The Tinny Sounds of Home: Elf Power

While Athens, Georgia’s Elf Power may not have much clout in the make-believe world of legends from whom they took their namesake, the band’s more than legendary in the real-life scruffy-shoes-and-blocky-glasses world of indie rock. A home recording project turned live band turned influential indie pop and environmentalist outfit, Elf Power debuted in the mid-’90s as part of the impressive “second wave” of bands associated with the Athens-based Elephant 6 record collective. An incestuous community of musicians, artists, and friends who sometimes enjoyed playing in each other’s bands more than their own, the Elves had influential friends, including lo-fi, high-concept-pop sensations Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control, and psychedelia-tinged retro-pop outfits Essex Green, Beulah, and Apples in Stereo. The Elves are notable for a unique brand of psychedelic pop laced with noisy, cathartic rock and experiments in texture with hints of accordion, saxophone, and violin. On top of this, a fuzzy muted-ness gives their records a tinny-sounding home-recorded quality because…well, most of their albums were recorded at home.

“Elf Power started as a home recording project, and morphed into a live band after the release of Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs,” says Elf Power guitarist Andrew Rieger. “[Phantom Limbs] was recorded at home with various people helping out. People liked that album, so at that point I formed a live band to play the songs.”
Formed by Rieger and then-drummer Laura Carter in 1994, Elf Power’s debut album was recorded with the help of Rieger’s roommate, Raleigh Hatfield. Rieger said, “When I first heard Sebadoh’s Freed Weed [released in 1990 on Homestead], I realized you could record on cheap four-track machines at home instead of paying for a big, expensive studio. That was a revelation for me.”

The do-it-yourself mantra is still intact today. Phantom Limbs wasn’t the only album recorded cheaply at home. In fact, the Elves’ first real studio album wasn’t recorded until 1999 (A Dream in Sound, Arena Rock Recording). After the release of Phantom Limbs, Brian Poole (a classmate of Rieger’s from the University of Georgia—then calling himself Brian Helium and now going by the name of his new solo project, The Late B. P. Helium) joined the duo for a few sporadic live shows in Georgia. Rieger and Carter briefly moved to New York after graduating from college, where they recorded their second release, The Winter Hawk EP, with the help of several friends who would later become colleagues in the Elephant 6 collective.

When Rieger and Carter returned to Athens, Elf Power expanded once again to a four-piece, with Poole back on bass, Carter on keyboards, and newcomer Aaron Wegelin on drums. Their next two releases, 1999’s When the Red King Comes and 2000’s The Winter is Coming, brought more personnel changes—including the addition of multi-instrumentalist Adrian Finch—but stayed the course production-wise, recorded at home and featuring more guest appearances from other Elephant 6ers.

That Elephant 6 was more music collective than record label was evident in the guest appearances on the Elves’ albums. Indeed, reading the liner notes of Elephant 6’s releases is like looking at a list of Who’s Who Among American Indie Rock: Jeff Mangum, Robert Schneider, Rob Greene, as well as Poole, Carter, and Rieger. The same names keep popping up, and the possible combinations of collaborations were seemingly endless. “[The collective] was just a name for a group of friends who collaborated on one another’s records,” Rieger said, “just a pool of musicians who enjoy playing [together].”

Finch left in 2001, as did Poole (to focus on playing bass and guitar for Of Montreal, and eventually pursuing his own muse with The Late B. P. Helium). Neil Golden took over bass duties then, only to be replaced by Ballard Lesemann in 2002. Last year, former Olivia Tremor Control guitarist Eric Harris joined and contributed to this year’s release Walking With Beggar Boys (Orange Twin).

Confusing? Maybe. But working with a wide variety of new musicians each time you go into the studio yields plenty of fun and surprises. “The fact that we have a revolving lineup of musicians keeps things interesting and fresh for me,” said Rieger of Elf Power’s nearly constant personnel changes. The band’s relentless touring has kept things exciting as well. “We’ve toured a lot over the years,” he said. “When the audience is enthusiastic, dancing, smiling, howling…that always makes us play better. [But] sometimes we’ll play to a stone-faced audience…then afterwards, people come up and say, ‘That was the best show I’ve ever seen!’”

The current tour will feature cuts from Beggar Boys, with opening act The Late B.P. Helium, and Poole back on bass guitar for the Elves.
In addition to being indie-pop songsters, Elf Power are the founders of Athens’ Orange Twin Conservation Community. Orange Twin’s Web site describes the community as “a pedestrian-based eco-village…an integrated community in which the residents can live, work, and pursue their interests…[and] a model of sustainable living.” The community is also home to Orange Twin Records, which releases albums from Elf Power and other former Elephant 6 artists, including Jeff Mangum and Poole. Also, the Orange Twin Music Festival, an annual Woodstock-esque concert held on the grounds of the conservation community, has been popular among audiences for several years. This year’s festival featured Will Oldham of Bonnie “Prince” Billy and boasted a spaghetti dinner for attendees. There were also kickball and whiffle ball tournaments—good, clean fun.

The future of Elf Power is as yet untold. “We’ll probably record the next album at some point in the next year,” Rieger said, describing it as “a kind of strange-sounding folk-rock record.” More touring may be on the agenda as well. Whatever it is, we know Elf Power, so we know it’ll be interesting. As Rieger said modestly, “Always having new people to collaborate with tends to bring unexpected and usually exciting results.”

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