For Drew Gardner and Jesse Sheppard, the who, what, when, where, and why of music are inextricably and inspiringly linked.
The two guitarists have been on a shared journey to the heart of improvisation since the mid-1980s. Since 2013, they’ve performed and recorded as Elkhorn, with Sheppard laying down a foundation of 12-string acoustic guitar for Gardner to build 6-string electric structures atop and around, resulting in adventurous pieces that create space for the listener’s own internal exploration. I’m always surprised and delighted by the places I travel when I close my eyes and let Gardner and Sheppard’s playing do the navigating. But place is much more than a byproduct, and the duo’s new live album offers a window into how unique spaces and the people who inhabit them are intentionally woven into the fabric of their creative process.
Southern Star arrives this Friday, March 5th, via WarHen Records, compiling performances from the spring 2020 tour leg that the group completed before the pandemic put a halt to live music everywhere. It’s not the first time they’ve made the most of a change in itinerary. Their previous two releases, The Storm Sessions and the follow-up Acoustic Storm Sessions, were recorded at Gardner’s Harlem home studio during a blizzard that wiped out a show they were scheduled to play in Brooklyn. I leaned hard on those albums throughout 2020, a time when isolation and canceled plans became the norm. Those albums embodied a type of lemons-to-lemonade optimism that I needed in my life, while offering reassurance that even when we’re temporarily kept separate from one another, the art we make connects us in the long run, and always will.
As Southern Star documents beautifully, Elkhorn’s music thrives on connection. Five of the album’s six tracks feature guest collaborators — musicians who themselves are deeply connected to the areas in which their guest appearances took place, from “Harmonica Dan” Balcer and the Philadelphia Record Exchange to Mike Gangloff and his deep Virginian roots. (Head to the Southern Star Bandcamp page and you’ll notice the track names are venues and dates instead of song titles.) It’s not uncommon for bands to share bills with local performers, but in Elkhorn’s case, the people, places, and music are intertwined to an exceptional degree — one where the borders surrounding those elements melt away and the art is truly one with the circumstances in which it was made.
I had the pleasure of learning a few weeks back that Gardner and Sheppard are just as open and generous in conversation. Over Zoom, we spoke about the end to their 2020 tour, the experience of listening back to those records, and how they approach the art of improvisation. While you read, enjoy this premiere of the second track from Southern Star, which was captured at Rhizome in Washington DC on March 7th, 2020, with Mike Gangloff and Nate Scheible as guests.
You Hear That: At the risk of diving right into pandemic talk, Southern Star is the product of a tour that was cut short, correct?
Jesse Sheppard: With this tape especially, you kind of can’t get away from it. In a nutshell, we had this tour planned, which was two legs. One was southern, focused around Virginia, and we were going to tour with the Eight Point Star guys. Then we were going to do a northern leg that was centered around Massachusetts with Glenn Jones…
We went on the road and you could sort of hear about the pandemic coming during the first days of that first leg. But actually, and Drew will confirm this, when we got off the road, we weren’t sure if Massachusetts was going to happen or not still, because these were all small-sized gigs, and we had just seen the big festivals get closed down… Then the smaller gigs started closing over the course of a week between the two legs, to the point where we were just like “What’s happening here?”
When that second leg got canceled, it left us with some time to do what we normally do over a long period of time after we tour, which is go through the tapes and listen back to what had happened.
YHT: When I’m in the audience at a show, I’m always hoping it’s being taped for a live release down the road, so I can relive that moment later. Is recording shows a regular part of Elkhorn tours?
Drew Gardner: We tend to be tapers, and connected to taper culture a little bit. For this tour, I brought what’s kind of a classic Grateful Dead bootleg microphone intentionally to capture it — this AT822 microphone. We’re definitely into taping everything…
One of the cool things about what [this] tape represents is that, for each of these gigs, the music is really affected by the spaces that we’re in — the physical spaces that we’re in, and the social spaces that we’re in. It’s unique physical spaces, and it’s unique combinations of people… The human vibe around the communities that we’re playing in makes a big difference on what you’re hearing in the music. And obviously with the guest musicians as well.
JS: Which goes back to your point about taping, and how taping, and especially this tape, really, reflects all these different environments. So that Black Swan tape is a bookstore environment, [and] then you’ve got that salt cave, which is a totally different live performance space from any other, and the tape takes you through all these different physical spaces, as well as a little bit through time.
Elkhorn with Mike Gangloff at Oddfellows Hall in Blacksburg, VA on March 8th, 2020. Photo courtesy of James Adams.
YHT: This release is a big milestone for WarHen Records, given that it’s their 50th release. How did you link up with Warren?
JS: We just linked up at that show. He did the poster for the show, he knew the store, and honestly I really don’t know exactly what his relationship to our music was prior to that. Kind of like you, he heard it, it hit a groove, and off he went.
That is really the kind of central piece of this whole conversation we’re having with ourselves, because we’re finding out the ways in which the music responds to not having an outlet, or how you create outlets without audiences, or all the stuff that’s going on in the pandemic. But prior to that, that’s what was so powerful. It wasn’t just moving through these spaces, but moving through these social interactions, like Drew was saying. Meeting people on the road, building up relationships… that’s really what touring was about, and making music was linked into and wrapped in that.
Now we’re sort of like “What else is out there? How does the music evolve without those interactions, or how do you maintain those kinds of interactions?
YHT: In a sense, the Storm Sessions albums managed to build a pre-pandemic framework for making those types of remote connections.
JS: That’s actually almost thin ice in a way. When the pandemic hit, and we had these two almost concept albums in the can about how you process experiences like this, we didn’t want to make that connection overtly, but it was right there in front of us.
I think what we did is what we always do, which Drew talks about a lot, actually, which is double-down on the piece of the music that’s healing. Because that’s really where we’re at. We’ve suffered some mortal wounds as a community and as individuals, and everyone’s processing those all the time — pandemic, pre-pandemic. And so it all fit together really powerfully.
YHT: On that topic of healing, I found your music to be essential in 2020 in part because of how it manages to transport you mentally. It’s a way of traveling while staying in place. Do you feel transported when you play, or is staying present too important to the process of improvising?
DG: I think there’s a couple of interesting things there. First of all, the thing about the Storm Sessions reflecting the pandemic situation is strangely true. To me, that was about “Hey, this is not a great situation, this is a negative situation” and focusing on “What we can do to make this constructive?” Which is a thing I’ve needed during the pandemic for sure. Every day you have to focus to be like “OK, this is bad, but I gotta make this constructive.” It can show you that if you can have a constructive philosophy, you can improve things.
What you say about being present is the main thing for improvisation. But the other thing is letting yourself dream a little bit. In life and the social world, there’s not a lot of space to dream in. But if you can get a protected musical environment, I like to be able to create a music where other people can dream when they’re listening to it… That thing of allowing yourself to dream is essential, to me, for the improvisation, and for connecting to the listener.
JS: I feel like that piece Drew was talking about, about trying to be constructive, actually goes to what you were saying, Davy. Without a performative context for the practicing that I’ve been doing, I feel like it’s allowed me to get more involved with the centered, present space of improvisation in a way that I always wanted to, or always needed to. That’s always been the goal, but now I feel like I actually, through the past year, have gotten closer and closer to it, and I’m hoping that I can bring that into my practice once we’re out in front of each other again.
Elkhorn at Oddfellows Hall in Blacksburg, VA on March 8th, 2020. Photo courtesy of James Adams.
YHT: Do you remember the first time you took that leap of faith and improvised together?
DG: We’ve been doing that since high school… I can’t give you a date, but it was in the mid 80’s sometime, and it was a jam we did in a band called Mayfirst we were in at the time that was in a church. And it was really a jam. That would be the earliest one. It was us doing post-punk music, but it was still improvised.
JS: It was like Joy Division meets Sonic Youth, or something like that.
YHT: In terms of the trajectory of your collaboration, does it feel like you’re exploring further and further afield, or like you’re getting closer to something essential?
DG: I couldn’t really say. The band has its own evolution, which we just kind of try to follow. I always feel like I’m trying to follow the music, and I’m trying to find out where it’s going. That’s how I think about it.
JS: Touring creates a lot of movement and evolution. Even in the history of global evolution, there are periods where things speed up in the evolutionary process, and slow down, and that’s true with this music that Drew and I are creating as well. And it’s been interesting to see how it’s ebbed and flowed, and touring kind of speeds it up, but it’s definitely been evolving, even during this period where we haven’t been playing together, in a variety of interesting ways…
And yes, the answer is we’re trying to find more and more and more freedom, but I think both Drew and I appreciate that freedom is not just energy music at full blast to your face all the time. Freedom for us is the freedom to be really beautiful and pastoral and explore things that are very organized and almost proggy, and then move back to things that are very spacious and open and improvisatory, and trying to find where this music and our music hits in all those places is what I think we’re moving towards.
YHT: Were you aiming for that type of range when choosing tracks for Southern Star?
DG: We do like the recordings to have a journey aspect to them where you go from one place to another place to another place. Certainly variety and contrast, too.
JS: The sets, too… One of the ways that we refresh the listener’s ear in a setting is to specifically make sure that we do hit a few different tones throughout a set. But another way we do it [is] interacting with different musicians. Every time we tour, we look for opportunities to do that in different places we hit as well. And I have to say first and foremost, one of the most transformative things about this tour was hanging out with Mike Gangloff, and seeing how he interacts with music, which is really powerful. That went for all the players that we hung with at various points.
YHT: Was there anything that surprised you as you first listened back to the recordings?
DG: One thing I like is that with the guest players, we’re often throwing them in without a huge amount of practice. I like the sound that produces, because people are focusing, you know what I mean? So you can get a novel sound out of some of those songs, and when you’re coming back and listening to it, you’re almost listening to somebody else’s song, because an unpredictable element has been introduced into it.
JS: Jordan [Perry] was a perfect example of that. We had never played with him before. I had never even heard him play electric guitar. But at the same time, I just knew how his brain worked, and I knew he could follow where Drew was going to go. I knew he would be able to stand up in the music.
Elkhorn with Mike Gangloff at Oddfellows Hall in Blacksburg, VA on March 8th, 2020. Photo courtesy of James Adams.
YHT: How do you balance leading and following when improvising with a guest performer?
DG: Trying to give them some structure [and] give them a context where they can feel comfortable and where they can say what they want to say is the main thing for me. Make an arrangement where they can do what they want.
JS: The idea is to create enough structure so everyone knows where they are, but have it loose enough that anyone can say what they got to say. We’ve actually worked on how to do that through the set construction process over time.
DG: And there are decisions you can make in it. I often take on the audio engineer role in various ways in the band, and one thing I did in the Harmonica Dan set was that I could mix his volume while we were playing. I heard something when we were playing, and I intentionally turned him up louder than he would have been normally because that’s what I was hearing, and I liked the way that sounded. So I could mix while I was also playing. That’s a thing that’ll happen sometimes.
YHT: What’s the setup like that allows you to do that in real time?
DG: That was at the Philadelphia Record Exchange, and it’s a tight space, so I could control all the guitar stuff and also reach over and be able to control the balance, which is somewhat random. I would normally be thinking in terms of mixing anyway. What you’re going for is a collective sound that works — of people being together.
YHT: That’s such a cool example of the environment making its way into the music.
DG: That’s why each track is unique. It’s in its physical space and its social space. I would hope that you get that sense of traveling through these unique spaces.
Southern Star is available digitally and as a limited edition cassette via WarHen Records starting this Friday, March 5th.
Many thanks to Drew and Jesse for the fun and insightful conversation, to Warren at WarHen for helping to coordinate, and to James Adams (host of Aquarium Drunkard’s outstanding 10-part Dylan bootleg program Pretty Good Stuff) for his photos, research assistance, and encouragement.