It's hard to find bands that treat guitar-driven rock like art, yet there are a few that create music that is positively transcendent. The melodic rise and fall is like watching a perfect swan dive off a 10-meter platform - it starts slow and then builds in intensity until it breaks the surface of the water, leaving ripples spreading across the pool for hours. And this is what Elliott's music is like. It ranges from ethereal, stately pop to walls of guitar noise that crash down like a 20-foot wave breaking as it nears the shore. I talked to singer/guitarist Chris Higdon for about an hour on a Saturday morning.
For the record - is it one T or two Ts?
Chris: Two Ts. Two Ls and two Ts.
Okay. I had just seen it a lot of different ways.
Chris: We were joking that the second album was going to be called "Two Ls, Two Ts." No one seems to be able to get it right, not even our label, sometimes.
The new album title actually has something to do with cathedrals, right?
Chris: "False Cathedrals."
Does it build on what you were doing on "If They Do" and the "In Transit" 7"? Those songs sound a little different than the first full-length.
Chris: Yeah. That was stuff we put out because "U.S. Songs" took so long to come out, as this one is too. "U.S. Songs" took so long that we had a lot of time working on things before we really sat down and started working on a new album, so all the stuff that we released kind of bridges the gap. So we put that out and showed the process because there's definitely a progression between "U.S. Songs" and "False Cathedrals," but I think it's fairly natural if you were around with the band from the live shows to the time in between, but yeah, it's definitely a different album than "U.S. Songs" and a different perspective, but it feels very natural for us.
The new EP and live shows sound like you're moving into using tape loops and things.
Chris: Yeah, definitely. It's not like we listened to something new on Moonshine.
No Fatboy Slim remixes?
Chris: No, nothing like that. We're getting into more instrumentation and from that, getting more into the technology side of music and equipment to do the things we want to do instead of adding new members. When people see us when we play live, we're playing with some prerecorded music and some loops and some samples. It's not as much that we're going into some type of electronica, we're just utilizing today's technology to play the type of music that we want to.
Like another instrument.
Chris: Yeah, exactly. With "False Cathedrals," it's definitely mixed in with the songs a bit more, and allows us to work in different tones and sounds than normal instruments such as piano and strings and stuff that we're not able to pull off in a live setting.
Not without the Boston Philharmonic.
Chris: Yeah. If we had a chance, we could really do something with that.
You'd probably make them work harder than they usually do. So what kind of equipment are you using?
Chris: How we're doing it right now is we have our own studio upstairs and it's run by Kevin. It's pretty much his baby.
Kevin is the second guitarist, right?
Chris: Actually, Kevin's our drummer. Jay plays second guitar on "False Cathedrals" and Jonathan plays bass.
Was Jay with the band for "U.S. Songs?"
Chris: Yeah. The only reason I say for "False Cathedrals" is because about three weeks ago he left the band.
That's a shame. He seems like a hell of a guitarist.
Chris: Oh, he's an amazing guy, amazing guitarist. We've all been together for about five years now, so he was part of the family and just an amazing, integral part of our live set. Things will definitely change. This album is kind of a rebirth anyway, but now with someone new who's going to have to be coming into the band with us, it's definitely going to be a different situation.
Chris: I think lifestyle situations with his personal life and also, he was definitely the one that brought in a lot more of the more aggressive, faster, edge and I think maybe he wanted to pursue that further instead of lacing our writing with that, I think he might want to concentrate a bit more on that type of music. I don't want to put words in his mouth.
So it sounds like it was amicable.
Chris: Oh definitely. There's no ill will or anything like that. It's a sad thing for us and not something we would have wished for, but I think in the long run, it'll make everybody happier. What we were talking about?
We were on technology before that digression.
Chris: Basically, we're just using samplers, and then Kevin's got an arsenal of old drum machines and stuff like that, but he also has a Roland, actually a Yamaha electronic kit, and he has two Roland 1680s which are basically all digital recording units which have 16 tracks apiece, so he's got 32 tracks. It's basically two mini-computers specially built for recording. So he's got that and then a lot of guitar effects and piano and keyboards and all that stuff. That's what makes it fun. You get in there and hook this up with that and start trying to create new sounds and you can get very into it. You can indulge yourself a bit too much with it sometimes and play with one tone for three hours and still not like it and scrap it and move on to something else, but that's what keeps us going. Musically, we just keep trying to push ourselves. I don't think we're pushing the envelope for other people, but as long as we are for our standards, then we're satisfied with what we're doing.
Well, you also have the studio already. It's not like you're booking studio time and spending money on it and frustrating engineers as you play with effects.
Chris: Yeah, definitely. We can do that on our own time and then go in and do that when it's time to record the album. We recorded the EPs here, but when it came down to recording a full-length, we wanted to go somewhere else so that we were a little separated from some of the distractions at home, so we actually went out to L.A. for a month and recorded out there. You always learn new things and new ways of doing things and I think that'll probably change for the next time that we go out. We won't spend as much time away because it definitely drains you. We probably didn't spend less than 14 hours a day for a month at the studio, and being in L.A. is just overwhelming sometimes.
As close as I live to L.A., I still don't like it very much.
Chris: Yeah. You're a fairly safe distance away in San Diego. You can travel there and get away from it pretty fast.
Not fast enough for my liking.
Chris: It's an interesting, odd place. I've always said there are a few places in the world that I wouldn't want to live unless there are certain situations going on, and L.A. is definitely one of them.
It pretty much tops my list as well.
Chris: You have to have crazy amounts of money to live there comfortably and it just messes with your perception, or at least mine when we're there for any amount of time.
Back to the music, I remember how you led into "Watermark High" when I saw you live with tape loops and reverb. Is that the direction you're going in on "False Cathedrals"?
Chris: There's different songs and different moods to the album ,but we're definitely trying to create a wider sound for it.
You're challenging yourselves.
Chris: Challenging ourselves, yeah. I'm trying to find the right words. I guess it would be a little bit more along those lines. We kind of spread out the guitars so it's not just a full on wall of distortion. Sometimes, with some of the heavier rock stuff we were doing, it all comes around and you usually get hit by that wall, but we've definitely tried to concentrate on the songs and give them a life of their own instead of all of us playing for ourselves or for our particular guitar part or bass part or drum part. We've just really concentrated on the songs and letting them go where they need to go, if that makes any sense.
Well, if I'm understanding you right, you're talking about dynamics. "Watermark High" is my favorite Elliott song because it starts off with these soft vocals and then comes crushing in with this wall of guitar.
Chris: Yeah, the dynamics just hit you. There's definitely still those points to this album and we just tried to make the dynamics not as obvious sometimes. There's a bit more ear candy within the recording. We tried to throw in things that maybe a few months later, you're listening to it on earphones and go, "Wait a minute, I didn't even hear that guitar part before." That little noise that pans from left to right, we did a lot of that with the recording which was fun for us, but in the songwriting itself, we still carry along that same type of emotion and attitude that we bring to the songs.
For me, the best albums are the one that let me hear something new every time I listen to it.
Chris: The best things for me are the albums by the artists that I trust. I don't particularly like their albums the first time that I listen to them, if that makes any sense. Fugazi is a good example for me. I'll get an album and I'll listen to it and I'll be like, "Man, I don't know if I like it. I know I'm going to like it in a month, but right now I'm not sure if I really dig it." Then I listen to it four or five times and I'm addicted to it. I can't get away from it and those are the records. When I hear it and I go, "Okay, I know it's there, I've just got to figure out where they're coming from." There's only a few people that do that and hopefully this record will come across that way sometimes, but if it's immediately accessible then that would be okay too.
I'm glad you mentioned Fugazi. When I first heard Elliott, I was hearing emo, a little bit of jazz, Fugazi and Embrace and some of the other D.C. punk. What other kind of styles influenced your music?
Chris: Probably a little bit of everything. At that point, with "U.S. Songs," Kevin was actually taking some jazz classes at the college he was at, but everything we listen to. I listen to more of your D.C.-influenced post-rock stuff, Jay was way into the 80's and new wave.
Like 80's hardcore, or Duran Duran and Flock of Seagulls?
Chris: More like Duran Duran. We did a Chameleons cover at his suggestion. He was the guy that would put the tape into the car and we'd be driving and every song, we're like, "Who's this? Who's this?" We got educated every time he had the road mix on.
So he was the record geek of the band.
Chris: Definitely, definitely. Yeah, he's got the ongoing record collection. It was a joke for a while because every time we went on tour, all his food money would go to buying records. Then Jonathan would listen to everybody from The Beatles to Coltrane to Into Another and Kevin is all over the place too. It's just a really wide range and that's what we're always looking for. It's not to say that's the kind of music we're going to be playing, and it's naturally focused on certain points, but it's a really strong thing for us not to be like, "We can't play that kind of song because it's not us." If it's good and it's the way we feel and what we want to do, then we're going to do it whether it's acoustic guitar or a full on assault or just piano and vocals or no vocals at all. Whatever we decide to do, I want to have the freedom to do it because I think that's what shuts down and puts the end to a lot of bands. They just don't see themselves growing anymore, or they feel like they have to stop and do something else and then they're done. My hope is that we can take each of our influences and mold it into what we're doing instead of saying "Let's just focus this band on this sound," and then we'll start another band and focus it on something else.
So you want to be all over the map. You want to be able to take these influences and see if you can make them fit in the song structures.
Chris: Exactly. And do it in a natural way, so we're not straining it. Sometimes it might not even be obvious, but it's our interpretation of that.
So you aren't turning into a post-punk folk/jazz band overnight and confusing the hell out of everybody.
Chris: Yeah, and everybody's like, "What the hell?" It probably comes across as just one thing and that's fine.
I just have to say that Jonathan is an amazing bass player.
Chris: Yeah, he's definitely a natural. He was originally a guitar player and he still considers himself a guitar player, which is funny, but as I've always told him, the things that he naturally decides to play and the way that he plays, not to be silly, but just from his soul, everything is fairly smooth and it just works.
Do you think there's any progression from Falling Forward to Elliott?
Chris: Originally, there were three people from Falling Forward in Elliott. The drummer, Ben Lord, who left the band after about a year to go to school, Jonathan and myself. You can't get away from my vocals, or at least the tonal quality of my voice. I can't really change that. I can try to improve on it and I can try to reach new dynamics and push myself, but I think there's definitely a progression. I just really wanted to get away from the lyrical content that always pushed me into the same corner where I was always having to drag up the same emotions for the same song and beat it to death and I found that it was very hard on me and the song would lend itself only in one way for me, so then I started trying to write in a way that I could come at it from different directions. I was at a point where looking at it one way was bringing me down or getting stale for me, and I definitely didn't want that. I wanted to be able to come from a different place when needed so I could give people what they should be seeing within a song.
I know it's a bit of a topic change, but I'm curious to know how Louisville affects your music, if it does at all.
Chris: It definitely does, more in the way of letting us do what we need to do without a lot of outside influences. I couldn't really imagine myself living in L.A. or New York and trying to do the same things because I think I would just get sidetracked by everything and maybe other motives would push me in different directions, which is not always a bad thing, but I think it can definitely hinder what comes from us, which is a little bit more pure, I hope. We like to think of Louisville as an island. When you think of Kentucky, you don't really think of a state with much culture, but we've definitely got things going on here. We're also able to separate ourselves and that's definitely a big help and big influence for us. There are amazing musicians and a lot of amazing bands right now.
Yeah, Squirrel Bait and Slint, among other bands, came out of Louisville, didn't they?
Chris: Yeah, and then all those bands spawned so many other ones. King Kong, Squirrel Bait, Slint, all those bands either influenced significantly, or actual members went into all these different bands and became something else. From there, you can kind of see who was into what and what kids were doing what. The whole progression is fairly interesting, and then there's the Chicago connection which has created a very strong scene within the more indie stuff. Palace and Rodan and The Rachels. Shipping News are actually recording right now, down the street from us, so it's a pretty great place because of that. I don't know if it's only because I've lived here, but it seems like a really easy place to live, economically. You can get pretty much everywhere from here fairly fast. It's not centrally located, but you can get to the East Coast when you need to and jump down South. You can feel like you're in the South within a couple of hours drive. It just makes for a good place.
Plus, you're in the state where Jim Beam is distilled.
Chris: That's right. Wild Turkey just had a big fire and I don't know how much they lost, but it went into the Kentucky River and started killing all the fish. They had to start pumping oxygenated water into the river to save some of these fish. It's just a big mess. There have been a few of these fires and they just get out of control because they have all those distilleries and they have them all close together. It just gets out of hand.
Now the thing that I've been dreading talking about is the lyrics. I just can't make sense of them. I can get feelings and general ideas, but nothing specific. It's almost like reading Faulkner. First of all, what's the process? How do you go about writing the songs and determining what lyrics go in and what, if anything, the lyrics are about?
Chris: The EPs started the process of trying to get things a little more clear and make it a little more obvious what I was talking about. With "U.S. Songs," I think it goes back to when I made a conscious effort to write in a way that I could come in different directions at it so it wouldn't become stale for me. It always had some type of underlying meaning for me, but it allowed me little exits so if I needed to get out of that thought for a while, I could. The writing process for us always came down to the music first, then the melody line for me, vocally, and then the lyrics would naturally come in after that. Now with "False Cathedrals," I think you'll see that you can kind of tell what they're all about or get a little bit stronger feeling on them, but that's usually how it goes. If there's particular songs, I might be able to point out what it's about or certain lines or stuff like that. Sometimes they would come from multiple situations that had some type of underlying themes that worked together.
Well, my favorite Elliott songs are "Watermark High," "Intro," but that's an instrumental, and my other three favorites are "Miracle," "Suitcase and Atoms" and "Alchemy as a Rhythm." The general feeling I get is that it seems like you're looking back on something that happened, maybe with regret, maybe looking at how it changed you as a person and maybe how it changed your perception of what's going to come. I get a sense of hope, but not overriding hope, just a little glimmer that things might get better.
Chris: I'd say that's pretty accurate. That's kind of how I live my life. I know things are going to be okay, but I don't exactly how they're going to work. I have this underlying feeling that we're going to make it through whatever problems come. A lot of the songs probably are tainted with that. "Watermark" was just filled with all this imagery. I guess when I was writing that I had this fascination with water and it's probably because I'm not on one of the coasts where I can really get a sense for the ocean, so it really intrigues me. What we do have is the river, so that's the closest thing I've got and just the fascination with breathing in water and drowning, but not drowning in the sense of wanting to die, but just wanting to be absorbed into it. It was mixing in all those types of images and the feeling of being at one with that, but it's also something calming, something making you want to disappear within that, and I think that stems from friendships and going astray. It probably had a lot to do with the Louisville community, maybe not the community but the set of people that were around me at that time. It was just all over the place. There was a lot, just like there is every place, of talk and gossip and friends and not friends. You know how it all works. The politics of living I guess. I think a lot of those images and that feeling were put into that song.
"Suitcase, atoms, allow us to get by" is one of the most curious lines I've ever heard in a song. What did you mean by that?
Chris: Basically, that song is kind of my tribute to the whole concept of the band and traveling. As long as we were alive and able to keep doing this, we could just pack up, go, and keep moving and traveling, meeting new people, seeing new things and playing music, and things would be okay. That's basically what that song was about. It was one song that I tried to make a little clearer, using language to make it just a bit off, but that one doesn't get too deep for me, except the fact that it's a real important thing. That whole album had a lot to do with us traveling and being the first band that I got to see the country with, and so it influenced us a lot to be able to do that.
Yeah, I never really got the feeling that the songs were about romantic relationships. It always seemed like they were more about living and the people you meet.
Chris: Definitely. "False Cathedrals" might be a bit more about romantic relationships, but it was definitely more about life, struggles and the people you meet, and not concentrating on just one focal point. There are definitely some parts of life that you're able to get away from, a lot of things. That was one time when I spent a good part of a year, right after 1995 or so, working. I rode my bike, I think, and I went out to this quarry and that's what I did for about six months so I didn't have too many other distractions and I was able to get away from everybody and rethink what had gone on over the past couple of years.
So what inspires you to play music? What inspires Elliott's music?
Chris: What inspires me is a bit of everything, from the process to the outcome, what it allows us to do. It's one thing that I've found that I can express myself and that allows me to get across and to reach people in a way that I've wanted to but could never figure out how to do it. In school, I was trying to concentrate on writing or straight art or whatever and it just never came across because it always felt like I kind of needed to be there somehow and music was one way for me to do that. It definitely wasn't something I think that was in the cards for me. I think, speaking solely for myself, there's definitely more ambition there than musical talent because I have to fight for everything that I'm doing, whether it's playing guitar, singing or whatnot. I really have to work on it. I think it's what a lot of punk comes from, the work ethic and the feeling that you should be doing it. I know so many people that can play guitar better and sing better, but there's something else calling them to do what they're doing, and for some reason this feels like what I'm supposed to be doing. What inspires Elliott would probably be the individual members' reasons for doing it, and all of ours come together. I think for us, the main thing now comes from the actual songs and wanting to perfect some type of craft to the best of our ability and reaching people while doing that is probably our main motivation.
On a final note, where did the name come from?
Chris: We just wanted something very nondescript, something that wouldn't paint us into a corner, and I figured what's better to do that than a real name? Everybody comes up with these names and most names, if you think about them, you start thinking it's the stupidest name I've ever heard, but you see the band and like the band and it really doesn't matter what the name is. That's what a lot of it comes down to. It just came down to thinking of naming it like we would name a child. That was pretty much it, it was just a name. It did come from a friend of mine who had just had twins, a boy and a girl named Elliott and Nixon, Elliott being the girl. We just wrote down a bunch of names and I wrote down their names and it ended up that everybody wanted to go with it. I think it turned out that there was actually a band called Nixon either at the time or close to it, so it made for an easy choice. We definitely had names that got shot down, but at the time, it was a really important thing for us not to get stuck in a corner because we really felt like we, in the past band that three of us were in at that point, couldn't really move much to the right or much to the left without people wondering what we were doing. It might have been more what we were putting on ourselves than what people were putting on us, or the musical climate at the time or whatever it was, but a lot of the steps and a lot of the decisions we made were to do whatever we wanted so no one could say or expect otherwise. There was definitely a feeling that we were expected, if we did something again with music, to go in one way and we wanted to make sure that it was set up so we could do whatever we wanted to do.
Leave your options open.
And here I thought it was a stupid question.
Chris: No, not at all. It's an important one to every band. Everyone picks what they do for a reason, and if they analyze it enough, which I have a problem of doing, they'll figure it out.
And certainly with some bands it's easier. I thought it was going to be something like, "We named it after the kid in 'E.T.'"
Chris: Oh yeah. It could be named after him, or "Pete's Dragon." There are so many of them. I've actually started collecting different shirts that have nothing to do with the band but that have Elliott on them. If you go to any, at least in this part of the country, fair or flea market, there are race car shirts everywhere that say Elliott, spelled exactly the same way in disgusting fonts with race cars coming at you.