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Andrew Elstner: Torche / Tilts / Riddle of Steel

22 Jan Interviews | Comments
Andrew Elstner: Torche / Tilts / Riddle of Steel

Nearly 10 years ago, a message board recommended that I to listen to Riddle of Steel. It hooked me pretty much immediately. Such a difficult band to describe, but I feel like they are somewhere around the lovechild of Led Zeppelin, Queens of the Stoneage, with the Edge from U2 playing with his delay rig. Upbeat catch songwriting, sweet riffage, and a killer rhythm section. After RoS called it a day, I followed where each member went. The guitarist/singer went on to a killer established heavy band called Torche. I had listened to them for a while, so it was cool to see him join up. After that, I found out he also had a straight forward rock band called Tilts. After picking up the Tilts record, I thought it would be cool to touch base with him, and pick his brain on music and guitar.

What bands do you currently have, and what bands have you been in previously?

I play guitar and sing in a band based out of St. Louis called Tilts, and I of course play guitar in Torche as well. Before that I played guitar and sang in Riddle of Steel, also out of St. Louis for just about ten years.

Is guitar your primary instrument?

Indeed it is. I played drums in high school in bands with various friends, and I can still keep a fancy beat but it’s been a minute since I had the space or the means to keep up.

What instruments do you play?

Guitar and vocals are my two main weapons. Any guitar player can play the bass (and usually vice versa) but I’m not a “bass player.” I can noodle on the piano and drums, even took violin lessons as a kid. But yeah, guitar is the end of the road for me.

How long have you been playing guitar?

I’ve been playing since I was 12, so about two dozen years now. Ouch!

Did you take any lessons growing up? (guitar or other)

Yeah, I started on piano for maybe a month or so, but my incredibly uncomfortable and awkward teacher would make me sing while I played. The lessons were on the family piano, so here I was like 9 or 10 years old singing, “I would like and ice cream cone, I would like an ice cream cooooone…” while my two older sisters laughed from the other room. I didn’t have the fortitude to hang in there very long. After that came violin lessons which we had to do in school, but I took private lessons as well. I actually really liked it, but my teacher moved and that was that.
Then of course, guitar at the age of 12. My teachers were largely non-traditional and of the supplemented tab variety with bits of scales and theory thrown in as needed. As I got older, I took some more serious lessons from a jazz guy in my home town. He was great.

What impact did that have on you as a musician?

Every teacher left their mark for sure. The non-traditional approach is absolutely one I prefer as a guy who isn’t interested in session work or being a gun-slinger. I can hold my own with a lead, but I have no interest whatsoever being a shredder. I find that shit largely embarrassing, and I mean specifically of the Steve Vai/Malmsteen variety. They can play, without a doubt… but… You can shred? Neat. The guitar riff from “Black Dog” just eclipsed your entire catalog of mincing flummery. To each their own, I suppose.

Do you have an understanding of scales and music theory?
— How does that impact your songwriting?

Yes, enough to know what’ll work and what won’t. There’s a lot of theory that can help with songwriting, understanding scales and why certain chords sound better following certain other chords, etc. It can actually get pretty interesting. However, I’m not really into that mode of song writing. I love the more spontaneous way bands get together and bang it out.

Who are some of your biggest musical influences?

Early on it was the usual, Zeppelin, Sabbath, old Aerosmith, Ozzy, Metallica, AC/DC, etc. Later got into less formative but no less exciting stuff like Jawbox, Shellac, Bill Dolan’s playing (5ive Style, Heroic Doses, etc.) has always terrified me. Really when it comes down to it, I love heavy music and I love a good melody.

Do you still practice instruments, beyond when you’re writing for your bands?

I play guitar, at least a little bit, almost every day. At home it’s a lot of acoustic stuff, trying to improve finger picking and the like. Am I “practicing”? Maybe? Haha…

Do you still attempt to push forward by learning new instruments or applications?

I think it’s absolutely a great idea. I just wish I had more time. I’ve been trying to learn to play the bagpipes (not kidding) for about the last three years now. I can’t say I’ve really been putting in the hours, it’s tricky for sure. You understandably don’t start out on the pipes, but on a practice chanter which is a reeded instrument to train your lungs (you need a ton of air) and to properly train your fingers. Those guys take that stuff really seriously. Needless to say, the practice chanter doesn’t sound that encouraging.

Do you have have a method for songwriting? How does it usually happen?
– Prefer bringing a skeleton to practice, or build as a collaboration

I’ll occasionally have a riff, or a succession of parts ready to show a band I’m in. But without exception, every band I’ve been in, including Tilts and Torche all write collaboratively. I’m not writing all the songs in Tilts anymore than Steve is writing all the songs in Torche. It’s almost always the whole band in a room, hashing out ideas and putting the songs together, then doing a rough demo. I totally prefer this way since I think it produces the best ideas, is the most fun, and is usually the most satisfying for all band members.

What is your electric guitar rig these days (if you’re willing to divulge the secrets)?

Ah… this could get long! I’ve got too much stuff at the moment. My main guitar for years has been a “JDS” Les Paul copy that has been gutted and re-gutted to my specs. I really love it and mysteriously have never found another one, ever. I recently signed on with Framus Guitars out of Germany and I cannot say enough good things about the quality of their guitars. I’ve got a Panthera custom six string with P-90’s and a Panthera custom 12 string as well. Both instruments are perhaps the finest I’ve ever played. Truly unparalleled selection of wood. For a company that’s been around since the 1940’s, they remain largely under the radar, and that’s unfortunate because they’re making world class instruments. I use Seymour Duncan pickups and Cleartone Strings exclusively as well. Couldn’t be happier. Digitech/Hardwire has hooked Torche up with a large assortment of pedals too, and I have to admit I was skeptical at first, but at least two of them have found a permanent place in my pedal board. Also picked up a Verellen Skyhammer pre-amp pedal from Ben Verellen, and it’s a different world entirely. An incredible piece of gear! My current cab is an Atlas 4×12, straight front with Vintage 30’s. Atlas is a newer company out of Boulder, CO and this cab is a motherfucker. Built like a tank, I could not be happier. I’ve been really lucky as a player this year!
Head wise, I’ve been borrowing various Marshalls from my band mates in both bands, mainly Super Leads and 800’s. I just finished building my own Super Lead clone, though crazy loud and very ZZ Top/Angus Young, still needs some tweaks.

Do you use different rigs between Torche and Tilts?

Well, only slightly. Same guitars, same pedal board, different tunings. In Tilts, I’m using Andy White’s Super Lead with a master volume and an Avatar cab, I believe with V30’s as well.

Does gear impact your songwriting / performing?

Yeah, but recently it’s been all about getting the right gear for a specific sound and not the other way around. Like, Cleartone Strings wasn’t making a low .70 gauge string until we came along and requested it, haha. It would be different I suppose if we just had to play whatever we could cobble together.

Riddle of Steel had some unique tonalities, were you using any alternate tunings?

Yes, I used three different tunings. The main one, which I tried to keep secret for a while, is tuning in 5ths like a mandolin or a cello. The low string being a low B, then tune from the 7th fret. This way each pair of strings contains a root and a 5th. You really have to crank the third string high as well, so it helps if you adjust your gauges accordingly.
An easy way to just play power chords everywhere if you want to get lazy, but also forces you to try different chord shapes and gives you way different sounds. The other secret was that the top two strings were the same note. I used them as drone strings in many many chord progressions.
I also used DACGAD a lot (Kissing In Secret) as well as the occasional Drop-D.

Any advice for students who are trying to find success in the music industry?

Man, I’m still learning so many things myself. Really I guess it’s about defining what success means to you and not letting someone else decide for you. Expect nothing, thank everyone and most importantly, find like minded individuals.

Any Advice for life on the road?

Tons! But really I can’t do any better than Thor Harris’ blog post, “How To Tour In A Band, or Whatever.”
It’s really pretty incredible advice for touring musicians and for life in general. I read it before every tour, sometimes during tour… and sometimes forwarding it (again) to my band mates. Haha! No joke.

Do you prefer recording, or live performances?

Each for their own thing. I like to hear the beginnings of the finished product when we record, or those rare moments when you get something kind of magical. Live shows are an entirely different beast, enjoyed on their own terms. I love playing live.

How do you like to prepare for recording?

Well, I’d LIKE to prepare by having all the songs completely finished, and going into the studio knowing what we want and getting it done. Like most things in life, it doesn’t happen that way. Still, you manage to get it done.

What have you been listening to lately?

I’ve been all over the place lately man. Sort of looking for excitement in a world that’s starting to seem incredibly boring to me. There are some really killer new bands, new releases and old stuff that’s new to me to fill in the gaps though. That new High on Fire is scorching. The new Van Halen, I thought was really pretty great especially since I was expecting total garbage. Been jamming a lot of Iron Claw, AC/DC, old British folk stuff: Martin Carthy, Steeleye Span, Sandy Denny (gasp!), 80’s retro-futurist revival type stuff… It’s crazy what you find yourself geting into after hearing rock and metal bands every night of the week for months on end. It all starts to sound really conservative and you get desperate to hear new sounds, or at least, that’s how it works for me!


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