In 2014 we seem to be amidst one of those beautiful and tragic periods of musical history when musicians can’t afford, artistically or practically, to simply be a part of one “band.” Such times have warranted many of the most clever musicians to willingly throw themselves into numerous projects as they arise… and often times these projects are on par with the best work these musicians have thus far created. Such is the case with Ark Life, which began when These United States songwriter Jesse Elliott found himself spending a month of early 2013 in Denver, before he intended to move to New York. However, during his chilly stop in Denver, he and TUS bassist Anna Morsett found themselves haphazardly creating music with pianist Lindsay Giles, guitarist Natalie Tate and drummer Ben Desoto, resulting in Elliott sticking around to see the project through and, ultimately, the songs found on The Dream of You & Me, Ark Life’s debut, out August 19th. The album rings of classic Americana, filtered through more contemporary garage, soul, and pop-based revivalists of the genre. They’ve already played alongside the likes of Of Montreal, J. Roddy Walston & The Business, and The Head & The Heart, in addition to PHILTHY favorites PHOX. They’re spending the majority of the summer of 2014 on the road and, although they’re yet to have a Philly date, they’re actually quite hoping for one. I recently got a chance to chat with Jesse Elliott for the first time in a few years and he told me all about what Ark Life have been and are currently up to.
Izzy Cihak: So I understand that Ark Life came together kind of accidentally, in that you weren’t necessarily planning on doing a musical project together. What is it that drew you all together to such a profound degree?
Jesse Elliott: It was just that perfect time in winter, when everyone is feeling settled for a moment, or at least trapped in one city by gorgeous snow, but you still have that urge to see another human every few days, right? So you call up the people you know and love to have some drinks, play each other some songs – your record player speakers are pretty much destroyed anyway, and it’s too cold to carry something that heavy from the pawn shop on Colfax – so you just go with what you have, where you are, who you love.
Izzy: Your debut album, The Dream of You & Me, is about to drop. How would you characterize your process of working on and recording your debut together?
Jesse: The first half, we escaped up into Pike National Forest to this place called Hideaway Studios, and had three straight days of just playing all day and all night, got all the basic tracks down in one quick burst while those historic floods were ripping through Colorado on every side of us. We were about 12,000 feet up, so we saw it all from every side, but only got a little soggy ourselves. So then a couple weeks later, after we’d dried out, we took all those tracks to our buddy Eric D. Johnson in Portland, and camped out in his basement for a week for vocals and keys and guitars and embellishments. It was a very family affair – ended up having his wife help us with the artwork, and Eric actually turned into this strange Spanish uncle guru who would just pace back and forth across the house and in this raspy Godfather wail just keep wrenching “cantar… cantar… cantar!”
Izzy: What have been the highlights of the band, so far? You’ve played a number of really cool bills with some other really great acts. Is there anyone you are especially proud to have shared a stage with or any reactions to the band that you were especially appreciative of?
Jesse: Yeah, I think those reactions often mean the most to you, when they’re coming from the people you truly admire on that creative level. We’ve had a lot of good mutual love fests with bands, but maybe one of the first and the oddest was with this band PHOX, who we played with at this inspiring little riverside festival in Yorkville, Illinois, a summer solstice actually. And we’re such different kinds of bands – they go more for this intense, heady, ethereal, brilliantly arranged thing, and I think our band is located squarely in the gut, visceral, instinctual, not overly refined. But you look across the river, or into the mirror, and you see this great group of people who aren’t you, who are so different, and yet you think in some other universe, some other time, you might all be in the same big gypsy brass caravan together, across some very crucial moment in human history and world politics, a desert maybe, a prison break – and there you are on the banks of the Fox River in northern Illinois instead, and it’s just as wonderful.
Izzy: You’re quite upfront about your musical influences but, I’m curious, what would you consider to be your most significant non-musical influences?
Jesse: Basically just podcasts. And maybe murals.
Izzy: Actually, I lied. There is something I wanted to ask you about your musical influences. Has anyone else told you that a number of your songs are reminiscent of Lou Reed at his most folk-and-blues-and-soul-inclined? Especially your first single, “Let Your Heart Break,” which I feel like could have easily been on Transformer. What’s your response to that? Do you have any particular favorite works of Mr. Reed?
Jesse: On, nice – actually haven’t heard that yet, but we’ll take it. Yeah, we always soundcheck “Night Moves,” which is basically just another take on “Vicious,” but maybe from the other side, when you think about it. “Andy’s Chest,” “Perfect Day,” “Hangin’ Round,” right down the line – we’d cover any one of those songs, and I think that’s always a good indication of what music related most to your band. Man, that’s gotta be one of the best side ones in rock and roll, come to think of it. Side twos, too. Is it sacrilegious to say you love that album more than anything by The Velvet Underground, even though you obviously love The Velvet Underground? Or is that what all the rock and roll kids understand these days, and we’re way behind? Man, I don’t even care – time to go listen to Transformer…
Izzy: You’re spending the majority of the summer on the road. How would you characterize the live experience of Ark Life?
Jesse: It’s like that one other song on side one of Transformer. A hustle here, there, everywhere, some righteous ladies singing.
Izzy: What’s next for Ark Life? Can we expect more music in the future and/or additional touring? (We’d love to get to see you here in Philadelphia, eventually.)
Jesse: Really not sure, to be honest. This was such an accidental organic thing from the beginning, it’s hard to know what we’ll all do next. We certainly haven’t talked about what comes after the album tour this fall. But maybe if everyone is free on Monday, September 29th, we could meet for a show in Philly? I’m very serious about that. We’re in NYC that weekend before, and it’s always nice to have some rock and roll to listen to on a Monday night. Let us know if we can be of service, yeah?