Both highly talented musicians, James Elkington (formerly of The Zincs, and currently with The Horse’s Ha) and Nathan Salsburg (who has worked for many years with the Alan Lomax Archives) have made one of the standout albums of the year with Avos, a series of duets for guitar recently released on the Tompkins Square label. They kindly spoke via email about how the album came to fruition, about what their work process involves, and about how music plays a large role in their lives on a day-to-day basis. (Photo by Natasha Sud)
In that both of your styles complement one another so well, collaboration seems like a natural progression, but how did you both meet, and how did the idea to collaborate and record come about?
J: We met a few years ago — Nathan is a childhood friend of my wife’s from when she was growing up in Louisville, so we would try to see him whenever we were down there visiting my in-laws. I knew Nathan for a year before I ever found out that he was a guitar-player, and I didn’t find out what kind of guitar player he was until a couple of years after that. When I finally heard some of his music, this idea emerged to try and combine our styles and write some music together — it hadn’t really occurred to me to make a guitar record until I heard Nathan’s playing so he really was the catalyst for the whole thing. The main hinderance to my plan was that he lived 5 hours away and I only got to see him every six months at best, so I started sending him ideas for tunes. I already liked him so much as a person that I knew if we could just get started, everything would work out. Sometimes, just getting started is the hardest thing.
You both bring a wide variety of influences to your playing — what are some areas of music, and art in general, that have had the biggest effect on your work?
J: We’re both informed by a lot of folk music, but Nathan is actually steeped in the stuff in general whereas I’m more of an English folk music fan. Having said that, we spend an inordinate amount of time sitting round talking about The Smiths and various Discord records that we own, plus we have a lot of the same books, so our co-interests don’t just stop at Richard Thompson and I think that’s quite important, in a sort of generally unimportant way. I’m not being very specific, am I? Gastr Del Sol is another band that we were both really into, and I think they were responsible for me hearing John Fahey for the first time. They were also the bridge between some of the weirder experimental music I liked and the acoustic guitar, so I think it must have had quite an influence. Bert Jansch is a big one for both of us, but I see his name looming in question 3, so I’ll move on.
N: Don’t let Jim sell himself short here — he’s got command of a staggering breadth of music and musical influence. He’s also a guitar teacher, and he spends tons of time getting inside songs and figuring them out, even if it’s two hours tabbing out a Journey song for some 15-year-old in the Chicago suburbs. I’m a little more rigid: down-home and hillbilly blues stuff, Anglo-Irish-Scots guitarists (Nic Jones, Paul Brady, and Archie Fisher, especially), and some of the less primitive of the American Primitives like Peter Lang and William Ackerman. And though I should, I don’t spend much time trying to crack any of it; I mainly just listen.
To follow up from the last question, it seems like there are traces of an influence of Bert Jansch in both of your styles of playing; if so, could you comment on what his records have meant to you? Do you each have a personal favorite song or album by him?
J: There have a been a few moments in my life where I’ve heard someone’s music and its connected directly with my brain, my personal history, and something else to do with my appreciation of music and what I feel to be ‘right’ about music. It happened to me with Sonic Youth when I was 16 and it happened much later with Bert, after having spent years avoiding folk music as much as possible. The first one I heard was ‘Birthday Blues’ and it completely stopped me in my tracks, even though I don’t believe most fans would put it in the top five of his records. There’s a song on it called Wishing Well that I immediately set about trying to learn.
N: I’ll never forget first hearing Jansch. I was in a record shop in East London, where I was living in ’99, and the clerk put on that “Young Man Blues” collection of his early recordings. That starts with I guess his earliest version of Jackson Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” and I was smitten. The thing I love most about Jansch is that he was such an absolute guitar slayer but his songs never feel like displays of technical virtuosity, like so much, say, of Renbourn’s solo stuff — both his playing and his singing are so emotive and humane.
What kind of guitars do you use, and do you favor a particular model or models of guitar?
J: I like Martin OM guitars but my one is a fairly cheap one and I should probably get something nicer. We played a show with a guitar duo called Pairdown recently, and between the four of us I had by far the crappiest guitar, but that’s a situation I intend to rectify one day soon.
N: I play a Bourgeois J-OMV that Jim drove me all over Chicagoland looking for a couple years ago, and a Guild DV6 that my dad gave me as a high school graduation present. I don’t know much about makes or models; just like what feels good. My favorite guitar is an entry-level Yamaha in Montreal. It’s owner is an old friend who got it for her Bat Mitzvah, I think. It just came out right.
What are your individual work routines for writing/practicing music? Is it a daily process, or centered more around inspiration striking?
J: I used to write daily, but I play in a lot of bands and recently its been more about keeping on top of remembering everything I have to remember, as opposed to coming up with new material. When it came time for Nathan and I to play shows, we realized that we couldn’t remember how to play large tracts of the album because we both do a lot of things — it really hasn’t been a priority until now, and we’re a priority-motivated guitar duo (PMGD). I’m glad to say that we’ve got in under control now, and we even have some ideas for new songs that we’ll start working on soon. I tend to record little ideas as I have them on my phone, then when the phone is full and won’t record anymore, I start fleshing the ideas out and send them off to Nathan.
N: Jim’s focus astounds me, and I’m jealous of it. I try to play nightly, but I might noodle around for fifteen minutes before picking up a magazine, as I’m really easily distracted and a kind of inspirational fatigue sets in quick. If I can get myself through those first fifteen minutes, though, that’s when good ideas start popping up. If I can play for thirty minutes, I might have the beginnings of a song. But it’s so much easier working with Jim, as he comes up with tons of killer ideas and I can dive right in, free of the burden of genesis.
What areas of life interest you most aside from music?
J: We’re both big book fans and I watch a probably unhealthy amount of films from the 60′s. Overall, music is fairly all-consuming and takes up just about all my time — our day-jobs are music-related too, so its always there. Nathan’s got his job with the Archive, and I teach grumpy teenagers how to play Slayer riffs.
N: And we both spend an inordinate amount of time baby-talking our pets — Jim’s many-toed cat and my neurotic redbone coonhound.
What have been some of your favorite albums that have been released this year? Has there been much new music that has interested you both?
J: I’m going to pass this one on to Nathan because I really don’t get new records very often. I was excited because I thought I was going to be able to say the new Swans album, but it turns out that its a year old already. I always try and get ahold of Richard Bishop records when they come out.
N: I get a fair amount of new releases, but they’re often of old music: it’s a great time to be into vintage recordings, as it’s really a reissue renaissance out there. The recent Dust-to-Digital book/CD “I Listen to the Wind As It Obliterates My Traces,” a mixed-media project by the Steve Roden, is phenomenal — unapologetically subjective; a particular collector’s psycho-geography in sound and photographs. But growing up folky, I can still get way into singer-songwriters. Been loving Meg Baird’s “Seasons On Earth.” The best new record I’ve heard this year is Hiss Golden Messenger’s “Poor Moon.” M.C. Taylor is one of my most beloved contemporary songwriters, as is Elephant Micah, of Pekin, Indiana. His new one will be out in 2012, and it’s my morning-line favorite for next year.
Nathan, how has the experience of working with the Alan Lomax Archives been for you?
N: This October is my 11th anniversary working for the Archive, and it’s only gotten more exciting and more fulfilling with every year. The breadth and depth of Lomax’s collections continually blow my mind; there’s never any shortage of new revelations — every couple of weeks I hear a tune or see a photo or watch some video footage for the first time, and wonder how I’d gone so long being ignorant of it. And that I’ve been granted such access to and curatorial license with the material is sincerely one of the greatest privileges, if not the greatest privilege, of my life.
What musical plans/projects do you each have for the future for your own projects? Do you feel like you will make another record together?
J: I’m currently working on a record with Janet Bean from Freakwater — she and I have a band called The Horse’s Ha and decided that our next record would be more of a guitar and voice album as opposed to a full band. In some ways, the song-writing has been similar to the way I work with Nathan, and there’s a bit more of a focus on the guitar-playing, so I’m enjoying that. The normal gestation period for a James and Nathan record is about two years, but we’ve already got the ball rolling — we should probably try to play more shows first, though.
N: My hands are becoming increasingly more full with a solo record I have coming out in mid-November through the No Quarter label. It’s called “Affirmed.” Will be doing some traveling around and playing on its behalf in the coming months. I’ve also been working for much longer than I care to admit with a good friend named Rayna Gellert, who’s a singer and old-time fiddler living in Swannanoa, N.C., on a record of hers — songs of her own mixed with our arrangements of traditional ballads from her childhood. But we’re nearly down to the shore with it, and we’ll be getting together for shows in the new year. The Jim-Nathan thing has gone much further than we thought it would — doing the record, playing live — and it’s so easy and fun, we’re both eager for more.
Avos page at Tompkins Square: