Best known for his day job as lead guitarist in Maps & Atlases, Erin Elders has in some ways built a career on indulging his taste for the ornate. With his new band Wedding Dress, however, Elders takes on a more traditional singer/songwriter role, stepping out in front to sing lead and do the lion’s share of the songwriting while adopting a more direct approach on guitar. Over the eight songs Wedding Dress has released since late 2012 via a string of singles spaced several months apart, Elders has repeatedly demonstrated a preference for atmosphere and mood over chops.
“Maps’ whole deal has always been about the musical and rhythmic relationships between the four of us,” he explains. “For us, making music has always been about finding interesting ways to figure out those relationships within the songs. But I got to a point where I just wanted to be able to write and play a simple song or story that could stand up on its own. It felt like something I needed in my life.”
Elders didn’t always feel that way. In fact, in spite of his newfound focus on songcraft, he still has to make an effort to get out of his own way and let the songs come first.
“I’m still trying to learn how to simplify,” he admits. “When I first started playing, I had a tendency to immediately try to over-complicate any of the ideas—the chord progression or the vocal idea or the lyrics. The really crazy guitar parts in extreme metal are where my foundation for playing music came from. On the earliest Maps & Atlases stuff, I was trying to frame what I’d learned playing in death metal bands into some sort of weird pop context. From there, it’s been a steady process of learning how to play with other instruments.”
In this case, though, Elders has had to learn how to play with a set of musicians who value space more than he’d been accustomed to. Even on just a passing listen (or glance at the live show), it’s immediately apparent that Wedding Dress’ music benefits heavily from judicious choices courtesy of Elders’ bandmates — Suns guitarist Mike Russell, Suns keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Matt Lemke, Joan Of Arc/Love Of Everything bassist Bobby Burg and Gypsyblood drummer Christian Dawson (all of whom, like Maps & Atlases, are based in Chicago).
“Bobby really understands the power of silence in a song,” Elders says. “When you’re in a band, it’s hard to sit out for a whole verse or chorus. But his idea of a brilliant idea is ‘what if I just don’t play here?’ And I’m like ‘but no, you should play something’ and then he’ll do his thing where he sits out and we’re like ‘that’s amazing!’”
Naturally, the shift to singing lead has given Elders a whole new perspective.
“I’ve always been aware of vocals and lyrics,” he says, “but when you’re singing you have to get into the music while you’re performing it in a different way and listen for different for things.” In fact, in the early stages, when Elders presented his batch of then-new songs to longtime friend Russell, the project “was all about us learning how to sing together.” Russell, says Elders, drew inspiration from “country-western influences, like Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris-type stuff.”
On certain tunes, that inspiration is obvious. Take “Heavy Earth,” for example—a crawling downtempo number with a wide-open arrangement highlighted by acoustic guitar strums, mournful yet anthemic vocals, dreamy bubbles of organ and shades of twang that recall the desert-sky ruminations of roots rock. The phrase “big sky” even appears in the lyrics.
Still, despite the use of what Elders describes as “cowboy chords,” Wedding Dress falls far from your typical case of “progressive-minded rock musician goes country.” In fact, Maps & Atlases fans shouldn’t expect to be alienated or shocked by Elders’ extracurricular effort. And on tunes such as 2013’s “The Mange” and the new single “Loom,” Wedding Dress shakes off its country trappings for a fresh, searching sound that defies easy categorization. (The band’s first full-length album, comprised mostly of songs that haven’t been released yet, is already finished and scheduled for release on Lovitt records this fall.)
Meanwhile, though outwardly more straightahead in its approach, Wedding Dress relies just as heavily (if more discreetly) on band chemistry. The rest of the band fleshes out the material to such a significant degree that it never sounds like Elders, his voice, or his guitar are carrying the music on their own, or like the other players are simply “backing” him. If Maps & Atlases counter-balances its technical side with an underlying emphasis on songwriting, then Wedding Dress does the inverse.
“For Maps & Atlases,” he offers, “it’s always been, not necessarily a struggle, but the underlying challenge: how do we write something that’s challenging and experimental but still a song that people can just enjoy or connect to in an emotional way? So Maps & Atlases was already on that path. But the longer I write songs in this mode, the more I find myself trying to start each song with a simpler setting.”
On the other hand, Elders and his bandmates each bring an x-factor to the table—idiosyncratic touches one hears in the organ flourishes, maracas, a ringing guitar chord—that faintly, almost imperceptibly recall the edgier aspects of each member’s other projects. And when Wedding Dress aims past the bounds of country rock, the music lands far beyond what we’ve heard from rock guys who discover Gram Parsons midway through their careers as adults.
“I think with any songwriter,” Elders muses, “the longer they write songs, the simpler they get.”
Sure, but Elders isn’t the type of musician who started off wanting to write three-chord pop gems to begin with. In his case, having established a reputation by playing with a certain measure of intricacy, Elders has somehow managed to streamline his delivery without betraying the traits that made him stand out in the first place. As such, Elders stands a good chance of providing one of the few examples of a musician who goes through a proverbial “mellowing” or “maturing” period without losing his edge—no small feat.
“When you work in one band for a long time,” he says “you almost know what you’re going to do or what’s expected of you to do. Doing something like this allows me to break out of that and also bring that back to the main project too. This kind of thing helps you think outside of yourself.”