Black Elk Speaks
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Black Elk Speaks

New York City, New York, United States | SELF

New York City, New York, United States | SELF
Band Alternative Rock




"Black Elk Speaks"

Black Elk Speaks has always been a difficult band to describe: each of the many performances I’ve attended has been as bizarre as the last. ”Hi,” guitarist/vocalist Johnny Gasper brightly introduced the band after their opening number at the Bug Jar last night: “We’re Black Elk Speaks and we’re gonna punch you in the neck.”
If you told me that back in the early 1980s, a bunch of spaced out surfers from SoCal and brilliantly driven artists from SoHo had a few babies together between them, and those babies grew up to be Black Elk Speaks, I would not believe you, because I know enough of the real story. But I would commend you on your intriguing way of describing the particular sound of this band. Certain songs like “Bear/Honey” are continuous performance-art pieces: the general story that is told through the lyrics varies slightly every time the song is played, the cute catchy hook “All I want is a little bit of money/ all I want is a girl to call me honey” remaining as the only constant. Their single, “The Side”, is an eight minute long exploration of the border between indie surf rock and experimental noise, which seems like an overlap that cannot possibly exist until you listen to this song. This band’s moody, artistic beats and bizarrely haunting, bluesy lyrics are engaging to crowds on both sides of their twenties, and both sides of the country.
Probably the best part of this show, however, was the photographer with terrible etiquette: first standing directly in the way of the two other photographers at the show, and then just sort of jumping up on stage and poking his camera inches from the band members’ faces while they were playing. None of the band members did as promised and “punch [him] in the neck,” and for that, and only that, I am terribly disappointed. - Above The Bug Jar

"Introducing: Black Elk Speaks"

There’s a certain amount of pride that I feel when artists from the Rochester area send us their material. I like that bands that might not otherwise have an immediate outlet can get my attention with their proximity. It gives me more of an incentive to listen when I can go and see them 5 minutes from my house whenever I want. And while we don’t get a lot of local submissions, what I have been hearing lately – from bands like Sports and Walri and The Dads – has all been pretty great.
This past week, we got sent an EP from another local band: Black Elk Speaks. Hailing from the college town just south of Rochester (Geneseo), Black Elk Speaks makes experimental, kitchen-sink type rock – by which I mean, there isn’t anything that couldn’t be used as a part of it. (For example, there is clearly a bike bell ringing on the track “Chain Gang,” which could have something to do with the fact that the EP it’s on is named Cycle One) It’s moody, compelling art-rock that gets its swirling tendrils wrapped into your brain and doesn’t let it go.

Black Elk Speaks has released an EP and single to this point, which you can get over at Amazon. This track, off of their Cycle One EP, is representative of their larger work. It unfolds at its own pace, combining atmospheric post-rock with dark, sullen vocals. I’m impressed.

If you’re around Rochester during the upcoming Rochester Indie Fest, come out to Boulder Coffee on Sunday the 19th to catch the band playing. It’s where I’ll be. You should be too. -

"MUSIC PROFILE: Black Elk Speaks"

Black Elk, historically, was a holy man from the Lakota tribe who lived in the 19th to 20th centuries. A book recounting his life was released in 1932, and it is from that book's title that Rochester band Black Elk Speaks found inspiration for its moniker.

The connection to the man that the band takes its name from is, at first glance, tenuous at best. "I'd been reading the book in my Native-American literature class," says bassist John Gasper when asked how the group settled on their name. Beyond that, the band doesn't claim any deeper bond with the Native-American holy man. "It's not like we're mystics, but we all have an affinity for nature."

In addition to Gasper, the group also includes Jack Frederick on drums and Gavin Price and Nick Ponterio on guitars; everyone in the band contributes to the vocals to some extent. The current version of the band started taking shape while its members were attending SUNY Geneseo in 2007. They claim to have started the band not because of a shared like of the same music; instead their "common denominator was theater," says Price. "Even more than theater it was improv. We were all comfortable with improvising as actors...and we were all musicians naturally, so we started from there."

Since then the band has released two EPs, a single, and a full-length album - none of which sound particularly like the others. The members' personal influences are far reaching, ranging from hip-hop to David Bowie to Woody Guthrie to dubstep. While those disparate elements don't all appear in the music, the band sounds equally adept at a garage-blues cover of Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" as it does at the building jam "Fukushima."

With no clear influences, songwriting for the band tends to be collaborative in nature. "Almost all of our songs were written from nothing but us jamming, coming up with songs on the spot and then shaping them later," says Gasper. "We come up with the shape of the song and then everyone adds their own personality to it."

"We're all very respectful of each other's musical parts," Price adds.

Ponterio is quick to agree: "A lot of times somebody has a lyric or an idea and throws it out there, and somebody else very quickly has a response to that. It gets hard to say who did what."

For a band where everyone contributes equally, there is no trace of ego. "When we talk about adding personality, in a band that could be a real ego thing," Ponterio says. "[For us] the tone is already to go to, ‘How are we all together on this?' Because whatever you offer, you get a reflection back from everyone else."

"It's hard for me to talk to other musicians," Frederick says, "because I'm so used to working with these guys."

Even the band's recording process is egalitarian. The band's 2010 single "The Side" was mixed while members of the band were studying abroad - Gasper in New Zealand and Frederick in Holland. The band recorded the instrumentals together, but everything else for the single was recorded separately and sent to Frederick to assemble into the eventual three-song single that can be found on iTunes.

The band members' improvisational backgrounds and ability to adapt lends itself to working with what they have. When Frederick wasn't able to play drums on the group's newest effort, the freely downloadable, "pretty much live" EP "Meltdown," Gasper filled in behind the drum kit. The members switch instrumental roles during recording based on the songwriter and for what instrument it was written.

With half of the band already living in New York City, that type of separate collaboration and subsequent building of songs is becoming more commonplace for the group. But it also makes it difficult for the foursome to rehearse, as well as book shows. "It's tough because John and I work during the week, and [Gavin and Jack] work weekends," says Ponterio. "We would all have to coordinate one week off of work and it would culminate in one show. We're trying to figure out how to make that achieve the highest impact."

But the band is determined not to make the distance a deterrent. "Even if we can't be in the same room, we all have Black Elk Speaks songs that we're working on," says Ponterio.

While it might not be able to rehearse those songs as much as the members would like, the band is still considering its next move. "We're very much on the ‘do-it-yourself' spectrum," Gasper says. "Now that we have our style, we're trying to figure out how to get it off the ground. Where do we go from here?"

It may not take long for them to figure it out. With Gasper considering making the move to New York himself, and Ponterio not adverse to the idea, there may be a more-than-temporary reunion on the horizon. The band's sound makes it accessible to a wide range of fans; its members' ability to cull from each other enhances their performances.

"There's a thing in improv called ‘group mind,'" says Ponterio. "That's the ideal state of performing - when you're really able to hook in with other people and read each other's thoughts. We're striving for that spirit." Maybe the band has more in common with Black Elk than it lets on. - Rochester CITY Newspaper


Four Songs (2006)
Seven Songs (2007)
Dead Flowers (2007)
The Side (2008)
Cycle One (2009)
Dodecahedron (2010)
Meltdown (2011)



Less of a band and more like a four-headed spirit creature with trees for limbs and wings that touch all corners of the musical horizon.

Mixing the lush harmonies of woodland sprites and the aggressive fractured beats of a volcanic eruption, Black Elk Speaks offers a seismic wash of audio exfoliation that you will find hard to refuse, gladly.

Jack Frederick creates hormonally-charged feral noises out of his mouth and his guitar. Gavin Price tears the skin off his fingers for the sake of the melody. Johnny Blood thickens up the bottom and coos like a dove. Sometimes Nick Ponterio brings it all down to Earth and then uppercuts you straight back to Heaven again. They all came together in the backwoods basement of Geneseo, NY, though if you ask they swear they've never been there.

New York City. The Future Has Come and Gone and All We Have Left Is NOW.