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What'd I Say


S1, Ep. 12

We talk to Elderbrook about the limits of a guitar, waking up with a smile, and the things we do when we’re young.

Episode Transcript

Narrator: Hello and welcome to What’d I Say, where Atlantic Records talks with artists about songs they made, songs they like and song they’d liked to have made. It’s an inside look into the craft of songs from the artists themselves.

British musician, songwriter and producer, Alexander Kotz is known professionally as Elderbrook. At the age of 16, he played in bands and as a solo singer/ songwriter until his career took off in college, when he discovered electronic music. His first EP contained the song “How Many Times?” which was remixed by German duo Andhim. This track was named one of Mix Mag’s best songs of 2015. “Cola,” his collaboration with Camelphat, was nominated for best dance song at the 2018 Grammy awards. We sat with Elderbrook while gearing up for his 2018 U.S. tour.

Tom Mullen: Elderbrook.

Alexander Kotz: Hey.

Tom Mullen: Real name.

Alexander Kotz: Real name, Alex.

Tom Mullen: I love that.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: Where’d you get the name?

Alexander Kotz: So you know Reggie Watts, comedian-

Tom Mullen: Of course.

Alexander Kotz: Well, you know when he would star in his standup for Netflix?

Tom Mullen: Yeah.

Alexander Kotz: And when he’d just ramble on in different accents in different characters. His English accent and he was missing a lot of English-sounding names and then one of them was Elderbrook. I just thought, “Hold up. That sounds pretty cool, man.” So I searched online. No one else was called it, so.

Tom Mullen: See, that’s smart. You did a quick search.

Alexander Kotz: Quick search, yeah. Yeah. ‘Cause like it happens so many times when bands, they choose a name and then later down the road like they get into trouble and stuff like that, so.

Tom Mullen: Yeah, I don’t want you to put U.K. at the end of it-

Alexander Kotz: Right.

Tom Mullen: ‘Cause that happened.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, yeah. True.

Tom Mullen: Charleston’s U.K.-

Alexander Kotz: True.

Tom Mullen: You know? You don’t want to do that.

Alexander Kotz: No. Straight up Elderbrook.

Tom Mullen: Yeah. Cool. Do you remember your first favorite song?

Alexander Kotz: My first favorite song was probably a Green Day song. Probably, “When September Ends.”

Tom Mullen: Really?

Alexander Kotz: I think that’s, there may have been ones before that. That’s one that sticks out for me as being one of the first ones.

Tom Mullen: How come?

Alexander Kotz: I don’t know. I was really young. It’s just when I started liking music.

Tom Mullen: Nice.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, yeah.

Tom Mullen: Did you see the video? Did you hear it on the radio?

Alexander Kotz: Do you know what? I think just a friend told me about it and I thought, “Hold up. I should be liking music now.” Like I was really young. I can’t remember how old I was, but, yeah, I remember really liking it.

Tom Mullen: What connected? What about it?

Alexander Kotz: I think I liked the emotional aspects of that song, really. Kind of spoke to me at the time.

Tom Mullen: And you hadn’t thought about writing yet? You hadn’t thought about an instrument-

Alexander Kotz: No, no, no, no, no. This is when I was maybe nine, 10 years old. Yeah.

Tom Mullen: I like that.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: That’s a good intro.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, no, it’s a good song. Still like it.

Tom Mullen: Do you remember the first song you memorized? It coulda been just, you know, you can mouth all the words. Or if you ever listened to it, you knew every bit of it.

Alexander Kotz: Do you remember that song, Eamon… Like F It or Fuck It, or whatever it was called.

Tom Mullen: I don’t remember that one.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, you do. Come on. You know it.

Tom Mullen: Spell the artist. E-A-M-O-N? No.

Alexander Kotz: I honestly can’t remember how you spell it, but I remember learning all the words to that.

Tom Mullen: What is it?

Background speaker: E-A-M-O-N.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, yeah, no. It was a good song.

Tom Mullen: Let’s look it up right now.

Alexander Kotz: Still a good song. That was a retort from another artist as well.

Tom Mullen: Well, there it is. Yeah, his hit single “Fuck It.”

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, man.

Tom Mullen: He’s from Staten Island, New York.

Alexander Kotz: No way.

Tom Mullen: Did not know that.

Alexander Kotz: There you go. Come on, man.

Tom Mullen: Eamon writes in the style called ho … I’m not gonna say that. “Blends a smoothness of R&B with the grittiness of Hip Hop.”

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, man. Yeah. Again, I was really young. I wanna stress that. I was young. I saw a song with the F word in it and I thought, “You know what? I’m gonna memorize all the words.”

Tom Mullen: Screw you, parents.

Alexander Kotz: Exactly.

Tom Mullen: Do you remember the first song or album that you paid for with your own money? Or downloaded illegally. I can’t tell your age yet.

Alexander Kotz: The first album I downloaded illegally was Gnarls Barkley.

Tom Mullen: St. Elsewhere?

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, I think so.

Tom Mullen: ‘Cause it’s not the — Yeah, it’s St. Elsewhere.

Alexander Kotz: What was on that one?

Tom Mullen: That had all the hits.

Alexander Kotz: Oh, okay.

Tom Mullen: Crazy.

Alexander Kotz: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So that’s the one.

Tom Mullen: That’s the one.

Alexander Kotz: Or maybe Jack Johnson, actually. Maybe that was, I think I downloaded them at the same time. It was that one and Jack Johnson.

Tom Mullen: How long did it take? Was that like-

Alexander Kotz: That was when I first discovered the internet and the powers of-

Tom Mullen: Search.

Alexander Kotz: Search. But yeah. I remember, yeah. I downloaded them at the same time. And those were my albums.

Tom Mullen: I like that. Do you remember anything that you paid for? Did you go to the store and pick up anything?

Alexander Kotz: Yep. I bought a Darkness album. I think they might be a U.K. band that-

Tom Mullen: I remember The Darkness.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, okay. There you go.

Tom Mullen: Was that HMV? Where’d you get it?

Alexander Kotz: Do you know what, actually? That might have been a Christmas present. Other than that I’ve downloaded, no, I bought a CD by a band called Busted. Again, a U.K. band. I don’t know how-

Tom Mullen: I remember Busted.

Alexander Kotz: Oh yeah.

Tom Mullen: You know Busted had an MTV show here as they were going to, like, break.

Alexander Kotz: Oh really?

Tom Mullen: They were gonna break in the States.

Alexander Kotz: They had their own show?

Tom Mullen: They had their own show.

Alexander Kotz: Oh, good for them.

Tom Mullen: Yeah.

Alexander Kotz: I did not know that.

Tom Mullen: It did not go well.

Alexander Kotz: Oh, god.

Tom Mullen: But yes, I remember ’cause they were huge in the U.K.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, man. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Again, I’d like to stress I was young.

Tom Mullen: I think that’s the title of this already.

Alexander Kotz: Yep, yep. I was wrong. I was young.

Tom Mullen: Everybody was wrong. When were you exposed to EDM?

Alexander Kotz: I guess when I was at college. Maybe about four and a half years ago, really. I mean, obviously I heard before, but I come from like an Indie, a band background. Like an acoustic background.

Tom Mullen: Were you in those bands in college?

Alexander Kotz: Well no. It’s ’cause I left my hometown to go to college, so I didn’t have anyone to play music with really. So I started writing music by myself, just with a guitar and then when I started recording it, I kind of realized that rather than just recording the guitar and my vocals, I could add a whole bunch of other shit to it. So eventually that kind of morphed into just getting rid of the guitar and Elderbrook, yeah.

Tom Mullen: What did you like about that?

Alexander Kotz: Just you can do so much more. Like obviously with just a guitar you’re just limited to the notes on a guitar and the way you can play it, but I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. Like I still love playing and I still love guitar music, but you can literally do whatever you want with the-

Tom Mullen: What was the learning curve for you? Because, you know, you look at one of those programs, you look at Logic, or you look at Garage Band or any of those.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, yeah.

Tom Mullen: Pro Tools and you’re just kind of, you have everything in front of you. How do you make those decisions with every option possible?

Alexander Kotz: I don’t know man. I’ve always said to go down the method of if it sounds good, just go with it and then move on to the next thing until you end up with an entire song that sounds good. So, just messing around. Like a lot of the time it would sound terrible, but occasionally it would sound really weird and cool. And then just go with that.

Tom Mullen: ‘Cause there’s so much experimentation. Like how do you know when to stop?

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And I’ve been down those roads as well, where I just have to take a step back.

Tom Mullen: You’re scrolling and you’re like, “Okay, that was 100 tracks.”

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, that’s 100 tracks of me making strange farm animal noises.

Tom Mullen: Were there some EDM tracks or even just, you know, anything in that computer-based that you were super excited about that kind of took something to the next level? You kind of heard something and said, “Oh my God, I can do this,” or, “This is inspiring.”

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, again, it was when I was at college in the U.K. when I kind of started hearing House music, like a lot. That’s when I really got excited by electronic music. It was House. I can’t think of like, a lot of the people I was living around that were also into music at university were house DJs themselves and they were making stuff. So I saw them make it. I was like, “Hold up. I could sing on that. I could sing on that.” So I didn’t actually produce in the beginning. I was just singing on the tracks that they had made and then eventually I kind of learned and learned and learned until I could vaguely replicate the kind of stuff they were doing but in my style.

Tom Mullen: How many hours do you think that took for you from opening up that program for the first time and making something that you were super proud of? It could have been the simplest thing.

Alexander Kotz: I couldn’t even gauge that, ’cause-

Tom Mullen: ‘Cause I think sometimes people think it’s gonna be so easy and it’s-

Alexander Kotz: I thought it was gonna be easy, as well. But obviously I’m still learning-

Tom Mullen: You’re still figuring it out.

Alexander Kotz: -like cool stuff. But it can be daunting when you first open, when you download Logic, there you’re sitting there and you’re like, “I’m gonna make a cool song. I’m gonna sound just like everyone else.” And then you realize that you do need to put in a bit of time to make sure you understand how things work and, yeah, still learning now.

Tom Mullen: So it’s still going? Ongoing?

Alexander Kotz: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: It’s kinda like a never-ending mountain, I feel like.

Alexander Kotz: It’s like a never-ending mountain.

Tom Mullen: ‘Cause you can’t learn everything.

Alexander Kotz: No.

Tom Mullen: No matter-

Alexander Kotz: No. I can try.

Tom Mullen: Yeah. Are there instruments or other sounds that you are proud to have snuck into your tracks?

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, like I was saying earlier about making weird sounds and sometimes it not working. A lot of the time it just does work and you can just fit it in there somewhere. A good one was, I was recording late at night. I was recording vocals just right next to my computer. I had a glass of water or something. And I just spilt it all over my laptop. But luckily, nothing went wrong. And I was recording at the time, and it actually made the most incredible sound that I made into a snare.

Tom Mullen: Amazing.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, man.

Tom Mullen: See? Accidents.

Alexander Kotz: Exactly. Exactly. Accidents.

Tom Mullen: Who would we be surprised to find out is a musical influence? It’s not the usual cast of characters.

Alexander Kotz: Probably someone like Jack Johnson, actually, to be honest. I just absolutely love everything he’s ever done and it definitely has a huge influence on the kind of music I make.

Tom Mullen: That’s great. I listened to his stuff in Hawaii and I think it fits perfectly there.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, man.

Tom Mullen: Like you turn it on, you put it on. You’re like, “Oh, I get it. I get it now.”

Alexander Kotz: I get it now. Yeah. It’s a bit different listening in a city where-

Tom Mullen: I’m relaxed. Like, that’s what I feel like when I’m listening.

Alexander Kotz: Exactly. No, he’s great, man.

Tom Mullen: Is there a recent song that you’ve discovered that you’ve had to share with your friends immediately?

Alexander Kotz: There is a Mura Masa edit of a Foals song called “Night Swimmers,” I think, which I found literally like a couple of days ago and I thought it was absolutely incredible.

Tom Mullen: What was incredible about it?

Alexander Kotz: It’s incredibly energetic and like the drop kind of comes out of nowhere and it’s just really, really, really simple, which is something I really love. So I would urge anyone listening to go and find that after this.

Tom Mullen: I like that.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, it’s really good.

Tom Mullen: So did you share it with like 10 friends? Was it like a huge text chain?

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, I mean. Like I saw some people there that night and I just played it out and everyone loved it.

Tom Mullen: That’s great.

Alexander Kotz: It’s just a great song. It’s really, really good.

Tom Mullen: To get that reaction.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, yeah.

Tom Mullen: Do you remember the first time you heard one of your songs in public?

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, I do. Again, I was at university. I was younger. I was at a club and just a song that I’d written with a friend of mine a few months before just came on in the club, I guess. Yeah. I mean, it was a local DJ. Like we’re all friends, so like it wasn’t really that-

Tom Mullen: But you could see other people’s reactions?

Alexander Kotz: Well yeah, exactly. Exactly. But you could see other people. And I kinda just wanted to tell everyone, like, “Guys, that’s me. This is me.”

Tom Mullen: The spotlight just turned on and you magically got a mic.

Alexander Kotz: Exactly. But no.

Tom Mullen: Was there any cool reaction you saw from somebody?

Alexander Kotz: I can’t really remember that at the moment. I think just at the time I was just really happy that it was being played in a club for the first time.

Tom Mullen: Chills?

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, yeah. It was great. It was good.

Tom Mullen: What elements of other songs grab you first? Is it the lyrics?

Alexander Kotz: What do you mean?

Tom Mullen: Is it the drum part? Is it the-

Alexander Kotz: Oh, it could definitely be anything, man. It could be anything. Like I said earlier, if it sounds good, just roll with it.

Tom Mullen: So there’s not one thing that maybe hits you first when you’re listening to a song? For me, it’s the guitar part.

Alexander Kotz: Okay, to be fair, actually, the drums would catch my attention first. If there was something that I wasn’t already paying attention to, it would be the drums.

Tom Mullen: The beat.

Alexander Kotz: Or the beat of percussion, yeah.

Tom Mullen: And then trying to, “How can I emulate that?”

Alexander Kotz: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: What’s a song no matter how many times you’ve heard it you will stop anywhere and listen to the whole thing?

Alexander Kotz: Prince, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Yeah.

Tom Mullen: That’s a good one.

Alexander Kotz: That’s a great song.

Tom Mullen: I have a feeling that’s your karaoke song, too.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I’ve never actually played karaoke before, but that song is my alarm for the morning time.

Tom Mullen: That’s your alarm?

Alexander Kotz: It’s an incredible alarm, honestly. You’ll wake up with a smile and it’s just good. It’s good.

Tom Mullen: I think we’re gonna rephrase that. What is your alarm song? Is there a song that does give you goosebumps every time? It doesn’t have to be your wake-up song.

Alexander Kotz: There is actually an old song by a gospel quartet called The Harmonizing Four and the song’s called “Motherless Child,” which is actually incredible. It’s just really good ’cause it’s all completely acapella and it’s actually just incredible.

Tom Mullen: How did you hear it? Was it your relative?

Alexander Kotz: I love old gospel music, so I actually research that quite frequently and find lots of cool acapella gospel quartets from the 1930s.

Tom Mullen: How did you get into that?

Alexander Kotz: I just love voices, to be honest. Like, I really love the idea of just straight up human voices in a room making music without any instruments. So just, kind of that idea is really cool and appeals to me, I guess.

Tom Mullen: Cool. So what’re you looking forward to this year?

Alexander Kotz: What am I looking forward to?

Tom Mullen: Yeah.

Alexander Kotz: Everything, man. I’m looking forward to the rest of my tour that I’m on. I’m gonna be releasing some new music soon. I’m gonna be working on an album. And yeah, I’m looking forward to life.

Tom Mullen: Do you like the difference between releasing a single and releasing an album?

Alexander Kotz: I have not released an album quite yet.

Tom Mullen: Not yet.

Alexander Kotz: Well, I’ve released a seven-track EP, which is really cool.

Tom Mullen: That’s close enough.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah. No, I get you.

Tom Mullen: So, more than one song.

Alexander Kotz: Yeah, exactly. Well, it’s different. I really enjoyed releasing that seven-track EP, just ’cause it was something that I’d been working on for so long and I put a lot, a lot of time into and just to have it out there and then see which songs react and which different kind of ways was amazing, but again, releasing just the one song that I feel passionate about is great.

Tom Mullen: Great.

Narrator: Thanks again to Elderbrook, for coming on What’d I Say. Our theme music is by Max Frost. Be sure and catch up on all the Atlantic Records podcasts at AtlanticPodcasts.com. Thank you for listening.