BELIEVE!; An interview with John Elderkin

An epic tall tale wrapped in the guise of a concept album, The Fall and Rise of John Elderkin and ¡Moonbeams No Mas! opens optimistically, with two teenagers falling in love at a used-record store. However, our heroes are tested when their dive-bar band receives an otherworldly message from the Cosmos. Rather than basking in newfound glory, the band faces down heartbreak and crushing loss before making a desperate trip to the moon in a homemade rocket, giant megaphone in tow.
Recorded over two years with a dedicated collection of Carolina indie-rock all-stars, the record features co-star Danielle Howle, whom The New York Times calls “an extraordinary mind, a southern storyteller with a gorgeous sense of melody,” R.E.M. producer Don Dixon, Robert Sledge from Ben Folds Five, as well as members of The Old Ceremony, Pressure Boys, Sex Police, Dillon Fence, What Peggy Wants’, The Temperance League, Hobex, National Symphony Orchestra, Popes, Spongetone, Hindugrass, Satellite Boyfriend, and The Coolies.
Paired with a backdrop of rock and roll that runs seamlessly from alt-country to psychedelic freakout, John and Danielle’s wild adventure takes place in a world in which rock stars are viewed as prophets. A world in which David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” promise that life on Earth will end in five years is taken seriously by all. A world of fighting the good fight despite impossible odds. In other words, our world, sort of. And in the end, the real world teaches the band a lesson we all eventually learn—the heavy price we pay when we go all in.
The Fall and Rise of John Elderkin and ¡Moonbeams No Mas! is a full-blown rock opera with fresh characters and a plot that veers from zany hijinks to spiritual quest and, indeed, includes an urgent message for the people of Earth.
Ghettoblaster recently caught up with John Elderkin to discuss the record, which was self-released August 4.
What a massive undertaking! When did you first begin writing the material for The Fall and Rise of John Elderkin and ¡Moonbeams No Mas!?
I began thinking about this in 2014, and the writing took a little more than a year. At the beginning, I groped around for what I wanted to pull off. I’m a fiction writer, and I knew I wanted to tell an extended story, and I thought it’d be fun to write a concept album that jumped off from another rock record. At the same time, I was adamant that I not rehash another record’s style, I wanted my own thing. By early 2015, I had a loose story in mind and I began writing music and plot daily, woodshedding songs and plot lines. The producer, Chris Garges, and I worked piecemeal, on weekends here and there throughout 2016, and that gave me time to let the story breathe.
Tell us about the concept for the record?
When I hit on the idea of a “concept record,” I decided that Bowie’s “Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust” was the most fun of the thematic albums I knew, and I ran with the idea of telling a story that followed from that record. I.E., Bowie said the world was going to end in five years, so… what if my main character (a version of me) lived in a world where everyone thought the world was going to end? That would let me go all kinds of fun and heartbreaking places, and I wanted both elements in my story. Bowie was still alive while I began making this, and I did think of it as a lark at that point. After he died, I felt a great responsibility to give the story everything I had.
As for the record’s theme, I also knew I wanted to tell the “every person’s” story about being in a rock band. That is, every band thinks it’s special and has something important and unique to say — because all bands do, right? And most bands end with whimpers or coughs or, occasionally, big explosions. But whatever the case, there’s that sense of loss and “what might’ve been” that really interested me. So this band, ¡Moonbeams No Mas!, would literally get a cosmic message during a gig that assured them they needed to hit the road and spread the word. That makes them the truest of true believers. And of course, things go awry.
I’m guessing the band name is a nod to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Where did ¡Moonbeams No Mas! Come from specifically?
Good call. I wanted a loose nod to that record. There’s a Bowie song called “Moonage Daydream” that led me to ¡Moonbeams No Mas! At first, I thought about directly using the word “moonage” but it evolved into its own thing, which is better, I think. And I’m a sucker for “no mas” or “no more” — something a little wistful maybe.
We’re told you’re also a fiction writer. Did that ability to tap into a fictional world aid in the concept of the record?
Yes. The plot was a big deal — I was determined to create a coherent fictional world, and I think the record does that. The first song, “We Waited Five Years,” sets up the rules of that world the same way a first chapter in a book might do — everyone thinks the world is about to end, my family builds a bomb shelter and waits it out, but meanwhile I’ve met a girl in a used-record store and want to see her again.
I spent about a year writing the plot, and I viewed each song as a chapter. I’d take a page with lyrics and story for each song and pin each on my wall, moving them around the room as the story line changed, occasionally tossing a song when it no longer fit in, that kind of thing. So I was living with the story surrounding me as I worked.
What new artists are you listening to these days?
I’m fascinated by Father John Misty at the moment. And I’m digging back into Amy Winehouse.
What’s next for John Elderkin? A tour? A new LP?
I’m playing small gigs this summer and fall with a stripped-down version of the Moonbeams. Then I’d like to start work on a new concept album — I hope this group will always be a vehicle for going big with ambitious projects.
(Catch Elderkin live here:
09.09 • Cat’s Cradle (Chapel Hill, NC)
09.10 • Evening Muse (Charlotte, NC)
Visit him here: