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Elbows on Sketching Songs With Pencil and Paper and the Importance of Storyline

Welcome back to Soundfly’s weekly interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft.

Brooklyn’s Max Schieble has had a prolific year releasing spacey jazz and hip-hop-inflected pop music under the moniker Elbows. His voice — which to my ear comes more from the lilt and delivery of late ’90s punk and pop rock than anything else — creates an unusual tension against the lovely, sophisticated harmonic arrangements.

In his latest release, Sycamore, this interaction between his youthful-sounding vocal and the seasoned, contemplative production plays out beautifully. It’s as if we’re hearing leftover missives from his 16-year-old self, looking out his window in the Bay Area, “GO AWAY MOM” sign on the bedroom door, except Sly5thAve is there, and Schieble’s got a Roland SP-404 — and he’s like, really good at it. He says,

“My favorite type of voices are ones that sound like they could possibly be from aliens.”

I hear that — he sounds, himself, like a really wise teenage alien on an early D’Angelo kick.

Elbows’ newest self-released EP, Sycamore, is out now.

– Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Interview by Evan Zwisler

The first thing that strikes me about the Sycamore EP is both how fresh it sounds and how it’s also very current. Do you consciously try to make music that sounds a certain way, with a specific audience in mind, or do just let the music tumble out of you?

There’s definitely a sonic destination in mind with every song, and with this whole current body of work, why I use certain grooves and feels, certain synth sounds, vocal effects, but it’s not really with anyone specific in mind. This is just how I think music should sound and what I want to listen to.

“The Rain” is probably the most consciously contemporary song I’ve made. Originally I wrote that one back in 2011 and it had more of a straight drum-and-bass feel throughout. It was intended to be a bonus track on the album that’s coming later this year, but when I brought it back out to record in 2016 I decided to rework it and gave it this more current groove. I loved the idea of having these very contemporary sounding drums against the old swing samples and jazz instrumentation, and then the wild sax solo from Sly5thAve.

Could you go into a bit more detail about your creative process? For example, how did “Windowpane” come to be?

It varies from song to song, but I generally start with a story or concept, and then come up with chords and arrangements based on the story, and what’s needed to best illustrate the scene, pairing certain instruments with certain moods, certain synths with certain weather.

“Windowpane” is a funny one because the creative process was so lengthy. The chords and the beat date back to 2010, but then I didn’t come up with the rest of the song until 2014. This was also the first song that I wrote largely on piano. I came up with the main A section progression on guitar, and my roommate at the time was taking this introductory music course, I think it was Piano 101. So he had one of these miniature three-octave keyboards sitting around, and at the time I couldn’t play piano at all, the keys didn’t make sense to my hands, having always been a guitar person. But I took that little keyboard and figured out how to play those A section chords, and then boom! — it just clicked. Suddenly the piano made sense.

So I wrote the refrain/chorus section, but I felt like I wasn’t ready to write the actual words and melody, like I needed to write thirty more songs first and then come back to this one when I was a better writer. I knew it was going to be a real personal one. So I tucked it away and came back to it in 2014 and finished up the verses and the refrain and made the outro beat.

The production on this album is very interesting. Your vocals have a dreamlike quality that is juxtaposed with the tight, hip-hop style beats. Also, the samples are expertly woven into the songs. Did you have a producer for this album? Who was responsible for what?

Along with songwriting, producing is my whole thing. It’s like musical painting. To me, it’s as important to the storytelling as the lyrics are. So I produce everything myself, but I’ve got my band that I work closely with, and they help develop ideas. Whether it’s a drum pattern or a bass line, their playing elevates the production so much. They’re all masters.

And then I’ve got my engineer, Alex Pyle (a.k.a. Milkshake P), who helps fill in stuff that I miss on the technical side of things and gets the production to sound like it should. We have the same perspective on music, and how music should sound, so working together is streamlined.

What’s the first piece of gear you reach for when you set out to make a track?

The first thing is usually a pencil and paper. Once the concept is there I like to draw out the song before I start, sort of like a map, but abstract. From there I demo on guitar or Rhodes, and usually program drums on a Roland 404, or maybe beat box if the part is eventually gonna be a live drum thing. And then I just start filling stuff in! I don’t have a particular order I like to work in, but I try to get the main sound of the track down first. So if it’s a piano song we’ll get that tracked, or the live drums, or if it’s a synth patch I’ll start there, usually with the Roland Juno or Gaia.

“…producing is my whole thing. It’s like musical painting. To me it’s as important to the storytelling as the lyrics are.”

How do you feel your new EP relates to what you’ve been doing? Do you feel that you’re still finding yourself as an artist and this is a step on the path, or do you think that Sycamore is what you’ve been working towards?

Sycamore is a step on the path in terms of storyline; it’s leading you to the tale that’s told on the album. But as far as artistic identity and having a specific sonic destination, I think I found that a long time ago. I’ve had the sound of these projects in my head for years. With the last EP, I wanted to provide a few different vibes: there was synth stuff, guitar stuff, boom bap, 808s — like a sampler platter.

For Sycamore, though, I wanted to establish one singular vibe and let it play throughout. It’s very woodsy, lots of percussion, programmed drums, live drums, synths, acoustic guitar, horns, samples — it’s a good mission statement for my sound.

I’m also interested to know if this EP came together song by song — or perhaps via B-sides from other albums and projects — or was this a conscious release the entire time?

This EP and the last EP, Corduroy, were both made as short prequels to my album. Corduroy was like a collection of short stories; Sycamore is more like an actual prologue. All the material was made together as one body of work, but most of the songs on these EPs are ones that ultimately didn’t fit on the album, whether it was the story being told, or the vibe of the song. So they’re not really B-sides, but more like deleted scenes. And once I came up with the ideas for the EPs, it was really clear what songs were going where.

Sycamore as a whole captures the journey back home, and all these songs are me reminiscing on growing up — being an only child, relationships that didn’t work out, significant landmarks in the town — so they connected themselves, really.

Play the two EPs back to back, and they actually function as one longer project. “Blimp,” the last song on Corduroy, ends with a drawn-out slow-down, and the first song on Sycamore, “The Rain,” starts with a sped-up rewind. They’re like two sides of a tape. Together they make one prequel story.

What is your live setup like? If someone were to go see you, what could they expect?

They could expect a bounty of synths, wild funky bass action, gorgeous harmonies, and samples abounding! It’s a full band thing — I’ve got a guitar, a sampler, and a vocal processor, and then there’s bass, synth/keys, drums, another guitar, and trumpet. Arrangements of things change here and there, but it ends up being a pretty good representation of the records, probably because almost everyone uses two instruments at a time. My bass player also uses a bass synth, the synth player’s got two keyboards, the drummer has a drum sampler as well. It ends up being a big, detailed sound.

Are there any plans to bring this music on the road?

Definitely! We’ve been on the road a bit, played around the East Coast, and a little down south. But working on setting up a more proper run for later this year! Hoping to make it up to Montréal this summer, and out to California in the fall. Definitely wanna bring these projects back home to the Bay Area. Also really want to go to Japan. Gotta figure that one out still.

What was one of the most memorable shows you’ve ever played? What was one of the worst shows you’ve ever played?

The Corduroy EP release at C’mon Everybody last May was a memorable one, definitely. It was totally packed and I was so happy to finally be releasing new music.

But the most memorable show was also probably the worst show. It was 2010 and I was just starting to play live in New York. Halloween was approaching, and my neighbors across the hall ran a small art space in Bushwick (and this was 2010 Bushwick, significantly less gentrified and more industrial) that they said I could use to host a Halloween show. Think I paid them $100 or something. So we had this extremely DIY Halloween show in this space that was maybe fifteen by thirty feet. Maybe. It was tiny.

But we packed the place out! Wall-to-wall there were people. We had an open bar. People were standing on top of speakers and amps, and eventually standing outside because there was no more space inside. I had put this band together for the show, no one that I’m playing with now, but all good dudes. We rehearsed a decent amount, but in the end it was a total mess. My guy playing synth got wild drunk and was playing everything in the wrong key, shirt off, science goggles on.

A lot of the old songs back then had these odd time signatures, or random measures of three, so everyone was getting lost. I was going through a long-running breakup back then, so we covered Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River,” but it was a huge party, so it was hardly the deep, confessional moment I fantasized.

The craziest part about this show, though, is that we played real early versions of both “The Rain” and “Windowpane!” “Windowpane” was only half-done, so I freestlyed the verses, and “The Rain” was a total mess and played way too fast.

It was an amazing show. It sounded terrible.

At Soundfly, we love to use the term “Incorrect Music” to describe the things an artist does that go against people’s assumptions, or even their own instincts, but which yield exciting and unique results. What about your music might you consider to be “incorrect”?

Someone would probably call my whole vocal style “incorrect.” I used to get a lot of flack from people when I first started releasing music about how my vocals sounded. People have certain expectations when they think of singing. But I’m not too focused on traditionally “good” singing. Hearing someone do a ton of runs, or the wild vibrato, doesn’t do anything for me. I’m real content to sound how I sound.

Who are some of your vocal influences?

My favorite type of voices are ones that sound like they could possibly be from aliens. People like Bilal, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, that’s who I grew up listening to a ton. They’re all incredible technical singers, but they also sound like aliens. More recently, though, it’s been Kendrick Lamar, who most people obviously don’t think of as a singer, but I love his voice and how he sings. Very alien-like.

Also Celine Dion. She’s not really a vocal influence, but I love her. Shout-out Celine.

“Focus on telling a story. Tell a story through the production, through the sequencing, through the artwork.”

What advice would you give aspiring singers and songwriters looking to create an original project?

Focus on telling a story. Tell a story through the production, through the sequencing, through the artwork. A friend who I record with a lot — he’s a piano player out in LA — he was working on his first self-produced project last year and told me that he had this song about getting back to his roots (his family is from the Philippines), and said that in a certain part of the song he had airplane noises panning around left to right. I was so hyped to hear that, because he was starting to tell the story through the production.

That’s what it’s about. You gotta create sonic worlds.

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Evan Zwisler
Evan Zwisler

Evan Zwisler is a NYC-based musician who is most notably known for his work with The Values as a songwriter and guitarist. He is an active member of the Brooklyn music scene, throwing fundraisers and organizing compilations for Planned Parenthood and the Anti-Violence Project. He started playing music in the underground punk scene of Shanghai with various local bands when he was in high school before going to California for college and finally moving to New York in 2012.