Athens, Georgia, is considered one of this country's fine music towns. But that idea needs a little parsing, because the sleepy Southern city is no industry-laden Nashville or tradition-respecting-and-bucking Austin. What Athens is is a great place to be a musician — and every now and then you might make enough money to get by.
Before moving to Phoenix, I lived in Athens for 12 years, covering its music scene for most of that time. One of the things that make the town so comfortable for artists is the sense of community and common struggle, as bands willingly and readily swap members and instruments. That can be tough for people who adhere to rigid definitions or those who must know who's playing in what band at any given time. The Elephant 6 gang doesn't make things any easier.
E6 is a collective of like-minded friends who've been playing music together and apart in numerous high- and low-profile bands since the mid-'90s, including such acts as The Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, the Gerbils, Elf Power, and Of Montreal (though there are a lot more). Some have broken up; others soldier on, healthier than ever. The Elephant 6 folks — mostly current, former, or sometime Athens residents — share an affection for psychedelic pop experimentalism, have a knack for melodic tunecraft, and exude a ramshackle joie de musique that places primacy on exuberance and emotion over lockstep.
In late 2008, Julian Koster (a member of Neutral Milk Hotel and the leader of The Music Tapes) organized what he called the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour. The core members of several E6 groups banded together, roving the country for a month and performing songs revue-style, drawing on all their various bands' music.
Reception of the first tour was positive, spurred in part by the occasional appearance of rarely seen Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum.
"It was really good," says John Fernandes, The Olivia Tremor Control multi-instrumentalist who seemingly plays in every band in Athens. "There were different people into different things. Some people like The Gerbils as their favorite band, some people like the Olivias. All of us were so excited to play together. We'd done things before like a Neutral Milk-Olivia tour, or a Music Tapes-Elf Power tour, but never where we played all together. It was like a festival every night!"
The tour lasted longer than expected and actually turned out to be financially viable, a rarity in most Athens endeavors. Upon returning from the tour, Koster told me (warning: whimsy ahead) that the first Holiday Surprise Tour was "this funny abstract dream that itself came true, and we just leapt into the unknown with that because none of us knew what it would be like. I didn't know what we would be presenting. I didn't know what that would feel like, and I didn't know who would come or what they would feel. I just had no idea. And to have that unfold with a tremendous warmth and excitement was . . . Well, I guess that's what you do when you abandon yourself to the unknown and follow something that feels nice from the inside; it just happens. It's almost like asking someone you have a crush on to go out. You just do it, and find out!"
What launched in October '08 (the first show was a loosely rehearsed, three-hour beast that took place in the spare room of an Athens arthouse cinema) has become a more finely honed undertaking. (Last month, Athens' famed 40 Watt Club let the group use the stage and PA on off nights as practice space.)
Elf Power frontman Andrew Rieger says the practice has paid off: "It's a lot of hard work learning all of these songs — I think we have about 60 songs! — but we're all so familiar with each other's songs and styles that it doesn't take long to learn them, and each person adds a different dimension to the songs, so none of the songs sound quite the same as they did before. Everyone is so enthusiastic. It's been a great energy that we've worked up, and hopefully we can sustain it throughout the tour."
Koster, Rieger, and Fernandes will perform alongside Scott Spillane, Pete Erchick, Will Cullen Hart, Bill Doss, Derek Almstead, Laura Carter, Robbie Cucchiaro, and Bryan Poole, a.k.a. the Late BP Helium.
Though few specifics regarding the Phoenix date are available, word in Athens is that the E6 folks have recruited members of Dinosaur Jr. and The Shaggs to put in guest appearances for dates in the Northeast.
"I don't want to give away too many surprises," says Rieger, "but we will be playing lots of favorites by all the groups involved, as well as more obscure songs, and we're also going to be showing films and having games. We also have a seven-inch EP that we recorded just for the tour that is really cool and bizarre!"
Song-swapping, solos, old songs, new songs, friends playing tunes together — there's nothing earth-shattering about that, but there's something in the Holiday Surprise Tour that feels like a culmination of all that can be good about Athens music. And it sure beats a two-day drive to Georgia.