Jeff Elbel lives for music. You can see that with his band Ping, as well as previous bands Sunny Day Roses and Farewell to Juliet, his extensive writing on the subject, and even his gigs running sound for other bands. Upon hearing that Midnight Oil had reformed, he and his family vacationed Australia to take part in the shows.
And then…something happened, a nerve issue that would affect his guitar-playing abilities as well as his singing. Two things you need to know about the latest Ping record, The Threefinger Opera, are that the title describes Elbel’s new normal, and is attached to a completed record that probably shouldn’t even exist.
One other thing: Elbel and company simply don’t give up that easily, and because of their commitment over the years, they’ve made plenty of friends, Many of them have returned their friendship by being a part of this unique and incredibly entertaining album.
MusicTAP spoke with Elbel as he initiated promotions for a pre-order campaign for the album, the goal of which is to gain enough funds to do a proper vinyl LP release of The Threefinger Opera. In our discussion, Elbel talks about music. perseverance, records, and when plans have plans of their own.
You can check out the vinyl LP pre-order here.
Bands love to say their albums came through a long, tortured gestation period, but The Threefinger Opera actually did. If I recall, the album was started in response to an Internet challenge to create a progressive rock album on the fly. Can you go into the road from there to here?
I met my friend Joe Mancuso in the early aughts when he had a like-minded prog-folk band from Ann Arbor called North. After that band’s run, Joe launched the International Concept Álbum Month in order to rebuild community and keep his creativity primed by writing a full-length concept album every March. I participated during the inaugural year and wrote The Threefinger Opera. My spinal injury was pretty fresh at the time and my left hand was uncooperative, so I developed arrangements that I could just barely manage to play while stretching my limitations. That was really good retraining, and I put my heart into the songs. Even though the catalyst was specific to my experience, I thought the songs could be very relatable. At first I imagined a stripped-down acoustic record like Mike Knott’s Strip Cycle, but I opted for full Ping production.
You experienced health issues that typically would have stopped a career, much less an album. Where does the health stand currently, and how were you able to get through all of that and finish the record?
I have about two-thirds of my left hand back. It was highly trained, and my biggest asset even though I’m naturally right-handed. My ears and brain still know what to tell it to attempt, so they’re the assets now. I’m still in the process of adapting. There are important muscles in the hand that basically died, so I can’t play like Alex Lifeson, Michael Hedges, or Andy Summers anymore. The span of my fingers is the biggest compromise, because my first dorsal interosseus is wasted. That was followed by a loss of natural speed and accuracy, but I’ve learned to compensate for those with a different approach. There are things I’m capable of doing now that I wasn’t capable of one year ago, and that’s encouraging. My hand becomes fatigued faster, but the more I play, the more I develop adaptations. The injury doesn’t really affect my bass playing anymore. That’s a big deal in terms of playing other people’s music on that instrument. I primarily play bass for other people, and guitar for myself. To make the Ping record, I developed guitar parts that were at the edge of my capability that still sounded interesting to me. I approached sessions knowing I didn’t have the endurance for dozens of takes.
A major consideration was knowing that the eventual spinal surgery could damage my vocal cords. I pushed to complete all of my lead vocals before the surgery. That forced me to be a little more natural and spontaneous. I’m no singer’s singer, but my voice has character and that works for the storytelling angle that I pursue with Ping. I also developed harmony arrangements for some gifted friends who joined, and Maron Gaffron can develop her own harmony arrangements in her sleep. Anyone will tell you than singing with Maron is the best.
The surgery ultimately left me with most of my full voice but robbed me of a lot of my falsetto. No more blue-eyed soul for me. You’ll have to call Daryl Hall if you need that. Alvin and the Chipmunks covers are out, too.
Meanwhile, what started as this artistic challenge with modest roots has ballooned into a full-fledged concept record with notable guests. How did you connect with folks like Martin Wenk (Calexico) and Cy Curnin (The Fixx)?
I’ve enjoyed a long relationship with the Fixx. They’re really not that much older than us, but they were childhood heroes from the time I became interested in writing and playing songs. You can definitely hear their influence on Farewell to Juliet and Sunny Day Roses. You can hear it on “Like Lightning” from The Threefinger Opera. I connected with the Fixx in Los Angeles in the mid-90s. I was guitar tech for Jamie West-Oram at regional shows a handful of times. Once I started writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, I interviewed Cy Curnin for the paper. I played the Chicago date on a rare Cy solo tour, which was tremendous fun. I’ve written his last few album bios. I had the idea to model this album after the Disneyland Original Little Long-Playing Record storybooks that I played in my room as a preschooler. I wrote a narrative introduction and farewell modeled after those memories, and asked Cy whether he’d read it for me the next time the Fixx played near Chicago. He recorded two straight takes and one ludicrously Monty Python-esque take on the Fixx’s tour bus outside the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, Illinois three Decembers ago.
Once lockdown was ordered, I had extra production time on my own and wrote a brass arrangement for “Moan.” My trumpet playing was not cutting it, because my embouchure is built for low brass. Martin Wenk of Calexico and John Mark Painter both responded to a social media post in the early days of the pandemic shutdown. We were really only acquainted enough to have said hello at shows and be connected on Facebook, but they saw my post and had the time to pitch in. I had four parts transcribed onto one chart, and asked them to play one specific part apiece. John played all four parts, beautifully and rapidly. Michael Pritzl of the Violet Burning joined and played the brass parts on “Moan,” too. Martin eventually played three songs, with raspy jazz trumpet on “Lazy Louie” and an anthemic spaghetti-western part for “Slowly but Surely” in addition to “Moan.”
There are also some old friends of yours on the album, many of whom ran in the same circles connected with the now-defunct Cornerstone music festival. You’ve worked with some of them in the past, but not all. What did it mean to you to draw them in for this project?
The Threefinger Opera allowed me to stretch beyond my treasured Ping band family into the community we all loved, with the Cornerstone community as the foundation of that.
I had worked on Derri Daugherty’s Hush Sorrow album, and produced the ambient bonus EP for his The Color of Dreams album. Derri offered to pitch in someday, and I asked him to sing the tenor part on “Waiting Room.” Beginning with the Choir’s Chase the Kangaroo and circa my band Farewell to Juliet I was the biggest Choir nerd you’d ever find, so this was no small thing. We have a tight three-part blend on that song, and Derri naturally sounds gorgeous. He can’t help it.
I’ve played a lot of bass for Chris Taylor, who I cold-called in 1993 when Love Coma and Farewell to Juliet we’re both announced to play the New Band Showcase at Cornerstone. Chris has important parts as The Operator on “Waiting Room” and the Ferris Bueller-styled Professor on “Rhyming Dictionary.”
I’ve tuned guitars and duct-taped Elvis sideburns for Michael Roe of the 77s often enough that he takes my calls. I’ve played bass with him a handful of times, but the truth is I’d have paid him to do that. He played the perfect boogie-woogie guitar part for “Lazy Louie.”
It’s kind of the same thing with Glenn Kaiser. The first thing I ever played on a guitar was a Resurrection Band riff, and I’ve been around long enough to have worked his stage and play bass for him a time or two. Plus, I just admire him as a role model of servanthood to others and nurturer of community. He takes ideals that I hold and puts them into practical action every day, as he has done for decades. Glenn heard Ping play “Mr. Madarakkis” at the Audiofeed Festival and stopped me afterward to tell me he really liked that one, especially with its heavier acoustic blues-rock edge and Maron Gaffron’s great vocal. I eventually worked up the nerve to ask whether he’d play a solo for it, and he did!
I suppose it means to me the goodwill you put into the world has some measurable value. Maybe you’re not always as invisible as you feel. Every guest on the record is special to me. I can listen to the record and be moved by it because I’m hearing my friends and those relationships manifested, rather than hearing myself.
As I mentioned before, this is kind of a prog rock effort, seen through the Ping lens. Could you go into the details of the narrative?
The story begins with wide-eyed innocence and potential in “I’m Gonna Be Like That.” I remember being a kid living for Saturday morning cartoons and dreaming of all things I wanted to be someday. The song mentions the Kool-Aid Man, the Six Million Dollar Man, and the Beatles. I started at that point on my arc because the injury fundamentally changed how I saw myself on the other end, if I’m fortunate enough to become an old man. I’d always assumed I’d be the old guy in the corner playing guitar. Those dreams started young.
“Unstoppable Me” works in isolation as a genuinely optimistic song, but in context it’s about hubris. Proverbs 16:18 tells us that pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Everything changes in an instant with “Like Lightning.” Then the protagonist is sent to an opportunistic and untrustworthy surgeon who becomes the villain during “Mr. Madarakkis.” “Second Opinion” represents another doctor who becomes a hero. “Lazy Louie” is about grappling with the new normal. “Moan” is about shedding self-pity and moving beyond questions of “Why did this happen to me?” “Rhyming Dictionary” and “Waiting Room” address the absurdity of the new routines. “In Your Hands” is about accepting the idea that I’m not the one in ultimate control of my life and recognizing that God is. “Slowly But Surely” is about peace and perseverance while waiting for healing.
The title is a wink to the opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Most people will know it in passing since Bobby Darin completely transformed one piece into his hit “Mack The Knife.” I wonder what the connection or inspiration is between Brecht and Ping, if there is one.
The connection will not impress anyone with how intellectual or urbane I am, but I’ll tell you. I do happen to like The Threepenny Opera, but my introduction was completely tangential. Circa his A Wild and Crazy Guy album, Steve Martin used to do a bit where he made shadow puppets pretending his hands were shark while singing something in the neighborhood of “Mack the Knife.” He’s doing it in the photo on the album cover. That is seriously what led me to Brecht and Weill. Anyhow, when I lost the use of two of my fingers and wondered what I was going to do with three fingers, the idea of creating a Threefinger Opera seemed to be the obvious choice.
Given everything that you might have envisioned for it at the start of the project, and now here at its completion, were there any changes that you chose to make after so much went down? Like, given the circumstances, did you hear a part or a line or even just a presentation of these that you now felt needed to be revised, expanded upon, or minimized?
The songs are completely different now than when they were written. Everything was deconstructed and rebuilt through experimentations and happy accidents. The songs were written on acoustic guitar within one month. A few of the songs sounded similar in the beginning. I daresay that that the songs don’t sound remotely alike now. I can’t even remember what “Like Lightning” originally sounded like, but it must have been strummy acoustic. Once I gave myself permission to arrange a song with a disco beat, the doors were open to any possibility. “Lazy Louie” went from sounding like an acoustic Replacements b-side, followed by second-rate Weezer pop-metal, and wound up as a hot Chuck Berry boogie. Pandemic lockdown threw my completion date out the window by postponing my last vocal session with Maron and my percussion session with Tom Sharpe. Like I mentioned before, that’s when I wrote the brass chart for “Moan.” A lot of the innovations were also influenced by who was or wasn’t available. This is the first album I’ve made without a contribution from Andrew Carter in 25 years. His sound has rolled through my head for almost as long as I’ve heard John Bretzlaff’s sound. That had an impact on songs like “Slowly But Surely,” where I had to reach beyond my new limitations. I do miss Andy, but he’s doing quite well creatively and I’m thrilled with the way The Threefinger Opera turned as a result of being forced to try new things. I can’t think of anything that needs to be changed now, but any song could have followed another thread that might have been fun.
The album is in the pre-order stage and you are hoping to get enough in the process to do a vinyl LP release. We’ve talked about this before, but you’ve made no secret that the vinyl record is your preferred listening mode. What about it does it for you?
I grew up with the vinyl format and those Disney storybook records that probably anyone my age will probably recall. My memory is generally dodgy, but I do remember my first records. My dad got me the single of Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” I still have it. It’s absolutely thrashed. I still have “Gimme Dat Ding” by the Pipkins, and a Royal Guardsmen collection with “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” and “Snoopy’s Christmas.” I’ve covered the Christmas song, but I never remember what key to start in. The wrong key will have me singing like Mickey Mouse after the second key change. Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds was an important musical story album to me as a kid. The first LP I bought with my own money was Out of the Blue by ELO. My daughter Melody, who sings on The Threefinger Opera, has my original LPs. I managed to keep them in good shape. The cover is in a frame hanging in the studio. I like the aesthetic of the vinyl format in the usual ways that many record fans do. I like the artwork and the liner notes and interacting with the album every 20 minutes to flip the platter. I keep my record player on my desk, and stopping to turn records is probably the only thing that keeps me from staring at a computer for 14 straight hours without blinking.
For me, the record is the optimal way to listen to music. That goes all the way back to my childhood with my less-than-audiophile Fisher Price players and a big stack of 45s. That extended into when I started getting into prog rock where you needed to let a side play out and you had to commit to listening. I find that digital music, in virtually any configuration, makes it too easy to slice and dice a musical idea into singles, even when that’s clearly not the intention. First, I wanted to get your impression of what that 20-25 minute uninterrupted album side means to music appreciation; then, what might it mean specifically to The Threefinger Opera?
Well, I do love an album with a perfect side full of songs I’d never skip, even if one of the sides doesn’t include my favorite work. I do not mean this in any pejorative sense at all, but Doppelgänger by DA is a good example of that. The songs on side two aren’t my favorite Terry Taylor songs, but I love side one to pieces and will play it repeatedly. Compare that to Motorcycle, which is loaded with material I’ve always loved. I only have that album on CD and it’s longer, so I don’t reach for it as often. Or any other CD, for that matter. I just like to play records. My attention span is good for 20 minutes, so that’s another factor. Side three of ELO’s Out of the Blue, the “Concerto for a Rainy Day,” is another perfect album side to me.
The Threefinger Opera was sequenced and edited deliberately for optimal playback on a 33 1/3 RPM 12” album. The songs were arranged so that both sides are about 19 minutes, and the story was edited so “Lazy Louie” would be the first track on side two.
One of your musical influences is the band The Choir. You even have the original artwork from their album Bloodshot hanging in your home. Could you tell me more about what it meant to have the band’s singer/guitarist Derri Daugherty on The Threefinger Opera?
It meant the world, of course. Of course! How can you top having your favorite singer from your favorite band singing with you on your album? I’m still pinching myself. 18-year-old me cannot comprehend it at all. “Waiting Room” is sung in three-part harmony straight through. Maron Gaffron and I cover the alto and baritone. I needed a tenor, and Derri’s voice is my ideal tenor. So, I got my first choice. The blend is beautiful. This happened after I helped with production on Derri’s Hush Sorrow and the bonus EP for The Color of Dreams and played bass for a short run of live dates. When Derri offered to return the favor, “Waiting Room” was taking shape. It was the type of kind offer that usually never gets called in, but it was perfect timing for me. Poor Derri (ha ha). I really appreciate what he did.
I suppose – given the journey this album has been on – it is fair to ask where you see Ping now and going forward. You’re clearly proud of the record and where it might go from here now that it is about to land in the world, but I can also imagine that after that “long, tortured gestation,” you’re glad it is mostly over the finish line. Where do we go from here?
For me, it’s time to get out and play the songs and tell the stories. Ping has become geographically dispersed in recent years, so there will probably be some retooling of the performing lineup. I haven’t put much thought into that yet. The core band that made The Threefinger Opera will play at the Audiofeed Festival, and that will be a blast.
For the album, it’s time to find listeners however that can be done in 2021. I won’t feel like The Threefinger Opera is finished as an art project until it’s in my hands as a 12” vinyl record, so any support we raise with the high-definition digital release will go into that bucket. Making the album was a lengthy, mostly solitary experience. I dove headfirst into all of the tinkering, but it was so wonderful anytime I was recording with another player in the room. It still feels really unusual to be finished making the music.
What I love best, though, is leaving the solitary work behind and connecting to people through music. That’s what I get to do next.