Elkhorn Twists Up Psychedelia and Folk


Jesse Sheppard (left) and Drew Gardner

(Photo: Brennan Cavanaugh)

You might not think guitar music informed by the psychedelic ‘60s and folk traditions originating a century or more before that could offer anything new in 2019. But instrumental duo Elkhorn expands the genres with its latest pair of releases, Sun Cycle and Elk Jam (Feeding Tube 425; 71:42 ****).

The group, which is based in New York and Pennsylvania, is centered around the decades-long friendship between 12-string acoustic guitarist Jesse Sheppard and electric guitarist Drew Gardner, who began making music together as high school students in New Jersey. Gardner relocated to the West Coast after college, where he became enmeshed in San Francisco’s free-jazz scene as a drummer, but reconnected with Sheppard when he moved back east in the late ’90s.

In 2013, the pair started performing as Elkhorn, and in 2016 released a self-titled debut on the Beyond Beyond Is Beyond imprint. The material reflects the pair’s mutual interests in a wide variety of styles, including American Primitive, roots, jazz, prog, classic rock and sundry international forms. Elkhorn merges these elements in open-ended arrangements grounded by Sheppard’s acoustic rhythms and layered with guitar improvisations.

“We don’t do pastiche,” Gardner said. “We just have certain things we like and we respond to emotionally. And our way of getting a unique sound is based on just trying to play the most sincere thing that we can think of.”

Elkhorn’s music also is steeped in the intuition and trust borne from years of collaboration.

“The thing about playing with someone for a long time is that you actually don’t think about it all that much,” Sheppard continued. “You start to get to places where thinking is kind of secondary, and that’s actually a very musical place.”

In Elkhorn’s case, it’s also been a very fruitful place: the band followed its debut with 2017’s The Black River and 2018’s Lionfish, before heading into Black Dirt Studio in southwestern New York to record Sun Cycle—emerging with a double-disc set, instead of just a single album.

The bandmates described the session in terms similar to how they discuss their songwriting process: Start with loose structures and concepts, and see what naturally evolves. “Experimentation is an intrinsic part of our music,” Sheppard explained.

They invited fellow guitarist Willie Lane and percussionist Ryan Jewel to make guest appearances on Sun Cycle, and were so pleased with the result, that once those four songs were complete, they decided to open things up to explore a group-based dynamic.

“There’s a lot of improvisation throughout Sun Cycle, but some songs have different parts, where the sense of arrangement has been worked out over time, and we’re getting into different areas we want to explore,” Gardner said. “But we also have another side of us, where we like to spontaneously improvise, where there’s no arrangement set beforehand, or it’s minimal, like, ‘Hey, let’s do this mode’ or ‘Hey, let’s switch from this to this,’ and we compose as we’re improvising. So, the tone of Elk Jam is kind of a folk-rock quartet, but also improvisation.”

When the albums are played back to back, these two distinct approaches create a striking balance. Where the music on Sun Cycle is airy, deliberate and reflective, Elk Jam skews toward more full-bodied sounds and urgent pacing. And as far out as Elkhorn’s experiments take them on either set of songs, there’s always something familiar enough that practically any listener can find them appealing. (“Our moms like it,” Gardner quipped.)

“When I was first listening back, I thought the improvised sessions were sort of like the darker sister of [Sun Cycle],” Sheppard said. “But over time, the way the material developed in my mind is sorta like ‘left brain, right brain.’ One doesn’t stand above the other. They’re equal—like two different ways of thinking about the same exact thing.” DB