon them, and then beginning the interminable circle again by breaking it all and rearranging. I began work on this record even before I completed my last LP in 2020. Initially, the idea was to utilize a limited set of sounds and make a lighter record than Big Other. One of the first tactics I explored was a sort of conceptual bit of fun where I took a MIDI file of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” slowed it to a crawl, reversed it, and transposed it into a Klezmer scale. What resulted was not in any way lighter and quieter music than my other work, but it did spiral out into a whole constellation of ideas to explore. Chief among them was the idea to make the sort of heavy and intense Jewish music I had long been in search of but had never been able to find.

It’s such a fantastic title, by the way. Is there a particular story behind it?

Once I had landed on the idea of making a heavy Ashkenazi drone record, a lot more of the other conceptual angles fell naturally into place.

Remember that this is happening pre-pandemic in the depths of the Trump years. I was really beginning to feel that the same idiot forces that had caused my grandparents to flee Weimar Germany and their extended family to be murdered there were metastasizing here, and there was a good chance that it was only a matter of time before true horrors returned. One potential escape path I saw was to re-emigrate back to Germany. I must state that the irony of escaping American fascism by fleeing to Germany is not lost on me at all.

So, I was thinking of a literal sort of return. It was not a huge linguistic leap to link this with Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return. Being a middle-aged man, puns and dad jokes are a cross (or, in this case, a Star of David) that I must bear.

The album deals with themes of trauma, exile, and renewal. Can you talk about how these themes are explored in the music?

As work on the record progressed, Covid happened. Which – quite surprisingly – eventually gave me a more positive outlook on the state of things. Ever since I can remember, I have been quite pessimistic about…most everything. I have always felt that there was some dire emergency around every corner. There has been a good bit of research done about inherited and epigenetic trauma, and I can tell you firsthand that there has to be some truth in those ideas. Up until the real peril in the form of the Trump years and the pandemic, I was always acutely aware and neurotically vigilant about all manner of imagined threats. Compared to nearly all the other humans who have ever existed, I have led an easy and trauma-free life. But I never felt that way.

Having lived through the pandemic and exited out the other side of all of my anxieties and fears about the fragility of civilization, I somehow feel better. Things just barely held together. There were no roving bands of hatchet-wielding cannibal tweens. The power stayed on, and the trash got collected. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a neurotic mess, but it has been tempered.

Yes, there was an undeniable ambient threat of catastrophe and collapse that we all went through, and well before it, a sort of blood-deep alarm in myself that I continue working through. All of this, taken together, described a very loose narrative arc that I extrapolated into the record.

How does the album’s structure reflect these themes?

It’s a bunch of elements working together. We can examine the sequence of Cohen into Tacheles into Rückkehr as an example of how I conceived of the ideas and flow. 

Cohen is the heart of the record. It takes a tiny stretched and edited seed of Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire” (bonus that Coil covered this) and finds an entire world within it. It’s poignant, it’s intense, it is more than the sum of its parts. I was able – with her blessing – to repurpose some of Jarboe’s vocals from my last record here for the end section. I get chills every time I hear it. 

Next (on the digital version, the LP is shortened and re-sequenced) is Tacheles. In 1996 I took my first trip out of the US to Europe. In Amsterdam, I met a German girl at a Diamanda Galas concert. On hearing that I was headed to Berlin soon, she gave me a list of cultural recommendations – among them was to visit Kunsthall Tacheles – which was a cooperatively run squat/ art center in Mitte. I distinctly remember her telling me – inaccurately – that tacheles meant “ruin” in Yiddish…I showed up there in the afternoon and just wandered in. I met some artists, smoked some hash with them, and had an odd and magical day. This doesn’t seem to happen in Germany anymore, but once they found out I had a German Jewish name, they were extra nice, maybe to a fault. The day after my Tacheles experience, I took an extremely early train to Prague. It was impossible for me to sleep, and I was very tired. My mind wandered to the horrors that had taken place on the very tracks I was right then moving across. In Prague, I took an ill-advised and grueling day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I had come down with a cold and was thoroughly deranged on over-the-counter Czech cough medicine that was much stronger than anything I was used to. It was an awful day. More trains, more horror. I just now am realizing the strange cough-meds connection in these stories…

It turns out that tacheles is indeed a Yiddish word borrowed from the Hebrew: takhlít, “end, purpose” – In common use in Israel to this day, it roughly means “real talk” or frankness. The sound of this piece is one of woozy dread, firebombing, and ruin – but as a hazy imagined memory, possibly misunderstood, definitely lost in translation. Keep in mind I don’t speak Yiddish.

Next is Rückkehr. I am trying here – perhaps too hard – to crawl out of the conceptual darkness of Tacheles. The piano phrase is long and hard to come to grips with if you want to enjoy its repetition – but at least it is pleasant. This piece is my attempting and failing to make something reminiscent of The Necks. But it’s forced and rigid like the German title. 

How does the album’s use of Jewish themes and imagery inform its overall meaning?

I have a beard, and a big nose, and more than once, I have been mistaken for a Rabbi. My Jewishness is something that I have no real choice in; it is in my name and my body. My overarching thinking here is of an embodied and physical Jewishness: my big nose and the bodies of my murdered relations as well as the neurotic fight or flight (mostly flight) panic that seems to be an unavoidable inherited chemical component of the blood in my veins. Also in my blood is an abiding love of klezmer and latkes. 

My father was born in a DP camp in Italy after my grandparents fled Berlin. My family is not observant at all. Growing up, we had a foam Star of David that we would put on top of the Christmas Tree. Personally, my religious stance is resolutely agnostic. The only thing I find more philosophically questionable than a dogmatic believer is a dogmatic non-believer. Doubt is a superstate.

Related/unrelated: I was in Paris with my wife a few years back, and she wanted us to go to this place that serves what they describe as “the world’s best falafel.” It was incredible, but this is not the point of the story. Next to the falafel joint was a synagogue. Outside this synagogue stood a young man in a Metallica shirt wrapping tefillin. This was such a beautiful sight – I wish I had a photo of him; it would have made a perfect cover for this record. Tefillin are the prayer boxes religious Jews attach to the head and arm with leather straps. I guarantee you that there are scores of people all over the world that sexually fetishize tefillin. 

You describe the album as “plunging into the void, not for us to get lost, but for us to find a way.” Can you elaborate on this? What do you mean by “the void”? And what do you mean by “finding a way”?

This goes back to the record having a loose narrative arc and my initial intention to create something lighter in tone to follow up Big Other. The idea of creating something lighter was an honestly impossible challenge for a creature such as myself. But what I can do, and what is far more interesting to me, is to make something that encapsulates a variety of (possibly contradictory) emotional states. It’s easy to stack distortion with minor scales and volume to make something that is ok if you don’t pay complete attention to it while listening. Much harder is to make something that is subtle and emotionally multivalent. 

My wife is from New Orleans and moved to Atlanta after Hurricane Katrina. We have talked about how the beautiful, steadying, miraculous relationship we have was made possible by a city-breaking cataclysmic storm and genocide. This is a way through the void. 

In spite of all my talk of voids and trauma, I am a happy person. I have an incredible life. But the void – that vibrating unknowing at the bottom of all unanswerable questions – is never far away. And being a happy person who is stalked by the void, what choice do I have but to find as many ways through as I possibly can?

The album features several guest musicians – it’s pretty incredible, and the performances are so, so good. How did these collaborations come about? And how did they contribute to the album?

Speaking of happiness, collaborating with friends and heroes is happy. As far as how it all came about, the short answer, in many cases, is the network effect of social media. I’ll run it down in (roughly) song order. 

Daniel Hoffman, violin. Daniel was in the 90s band Davka that was on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. In spite of Davka being acoustic, their records come as close as any to the intense, heavy Jewish music I mentioned searching for earlier. Their records are incredibly important to me. I started following Daniel on social media, and I offered to help him with a documentary series called “Violin Around the World” that he was working on, and we became friends. One day I was listing to an early mix of “Olah” in my car, and I had a moment of inspiration that it needed an ecstatic klezmer violin solo. I asked Daniel if he would possibly be interested, and he enthusiastically agreed. When I heard him playing with the track for the first time, I had a mini-crisis. It was SO GOOD. How could the rest of the record possibly follow this? THIS was the sound I wanted to hear. I banished this sort of thinking and got on with the business of doing the work. 

Ben Bertrand, clarinet. Is there a more Jewish sound than the clarinet? I loved the tone and texture of the tracks Ben sent me for “Olah” so much that I constructed a whole other track (“Wave Offering”) out of some unused bits. Again, connected through social media…

Shannon Mulvaney, upright bass and bass guitar. Shannon is Atlanta rock royalty. His band Magnapop is (still) big in the Netherlands. I met Shannon way back when, but we did not really become friends until recently. Shannon played on Big Other. I love the upright bass; it may be one of my favorite sounds. The bass part I wrote for Shub ended up being quite challenging. It sounds like a simple part, but the timing is idiosyncratic, and the progression requires a bit of a physical stretch. A lifetime of hard graft in the rock and roll trenches have left its mark on Shannon’s connective tissues, and when we were tracking, his arm swelled up, and I could tell that he was in pain. He just smiled and joked through it all. What a mensch. 

Jarboe, living legend. I have a distinct memory of waiting for the school bus in early 80s midtown Atlanta and seeing Jarboe flyers – probably next to Ru Paul flyers – on a telephone pole. This is pre-Swans. Atlanta is a small town, particularly in outsider music circles, so I have known her for a long time. I cannot over-emphasize how important Swans were and are to me – particularly the White Light / Love of Life period – where the music is huge and grandiose and ambitious and pretentious and so, so beautiful… Jarboe is such a sweetheart. She has the most amazing stories, as you might expect. She understands her place in culture and can speak about it in such a way that her obvious enthusiasm and love of art and music is all that you remember, and none of it feels like bragging or self-aggrandizement. She is magical. Knowing that I worked in film, in 2016, she recommended me to Marco Porsia, who was working on the Swans documentary “Where Does a Body End,” which I ended up becoming a producer on. I was very hesitant to ask Jarboe to sing on Big Other as I am very sensitive to the notion of making derivative work, and I had been listening to Swans obsessively for so long. But I had a dream where her voice was what was needed to complete a song I was struggling with, so it was a situation where I had to follow through and see if I could make it happen. Dreams come true. On this record, I suppose we could have tracked more of her singing single notes – which parenthetically is absolutely perverse and clearly a powerful and correct decision – but the recordings from Big Other dropped in effortlessly. Soon enough, I realized they were perfect and proper and needed to stay. What an incredible thing to work with her and to know her. 

William Ryan Fritch, cello, piano, a whole one-man orchestra. Will came to my attention via that beautiful Death Blues record he made with Jon Mueller. We are connected on Facebook, and in 2020 I posted about how much I loved one of his records. He replied to it and said that if I knew how much he had listened to my record, I would blush. Blush, I did, but not so much that I didn’t ask him to play on this one. I was talking earlier about how my instrumental proficiency atrophied. Perhaps Will magically got all of it. He can play everything well. Will’s cello on Cohen is a wonder; his piano on Double Cube is the solution to the riddle that that song was until he got involved. It also turns out that Will’s mom’s family name is Cohen. More synchronicity.

Jimmy Demer, guitar. I have been friends with Jimmy for 40 years. Jimmy was the drummer of the legendary Atlanta hardcore band Neon Christ. When I spoke earlier about my friend group with expansive tastes, these were the people I was referring to. I asked him to contribute guitar to this record simply because I love him. Southern Lord re-released all of the Neon Christ material in 2021 – a result of Greg Anderson being a fan back in the 80s as well as the fact that William DuVall from NX became the lead singer of Alice in Chains. When I mentioned Flag and Ornette earlier, I was thinking of Will. Last year Greg Anderson asked Jimmy if his band, The Accidents wanted to open the Sunn O))) show in Atlanta. Jimmy said they would love to, but warned him that they were a raw rock and roll band and likely very different than what Sunn O))) audiences might expect. Greg said he just wanted friends to open the show. There is something so lovely about this exchange.

Greg Fox, drums. Another social media-mediated connection. Greg and I met in passing at Le Guess Who years ago; we were both a bit intoxicated – I think I slurred, “We are Facebook friends, and I love your playing” or something to that effect. Fast forward a few years, and I – by pure chance – bought a eurorack module from him on Reverb. While corresponding about shipping and such, I asked if he had a home studio and if he did session work for hire. He does, and he most certainly did. I had been beating my head against Immer Besser for years. It had a drum track that I had played and recorded myself under sub-optimal conditions and had tortured into place digitally. It was not good enough. Greg sent me what I requested, as well as a treasury of alt takes. What he does is uncannily inhuman in its humanity. The sheer energetic propulsion of it is phenomenal. He could be one of the best drummers to ever play the instrument. 

More generally, how important is collaboration to you, and in what ways does it push you and your work?

My work is solo because of the practical considerations of my work schedule combined with the odd extended pace and way that I work. I can state definitively, though, that without my collaborators, the work would be much diminished. I spoke earlier about my atrophied instrumental skill having become an asset – the reason I think that is it has forced me to explore other avenues of expression and has put me in a position where asking skilled musicians to contribute to my work is always the best path forward. 

As I was finishing the record, vinyl pressing plants were estimating six-month plus turn-around times. After working on this stuff for so long, the idea of waiting that much longer for vinyl was frustrating, to say the least. At one point, I decided that I would do a run of CDs instead and had the idea to commission some remixes for a bonus disc. I approached a bunch of amazing artists and ended up commissioning mixes from Rafael Anton Irisarri – who mastered this, and my previous record, Siavash Amini and Terence Hannum. This process of relinquishing control to these incredible musicians was humbling and invigorating. What they did with my raw materials was a revelation.

It turns out that the vinyl crunch lessened a bit, so I can have my much-too-expensive-to-produce LPs and the remix CD. It’s a good thing I am not in this to make a living. 

Speaking of collaborators, I made this playlist comprised of music that influenced the record and tracks from my collaborators. The fact that there is an overlap in those two categories blows my mind.

What were some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome to finish this record?

Getting out of my own way and deciding to stop working on it was a huge challenge. When you work with digital audio, you can endlessly poke and prod and change. Eventually, I started making Instagram posts with release dates on them to force myself to just let go.

And what surprised you about making it, or just about the album in general?

I just got the test pressings the other day, and when I dropped the needle, I still felt excited – I love how it feels and sounds. After definitely overworking and micro-analyzing every second of it, this is about the best outcome I can hope for. 

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