Analogue Music | Elkhorn


By Scott Elingburg

Sometimes when the storm hits, you have to ride it out. Or make a record.

That’s the short version of the creation story of Elkhorn’s latest LP, The Storm Sessions. The longer version is a particularly intriguing and fortuitous tale of creation, but, as guitarist Jesse Sheppard explained, that's all just part of the creative method for Elkhorn—“making possibilities out of unexpected situations.”

Elkhorn is guitarists Jesse Sheppard and Drew Gardner, friends who have been playing together since high school. Occasionally, they are joined by other collaborators—friend and multi-instrumentalist Turner Williams joins them on The Storm Sessions—but the duo create instrumental, guitar-based music that heartily refuses to adhere to barriers or boundaries. You may hear glimpses of American primitive guitar on one track, ambient drone on another, and cosmic jazz on yet another. The music dictates the direction. Their influences are deep, and Jesse and Drew prioritize creativity over commercialism. Together their music is infinitely American and also otherworldly.

Analogue spoke with both Drew and Jesse recently—when they were not snowed in—about collaboration, their collective influences, and the story behind their latest LP, The Storm Sessions.

Analogue: I know fate and circumstances converged to help create this record. Can you sum that up for us?

Drew: The short answer is we had a concert in Brooklyn that didn’t work out so well. There were problems with the gig, people dropping out, etc. Basically, we got snowed in and couldn’t get to the gig from my apartment in Harlem. The entirety of New York City was snowed in; gridlocked traffic for miles. We only got about a block from my apartment in an hour and a half, much less all the way to Brooklyn. It was a strange vibe on that night, too. So we unpacked all our stuff and moved it back up to my apartment which is also my recording studio, and I just said, “Look, we’re snowed in, in a recording studio. Let’s make a record.”

It was a situation where everything was going wrong. And we thought, “Ok, what are we gonna do? Are gonna get pissed off or try to turn it into something good?” We went with the second option.

Jesse: What’s interesting is everyone has a different vision of what that storm was like but, in truth, it was like this icy, rainy, slushy snow that hit the city in the exact right way at rush hour. I’ve never seen the city shut down in that way before.

Drew: It was 8 million people in New York who couldn’t go anywhere.

Jesse: The other part of the story is that I was pushing and pushing us to get to the gig. I couldn’t let it go until we actually got in the car and saw that everything around us was gridlocked for miles and miles. I kept thinking I could just magically cut us a path to Brooklyn. (Laughs)

Drew: There was a good bit of wishful thinking involved in it.

Jesse: Which then became the wishful and magical thinking of making this record.

Drew: We should mention too that this gig was like a memorial to Mark Fosson, a friend and musician who plays in sort of the same finger-picking, American primitive style we play in. That accounts for some of Jesse’s need to play this gig because it was a tribute to him.

The Storm Sessions
The Storm Sessions

Analogue: It does seem like everything was determined to go wrong, yet you persevered and made a record. Did you have songs already or was it completely improvised that night?

Drew: We had a setlist for the gig which we didn’t use at all. Nothing we play is completely improvised, but we had sketches and ideas.

Jesse: We looped in a few suites of music and improvised over them that evening and into the next morning and that’s the record. Since my guitars are in open tunings, we sort of live in the key of whatever guitar I’m holding. But the songs were had been on our minds, kind of back and forth for a while and we sat down and improvised over what we had.

Drew: You’ll notice when you listen to it, it sounds like it’s broken into little suites that sort of lead into each other. We tend to play that way even though it’s freely improvised. We go off cues of who goes where. It winds up being sequences of suites.

Jesse: We delivered these 20 minute sides to the record label (Beyond Beyond is Beyond Records) and they were excited to put it out but they also wanted to look at it in more digestible chunks for radio—a series of songs being released as the album came out. We went back and listened to it and realized that we had developed it into these little chunks, even though we hadn’t planned it out and they were around the same amount of time as the song ideas naturally turned over.

Drew: I come from the more improvisational background of jazz music and free improv. Sometimes it gets a little ambiguous and what you planned to improvise starts to overlap because there are sequences of songs in the two sides and these forms kind of come up. With (multi-instrumentalist) Turner (Williams) there, too, you are improvising in a way where there’s no leader, everyone is steering it at the same time like a Ouija Board. The music itself determines the songs areas it will go into when you do that.

Analogue: You mentioned breaking up the pieces for radio and I wanted to ask if that was tough because instrumental or improvisational music can be a difficult sell right now. What role does music like that play right now and what role does it play for you all?

Drew: It might give people some relief from singer/songwriters. When there’s no longer a central character, the singer, and there’s not a narrative being related to you, you can put your own narrative on the music. For me, it gives more freedom to the listener to get inside the music. We play the kind of music where we try to get in a positive mental space along with the music. It makes us feel better to play and we hope it makes people feel better to listen to it. When you’re more open to going into the music on your own terms, instrumental music has an advantage.

Jesse: I’ve never cut my music into music with lyrics or music without, so it’s not typically something I make a distinction between.

Analogue: Me neither, really, but I’ve encountered some listeners recently that have no patience or attention span for music without lyrics. And it follows a trend that I notice where songs keep getting shorter and more compact, and, to me, less creative.

Jesse: That’s one of the things that’s exciting about people responding to this music positively. It’s not meant for digestion on Instagram. It’s for quiet contemplation and it’s really effective in that way.

Drew: It’s almost like anti-straining music.

Jesse: And there’s tonalities and quiet places on this record where you can’t be doing other stuff…earlier you mentioned waking up with it, or even going to sleep with it. Those times of your day can use this kind of space in them and that’s what it is for.

Drew: Don’t get us wrong, we like Hall and Oates, too. (Laughs)

Jesse: (Laughs) No doubt. There’s a lot of music like that in my listening, as well. Music that blends the two and crosses over.

Drew: Steely Dan does both. (Laughs)

Jesse: Like Drew said we have a lot of jazz in our backgrounds, so lyrics have never been a factor for us.

When there’s no longer a central character, the singer, and there’s not a narrative being related to you, you can put your own narrative on the music. For me, it gives more freedom to the listener to get inside the music.

Analogue: Right, and even you consider groups like The Grateful Dead that have songs stretching past the 45 minute mark where lyrics come and go, it gives you the space to move on the wave with it—with or without the presence of lyrics.

Drew: That shows you that part of the culture and the rules for how people listen are not set in stone. In the culture of The Grateful Dead which is still very robust, you can have 40-minute sessions of instrumentals and that’s fine—then they can go back to a country song. They’re maximalists. They do everything they are interested in. In some ways, we do the same thing—just without singers. (Laughs)

Analogue: But you do have some vocals on some songs, right?

Drew: Yes, we just finished a Lagniappe Session (for Aquarium Drunkard), Jesse’s daughter, Eva (Sheppard), is a very talented singer, and she just joined us on a Grateful Dead song, “Morning Dew.” My girlfriend, Katie (Degentesh), is also singing harmony with her on “Starpower,” a Sonic Youth cover.

Jesse: We collaborate with a lot of musicians and singing is another musical instrument, so the opportunity to collaborate is always fun. It depends on the song. When you’re doing a cover, those songs typically have lyrics so there’s a natural context for that, whereas when I write songs, I don’t think about the lyrics…yet. With collaboration it’s all about who you’re with and being comfortable in that creative relationship.

Drew: We like this collaboration vibe, when the cell walls between bands is more permeable.

Analogue: Is that collaborative spirit something you want more of after this record? What will the next record sound like?

Drew: We have one in the can already which is a collaboration with two drummers, so I think it’s a thing we’re going to keep doing.

Jesse: It’s a tightrope walk. One of the things that makes the collaborations work is Drew and I have to create a really solid foundation. Then it’s interesting to see what you can throw into that mix. It can take you in very different directions depending on where you want to go but it always has a center to it.

Analogue: For the live shows, do you try to replicate what you have on record?

Drew: It depends on the context in general, but when we tour, we want to be supporting the record as much as we can.

Jesse: For us, and most bands that are in this creative process, whatever is newest, feels the freshest, that’s what you can get the most energy out of live, too.

Drew: We just played our first gig in support of (The Storm Sessions) at an artificially constructed salt cave in Manhattan, which was a nice environment to do that in.

Analogue: On tour, I’m sure there are certain rooms your music works well in and others where it might not.

Jesse: We’ve learned that that’s actually a very critical part of the music we’re making. And you can scale it up. We’ve definitely taken rooms that didn’t seem great and turned out to be, but the balance is very delicate and a lot of it can come down to that. A listening audience, whether large or small, really fits this music.

Analogue: Individually can you talk about some of the players and singers that have influenced you?

Drew: It depends on when you get me, I guess because I’m always mixing six things in my brain. (Laughs) In my history as a player, I’ve come out of an era of Sonny Sharrock, Alice Coltrane, and Parliament/Funkadelic in some ways, too. I play drums and vibraphones, too. But I don’t think people will think of jazz when they hear my playing and I’m not trying to sound that way, it’s just where I come from.

Jesse: We both listen to a lot of jazz and I think a lot of people cross genres, so the influences are there for most of the players in the scene.

Drew: We’re both big classic rock listeners, too. A lot of Neil Young, Hendrix. Jesse and I overlap a lot, too, on 70s-era Miles Davis.

Jesse: We’ve been listening to music together for many, many years, so if you do a Venn diagram of what Drew and I listen to, it overlaps in several places. My listening probably goes a bit more to pre-war blues, country music. I’m a huge Bob Dylan person whereas Drew is more Neil Young. We’re both heavily into Krautrock; I’ve probably dug deeper on the Pink Floyd catalog than Drew has. And Hendrix has had a huge influence on both of us. In fact, our first band together covered a Hendrix tune and we’re still trying to climb that mountain. (Laughs)

Drew: Where Jesse’s much more of a scholar of Pink Floyd, I’m into new American music like Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros.

Jesse: Also, you can’t get away from the Sabbath. Drew and I used to listen to and worship at the feet of Sabbath in high school.

Drew: That’s when we were still making stoner rock.

Jesse: Drew do you remember we were driving home one night and “Iron Man” came on and it was so heavy we had to pull over on the side of the road and get out for a moment and collect ourselves because it was so incredibly awesome? (Laughs) I don’t know if you remember that Drew, but we shared that together.

Drew: I don’t but it’s a good story. (Laughs)

Jesse: It never left me, man. (Laughs) I still feel the power of that riff. As an aside, when you’re improvising, you have to kind of grab at different forms as you go. The Storm Sessions has a different bag of tricks in some ways than an album I would have composed. Because the finger-picking on the record can be kind of intricate and when you have to move through quickly, some of the edges get sanded off. I think you can feel that influence of Crosby, Stills and Nash in the playing—as a player, they’re right there in front of you, you can grab onto them and go. I love the quality of stealing everything from every different direction.

VISIT: Elkhorn