2016 EMERGING ARTIST PRIZE IN MUSIC
His dad’s refusal to forsake vinyl records in the mid ‘90s when most people thought they were extinct may just have opened the door John Elliott needed to become a musician. His dad’s collection included eccentric gems such as obscure guitarist and fellow Bay Villager Peter Laughner; the first album by Neu!, a German group formed by two former members of the electronic music band Kraftwerk in the early ‘70s; and Jimi Hendrix: Band of Gypsies – Live at the Fillmore.
“My dad had all these weird albums that people didn’t normally have in 1995,” John says. “So, I could check them out for myself without being told about them and make up my mind about the music at an early age. I was really into music and wanted to have something to do with it, be in a band or something.”
His initial steps toward becoming a musician and composer were to get his first guitar at 8 in third grade and take lessons at Westgate Music until he was 16. When his instructor died suddenly, he signed up with another teacher who specialized in jazz guitar, which John didn’t enjoy. By association, he began to hate the instrument itself. At 20, he purchased a synthesizer and started improvising on it. He dates his career in electronic music to that time: 2007.
He began to jam with some friends, and they ended up forming the band Emeralds, which gained momentum quickly as they started playing out and their recordings gained traction in the underground, avant-garde music scene. Thurston Moore from the indy rock band Sonic Youth even took one of their cassettes he had mail ordered and produced their first vinyl recording.
“We did a lot of handmade cassettes and CDRs just to circulate our music to establish ourselves,” John recalls. “A lot of times we’d record our band practices and give them a title. They were a little bit like jazz improvisations, only with weirder instruments.”
Emeralds–named for the Cleveland MetroParks Emerald Necklace because John enjoys nature and being outdoors and spending time in the parks–broke up in 2012 for “personal reasons,” he says. However, along the way he’s recorded solo projects under several different names, too, including Imaginary Softwoods, Mist (with Sam Goldberg), and Outer Space (with Andrew Veres).
The popularity of John’s music has resulted in more than 30,000 physical album sales worldwide and provided the foundation to schedule multiple national and international tours. He has also won many fans that have enjoyed and engaged in his formative performances at the Transformer Station’s inaugural night, the Cleveland Art Museum’s Summer Solstice event, European festivals, and headliner tours of Japan and Australia.
Since 2010, he’s overseen his personally curated imprint for vinyl, CD and digital releases, which is known as Spectrum Spools and operates under the esteemed label of Editions Mego, the world’s leading record label for contemporary electronic music. He has created more than 40 widely distributed musical releases that have traversed the legacy of 20th Century Classical electronic music, refracted through the lens of his own idiosyncratic musical vision. He has also collaborated with legendary American electronic music pioneers such as Tony Conrad, Alan Howarth and David Borden. In 2013, he performed and was interviewed in the modular synthesizer documentary, I Dream of Wires. His works have been praised by national and international publications like The Wire, Spin and Pitchfork Media.
Today, he’s evolving as an artist and focusing on his own projects, along with his painting contractor business. “I have a smaller, scaled-back studio, and I’m working more on getting back to my improvising style,” John informs. “I’m playing my synth for hours and trying to get better at that.”
He recently released his newest cassette that he spent five years working on. “It may not be my best work, but I feel like it’s my biggest achievement,” he says.
The best place to find his music is his website (www.spectrumspools.com). While he has missed playing live gigs, he will return to the stage in August to perform at the prestigious Atonal Festival in Berlin, Germany, and plans more live performances in the near future.
The timing of the Cleveland Arts Prize, he believes, couldn’t have been better. “I’ve been at this for a decade, so it was nice to receive some reinforcement and recognition like the prize,” he says. “You do all these things and wonder if it matters, so it makes you feel like you’ve actually accomplished something.”