Amongst the ELMS: A visit with Alex Unger

Under the name ELMS, singer-songwriter Alex Unger has been writing dark and moody compositions since 2012.. His latest album Survival Evasion and Escape is available now on Bandcamp and Spotify. (Photograph by Samantha Moss of Moss Works Photography)

“They may not be as chill as some cows you have met before.  They may not even want to deal with us,” Alex Unger says as he leads us safely through an electric fence into a lush green pasture.  Standing in the field is a group of thirty-two black bulls.  They aren’t the snarling dangerous bulls that you see in the movies or the cartoons.  They are actually pretty calm.  Some of them become curious and slowly make their way over to us.  “They’re cranky because of the heat,” Alex tells us.  “I don’t know why but they all sort of cram in together when they are cranky.”

We’ve traveled to a farm In Warsaw, a thirty-minute drive out of Peterborough to meet Alex Unger.  The weather is hot and humid, during one of the most uncomfortable weeks of the summer.  But the farm is lush and quaint, and there is a calmness on the grounds.  It’s a good night to be in the country.

But we haven’t come to Alex’s farm to talk to him about the cows.  We’ve come to talk to him about his music.  Recording under the name ELMS, Alex Unger has been creating haunting and somber music since 2012. Recently dropping his newest release. Survival Evasion and Escape at Spotify and Bandcamp, I was fascinated by the story of this man that creates gothic flavored music while spending his working day tending his farm.  Looking through previous published press on ELMS, as well as his own website, Alex has remained a bit of a mystery as he seems to shy away from publicity and doesn’t do interviews.  So, I felt lucky when he allowed us, albeit reluctantly and with some persuasion, to come out to the farm and take a look into his world and music. 

“My parents started farming back in the 1970’s,” Alex begins.  “They grew up in the States from a non-agricultural family.  I grew up on a cattle farm near Ennismore where I stayed until I went to Toronto for university to study film production.  I  was there for four or five years, and I spent a little while in the Canadian film scene doing sound work primarily, but I’m not a city person.  I struggled with that.  I just couldn’t work in Toronto and after a while I moved back here.  I still try to do documentaries once in a while, but I sort of gave it up in 2019.  I guess just in time of the pandemic.”

“I’m not a city person.  I struggled with that.  I just couldn’t work in Toronto and after a while I moved back here.” (Photo by Samantha Moss)

“My parents weren’t musical themselves although my mother played piano and viola herself when I was a young kid. But all my grandparents participated in music one way or another,” Alex continues.  “So, my parents believed that music was part of a balanced life, and they got me to do piano lessons.  I got really into rock music from ages nine to eleven, and then I got really into bedroom recording.  The moment someone showed me what a four track was I said, ‘That’s it!’  From there I was in high school bands, and I did a solo synth pop project that was just miserable.   I guess that was just the start of it.”

Although I had never met Alex until now, I find him easy to talk to.  He is very modest, very cerebral and his words are chosen carefully.  He is a very interesting man, but realistic enough to be relatable.  Of course, the burning question is why has chose the moniker ELMS to record under.  His response doesn’t disappoint.

“The reason for the name ELMS is for the elm trees that are dying,” he tells.  “If you read The Virgin Suicides, there is the great analogy of the decay of society and that lifestyle and the American dream in the death of the elm trees along the street.  You can see it here at the same time, especially in the 90’s and early 2000’s.  Historically it was such a pastoral thing.  You had all these beautiful paintings or poems dedicated to the elms.  But everything was getting hit with the Dutch elm disease.  You had these dead trees everywhere.  All the elm trees that were here are now gone.  They’ve been used for firewood.”

“I was in a rock band in Toronto called The Dead Elm Society,” Alex continues.  “The rest of the band were also people from Peterborough living in Toronto, but that stopped because I moved back here and people drifted off to do their own thing.  That’s why  I decided to just become ELMS.”

When walking from the field back to the farmhouse, I am once again taken by the deep green vegetation, and the soft buzzing of insects and the sounds of the crickets.  I am taken by the beauty of the farm and overwhelmed by the beauty of my surroundings.  So, when I flippantly make a comment about the juxtaposition of the beauty of the farm and the darkness of his music, Alex had a spin on that let me know that, in reality, I’m nothing more than a voyeur from the city who is being seduced by what I see on the surface, and not the reality of the country.

“These days there is a coolness factor to farms, or a desirability to people of our generation to get out of the city and go into the country and do the agricultural thing,” Alex states knowingly.  “But what is often ignored is that while there is a lot of life and growth and tending to the environment around you, part of getting back to nature is that nature is horrifying and miserable and unfair and involves heaps of death and decay and rot.  I think the choice to be ELMS was to have a foot in both of those worlds.  I saw the trees as a grand metaphor, that they are beautiful when they are alive, but there is also this stark beautiful quality to them when they are dead.”

“What is often ignored is that while there is a lot of life and growth and tending to the environment around you, part of getting back to nature is that nature is horrifying and miserable and unfair and involves heaps of death and decay and rot.” (Photo by Samantha Moss)

“I know my stuff is dark,” he admits.  “It’s not party music.  If you look at the songs I listen to and love, they are dark songs.  It’s like a chain of influence.   I think I’m drawn towards the melodramatic.  I like things that stir powerful emotions.  If I’m being honest, I feel like I’m treading on easily manipulated emotions.  That’s why the dark thing works so well.  I think its easier to create things on that side of the spectrum than of joy or happiness, which are more unique to the individual than to collective audience.”

“I feel like a bit of a fraud because I’m not trying to make a living out of my music,” Alex continues. “I’m past the point of imagining that I’m going to become famous for this. Nobody’s a rock star anymore.  Especially not in the last few years.  That shipped sailed years and years ago and I’m opened to the point where I’ve done the math and the financials and being a rock musician sucks.  It really does, especially the older you get.  You can crash on couches and tour for years in your teens and twenties but I’m sick of it.  So, for me this is a hobby in a way that I’d imagine that a carpenter treats his craft as a hobby if he were only making things for himself and not for other people.”

But by putting his music out there, and gaining a following of his own, ELMS has found its place within the Canadian music scene.  If Alex isn’t looking for fame, then what is ELMS’ purpose?  “I’m always shocked when you meet somebody who doesn’t have a hobby,” Alex explains.  “They just work, and then they go home, and they veg out.  Music is a good way to keep your brain active.  The most important reason I make music is that it keeps me connected to the bigger world outside of this farm.  It’s recommended that you have a path that you walk down.  A clear path of intention that you walk back to each day.  The arts is a good one.  It keeps me sane. “

“I don’t know if I get joy from making music, but I get a sense of meaning.  Again, like having one foot in the broader world.  I think there is a line of continuity and a line of influence between the artists that influenced me and the effect it had on my life – especially during my formative years.  If I hadn’t had art or music, it would have been a really bleak existence.  So, I think there is a desire to want to be seen.  I think there is a lot of ego and narcissism in this, but that desire is to be seen in the same way that you saw the artists who influenced you. “

Survival Evasion and Escape is a collection of cover songs, featuring ELMS’ take on pieces by Coil, Joy Division, The Tragically Hip, Scott Walker, Lhasa and Songs: Ohia.  The album was mixed by Tyler Martin of Sabretooth Town and mastered by Greg Pastic of Sound Art Mastering.  Distinctly personal, the album is ELMS first release since 2017’s Integrity.  Despite a four-year gap since ELMS has released any original material, Alex is still writing original material, but we just haven’t heard it yet.  “I don’t think my writing style is unique at all,” Alex says. “I think it’s how most people in an artistic field get an initial spark, or an idea.  I think when the well you go to becomes shallow and cheap, you come back with less stuff and what you do eventually bring back is shallower and cheaper than your previous material.  That’s been my personal experience.  I know for the last four years it’s not that I haven’t been writing songs, but I don’t know if they are good.  I know that I may come off sounding self deprecating, but I know when I like something and when I don’t.”

“Music is a good way to keep your brain active.  The most important reason I make music is that it keeps me connected to the bigger world outside of this farm.  It’s recommended that you have a path that you walk down.  A clear path of intention that you walk back to each day.  The arts is a good one.  It keeps me sane.” (Photo by Samantha Moss)

“I have broken through my writers block relatively recently,” he continues. “The way I did it was going to a different well.  One of my favorite singers/writers of all time is Scott Walker, and he has a schtick in his last four albums between 1984 to 2014, where his song writing was about taking a historical figure or event and tying it to a universal human condition that was strongly metaphorically tied to that figure or event and throwing it into the blender of modernist poetry.  So, I started to look at things through that lens.  If I’m just jumping into the cultural subconscious of our time and coming out with shallow cheap things, why don’t I start putting intention behind it and start looking at things that interest me and that I feel a resonance with instead.  It sounds like an obvious thing or a small shift, but it did make all the difference.  I widened my scope until I found something that interest me and then focused in on that.”

But while his albums are all an interesting listen, Alex believes that it was his live performances that truly encapsuled the power of his music.  “The biggest thing I get out of this was the live performances,” he says.  “I think part of that was an ego thing.  Being in a room full of people that is enjoying what you are doing is an intoxicating experience.  It feels good to be good at something and to do it and know your doing it well.  So that was a big focus of ELMS – to focus on the live aspect of it.  With the albums it always felt like a tutorial thing, or literally a record of then live songs. “

However, despite his love for live performing, ELMS has not returned to the stage since before the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, but for unique reasons far beyond the regular COVID paranoia and lockdown guidelines most performers have endured.  “When this thing kicked off in March 2020, we, as a family, took it really seriously,” Alex states, “not because we were super paranoid but because we were about to go into cattle season.  We have 150 cows that will have calves, more or less, in less than three months of each other.  It’s just my father and I that take care of that, and it’s all-hands-on deck at that point.  Now, to be fair, the cows mainly birth them on their own, but if there is poor weather, or a mother has twins and rejects one, or one gets lost or something happens, you want to be there for most of it.  So, the notion that one of us could get sick for two or three weeks just couldn’t happen.  So, we really locked it down in the first few months.  Less out of paranoia, but more out of wanting to stay healthy.  I think there is a desire globally to a return to ‘normalcy,’ or at least not to have the anxiety we constantly feel.  I’d love it if this pandemic hadn’t happened, but you know, things weren’t great before that and I’m not sure if I’d want to instantly teleport back to January 2020.  It felt right stopping shows for me.  Everyone’s gone through this feeling of compression, and it felt right ritualizing the stopping of shows.  Here in the west, we are used to the idea of constant expansion.  Profits go up, everything goes up, everything gets better year by year.  Everything goes great.  We’ve been talking for twenty-five years that this can’t be true.  You can’t have constant expansion, and something has to happen.  Well, now it is happening. “

“I think it’s good preparation to prepare for an uncertain future and for battling the constant progress mindset that our culture has become obsessed with.  To force yourself to be quiet and focus on your immediate environment instead of being distracted.  A life without live music is a grim thing to think about, but it doesn’t feel right to come back yet.  I feel a harmony with the quietness and the intimacy of the domestic experience people have had for the last eighteen months.  We are not through that yet.”

It might be a while yet before ELMS returns to live performance, but in the meantime, we can experience the full library of ELMS’ music on-line.  His entire music library is available at Bandcamp, and Survival Evasion and Escape is currently available for streaming on Spotify.  Meanwhile, don’t forget to visit ELMS’ website for more information.


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