According to Magnet magazine’s Jud Cost, “Listening to Elf Power is like wandering around the backlot of a Fellini film as a fish-eye lens captures the familiar blending with the surreal, the melodic with the experimental.” Such a musical experience can largely be attributed to the imagination of songwriter/lyricist Andrew Rieger, who fills his creations with fairy-tale imagery without forgoing artistry. “I was always a big fan of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis,” he explained about his take on fantasy. “Vainly Clutching had story-songs about serpents attacking sailors on a ship, but there’s a fine line between being silly and writing songs with fantastic elements. You can tell a story that is both poetic and literary and still have it focused on being a good song.”
Hailing from Athens, Georgia, Elf Power consists of Rieger on vocals and guitar, Laura Carter on keyboards and zanzithophone (a saxophone-like instrument for a toddler she discovered in an old toy store in Brooklyn, New York), Bryan Helium on bass guitar, Aaron Wegelin on drums, and Adrian Finch on violin. Although now a quintet, Elf Power originally existed as mainly a private project for Rieger and his dream-like musical fantasies. With his old college roommates, Rieger began making four-track recordings, creating goofy, noisy songs just for fun. “Then Andrew was walking by a deli one day and saw scrawled in the middle of the sidewalk the words ‘elf power,’” Helium—who had befriended and played with Rieger in a short-lived sludge rock band while both were attending the University of Georgia—recalled in an interview with Amy Kiser of Westword, a Denver arts weekly. “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.”
Eventually, Rieger culled enough songs to release Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs in the spring of 1995, pressing 55 copies to give to friends. For the album, Carter helped out some, playing drums on the standout track “Temporary Arm.” Subsequently, Rieger and Carter formed a loose-knit live band, with Carter starting out on bass alongside various drummers and second guitarists. But after Helium heard “Temporary Arm,” he offered to play any instrument he could. “Andrew’s always had a fictional mode to him—a kid’s fantasy perspective—and that’s what really lured me into his songwriting,” Helium told Kiser. “The music was always kind of there, but when he attached words to it, that what gave it its magic.” Thus, Helium joined up, playing drums for a while before switching to guitar. Eventually, the lineup stabilized temporarily with Rieger on vocals and guitar, Carter on drums, and Helium on guitar and bass. During the spring and summer of 1995, the trio began performing at house parties and clubs around Athens.
By the end of the summer, Rieger and Carter, who had both graduated from college in the spring, decided that the band should move to New York City, though Helium stayed behind in Athens. Once in New York, Rieger and Carter started playing rounds of open-mic nightclub sessions with banjo/accordion player Julian Coster of Neutral Milk Hotel. On occasion, Helium flew to New York to join them for shows as well. The pair also wrote and recorded the Elf Power seven-inch Winter Hawk EP, released in October of 1996. Despite some headway made in New York, Rieger and Carter decided to return to Athens during a mini-tour of Georgia. Upon Elf Power’s return, Wegelin took over drumming duties in the fall of 1996, freeing up Carter for the keyboards, while Helium returned full time on bass; violinist Finch joined Elf Power a few years later in 1999.
The four piece immediately started playing dates at local venues and writing/arranging new songs, each contributing his or her own musical influences to Rieg-er’s fantastic visions. “Elf Power’s influences are all over the place,” Helium, a huge fan of the Minutemen and XTC, explained to Throwaway Culture. “Andrew likes the Flaming Lips and T. Rex. Laura likes Nick Drake and Soft Machine. Aaron likes stuff like Stere-olab and Asian music.” Armed with this eclectic mix of ideas, Elf Power proceeded to record an album. But rather than booking studio time, Elf Power instead used four-, eight-, and 16-track cassette machines, an idea inspired by friends Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss of Olivia Tremor Control. And as opposed to their live
Members include Laura Carter, keyboards, zan-zithophone; Adrian Finch (joined band in 1999), violin; Bryan Helium, bass, guitar; Andrew Rieger, vocals, guitar; Aaron Wegelin (joined band in 1996), drums.
Formed band in 1995 in Athens, GA; Rieger released 55 copies of Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs for friends, 1995; released When the Red King Comes on Elephant 6/Arena Rock Records, 1997; released the David Fridmann-produced A Dream in Sound, 1999; signed with Sugar Free Records, released The Winter Is Coming, 2000.
Addresses: Home— Elf Power, P.O. Box 3316, Athens, GA 30612, voicemail: (888) 392-4832, id# 7065435000, e-mail: [email protected] Record company —Sugar Free Records, P.O. Box 14166, Chicago, IL 60614, phone: (773) 489-5661, fax: (773) 489-5663, website: http://www.sugarfreerecords.com.Website —Elf Power Home Page, http://www.elfpower.com.
set, usually loud and electric, the band recorded many of the songs with acoustic guitar as the main track. “I like having softer and more different sounds recorded on a record, then having it rock out live,” explained Wegelin, as quoted in Flagpole magazine. A brave and creative effort, When the Red King Comes, was released in October of 1997 by Arena Rock Records and the Elephant 6 Recording Company.
Elephant 6—often referred to as an alternative to the “alternative”—is an artists collective and recording label formed by Neutral Milk Hotel leader Jeff Mangum and a handful of friends; it is also home to other indie rockers such as Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control. However, Elf Power resisted the tendency to lump their music together with that of other Elephant 6 bands for convenience. “I don’t like to think of categories,” Helium said in an interview with the online magazine Throwaway Culture. “It’s very limiting. I think we all share a D.I.Y. (do it yourself) ethic. Be true to your art, etc. I think the ‘indie’ community has been extremely supportive and its funny to read about what people think our little community is all about. But to be honest, we’re rather oblivious. We don’t read music magazines and we don’t watch television. We’re pretty insular. We’re just doing our art.”
Elf Power further extended their artistic vision with 1999’s A Dream in Sound, an album dubbed by Cost a “mini-masterpiece.” Again, they abandoned a typical studio setting in favor of a house outside the town of Fredonia, located just south of Lake Erie in New York. Here, Elf Power worked with producer Dave Fridmann, known for his work with the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, for two weeks in total isolation from the outside world. Judging by the critical responses, the backwoods environment proved beneficial; the group sounded more comfortable and cohesive than ever before. “Bottom line is,” wrote Sarah Zupoko in a review for Sound Affects, “I had to keep upping the rating every time I listened to this disc, as these songs became more and more addictive, rendering bland virtually everything else I was listening to.”
After releasing in the spring of 1999 the EP Come On, a guitar-rock covers record featuring songs ranging from T. Rex to Sonic Youth, the band spent time touring in the United States, Europe, including Scandinavia, and Japan, then commenced work on a new album. Recorded by Chris Colbert and mastered by Fridmann, The Winter Is Coming was released on the Sugar Free label in the fall of 2000. “The new album is a good mix,” said Rieger to Cost, “something between A Dream in Sound— you can hear all the parts—and the more experimental side of Vainly Clutching. We went with Sugar Free because they’ve had their bands tour overseas, which is something we really want to do.”
Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs, Andrew Rieger, 1995; reissued, Drug Racer, 1996; reissued Arena Rock, 2000.
Winter Hawk (EP), Kindercore, 1996; reissued, 1997.
When the Red King Comes, Arena Rock, 1997; reissued, 1999.
A Dream in Sound, Arena Rock, 1999.
Come On (EP), Little Army, 1999.
The Winter Is Coming, Sugar Free, 2000.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 29, 1999.
Flagpole, December 10, 1997; December 17, 1997; March 3, 1999; May 5, 1999.
Magnet, June/July 2000, p. 16.
Sound Effects, Number 15, April 8, 1999.
Westword, April 16, 1998.
Elf Power Home Page, http://www.elfpower.com (July 27, 2000).
Throwaway Culture, April 1999, http://members.aol.com/senadrone/elfpower.htm (July 27, 2000).
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