A “Preliminary Outpouring”: an Interview With Experimental Indie-Rocker Elijah Egbert
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
The Berkeley Bside
As a student musician trying to conquer a new music scene as a junior transfer, one might expect Elijah Egbert to be loud, talkative, and perhaps a little too eager to get you to listen to his music. But this UC Berkeley student-musician is none of that.
Rather than focusing on “selling” himself, Egbert’s creative process is a calm, solitary activity — a time to process the happenings of the outside world from the comfort of his own room. Enjoying his first semester as a non-commuter, Elijah is a housemate of mine who chooses to make his music as a one-man project. The result varies from introspective and carefully-articulated folk to heavily edited experimental alternative rock, loosely held together by an expressive and bright vocal delivery.
A philosophy-turned-rhetoric major, Egbert’s thoughtful musical approach appears to represent an overarching character trait. His inquisitive tendencies shone through as we explored our mutually-inhabited abode, communal living space, and eccentric vegan-vegetarian haven that is the Lothlorien Cooperative. The setting felt meant-to-be, especially when he stopped in front of Lothlorien’s Lord of the Rings mural to tell us about how he would play the LOT audiotapes on repeat through his boombox as a child. Even in charming moments like these, Eli’s way of speaking is deliberate: he holds eye contact, chooses his words carefully, and treads lightly in a way that, despite our mutual awkwardness, makes the exchanges feel easy. In a moment of quiet on a Friday afternoon, we talked about the Sacramento music scene, his creative process, and what real love is.
So, you grew up in Sacramento
I grew up in West Sacramento, actually, which is just across the river. It’s a different city, but basically the same thing. I’ve always lived in Sacramento. I really like it there because the river is there, and it gets really hot and you can go swimming in the rivers.
What are the people like?
I don’t know! It is a government town. In the downtown there’s a lot of state offices and that sort of thing. There’s a tiny bit of it that feels like San Francisco or something, in the middle. Just like the downtown, it’s bland office buildings and people in suits scuttling around. The city itself isn’t that big, but there’s a lot of suburbs and a lot of suburban culture like malls. That’s definitely where like I spent a lot of my time: in a sort of like amorphous, sprawling, semi-urban environment.
Is there much of an arts scene?
Yeah! There’s a lot. There’s no real venues, but there’s some all ages venues. Or there were in the past, and that’s how I started playing music. When I started playing music there was like a pizza place that was in downtown and it was called “Luigi’s Fun Garden.” It was just an empty room with a stage in it, but there were a lot of shows there and it was one of the all ages venues around. Then there was the Naked Lounge which was a coffee shop that was the same deal where it had a little room with a stage in it. That one stayed open longer but it just closed down as well too.
So none of these spaces that you used to go to are left?
No, none of the same ones have lasted. But there are other ones now. Right now the only real venue in Sacramento that’s all ages and cool and DIY is the Red Museum, which is like this warehouse space that’s like run by a bunch of artists. But you know how there was that fire at like that DIY place in Oakland? Since then the city has been really uptight and trying to shut down the Red Museum.
You mean in Sacramento after the Oakland thing?
Yeah. I’m not sure on the details so much, but I know there’s been a lot of problems with getting permits and getting it all up to code. What has ended up happening is now is they only do one show there every month, or one show every couple months, because they can’t be a “venue-venue,” like a proper licensed venue — it has to be an art studio that occasionally puts on an event. As far as regulations go, it’s hard to make a space that’s affordable. Like not even one that’s profitable, but just one that’s able to break even is really hard.
How do you think that affects the arts scene, or other folks like yourself making music in Sacramento?
I mean there are places to play if you look. But that’s never really been my focus: playing shows, and trying to play bigger shows and trying to play more shows. I’m not sure that I want it to be.
What is your focus then?
More about writing, definitely. I’ve never had the temperament of selling anything. I don’t have anything against people pushing their art, or trying to make a living off their art — I think that’s really great. I just wouldn’t know how to approach it.
That makes me think, just with like the rhetoric major — do you think there’s any connection between your music and your academic pursuits? Would you say that says something about you as a person?
Maybe (laughs). I don’t know exactly what the connection is, but I like similar things about both. Both of them are solitary creative exercises. I mean, music isn’t always solitary, and neither is the academic stuff, but I just really like taking the time to pay attention to something really carefully, and that’s what music is for me, too: a prolonged time of engagement with a single thing. Like with a recording, recording a song, or an album, and just working on it and working on it and really trying to pay attention to what it needs.
Yeah, I mean your work definitely must require working on it for a prolonged period of time — you just put out an album! When you’re recording, is it just you or do you work with other people? What’s the creative process like?
Well, I’ve done a lot of different things. As far as the music I release under my own name, that’s all recorded by me. I have a few songs where I send people files and they record over it, collaboratively. I’ve worked with my friend Jiro Lagac (Pictures of Grey), and we’ve done a lot of work together on the side as well, and I’ve collaborated with him on some of my music. And then also there’s some horns, or I had somebody play bass clarinet over some of my recent music.
Focusing on Eight Songs from the Tower (2017), the song “Preliminary Outpouring” seemed particularly emotional. Do you want to tell us what that song was about?
I guess that song’s about punitive love, or love that is fiery, or love that cuts through things. That’s what the album is kind of circling around — this image of the Tower of Babel, and the Tower reaching upwards and being struck down from above. That first song in particular stemmed from that feeling of love that cuts through artifice, or performance, or just pretending, or routine, or bad habits. It’s about violent love, or something like that. I think real love is that: really interacting with another person in that way is cutting through things.
The following EP, Center of the Spiral (2017), features a lot of audio editing. Is there anything that inspired you to edit music the way you do?
I’m not sure. It’s not directly imitating anything, but I do really like to work with textures in music, and the way I learned how to make music was through recording it and listening back to it and writing in the recording process. A lot of my music depends upon the medium of recording and what I’m trying to work through subconsciously with the recordings themselves. Instead of just writing things, creating a performance, and then capturing it, I’m trying to work with the recording itself, writing for the recording, and writing in the recording.
Did you teach yourself how to play and edit music? Did anybody guide you?
I play cello, and I still do but not as regularly as I used to. So that’s shaped my basic musical sensibilities. But I taught myself the other instruments that I play, like guitar, and I taught myself how to record with GarageBand.
What do you use when you play live? Do you mix anything live? How does that work?
That’s always been problematic, because I write a lot of music in the recording process but then have to rethink it and consider how it’s going to play out in a live setting. In the past I was just like, “Well, there’s just some music and recordings that I don’t really know how to translate into a live setting, and there’s just a lot of stuff that I will never play live.” But at a certain point I was feeling the need to play out more. It felt isolating to be working on these super complex recordings all the time, yet still not really being able to bring them to people in an approachable way. You can send people your bandcamp or something but that’s not the ideal way to engage with somebody’s music.
So on the Eight Songs album, I wanted to write an album I could play all the way through. And, I wanted to record it in a way that I hadn’t been recording — I didn’t want to edit it. I wrote that and recorded it to tape with a four track, like just one of those taskcam desk units that I borrowed from a friend, all in one day. I recorded all of them in one sitting, just to get it all out, and I didn’t edit at all. I just did some minimal mixing. And I wrote the songs in the week before. Bits and pieces have been around, but it was developed intensively over the course of a week or so.
Are there any artists that you are inspired by when you’re thinking about all of this?
I really like Phil Elverum and all of the music that he’s made in different projects with The Microphones and now with Mount Eerie. Also Joanna Newsom — I’m a big, big fan. Honestly, I’ve been watching a lot of old movies recently and that’s been making me think about things in a different way.
How so? What movies?
A lot of old Samurai movies and then Ingmar Bergman movies. And then old vampire movies as well — I’m really, really into that.
What can we look forward to in the future from you?
It feels like I’m unclear as to what I’m doing. I’m trying to learn a lot of other people’s songs, just to get me thinking about it in a different way. I’ve been listening to the Smithsonian’s folk music archives. What’s fun to do is to listen to those songs and try to transcribe the lyrics, but there’s some that you can’t understand and you can use that gray area to shape it into your own narrative a little bit.
The other thing that I want to work on is trying to get my hands on a video camera, just because I’ve been really into movies recently and I think it would be really fun to work on some audio-visual projects. In a lot of my recorded music, I like to work with editing and textures and the sort of artificial, synthesized experience, and I think it’d be really great to throw a whole visual aspect into that. I think that I have visual associations with the music that I make, but I’m sure that doesn’t come across to other people. My friends in Sacramento run this thing called the “Library of Musiclandria,” which I just kind of want to share with the world. It’s a free musical instrument lending library and it’s getting pretty serious. They have a real location now and it’s totally free and it’s really great. Associated with that part of the library is a label called Four Headed Records that releases audio-visual material on VHS tapes. I’ve been wanting to release something on that for a while and we’ve talked about it. So, this whole audio-visual thing is something to look forward to and that’s going to be coming out in the next year.
Written by Veronica Irwin
Photos by Bianca Lu