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Elf Power's let-it-happen approach to writing and recording is also evident in the formulation of Elephant 6, a loose and totally informal collective of musicians, which encompasses members of Elf Power as well as players from Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel and Apples in Stereo. Elephant 6, whose early praises were sung by Michael Stipe in a 1998 Rolling Stone interview, is less a true group or a collective than a mutual support network. "It makes it easier," says Rieger, "when you've got a part you want to write for a song, say you have a violin part nobody in your group can play; you can go to someone else and they'll do it for you. We all record with each other, tour together; we've played all over each other's albums." True enough: Though Elf Power tours in its standard five-person incarnation, there are a total of 15 musicians from various Elephant 6-related bands working on The Winter Is Coming, a phenomenon that extends to most of the connected groups' releases.
Part of that fluidity comes naturally because, as Rieger observes, Athens, Georgia, the group's hometown, provides a tight community in which to work. "Back in the late '80s, when R.E.M. and the B-52's were really successful, a lot of people moved into town, you know, hoping they'd have the same kind of luck. A lot of those people have left since then," he says, not unkindly, "so it's kind of gone back to the way it was before. It's still a small town. But there's been a resurgence in the music coming out of here, I think. There's a lot of great stuff happening down here now.
"Until about three years ago, me and Laura [Carter, who's been with Elf Power since it was a two-person acoustic endeavor] were living in New York. We'd moved there from Georgia mostly because we wanted a change of pace." But after nine months of flogging their music at open-mike shows and producing an EP (1995's The Winter Hawk), Andrew and Laura moved back to Athens; there they reconnected with bassist Bryan Helium, who'd played with them during the earliest GA days, and drummer Wegelin.
"It was really hard to find like-minded people to play with in New York, and we wanted to expand Elf Power, make it more of a band. And we knew we had a lot of friends down here [in Athens] already, who were talented and who understood it, and were into helping out. So we came back."
Following that reentry, Elf Power expanded its roster -- violinist Adrian Finch is its most recent addition -- and turned out albums full of intelligent, wonky material, from 1997's When the Red King Comes to 1999's highly praised A Dream in Sound, which the straight press dug even if it harped too much on what it simplistically saw as Rieger's fantasy-drenched imagery.
This year offers, in addition to The Winter Is Coming, a reissue of the band's earliest album: the aggressively independent Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs, recorded by Rieger and Carter at home on a four-track, of which precisely 55 copies were initially pressed. Vainly comes repackaged with the Winter Hawk EP, which is as laudable a search-and-rescue mission as any in recent memory.
Not a bad track record for a bunch of friends who still live in their hometown. "Even when we don't play together, when we're just going about our business, we see each other all the time," Rieger says. "We're always working on other things, projects that bring us into contact. We all do a lot of home recording; for myself, I try to do some writing every day, at least a little bit. Even if we're not doing things as a band, we run into each other constantly.
"Athens is a really small town," he repeats. "It's nice."