Athens, Georgia has long been known for the eclectic mix of bands that call it home, starting with the Pylons, R.E.M., and the B-52s in the ’80s and continuing on with acts like Drive-By Truckers, Harvey Milk, and Of Montreal. Elf Power carried the Athens legacy with a string of critically acclaimed records with the Elephant 6 music collective and Orange Twin, an ambitious land conservation/record label project five miles north of town. The band also collaborated with Athens native Vic Chesnutt on Dark Developments in 2008 and found him to be a valuable mentor and kindred spirit. Elf Power’s next release, a self-titled album set to hit shelves in September, is dedicated to Chesnutt’s memory. Band lyricist and guitarist Andrew Rieger offers his thoughts on Chesnutt, the album, and the power of the collective model.
Is the release of this album a little more bittersweet than exciting?
It’s been seven months since Vic’s death. It happened right around Christmas, just as we were finishing up the album. We discussed it and decided that this record would be dedicated to his memory. We spent a lot of time with Vic, and he was very important to the group. We’re very excited about the record. The dedication is in his memory, but this is the album that Elf Power wanted to make. We hadn’t really recorded anything since we did Dark Developments in 2008 with Vic, and then we went on something like five American tours and three European tours. After spending that much time on the road we needed some time, so we took a month off. Then we took the next nine months to rehearse and write, and Elf Power is the result.
How does the writing happen in a band like Elf Power?
The method used to be that I would write all the songs and then give the basic parts to the other members to develop. Sometimes there would be fragments develop from playing in the studio, and I would take those and develop them into full songs. That’s all changed over the years. This is really the most collaborative Elf Power album ever. Erik [Harris] and Derek [Almstead] are much more present on this album from a writing standpoint. They’ll do demos of instrumental songs, and I’ll put lyrics with them. It’s a lot more freeing than just playing on my own songs. I think that the songs end up in really different places when they come from other musical points of view.
But you’re still writing most of the lyrics?
Usually I write the majority of the lyrics for the band, particularly on the songs that I write myself. I’ll start with some basic chords on the acoustic guitar and sing some nonsense syllables over them on the demo. I’ll eventually come up with some lyrics. It’s a gradual thing. There might be a phrase in the nonsense that sticks out to me, and that becomes the basis of the song.
Do you find certain themes recur in your writing?
I just let it happen naturally, so I don’t think consciously about what I’m writing. That’s why I like to record the nonsense on the four-track. Sometimes things will emerge later, and other times people will see things in the songs that I don’t know are there. That’s happening a lot with this album. People listen to it and they hear a lot about death and loss. There are certain songs dealing with that, but that’s something that they’ve read into it. There’s a tendency amongst people listening to this record to think that these songs are about Vic.
How did you meet Vic?
I’ve lived in Athens for the most part since 1990. That’s one of the main reasons that I picked the University of Georgia. I grew up in the country, and I was just fascinated by this city where all this music was happening. I used to come over a lot for concerts. The B-52s, Pylon, R.E.M., and Barbara Cue were all playing there. That’s where I first found out Vic and his music. People were talking about how Michael Stipe had produced this guy’s album. He was always playing around town, and I would hang around after the show to talk. Eventually we got around to talking about playing. There was a show on TBS called Music Road, and he asked us to back him up. That went really well, and he asked us if we wanted to make a record. We recorded it at his house, and it was an experience to make an album with no real deadline. We just recorded it whenever we were both in town.
Was he easy to collaborate with?
He would show us a song, and we would run through it two or three times. There was no laboring or thinking through it too much. That was a very different process than I’m used to. We’ll spend months overdubbing a song or working to get a part just right. It was cool to do it another way.
Do you have a favorite memory of working or playing with him?
He was a funny motherfucker. He was always cracking really nasty jokes. There’s an image of him as a stark and depressed person, but I’ll think about playing with him and him breaking me up with some awful comment.
What are your immediate plans for the record?
The immediate thing we’re going to do is tour. We want to get out and play these songs. Touring has always been very important to the band. We’ve been on the road since 1996. We have a booking agent that we’ve been working with for 15 years. I wanted to see where my family came from, and so we went and played in this gothic cave in Zagreb. This time out we’ll have a short film before the show, called Major Organ and the Adding Machine. It’s a companion to the album that we shot with some of the Elephant 6 people. I think that will add a different flavor to the show.