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"Let me tell you about the Red King's Kingdom...Picture an island of intense beauty on which a magnificent castle is surrounded by sprawling villages, dense forests, and golden meadows..."
So begin the liner notes to When the Red King Comes, the latest offering from Athens, Georgia's Elf Power. But you don't have to close your eyes to visualize the title monarch's cartoon utopia; it's right there on the CD cover, replete with onion-domed and turreted fortresses, mermaids and glass mountains. According to bassist/guitarist Bryan Helium, who joins Andrew Rieger, Laura Carter and Aaron Wegelin in the band, finding an illustration appropriate to the fuzzy, fanciful full-length was far easier than anticipated. "That's an old, old poster that Laura has had since she was a child," he says. "We had the whole record mastered and sequenced, and we were held up because we were like, 'What are we going to do for artwork?' Then we just happened to be in Laura's room and it was right under our noses. It was such a perfect fit." True enough: The Technicolor landscape suits the group's thirteen curious, mythical pop tunes--and the logo for Elephant 6, the Denver-based label with which Elf Power is presently associated, blends nicely into the night sky, hovering above a flying pheasant.
As newly minted Elephant 6 inductees, the Elf Power four expected to be introduced by way of the company they keep, and that's the way it's turned out thus far. The collective's progenitors have received a great deal of ink lately from a number of publications across the country, including this one: Neutral Milk Hotel was profiled in "Got Milk?" from Westword's September 18, 1997, edition; Olivia Tremor Control received the same treatment with the October 9, 1997, article "Total Control"; and the Apples, from Denver, most recently turned up in the March 26 Feedback column. Rolling Stone finally got around to noticing these acts earlier this year and at least pointed to Elf Power as an Elephant 6 offshoot. But although Helium liked this mention, he was less pleased by a review of Red King that appeared in Magnet, a rag devoted to indie rock. "There the affiliation hurt us," he contends. "They did a combined review of us and Beulah [an Elephant 6 act from San Francisco], and it seemed like an attack. It was like they were saying, 'The Apples found Beulah and Neutral Milk Hotel found Elf Power,' as if we're just toy projects of the individual bands and not really on our own."
This assumption is understandable: Helium and Carter share an Athens residence with players from Neutral Milk Hotel, and several notables from Olivia Tremor Control, Chocolate USA and other members of Elephant 6's Athens contingent are credited with cameos on Elf Power's CD. But the group was a viable organism long before such key friendships were forged. Its origins reach back five years, to a time when it was less a band than a private project. "Andrew, with his old roommates, used to do four-track recording in their house, making weird tapes for themselves," Helium recalls. "They'd hang out all night, having fun, creating goofy songs. Then Andrew was walking by a deli one day and saw scrawled in the middle of the sidewalk the words 'elf power.' He went back the next day, and it wasn't in the sidewalk anymore, so he said, 'Well, that's got to be the name for what we're doing.' I've always taken it as a cool name because it was like little guys tinkering around and making these little songs, and nobody saw them."
At first, Helium hesitated to join forces with Rieger, Elf Power's principal singer and lyricist. "His songs in the beginning were pretty crude, to be honest," he admits. But once Rieger penned "Temporary Arm," a number that was featured prominently on Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs, Elf Power's debut long-player, Helium was prepared to cast his lot. "Andrew's always had a fictional mode to him--a kid's fantasy perspective--and that's what really lured me into his songwriting," he maintains. "The music was always kind of there, but when he attached words to it, that's what gave it its magic."
After Carter, who was then Rieger's girlfriend, signed on as a drummer, the trio began to perform at house parties around town. But before long, postgraduation wanderlust got the best of Helium's bandmates. "I got cold feet and ended up staying here," he says, "and they ended up moving, expecting Elf Power to continue on as a bolder entity up in New York City."
During the nine months they lived in New York, Rieger and Carter wrote and recorded the Elf Power EP Winter Hawk. But a visit home to the Peach State, which was conceived as a mini-tour, convinced them to leave the drudgery and loneliness of the big city for friendlier climes. Back in Athens, Wegelin took over drumming duties, freeing Carter to devote her talents to the keyboards, and Elf Power got down to the business of playing dates at local venues and assembling the tunes that make up Red King.
Rather than heading into a studio when they were ready to make an album, the Elf Power musicians used Helium's eight-track cassette. Helium credits Olivia Tremor Control's Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, with whom he had struck up an acquaintance, with inspiring this decision. "When Andrew and Laura were away, I'd see Will and Bill around," he remarks. "They'd come to the studio where I was living to get stuff to DAT or from DAT to send off to compilations or seven inches or whatnot. And I was like, 'Gosh, I'm bored,' so I tried this pitch: 'Hey, you guys are great. Let me play shaker with you or something.' And they said, 'Sure, come on over.'
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