Founded by Anna Smith, Megan Crooks, Cody Coffey and Derrick Bozich in the summer of 2013, Ancient Elk is actually only a little over a year old. Smith and Crooks had played together before in Birds of a Feather, a kind of avant-garde band with roots in bluegrass, folk and jazz. That mixture proved fruitful when the two were developing ideas for Ancient Elk, which will play this weekend at Denver Psych Fest, but the band's sound really crystallized when Smith and Bozich started playing Velvet Underground songs together. Smith, in particular, has been a fan of the influential group since she was a child growing up in a one-room cabin in Evergreen.
"[There was] no inside plumbing," recalls Smith. "My dad had property up there that we inherited, and he was working on building a house. It never really got finished. We all lived in that cabin for fifteen years.
"My dad was really into the Velvet Underground, so that's what I listened to all the time. I didn't really have a TV or entertainment, so the Velvet Underground filled a certain void for me."
Ancient Elk heard about the hi-dive's On the Cover series, in which a local band covers an influential album, and naturally, the landmark 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico suited the fledgling band perfectly.
"I just like that they don't really play by the rules, and it's about the atmosphere and creating an environment with their music versus being structural," says Smith of the VU. "They kind of create an environment and tension in the air instead of creating sounds you would want to dance to. I guess all music creates environment, but they just created a different force."
Since doing that cover performance in the fall of 2013, Ancient Elk has evolved into a group that is refreshingly difficult to define, particularly with the addition of veteran musician Suzi Allegra of Fingers of the Sun. The influence of the VU and folk music is blended with unconventional compositions and an otherworldliness reminiscent of Skip Spence or Joanna Newsom. But the music remains accessible. Ancient Elk's new self-titled EP, recorded at Dryer Plug Studios and released by local imprint Moon Magnet, is a charming three-song offering. Its brevity was no accident.
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"What I've kind of noticed," says Smith, "is that, psychologically, I think that when people are presented with just three songs, they have a tendency to play them over and over again as opposed to being presented with a lot of songs."
At the 2014 Underground Music Showcase, where Ancient Elk released the EP, the quintet engaged in some of its penchant for pageantry by walking around South Broadway wearing Mylar and carrying a boombox playing artists like Mariah Carey in an attempt to take themselves and the people they encountered out of their usual social context. It's the sort of thing that sets this band apart. So is Smith's gift for switching up her physical appearance with wigs and other refinements. "To me, it's not even that weird," says Bozich. "I've kind of lost sight of what's weird and what's normal, and I end up doing my thing, and however people perceive it is how they will anyway."
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