Elk City’s seventh album, ‘Undertow,’ will draw you in

by CINDY STAGOFF
elk city interview

Elk City (clockwise from far left): Renée LoBue, Ray Ketchem, Chris Robertson, James Baluyut and Richard Baluyut.

The Montclair-based art-pop band Elk City continues to challenge the boundaries of genre, sound and lyrical meaning on its new, seventh album, Undertow, released on the Magic Door record label. This distinctively textured and moody album unfolds with interesting surprises, especially after repeated plays: The songs reveal themselves slowly.

Joining co-founders Ray Ketchem (drums) and Renée LoBue (vocals) in the band are bassist Richard Baluyut (also of Versus) and guitarists Sean Eden (also of Luna) and Chris Robertson (also of the Psychedelic Furs side project, Feed); Richard Baluyut’s brother James is currently filling in for Eden, who moved to San Francisco. Ketchem produced, mixed and mastered Undertow at his Montclair studio, Magic Door Recording.

Both LoBue and Ketchem talked, in my interviews with them, about how music has come to define their way of relating to themselves and others.

“When I was a kid, there was a graffitied overpass in my Northern New Jersey town that read ‘Rock ‘n’ roll is good-time music,’ ” said LoBue. “It reached down into my tiny being and resonated with me in a way I couldn’t comprehend.”

She remembers saying to herself when she was a youngster: “ ‘What is rock ‘n’ roll? Why is it good-time music? How can I get to said good time? We don’t have cable TV.’ ”

“Little did I know it was a lyric to a Jefferson Starship song,” she said, referring to “Rock Music.” “Little did I know that that graffitied overpass represented engaging in possibility, and the concept of engaging in possibility set me on a course of seeking out art and music, because engaging in possibility IS art. That graffitied overpass you see from the backseat of your mom’s car can sometimes change your life.”

“My hope is that our music makes people feel something,” Ketchem said. “Joy … sadness … hope … anything that transports them into a place where they are closer to the bone.”

The cover of Elk City’s album, “Undertow.”

The first two songs released as singles sound very different, demonstrating the eclectic mix on the album. You can watch, below, the video of the lead track “Strong (You’re Not Alone),” a dreamy, optimistic, spiritual lullaby that reminds me of ’70s psychedelic songs.

There is a purity of sound here, in part due to Ketchem’s skill as an inventive sound engineer and producer, and in part due to LoBue’s haunting and commanding voice. She sounds to me like a more elegant version of Grace Slick.

LoBue sings in this song:

With a hush we move to make our way inside
When they all gather, I question — but who am I?
Mama, I don’t want to go
I been all takin’ it slow
But it is ok?
I’m makin’ my way
You have to be strong the entire time
You have to be strong and pull on the line

You also can check out, below, “Tried to Move On,” a carefree, spirited tune with an infectious pop sound. LoBue sings: “Way out I see it/Save that movie stub/It’s not just a ticket/I run to you, everything is fine/I run to you and I know you’re mine.”

The band rocks hard with an explosive and exuberant finale in the absorbing “Pathaway.” This song is Ketchem’s current favorite.

“It has a beautiful darkness in the beginning, but the clouds open and it becomes buoyant, joyous to the point of rapture by the end,” he said.

I asked LoBue about her style of singing, and from whom she draws her inspiration.

Ray Ketchem and Renée LoBue of Elk City.

“It’s funny because I don’t think I have a singing style,” she said. “What you’re hearing is the sound of my soul jumping out of my mouth. My main thrill is and always will be writing via live jams, via improvisation. I’ve been improvising lyrics and melodies in this way since the year after I graduated high school. It just started to happen and it was my way of being a musician.

“There’s always a radio station playing in my head. Ultimately, it’s about capturing what’s there, so I listen to that inner music and project what’s coming out in the moment. I guess I would say, ask other people what my singing style is. Ha. But I’m kind of serious in saying that. I can’t tell you what my singing style is. I’m just listening to that in-head radio station, and channeling.”

I wondered if her internal radio station is purely melodic or also lyrical.

“The lyrics come in simultaneously as the melodies, all while I’m improvising,” she said. “If you listen back to the initial jams from these records, the lyrics are all there.”

Undertow was recorded at the same time as the band’s soul-searching 2022 album Above the Water.

“This album is both different and the same because it’s the companion piece to Above the Water,” LoBue said. “It’s the same in that it’s a continuation. It’s different in that it’s the darker of the two LPs. It’s an encircling sonic undercurrent.

“Richard Baluyut suggested the title Above the Water and then shortly after he suggested the title Undertow for the second LP, we realized a water theme was rising to the top, which made our choices for cover art fall into place, because we realized we were working within a framework of thematic titles.”

The album’s water theme is evident throughout and Ketchem feels that this theme “has often felt like an accurate way to express our music,” adding that two of the band’s earlier albums were titled The Sea Is Fierce and Hold Tight the Ropes.

“The water theme is everywhere in songs like ‘Above the Water,’ ‘Undertow,’ ‘Ride the Surf,’ ‘Strong (You’re Not Alone),’ ” said LoBue. “Additionally, and perhaps at the thematic forefront, the water theme is expressed sonically. The sonic textures evoke water. Sonically, texturally, the songs are floating, rushing, pulling, encircling, buoying, engulfing, reflecting darkness and light.”

JOE REINO

From left, Renée LoBue, Ray Ketchem and Richard Baluyut of Elk City at the Montclair Center Stage Music Festival in 2019.

Despite the pop-driven sound of some of the songs, she said that “when I think of ‘undertow,’ I also think of the black intoxication Milan Kundera describes in his novel ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being.’ ”

What do you mean by “the undertow”?

“The emotional pull that can suck one in, in both a positive and a negative way,” she said.

The album, for her, is “a snapshot in time. It’s both an apology and a protest. It’s an engulfing darkness, yet it’s future-forecasting a journey into light. … All of the songs express both sentiments.”

What are you protesting and apologizing for?

“The apology and the protest that run through the LP is about the inner working of our struggles and persistence in living life to its fullest,” LoBue said. “The darkness, the light, the push, the pull, the positive, the negative. The undertow.”

What emotional journey necessitated expression via art?

“Art is all I’ve ever understood,” said LoBue. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted. I was a weird kid with no resources, no understanding and no emotional or creative support … I must note that I’m not attempting to be overly dramatic here, but it’s my story. My life’s work has been to journey deeper and deeper into becoming myself. That’s what necessitated expression via art. I now know I wasn’t just a weird kid. I was a gloriously weird kid who chose to remain so.

“The only difference is now I’m taller,” she joked, adding “Every day I’m thankful I’ve chosen to be exactly the person I came into the world to be.”

In light of her difficulty in fitting in as a youngster, I wondered if the band feels like a supportive family.

“The band feels like family,” LoBue said, adding that “beyond being collaborative, it’s nurturing, respectful, open-minded of one another’s ideas, gentle and considerate. We’re all pulling equal weight, cogs in a wheel, but equally important cogs in a wheel.”

What’s next for this busy band?

Renée LoBue and Richard Baluyut of Elk City in 2018.

“We have mountains of jams to sift through en route to making the next record,” LoBue said. “I have an idea for the next one I haven’t presented to the band yet. I’m waiting to pitch my idea until we’re sitting around over in-studio burritos.”

Ketchem and LoBue are also busy with their new record label, co-founded with Guided by Voices’ Kevin March. It “was born out of our love for the music being created at Magic Door Recording,” LoBue said. “In 2019, the three of us started talking about starting a record label to champion the great music being made in this space. We get to create in a magic factory that’s outputting amazing music and art and we wanted to share that magic. The phrase ‘lead with love’ comes to mind because, as a label, that’s what we do.

“Someone recently said, ‘Wow! The label’s really growing!’ While I was appreciative of the compliment, it gave me an odd feeling because I’d much rather honor our artists than grow.

“I want to cultivate artist equality amongst the bands on our roster. Our goal is simple: To release and celebrate our inspiring community of Magic Door Recording artists. In that way we’re a niche label, much like Stax Records. The current artists on the label are CR & the Nones, Dovedale, The Edukators, Elk City, Flowers of America (FOA), Gramercy Arms, Holmes USA, Jeff Timm, Megan Reilly, Rob Munk, The Wyrd Brothers and Quiz Show …. And we just added two new artists that we’ll be announcing soon.”

Ketchem added: “We saw a need that wasn’t being filled. There are so many great songs being recorded at the studio, mostly being financed by the artists themselves. We thought, ‘Why not join together?,’ and The Magic Door Record Label was born.”

Elk City will perform with Velocity Girl at the Bowery Ballroom in New York on Sept. 30; visit boweryballroom.com. The band also will open for Ted Leo at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair on Dec. 1; visit outpostintheburbs.org.

For more on Elk City, visit linktr.ee/elkcity.

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