David Elbert is one of Houston’s most talented guitarists and songwriters. I know this to be true because I’ve had the honor of calling him a best friend for over 20 years. We cut our teeth together and some of my fondest memories, musical or otherwise, include him. I humbly present to you Cathedral Records’ newest Q&A session with a dear friend of the Cathedral and one heck of a guitarist – David Freaking Elbert.
You’ve been playing music for most of your life at this point. Tell me about how and why you started playing?
I grew up in a very musical family. My father, uncles and cousins all played guitar and my grandmother was a terrific pianist. If I had to really pinpoint why I started I think that it was a bit of hero worship for my oldest brother, Jeremy. He was a terrific singer, songwriter and guitar player who seemed to be able to play anything he got his hands on. He exposed me to more music than I thought possible and I certainly don’t think I would have ever picked up an instrument had it not been for him.
Tell me about your path from sitting at the edge of your bed to where are you are now…bands you’ve been in, what you’re currently working etc…
I’ve played in a number of bands and served a number of roles over the years. I’ve been both a lead guitarist and rhythm guitarist, I’ve been the singer, the bass player, I’ve even been a bad keyboardist in a band. Right now I’m working with some amazing musicians in a cover band called The Apple Scruffs. I also play lead guitar in a project called The Glass and I work with a band that I sing, play guitar and song write in called Fake Believe.
What are your main guitars and effects at this point? How did you come to start using these? What have you used in the past?
Like all guitar players I’ve bounced around a lot. For years I used a first year (Peavey) 5150 and I still love to play my ‘75 Marshall Plexi with a Les Paul or hot-rodded Strat. Right now I am using a custom made Telecaster-type guitar that I helped design and put together. My main amp is a boutique British style amp form a company out of Dallas called Jackson Ampworks. They do amazing stuff. Effects are always coming on and off my pedalboard. I use a few different boast, fuzzes, and delays. I couldn’t live without my Memory Man.
What are your thoughts on the Houston music scene? Being here for as long as you’ve been here, you’ve seen a lot, endured the whole “Austin is better” mentality, and have been performing regularly for years. How has the scene changed?
I’ve never been a part of the Austin scene, so I can’t really speak to it. I will say there is a history there that has been respected for a long time and I truly hope they hang on to that. Houston’s strength in the world is our diversity. You can see a badass Tejano band, punk band, country band, rapper or indie band all playing the same weekend. One of my favorite things to do after a rehearsal is to walk down the hall of the rehearsal space I rent and listen to the drastically different artist all playing on the same night. I would love to see more venues play to that and put different genres on the same bill.
What is your favorite local artist or band out there right now?
There are several I could mention. I’ve been a huge fan of Hayes Carll since his first record and it’s great that he has made a national name for himself. It was so exciting to see The Sufers have a successful tour. To do it all without the support of a label speaks volumes about their talent.
What’s your favorite venue in town? What do you think makes a venue good for an independent artist or band? What do you look for when you’re trying to decide what venue to select for a gig?
My favorite venue is any venue is giving a stage to good acts. It’s always best if they have good beer too.
You’re a recording engineer too. Tell me about your background and education, software you prefer and a little about your philosophy in the studio.
I studied audio engineering under Les Williams (among other amazing professors) at San Jacinto College in the late 90s. They have an outstanding music school there and their recording program is one of Houston’s best-kept secrets. I worked at Sugar Hill for a little while and learned so much there. Everyday that I got to be a second engineer for Andy Bradley or Dan Workman was a learning experience. Beyonce cursed me out over there, so that was pretty cool.
Currently I have a project studio set up with a Pro Tools system. I’ve worked with every DAW in the book but I’m most comfortable with Pro Tools. My philosophy as an engineer is the same as my philosophy as a musician. “You have to serve the song.” I love making other artist sound good. I love seeing them see their vision come out of the speakers.
In our lifetime, we’ve seen digital home recording explode. Prices have come down while the technology has grown leaps and bounds in the last 20 years. Given that, what role does an actual studio and hiring an actual engineer or producer offer an independent or aspiring musician? Why should or would someone pay to visit a studio when they can use something like garage band an ipad or even have a pro tools set up with a basic interface in their bedroom for less than a thousand bucks?
I think that’s a question that the industry is still coming to terms with. Amazing things are being done in a home studio. However, I’ve found that when an artist is trying to be all things in a session (producer, performer and engineer) that something is going to suffer and lots of time can be wasted. We’ve all found ourselves going down rabbit holes in the studio and wasting hours of the time we were supposed to be working on music.
Being in a pro environment can actually make things a lot less frustrating. Professionals have already made the mistakes that novices will inevitably fall victim to. The staff of a good studio can help keep the artist focused on their craft and push them to perform in ways they never knew possible.
How can an aspiring artist cut through the noise and distinguish themselves? While the tools exist to help someone get heard, what are some tips you can give to someone in order for them to get beyond their friends and families and connect with audiences?
Write killer songs. When I hear a new band I want to be blown away by how good the composition was. I want to go home singing it. There are always bands that are masters of their instruments or put on fun shows, and those are an important part of our job as musicians. But to have songs that set you apart and that connect with an audience is what makes a band cut through the noise. We as musicians like to write songs that are enjoyable for us to play, but we have to remember that our music is meant for an audience. We have to take that job seriously and give them something worth their time.
I think it’s getting harder and to get people to come out and see live music. There is so much competition for our time. We have so much more to be entertained with from the comfort of our couch than just a few years ago, so respect the craft and the audience that’s there even when it’s just the bartenders.
Most important advice you can give to an aspiring musician? He’s just learning to play, just getting started writing songs and riffs…
I don’t have all the answers so I’ll say what I wish someone would have told me when I was 21. Music isn’t a competition. Don’t let it be. You’re not trying to be the best, but to do your thing the best you can. Surround yourself with other musicians, better musicians, different musicians. Learn from those around you and be a part of a scene. We are all better when we all succeed. Go to other bands shows and cheer them on. You’ll be amazed at what’s out there and how much better your music will be.
Essential gear for a guitarist?
It depends on the guitarist. Guitar is such an interesting instrument because there is so much tone to chase and it all sounds different in other people’s hands. I love jamming with my younger brother, Kevin. He picks up my guitar and plays it through my rig and makes sounds I could never replicate. There is no magic box. Believe me, I’ve looked. I love the stuff that makes me want to keep playing and exploring.
Last question for now, and you know I have to ask: Beatles or Stones?
I love The Rolling Stones and have gotten into them more as I’ve gotten a bit older, but come on. When you look at songwriting, production and influence there’s no comparison. The Beatles are the reason we are all still playing in rock and roll bands.
And as always…support local music, not just with your ears but with your time and pocket. Get out to the shows!