For many musicians, inspiration often comes in the form of a potential, current or previous romantic partner. However, Colorado-based solo artist and multi-instrumentalist Elk Minister gains his inspiration from a very different place. Shortly after the release of his debut album ‘There’s A System of Control’, he was contacted by the spirit of his dead Great Aunt Coleslaw and telepathically given a large body of work entitled ‘The Book of Slaw’. As a tribute to her life and work, Elk Minister took it upon himself to arrange, record and release the project in the form of a 26 album set. Its eye-watering release schedule currently operates around the ‘Year of the Elk’, a 28 day, 13 month calendar based around the 13 zodiac signs, with an album being released biweekly. It’s 17th installment, ‘Virgo’, showcases a talented and unique musician with an inherently well-crafted sonic identity.
The album ambiguously opens with the haunting piano exposition ‘Memories of My Childhood’. Particular praise goes to not only the performance of this track, but also the recording itself. Elk Minister ensures his delivery is soft and haunting throughout, giving the piece a wonderfully-introspective nature. He does a fantastic job of drifting in and out of time, which gives the piece a real emotional presence and is sure to induce goosebumps. The recording is ambient and reverberated, effectively tying in with the more soft delivery and haunting nature of the melodic and harmonic content. As the piece is indeed thought-provoking and emotional, I thought it served as the perfect opener to a project that’s rooted in history and story.
As the exposition steadily draws to a close, we’re introduced to the more upbeat and pop-influenced nature of ‘Not You Too’. This track features an interesting combination of rockabilly and progressive rock influences; the chord progressions in the verses and choruses are ambiguously rooted in rockabilly genre. This effectively carries the fantastic main hook of ‘not you too’, which is bound to become stuck in the listener’s head for several hours after hearing the track. The vocals are distorted, which is very suited to the genre and once again is reminiscent of rockabilly music. Particular praise goes to the dropout section at the midway point of the track, which strips the arrangement back to just guitar and drum kit. This forms solid infrastructure for the phrygian backing vocal parts, leading into a fantastic section of dual guitars. The track closes out with a technically-accomplished guitar solo, which is both melodically-sound and well-executed, showing Elk Minister’s abilities as a guitarist.
‘Ghosts of Yesterday’s Tomorrow’ is a brief serialist piece composed for piano. At only 34 seconds long, this serves as an interesting interlude and showcases a strong influence of early 20th century work. Following this, we’re led into the more laid-back feel of ‘The Way Going Forward’. The vocal part on this track features vocal harmonies throughout, which I felt added a real sense of presence to the material and worked fantastically well over the picked acoustic guitar work. This is a ball I’d strongly urge Elk Minister to continue to pick up and run with as it serves the material fantastically well. After the introductory section of acoustic guitar and vocals, the arrangement is livened up with drums, bass, and woodwind. I felt this effectively tied in with the more haunting and ambient nature of the opening track and effectively began to connect the album as a complete body of work. We see a return of the distorted vocals around two thirds of the way through the track, which is clearly a signature trait of Elk Minister’s and gave the arrangement a wonderful lift at the crucial ‘golden ratio’ point.
‘Crow Dance’ is another piano interlude, combining an interesting mix of serialism and expressionist music. Whilst the piano used to perform this piece is out of tune, it appears to be deliberate feature and I felt this in fact added a brilliant edge to the piece. At this point, my attention turns to Elk Minister’s sonic identity, which is very well-formed and thoroughly-focused. Whilst composing from a set of pre-composed melodic and lyrical content, he’s certainly carved out a whole host of signature traits. These include distorted vocals, haunting melodies and a classical/early 20th century approach to arranging. I also felt the three piano interludes did a fantastic job of connecting the songs and gave the album a real sense of flow and substance, showing fantastic attention to detail and a good understanding of presentation.
The album closes with the seven minute epic ‘The Light Inside of You’. This track effectively reprises the vast majority of Elk Minister’s signature traits, featuring everything from distorted vocals to dual guitar sections and truly bringing the album full circle. Particular praise on this track goes to the dissonant, ambient breakdown section at the midway point. Pummeling drums and bass form a strong foundation for warping tremolo guitar work and a reprise of the main hook. I felt this brought things to a real climax and effectively set things up for the succeeding stripped back section of just guitar and vocals. Ultimately, the track left me excited to hear more from Elk Minister and interested to delve deeper into ‘The Book of Slaw’. Overall, ‘Virgo’ is an effective showcase of a talented and hard working multi-instrumentalist with an overtly strong sonic identity and a fantastic back story to his work. Highly recommended for any fans of experimental, classical, progressive rock or rockabilly.
You explain in the linear notes of ‘Capricorn’ how you were contacted by the spirit of your Great Aunt Coleslaw. Can you give us a brief overview of the experience and how it inspired you to commence work on ‘The Book of Slaw’?
I remember it vividly- almost as if it was yesterday. I was walking through the forest with Gerald, my best friend and companion. We were walking deep in the forest when a very large grey cloud appeared in the upper atmosphere approximately 70 feet infant of us. The sky turned a shade of purple, then it opened up and revealed the voice of My Great Aunt Coleslaw, who had died several years prior. This was a premonition that I was not ready for. At that exact moment Gerald began vibrating back and forth, and then in a matter of seconds, the spirit of My Great Aunt Coleslaw ran through me like a bolt of lightning. During this experience, My Great Aunt Coleslaw transferred all of her music and poetry to me, via Gerald.
My Great Aunt Coleslaw also made me promise to release her work in conjunction with a calendar the she developed with Pythagoras thousands of years ago in her first lifetime. Each of the 13 musical releases and 13 poetry releases represents the work of in each of her 13 lifetimes. She is now residing in the year 3144 A.D. where she is living out the last days of her last lifetime. My Great Aunt Coleslaw was a great creative spirit. I feel honored to be able to live in a time where I am able to show such a wide depth of My Great Aunt Coleslaw’s music to the world. She was so timid and shy during her previous 12 lifetimes, I’m glad she was able to break through her feelings of worthlessness and send me music to release to the world for her.
‘Virgo’ features influences of classical and early 20th century music along with a wide range of classical instruments which you performed yourself. Can you give us a bit of background on your musical education?
I learned the fundamental elements of music from my local fauna and floral. Later I was lucky enough to learn elements of tonality, rhythm, and harmony continuously from a rabbit named Rufus. He had played congas and timbales in a touring marching band and recognized my talent when I was very young. He was my first teacher and instilled a love of music that I still cherish to this day.
Learning from nature in this way inspired me to look deeper into music more then what is traditionally taught. It led me to think of the origins of music in a much more organic way. I wanted to study music in college, with real people and not animals, but my Uncle Radcliffe would never had let me go away to study. So in 2002 in order to learn how to play guitar, piano, bass, and sing I traded apples for music lessons to a classically trained conductor named Buster Louis IX. His approach was very hands on, we would improvise, record, analyze and listen back to what was made, and then ask why we made those decisions.
Most of my understanding theoretical understanding of music comes from analyzing scores and transcriptions, listening to records, and reading biographies of the famous composers who made those works. I have found that if you really want to understand a piece of music, you must get into the mind of the composer and the reason why they have made the musical decisions they have made. All of the music that happens in a piece of music happens for a particular reason, whether that music be improvised or composed. I think I have learned the most from the masters who have left their music on the world, whether that be sheet music or recordings.
Your release schedule adheres to a strict timetable with tight deadlines. Can you give us an overview of your recording schedule on a day to day basis?
It can be very difficult. While My Great Aunt Coleslaw telepathically gave me the songs for her music to record, most were just the melodies, chords, and lyrics. It was up to me to decipher the best possible arrangement and production of the material with what she wrote. Sometimes I start with the rhythm or the melody- it all depends on what is the fundamental characteristic of each song. In this way, they are individual and there own uniquely musical.
I record everyday for hours and hours hoping what I am doing is what My Great Aunt Coleslaw would have liked. She was such a perfectionist, I think that is one reason why she never released her music in her previous lifetimes. Most of the songs have multiple vocals, guitars, and keyboard parts, as well as random instruments that I have found in local thrift stores. The productions use to be very simple, but as My Great Aunt Coleslaw’s existence progressed, so did her music. What was once a day of recording and a day of mixing per song, has turned into three days of recording and three days of mixing per song. With an album out every two weeks, I usually work on this music for an average of 4 hours a day but have gone as long as 7 hours in a day. The recording of The Book of Slaw has started to take a toil on my personal and mental life. Gerald and I aren’t as close as we once were. My diet has also gotten worse, I stopped eating anything but sopressata, which is affecting my heart and arteries. Sometimes I have a hard time climbing stairs or checking the mail. I have some swelling in my ankles but this could be from the sopressata. But I tell myself that I have to complete The Book of Slaw. My Great Aunt Coleslaw needs me.
‘The Book of Slaw’ was originally composed whilst your Great Aunt Coleslaw was studying under Pythagoras of Samos. Can you tell us how this experience inspired her to compose The Book of Slaw?
Pythagoras was one of the most brilliant men whoever lived. Some people may only know him from ‘The Pythagorean Theorem’ but without Pythagoras and his followers knowledge, we would view music, math, science, and much of western civilization differently. My Great Aunt Coleslaw was an early student of his and learned the ways of reincarnation and transfiguration of the soul. Pythagoras also helped My Great Aunt Coleslaw create the 13 month calendar, which My Great Aunt Coleslaw says will replace the current 12 month system in the year 3144 A.D.
The Book of Slaw is the accumulation of all the musical knowledge, wisdom, and material that My Great Aunt Coleslaw composed in her 13 lifetimes that she never released. To this day I am not sure why My Great Aunt Coleslaw did not release any of her music or poetry while she was alive. She lived for a total of almost 700 years, and for whatever reason she never had the confidence to show the people around her the talent that she knew was harvesting inside of her. I have come to understand that part of the reasons we don’t do things is because we are afraid of the response from the people around us, and now with the creation of the internet- humanity. But it turns out then when we do not release art into the world, we ourselves are killing a part of humanity. The Book of Slaw is much more than My Great Aunt Coleslaw’s entire existence’s life work, it is a guide on how to approach art and the world around us. In a perfect world, we would be free to create for the sake of creation, without judgement from others.
What’s next for the Elk Minister project after you’ve released all installments of ‘The Book of Slaw’?
I will have to have a small break before I return to the studio and record some more music. I need to give my mind and body a rest. You can only push your body to these physical and mental limits so far before you must rest. So I will be taking a month break after The Book of Slaw is revealed in it’s entirety. After this short hibernation, I would like to continue work on the other albums that I was working on before I had to work on The Book of Slaw. I’ve been working on album of covers, an album of originals, and fitness album which will be composed around tap dancing.
Gerald has told me that he wants to travel, so that is something that I must consider- his happiness. I’m not 100% sure what the future has in store for me. I know that in order to survive in th current musical climate, I must adapt and survive. If I don’t, I mean turn into a very sad and bitter man, afraid of my own ideas, like My Great Aunt Coleslaw always was. I must go forward.