"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.'
"It was kind of a big awakening within myself to realize we were not alone," he declares. "These guys were doing the same thing we were; they basically recorded their album on four-track, then went out to Robert [Schneider of the Apples] in Denver to do touch-up." When Helium heard Dusk at Cubist Castle, the impressive Olivia Tremor Control disc that resulted from this process, he says, "I was floored. One of the big areas where we tied in with Elephant 6 was doing records on your own."
Other parallels are just as pertinent. Like Olivia Tremor Control's Dusk, Red King can be described as a medieval-by-way-of-Sixties-drug-culture concept album--and like Neutral Milk Hotel leader Jeff Mangum, Rieger favors sympathetic, sideshow-freak protagonists. In Rieger's case, his lyrical bent owes much to his childhood fascination with gnomes, trolls and Tolkein characters, as well as an adolescent fixation with Dungeons and Dragons. "In the early days, Andrew wrote more science-fictional, comic-book kinds of songs," Helium allows. "Like the one about a guy who has his arm chopped off in an accident: He's got a new bionic arm that's really strong and actually better than his old arm, but the song is a lament of him missing his old flesh arm. And there's another song about him wanting the aliens to take him away and never bring him back."
Despite their surreality, Rieger's scenarios often contain human elements like homesickness and longing. "We have a new song called 'Simon' that's about a bird who, fortunately or unfortunately, has a candy bar for a head," Helium says. "The other birds like to peck on him all the time. But Simon will finally one day be able to fly away from all those nasty birds." Does this tune portend a future album on similar themes? Helium isn't certain, but he doesn't dismiss the possibility: "I wouldn't want to make a record where I'd think, 'Ugh--these songs have no assemblage whatsoever, but we'll try to foist it on you as a concept record anyway.'"
When it comes to capturing their songs for posterity, the bandmates operate in the manner of their Elephant 6 allies--which is to say that they utilize a revolving cast and a ragtag armory of instruments. As an example, Helium cites the zanzithophone, a cheap electronic saxophone made by Casio until a few years ago. "It has these really cool volume controls and a thing on the back that can send the pitch up an octave, which makes these weird sweeping tones," he enthuses. "That wandered into the house through a roommate of ours, and Laura kind of took it over and made it her own." Carter also uses old-fashioned tape loops to augment Elf Power's mix. According to Helium, the original idea came from Neutral Milk Hotel's Mangum: "It was pretty easy to step or trip over tapes, or to find them hanging on every doorknob in the house." Currently, the combo has no way to use the samples on stage, but that could change. "We just don't have the machine to do it," Helium says. "But now that you mention it..."
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Elf Power otherwise avoids mimicking its recorded sound in concert. "Our albums are actually a lot more subdued, whereas our live performance is more of a loud rock show," Helium asserts. Several cuts from Red King, such as a War of the Worlds version of the Eno classic "Needle in the Camel's Eye" and "The Separating Fault," which escalates to thrashing insanity, hint at the transformation.
That audiences are responding to this sound bodes well for the revival of Athens as a musical epicenter. "I think Athens suffered an identity crisis," Helium says. "It had this glorious past with REM and Pylon and the B-52's, and then it hit this stage when everybody came to Athens and there was this big glut. Sure, there were some great bands coming out, but percentagewise, there were an awful lot of crappy bands--and now everyone's jaded."
Helium credits Elf Power and their Elephant 6 cronies for reversing the trend. "What has happened is that a lot of the old-timers have opened their eyes and said, 'You know, people are down on the Athens scene and won't give you guys a chance, but you guys are breathing life back into it.' Like the 40 Watt Club, where we play most of our shows these days--they're really behind us. They didn't get it at first, but now they're real excited--like, 'We don't care if nobody comes. You guys are great!' But actually, crowds are good these days." In his opinion, "We subtly have made an impact."
Neutral Milk Hotel, with Elf Power and the Gerbils. 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 21, 15th St. Tavern, 623 15th Street, $5, 572-0822.