A Conversation With Andrew Rieger (Elf Power)

As an integral part of the famed Elephant 6 collective, Elf Power helped redefine the parameters of indie rock in the late ’90s with its cerebral, classically tuneful, psychedelic folk/pop. In particular, there’s 1999’s Dave Fridmann-produced A Dream In Sound, an indispensable contribution to the E6 mythos. Since then, leader Andrew Rieger has kept busy with various other projects, including the Orange Twin record label, a teaching gig at the University Of Georgia and a self-sustainable eco-village and nature preserve outside his Athens, Ga., homebase.

Meanwhile, Elf Power never really went away, powering through the 2000s with seven albums before slowing its output to more of a trickle in the 2010s. For the new Artificial Countrysides (Yep Roc), the band’s first album in five years, Rieger is joined by drummer Peter Alvanos, guitarist Dave Wrathgabar and, to a lesser extent, keyboardist Laura Carter (Orange Twin’s co-owner). The album is “experimental” insomuch as the variety of instruments the band embraces: marimba, Mellotron, harpsichord, synth bass, drum machines and more. The songs themselves are some of the catchiest and most structurally sound Rieger has written in quite some time. The album title comes from a term he concocted to label those murky, surreal areas where the natural and digital worlds blend and collide.

Rieger weighed in on this and other topics in a recent chat with MAGNET.

Have you read the Elephant 6 book by Adam Clair (this year’s Endless Endless: A Lo-Fi History Of The Elephant 6 Mystery)?
Yeah. There are a couple little narratives he kind of crafts, but generally it seems accurate. It’s really in our words. I even learned stuff from it.

How do you look back on that period?
When I did the first Elf Power album, I thought I was the only person in Athens doing that four-tracking and home recording. All my other friends were recording in more professional studios. Then I saw the Olivia Tremor Control guys at a party. We traded records and realized we were kindred spirits. They introduced me to everyone else, and we all just started collaborating on each other’s recordings. It was nice to find likeminded spirits who were into that same sort of thing.

Where is Elf Power now in its evolution in the home-recording realm?
We still do a good mix of home recording and recording in a pro studio. For this album, we did a lot of sharing tracks. That yielded some pretty good results in terms of experimentation. Everyone got to spend as much time as they wanted to on trial and error. In the end, the album has a pretty concise, poppy sound, with some experimental flourishes thrown in.

How to did pandemic limitations figure into the overall sound of Artificial Countrysides?
This was the first album ever where were weren’t able to get together and play the songs as a band. I’d do the basic tracks, and the others would embellish with theirs. It would’ve sounded a lot different if we’d all gotten together. I think it gives the album a fresh sound.

Will that present more of challenge when you tour the album over the summer?
We were worried about that, but we’ve been rehearsing quite a bit, and most of the songs sound great live–even though some of them sound a little bit different. We’ve always viewed recording and playing live as two very different things. We’re not to terribly concerned if it sounds a little raw or punk rock live.

Let’s move on to Artificial Countrysides, the album title and the concept.
It’s about maintaining a balance between the natural and the digital worlds. Most of us have trouble doing that these days. It’s not meant to be an “old guy yelling at technology” type of thing—I’m online all the time. But you need to strike a balance. For example, the label I’ve run for over 20 years, Orange Twin, has an office out at this conservation community. I was there for a couple of hours today working online, and I got burned out and went for an hour-long walk in the woods to clear my head. 

Talk more about the Orange Twin Conservation Community.
It’s 150 acres right outside of Athens. It’s an old Girl Scout camp from the ’60s, so there’s an old pavilion and a nice swimming hole. We built an amphitheater where we’ve had a bunch of concerts: Neutral Milk Hotel, Bonnie Prince Billy, Tall Dwarfs, Jandek. We’ve played there, and there’s a big house for the label’s headquarters. There’s a garden, goats, chickens. The idea is for people to build homes on part of the land, but most of it will be kept as a nature preserve. There’s one person living out there now: Laura, who runs the label and has been an off-and-on member of Elf Power over the years.

Aside from a few breaks here and there, Elf Power has been productive since 1994. How do you account for the band’s longevity?
We all have different things we do in life. I teach. Some of the other guys teach, as well. Laura runs a horse barn. We all have different interests, so we can come back to Elf Power and start fresh. That’s made a big difference.

—Hobart Rowland