The origins of the five-piece band Elk Creek, nominated for two 2015 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (New Artist of the Year and Folk/Americana), trace back to Trenton, Ohio. There, musicians Brad Smith, Jeremy Brown and Aaron Price performed together in various configurations before going their separate ways for college.
Eventually, all three combined forces again and soon brought two additional Cincinnati-based musicians onboard — drummer Travis Estell and bassist Nick Whittenburg. The band has made strides here in the area, even though they’ve only been together for a year.
The music of Elk Creek can best be described as Americana with some Blues and Singer/Songwriter influences. In 2014, Elk Creek released its first EP, titled Greenfield Project, recorded with boardsman Brian Niesz, who has worked with notable acts like Wussy and Heartless Bastards. The EP features an array of original Elk Creek songs, often fueled by Brown’s scruffy and earthy harmonica playing.
“My first big influence on harmonica was Sonny Boy Williamson,” Brown says. “I was probably 10 or 11 when I first started playing, so the old Blues guys are what I listened to, to begin with, and then in high school Blues Traveler came along and I heard John Popper play and it was kind of all over after that point. I knew that was what I wanted to be doing. It was a long path to get to Sonny Boy Williamson, though. To connect the dots — my first real album that I owned was Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits, which was a Rock & Roll band playing harmonica. As I got more into it, I asked my parents, ‘Hey, where do I go from here? What do I listen to next?’ My parents were pretty supportive. Whatever I wanted to listen to, they’d help me.”
Whittenburg wanted to be a part of the formation of Elk Creek as a guitarist, but the group needed a bass player, so he bit the bullet and decided to learn how to play bass on the fly.
“I think our first show was at MOTR Pub in Over-the-Rhine on Jan. 3, 2014, so it was about this time last year that I was learning all of the songs and the bass parts,” Whittenburg says. “[The other members] didn’t come with any pre-conceived notion of how the bass would fit in and I had never played bass in an ensemble before. The more I talk to people in bands here, the more I find out that it is pretty common for people to learn bass that way.”
“I try to work hard at being a bass player and not a guitar player playing bass, and I think we all know the difference,” Whittenbur adds, laughing. “I came to Elk Creek with a different set of influences altogether. I had never really been into the Blues or Folk or anything you would use to try and label the Elk Creek style. It was new to me. I had known Aaron and Travis for a long time and when this all started, it was a way to get to play out with some friends. So I really crafted my bass skills within the context of the stuff that Elk Creek had already written.”
Drums have always been Estell’s primary instrument. His influences can be traced back to the Prog Rock era, which adds another flavor to the band’s sound.
“If I had to name one favorite drummer I’d say Bill Bruford (King Crimson, Yes),” Estell says. “Bruford can be out in front doing some awesome technical stuff when he wants to, yet he can also totally sink into the background and play really simple riffs and let the other guys come out and do their thing.”
As the lineup of Elk Creek has coalesced over the last year, the sound of the band is evolving with input from all five members.
“Most of the music that we perform regularly throughout the year was written prior to Travis and I being involved,” Whittenburg says. “The songs were written in a room with Brad, Aaron and Jeremy, with just guitar and harmonica and that was it. It was undoubtedly a more delicate thing than what we do now. These days, we consider ourselves a Rock show, first and foremost. We want to put on a good, fun Rock show, so it’s come a long way.
“We’ve started to write new material with the five of us within the last few months. What I’m really excited to see is when the five of us come together and say, ‘All right, now that we have an identity for ourselves, what’s the next step?’ ”
For more on ELK CREEK, visit elkcreekmusic.com.