Elkhorn – The Acoustic Sessions Interview

Last winter, Elkhorn, which is comprised of childhood friends, Jesse Sheppard and Drew Gardner, were supposed to turn up for a gig with fellow guitarist, Turner Williams Jr. (Ramble Tamble, Guardian Alien). The night of, a blizzard struck and the concert was cancelled. So the group retreated to Gardner’s home studio, grabbed some acoustics and whiled away the hours with some excellent jams.

That first snowed in night was an all acoustic affair, and in the morning, the trio dove into another session and fell into some abstract zones with the use of some electric instrumentation and effects. The later of these two informal sessions came out in February as The Storm Sessions on Beyond Beyond is Beyond Records.

Yet the first night’s acoustic recordings went unheard by the general public until now. The good folks at Centripetal Force Records and Cardinal Fuzz have worked together to bring us The Acoustic Storm Sessions. The music contained within is hushed, intimate and rich with warmth, despite the weather that served as the impetus for these jams. Last month, I spoke with Gardner and Sheppard about the environment that produced these records and how their creative time spent in temporary isolation relates to the global isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Check it out below.

Keith: Were these recordings born purely out of improvisation, or did you have a bit of a working skeleton or a vague musical phrase to serve as a jumping off point first? 

Drew: Totally Improvised. 

Jesse: This was out of nothing. Even with the Lionfish stuff, which is very abstract, there were a few phrases that we were sort of working towards or away from, but this was absolutely built out of free improvisation between three people. 

Drew: As a working rule, we almost always have a tonality established before hand. So even though all the content in the thing is improvised on the spot, we usually say we’re going to play in this key or we’re going to play in this mode. With this, that was the only limiting factor.

One of the things that makes this record different from some of the other ones, is that it’s three acoustic textures. It creates more equality between the three instruments, so they could change more dynamically. The whole band could change direction much more quickly, and much more subtly. So the improvisation—the way we tend to do it, where we’re breaking stuff up into suites, which we develop and change one to the other, almost like motifs—can happen with a little more flexibility. Just because of the nature of the acoustic texture. 

Keith: Besides being electric and featuring different effects and so forth, the first Storm Sessions release had a sort of chaotic and aggressive sound to it, whereas this album has a more meditative, stoic and aerial feel. I was wondering what do you think caused such a stark difference in mood and atmosphere between just two nights? Was the first night’s weather more of a peaceful but heavy snow shower while the second was more of gusty, violent storm? 

Drew: They’re both the product of being shut in by that storm, and the circumstances mood-wise. The second one (Acoustic Storm Sessions) was recorded the night of the storm, after we had failed to get to the gig. We were in the car for an hour and a half going about a block, then we had to re-load everything back into my studio and we were basically like, “huh, well now what?” So for me, there was a sense in this recording and it was at night and we were calm, all of the stress was kind of relieved. We were stuck in the house and we just had this fiasco, so the music was a way to escape that negativity into something peaceful.

Jesse: Basically what happened is we came home and we sat down to the three acoustics and that’s where this record flows out of. All of the music on this record is from that night. 

Drew: The Electric Storm Sessions was from the next morning. We got up, we had our energy back. We had the coffee, and we were ready to rock.

Jesse: The albums were recorded in the opposite order from which they were released, does that make sense?

Keith: Yeah. 

Jesse: But they were recorded within a very short time from each other.

Drew: 12 hours. 

Jesse: [The records] have this kind of connection, but distinction from each other, which is kind of part of the whole process actually. One of the things that I’m most psyched about is that we were really able to matchbook the two albums together with some design elements, obviously with the players and all of these other things that came out from the timing and how they all flowed together.

Keith: You’ve been playing together largely as a duo since 2013, how does adding one more guitarist into the mix change your dynamic or approach to playing and your overall improvisational chemistry as improvisers? 

Drew:  We hung out with Turner and listened to him play quite a bit, because we toured with him, before we played with him. So we knew what he sounded like, we knew we liked his playing and we knew we liked him. So there was an affinity there to start with and then my experience of it, is that it gives you more options. Either you’re playing at the same time, you’re playing supportively in the background or you’re taking the lead. It’s like foreground, middle ground and background to this music. So we could all switch roles. One person could be background, one person could be middle ground and one person could be foreground. There’s another person who’s got your back. So there are more choices because there are more people making different kinds of music, different phrases and things that you might not have thought of and then you could follow that. 

Jesse: I think the biggest piece of it is that Turner is such an intuitive player. I mean, we have this flexible duo format, as a band, and we can kind of bring in and play with all sorts of different people and we’ve had a lot of success with that. That’s kind of a part of our sound actually, after several albums and a few years of that. I think with Turner, he’s just…you know, to get to this level of intimacy with somebody, they have to be somebody that really understands flow and listening and stepping back and stepping forward. One of the things that I was going to say too, was that Drew did such an incredible job mixing, because of all of those factors. We could hear during the process of mixing, that it could have almost been many different records, if you just mixed it differently. Do you see what I’m trying to say? 

Keith: Oh yeah, for sure.

Jesse: One of the things that I think we were really trying to do, and I think this album is very exemplary of that, is allow “guests” to come up in the mix and be in the foreground and not being afraid of that being a part of the energy of this band. I think that that’s one of the great things about Turner.

Keith: You all sound so completely in the zone and overtaken by the music, letting the piece or the feeling guide you instead of the other way around. Is that how it felt at the time, or were you more cognizant to where you wanted the track to go?   

Drew: That’s exactly how I’d describe it. Let the music tell you where to go, rather than the opposite. That’s exactly what that is. 

Jesse: For me too, I think that’s partially just my relationship with the instrument, with the guitar itself. If you listen to it and let it breathe or listen to what it wants to do, the instrument can also be a kind of guide as well. 

Keith: Going back to some of your influences, what or whom inspired you to play improvisational music? I know you both are into the Grateful Dead, or at least I know for sure that Jesse is, so I was wondering if it was more from that [jam band] zone, or more of a jazz direction, or elsewhere?

Jesse: Well, to start off, both Drew and I are really into the Grateful Dead.

Keith: Oh! Ok

Jesse: Let’s establish that as a fact, which should be documented in the publication of record. [laughs

Keith: Ok I thought that might have been the case, but I didn’t want to accuse anyone wrongfully. [laughs]

Jesse: Oh yeah, we could both bend your ear on the Dead for as long as you want. 

Drew: The Elkhorn tour vehicle plays a lot of ’72, ’73 ’74 Dead, so…

Keith: As you should. That’s fantastic. 

Jesse: I go back with Drew for a long time, and I would say that our interest in improvisation comes more out of the jazz tradition or like, forms of jazz rock fusion that were very open, like Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Drew: We’re both big ’70s Miles fans.

Jesse: Yes! You could do an Elkhorn taxonomy of all of the bands, but the ones that are the most free are sort of in that ECM kind of territory of the early ’70s. I was big sort of Gateway/Dave Holland/John Abercrombie person. Drew will tell you himself, but he has a deep file on free jazz, which is improvisatory at its root, and incorporating that into other forms of music, blending music and finding the seams where you could marry various things together. Another big band for me anyways, is Shakti, staying on the McLaughlin tip. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that band, but it was sort of a jazz/Indian music hybrid. 

Drew: We tend to like things that mix different genres into one thing. 

Jesse: Yeah, obviously Hendrix is in there too, from our earliest days while hanging out in high school and just listening to music. Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers, too. Within all of these different genres and different sounds, there are elements of open improvisation, where the pieces that hold everything together start to come apart and that’s the place that we like to explore. Obviously, the Dead is a big piece of that picture as well. 

Drew: I came late to the Grateful Dead. 

Jesse: Yeah, I was more sort of an Allmans person, and listening to those long jams in that kind of music. One of the questions would be sort of where is that the most in the acoustic guitar sort of world, right? How does it get into that?

Keith: I was just about to ask!

Jesse: One of the things that I keep telling people about the Acoustic Storm Sessions album is, and I’m not sure if Drew agrees with me, but if you listen to some of the Peter Walker stuff from the early ’70s, where he’s got a lot of different instruments and he’s got them flowing together and it gets into vaguely Acoustic Storm Sessions places and spaces at times.

Drew: He also does Indian music. Acoustic Indian music stuff, which is a little bit related, because there’s a drone quality to some of our music and we tend to stay in the same key. I like that Peter Walker stuff when he gets a little bit Indian, too, it’s clearly related to what Jesse’s been really involved with, in several different levels of American Primitive music. 

Jesse: He’s one of those guys that’s like, American Primitive is a core, but how exactly he fits in, nobody’s ever really bothered to figure out. Like Sandy Bull, I think our music has overlaps with his stuff in places. What we’re working on right now is even pretty connected to Sandy Bull. 

Drew: Yeah it does, because it sounds more like a band usually, not like solo music with a guest. 

Jesse: How Peter Walker got put into like, the American Primitive hall of fame, I don’t really understand the whole process [laughs]. But anyway, the point is, that’s ultimately the joy of it, is making things that don’t work all sound totally fluid, you know?

Drew: What I would just add is that my background is as an improviser, I was a jazz musician, a jazz drummer for years in San Fransisco and in New York. Playing free jazz and vibraphone and at some point I wanted to go back and really focus on guitar and play something more like rock music.

Jesse: Even the rock music always had an open improvisatory…

Drew: Yeah, I’ve always been playing with improvisation. 

Keith: The album was recorded during a brief moment of isolation. Do you think there’s anything within the two Storm Sessions that listeners and musicians alike can learn from or could apply to their own life in order to cope with the current periods of isolation thanks to COVID? 

Jesse: I hesitate to draw too much of a conclusion about this period, but more of the general idea of how to get through difficult periods. That’s one of the things I noticed during COVID, too. There are a lot of people experiencing little tragedies in their lives in the context of this much larger tragedy. Those pieces are always going to be moving in our lives and it’s really how we deal with them, and what we turn them into, what they look like in the rear view versus when they’re coming at you. That applies to everything that we’re all going through for sure. Would you add anything to that, Drew?

Drew: I would just repeat what I said earlier, just in the sense of in that moment of like, “god this sucks,” and be instead like, “Well, no.” A big part of life is not what you can control. Obviously COVID is not something you could control. That snow storm was weather, it’s totally out of your control. So don’t focus on the control thing, instead focus on what your response is to these bad circumstances. That’s what matters. 

Keith: On a similar note, did you two learn anything from these sessions? Or even while listening back to the recordings later on? 

Drew: That’s a good question. 

Jesse: There are so many ways to answer that. Just in brief. First of all, as you’re improvising, you’re so in the experience. So whenever you listen back to something that was done in a purely improvisatory way, you’re going to be like, “woah! I can’t believe I played that” or like, “woah dude, did you hear that those two things were going on at the same time?” So there’s a lot of things that kind of come out of listening back.

I do strongly remember, I think Turner had just left and was going home, and Drew and I were going back through the stuff and we were like, “woah, that’s kind of good sounding, we should hunker down on this and figure out what it is.” So that always happens, but then again, the process of releasing music in the world today is one of constantly listening back through it and figuring things out and learning more about it. I mean, we just had a funny moment where we were like, “yeah I remember being out of it during this part,” and then when we were listening back to some masters or checking something for the release, we were like “no, wait! That sounds super odd!” You know, parts of it you think of one way keep changing and changing. Like I said before, that kept happening during the mix where Drew could sort of feature one piece and that would be that one whole section, and it could lock into place, and then we’d move onto another section. It was kind of a cool experience from beginning to end. 

Drew: Have you ever had an experience with a band that you really like, and you know is in a good moment and you get their new record, and you know it’s good, but it hasn’t quite sunk in yet for some reason? Like it takes a couple of listens [before it clicks]?

Keith: Oh absolutely. 

Drew: It takes a couple of days, it grows on you and then you’re like, “oh wait, now I get it!” The funny thing about improvisation is that can happen with your own record. You can’t even remember quite what you played on that night, and several weeks have gone by, and you’re like “wait, that’s not what I normally do, I’m not sure about that.” And then you’re like, “No wait, that’s good!” and you grow into your own recording. 

Jesse: I mean, I’ll be straight up, there’s actually a lick on the Acoustic Storm Sessions, which we improvised in the moment on this track that became a tune or a section of a tune that we play now. 

Keith: Now that’s cool. 

Drew: It makes you think about how the difference between composition and improvisation may not be as far apart as people assume that it is.

Keith: Oh yeah, I see what you mean. 

Drew: The other thing I wanted to say is a good take away—and that’s a good question, nobody has ever asked me a question like that. I just realized I do have some good take aways. One is that you can work very quickly and very spontaneously, if you’re sincere and you come up with something really good, even if it seems like it was put together just on a dime, you know? And second, if you trust the players that you’re playing with, the music’s gonna work. 

Keith: I think the one sheet said it best, “The perspectives are in flux, each guitar mercurially switching between foreground, middle and background, creating sharp and linear textures before receding to a more atmospheric realm.” How exactly did you achieve that melding, almost oscillating effect between players and instruments with this recording, especially since it was all performed together in a single room?

Drew: Well, I have a background as an audio engineer. I recorded Lionfish, and mixed that one, too. That’s been kind of my role within the band. What we did was we recorded in the spirit of being spontaneous and quick, so it’s not complicatedly engineered. It’s engineered as simply as possible, which is just a mic on each guitar. It’s just separated and in the room. A stereo mic on Jesse’s 12 string, and then just single microphones on both Turner and my guitar. We just got a clear capture and then the mixing is in two parts. One is that I’m not doing anything in the mixing that isn’t in the music, right? So the mixing to me is a kind of enhanced listening process. I’m like, “Oh I hear what we’re doing, like this part is going foreground and Turner’s doing this.” So I’m just exaggerating it a little bit. I’m supporting it a little bit. When you’re mixing, you’re putting things in different places so they don’t get into each other’s way. So the whole thing creates a coherent image. So that’s all I’m doing, just cleaning it up and moving it around. As long as you’re listening, you’ll know to just keep pushing them around. It took a long time with this, because you’ve got to do volume automation and you have to do multiple passes in order to get it right, but it’s all there in the music. 

Keith: I think one of the things that makes this record so magical, is its intimacy. It feels like we’re right there in the middle of the room with just these three friends conversing through their instruments. With that in mind, I know you’re all spaced apart, Jesse you’re out in Philly and Drew is out in NYC. And where is Turner? 

Jesse: Turner is in Southern France.

Keith: For real? Wow. 

Drew: He used to live in Kingston, NY. 

Jesse: Yeah he used to be north of NYC, and he moved right after the record was recorded. 

Drew: Yeah he was in Marseille. 

Keith: Wow, lucky man. 

Jesse: He’s a lucky man because he can go to shows. 

Keith: That is lucky. God, I’m envious…so with that in mind, have there been any plans of meeting somewhere perhaps in between outdoors to do a socially distant live streaming show, or would the constraints of something like that be detrimental to your overall cohesion?

Jesse: Well the short answer to that is when this all first came down, a lot of my friends, especially my friends who live with people that they play music with or who play solo music, did do streams and a lot of that was great stuff. We never really got in on that, just because Drew and I were in different places and it was just complicated, you know? We were thinking for the release of this album, we were thinking of doing something like that, get to a place where we could hang together and try to see if we could maybe stream something from Turner playing over seas in a different time zone. We’ve been talking about doing something like that for the record. If we felt like people would want to see that or hear that, then it might be worth it. 

Drew: I should point out that one of the things that we did after this, is that we collaborated, the three of us long distance between France, Pennsylvania and New York, to make an extra track that is going to be apart of the release from Cardinal Fuzz and Centripetal Force, where it’s a lathe cut record. A 5-inch single that people who order early would be able to get. [Editor’s note: Since the time of this interview, Elkhorn and Turner Williams have scheduled a live streaming record release show through Rhizome DC’s Facebook, on Saturday October 3rd at 4pm. Click here for more details.)

Jesse: It’s like a bonus track that comes with the album.

Keith: That’s excellent! Now here’s the last question, if you could be snowed into a studio with any other guitarist, who would it be?

Jesse: Jimi Hendrix. Oh I don’t know (haha)

Drew: Oh I don’t know, that’s a brain scrambler. 

Jesse: [laughs] like, where do you go with that? Maybe you want like, someone who like, looks like they taste the best [laughs].

Drew: Yeah someone with nutritional content. 

Jesse: Yeah it’s a good question, maybe somebody who knows how to build a fire, I don’t know. 

Keith: Oh my god, yeah that’s a good point. 

Jesse: Once again, that question kind of got answered on the last record, when Willie Lane joined in. WIllie is on my list for something like that for sure. You can answer that in so many ways, it’s hard to answer. 

Drew: We do like collaboration though, so we’ll rope the motherfucker in. So if there’s a guy in the scene and we like their playing, we’re going to do what we can to maybe make a record with them or at least have them sit in with us, you know. That’s an important part of the band. 

Jesse: Think about guitarists as varied as like, Turner and Nick Millevoi. I think that’s what we would do, create music with whoever it was and find as much common territory as the three of us could possibly occupy. 

Drew: If it was throughout all of history, I might go with Eddie Hazel. 

Keith: Fuck yeah, there you go.

Drew: Or John Lee Hooker, probably one of those two guys. 

Jesse: I’d probably stick with Hendrix, for all of history, who again is someone who spent a lot of time sitting in studios and just chilling out trying to get things to happen. So that’d be cool. 

Thanks to both Jesse and Drew for taking the time to speak with me about this great album. The Acoustic Storm Sessions will be released on this Friday, October, 2nd. US readers can preorder the album from Centripetal Force here and for all of our UK folks, please click here.

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Published by Record Crates United

Keith Hadad, the creator and manager of RCU, has been a contributing writer to Elmore Magazine and Thewaster.com and maintains a regular column, “Keith Hadad’s Choice,” in Blicker magazine. His writing has also appeared in the Smithsonian Folkways' Guest Blog and the Optical Sounds Fanzine. Also, please check out the blog's super-active Instagram account, @recordcratesunited for daily blurb-styled music reviews.

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