Wandering Through: An Interview with Elf Power

Elf Power
Elf Power
Orange Twin

Not many bands can comfortably talk about the release of their 10th full-length album. Then again, most bands aren’t Elf Power.

Andrew Rieger’s band Elf Power released their eponymous tenth record late last year. Based in Athens, Georgia, they blend the buzz of lo-fi indie sounds into compact narratives with lyrical, off-kilter references. Their slightly experimental rock, densely textured pop, and pastoral psychedelia make them one of the most notable standouts of the famed Elephant 6 rock collective; the band’s own Southern roots link them now to Orange Twin eco-village and land preserve five miles outside Athens, as well as the indie label with the same name.

Speaking to PopMatters shortly before the band began their last tour, Rieger speaks to the powers of the Atlanta scene, finding the right cover art, and what that utterly bizarre surrealist film is all about …

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PopMatters: You’ve spoken of how growing up in rural South Carolina, you came to the University of Georgia out of your interest sparked by R.E.M. and the musicians and artists from the time when Athens, GA drew attention to its scene. You’ve been based in Athens for two decades now, and worked with Elephant 6’s collective for much of it. Do you think, 25 or 30 years on, that a regional influence sustains itself in the music you and your bandmates and collaborators create?

Andrew Rieger: Early Athens artists like Pylon, R.E.M., Bar B Q Killers, the B-52s, and Vic Chesnutt were all artists I liked a lot before I moved to Athens. Meeting Will Hart and Bill Doss of Olivia Tremor Control in Athens in the early 1990s was amazing, because we had just put out the first Elf Power album, and they had put out the early Olivia singles, and we both realized we were kindred spirits, both really into home recording, at a time when there was nothing else like that going on in Athens. Living in Athens has always allowed for a lot of free time to devote to creative pursuits, whereas when we were based out of New York for awhile in the mid 1990s it was more of a struggle to find time to devote to music, just because of the hectic pace of big city living. The slower pace of life in Athens has surely been a big influence in our music and development as a band.

PopMatters: What literary influences inspire you and the other writers in Elf Power? The latest record, your tenth and self-titled (on Orange Twin) has two narratives about insects, and eloquent reflections about mortality and loss. Along with the recent passing of your friend and colleague Vic Chesnutt, are there other impacts on the varied, mature, moods that can be heard in your current record?

Andrew Rieger: I read a lot and I’m sure some of what I read while I’m writing lyrics for an album seeps through. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy, particularly “Suttree,” “Child of God” and “Outer Dark”. The songs for the latest record were written before Vic died, and recorded just after his death, so the songwriting was not influenced by Vic’s death, but he was surely on our minds during the recording.

PopMatters: Your new album has few liner notes, no lyrics transcribed, but intriguing cover art. Any comments on the presentation of the CD?

Andrew Rieger: The simplicity and open space of the cover image was the main reason we left the album untitled. We really liked the way the image looked with just the band name. The artwork was done by Athenian artist Eleanor Davis, who is a pretty well known comic book artist. We thought her artwork and particularly the bizarre and mysterious cover image fit well with the music on our album. Finding artwork that fits well with the music is really important for us in getting across the general mood of the album, so we were really excited when we found Eleanor’s artwork which we thought was a perfect fit with the music.

PopMatters: What musical influences first inspired Elf Power? Between “Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs” and “When the Red King Comes,” I sense a dramatic evolution in the band’s ability to capture its visions on tape. What were you all listening to back then? Early Eno enters my mind, filtered through the New Zealand Flying Nun mystique, with experimentation and antiquarian arrangements. Which records infused your music then?

Andrew Rieger: Discovering early 1990s home recording and 4-tracking masters like Tall Dwarfs, Guided By Voices, and Sebadoh was a revelation and greatly influential, not just for their wonderful records, but for providing the realization that you didn’t have to spend thousands of dollars recording in a “professional” studio setting, and that you could make great sounding records on 4-track cassettes! “Vainly Clutching…” was recorded on a 4-track cassette recorder, “Red King” was recorded on an 8-track cassette recorder.

PopMatters: “Walking With the Beggar Boys” marks another shift, to a more streamlined, uptempo pop sound, but one as rooted for me in your pastoral locale. The album cover seems to signal this identification. Were there changes then in what you wanted the band to play like? Has working with members of The Olivia Tremor Control and other Elephant 6 participants accelerated this evolution of your music into the shorter songs on later albums?

Andrew Rieger: We never really make conscious efforts to make albums sound a certain way, it’s always been a natural evolution of songwriting, and collaborating with different musicians on arrangements, such as various musicians from other Elephant 6 groups, to which everyone brings their own ideas and flavors. We do try to keep things diverse in sound and approach, mostly for our own interest and amusement.

PopMatters: If readers wonder what the video “Major Organ and the Adding Machine” is all about, what can you tell them?

Andrew Rieger: It’s a surreal children’s film directed by Elf Power drummer Eric Harris along with Joey Foreman, and starring myself as one of the main actors. It’s a companion piece to the album of the same name which was released in the early 2000s. Both the album and the movie are collaborations involving various members of the Elephant 6 crew. They are both brilliant and strangely unique and really fun in my opinion. We recently reissued the album with extra tracks along with the DVD of the movie in one package. The DVD also has unreleased videos and live performances by Elf Power, Of Montreal, Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, Apples in Stereo, A Hawk and a Hacksaw and others. We’ve been screening the film as the opening act on the current Elf Power tour and it has been going over really well with the audiences.