Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour: A Little Bit of Magic

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Founded by a group of old high school friends in 1991 (Bill Doss, Will Cullen Hart, Jeff Mangum) the Athens-based Elephant 6 Collective had actually become commercially viable by the mid ‘90s. Featuring bands such as Of Montreal, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Apples In Stereo, The Gerbils, The Music Tapes and Elf Power, Elephant 6 has had a pretty sizeable impact on indie music. You’d be pretty hard pressed to find someone who didn’t have a deep love for Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over The Sea, and Of Montreal’s outlandish live shows have become infamous as they continue play sizeable shows and festivals.

As most of the Elephant 6 bands were signed to major labels, the collective slowly grew apart and disintegrated around 2002. In 2008, looking to regroup and reminisce, Julian Koster (of The Music Tapes and formerly Neutral Milk Hotel) put together a reunion tour for all of his little Elephant buddies. This tour evoked the same childish excitement and feelings of wonder that had previously only been supplied through their unique brand of folk-pop. Unlike most tours, the Holiday Surprise Tour featured no line-up, just a mix of influential indie rockers playing each other’s songs. Punctuating the eclectic setlist, were audience participation games (think “Heads Up 7Up” with 100 people). Now it is 2011, and we get to enjoy another such tour. This time it will feature a larger group of musicians, with around 15 Elephant 6 musicians joining in. Among the featured musicians are Bryan Poole, Will Cullen Hart, Julian Koster, and Laura Carter. 

Laura Carter (of Elf Power, Nana Grizol and The Olivia Tremor Control) took some time to talk to SLUG about the upcoming tour and the latest Elf Power album.

SLUG: This isn’t the first Holiday Tour Elephant 6 has done. What was it like in the past (for the audience)? How does this one compare? 
Laura Carter: It was definitely more of an unknown. We had no idea if anyone was going to come out for the first one, or if it would be successful. It was a smaller group. The people who were not sure of how the first one would come across are jumping in because they saw that everyone had a good time. Last time it was a total surprise to me how well the shows went. Every night got better and better. I was in a state of awe and shock that we could all come together again and make a little magic. We’re going to try to do it again.

SLUG: The number of artists participating is pretty immense. What should be expected from the show musically?
Carter: We play each other’s songs and form a big backing band. We’ll play some of everybody’s songs with every songwriter represented there. We will pick a few each night so the set will never be the same. We’ve been working on some covers, and there will be some new stuff as well.

SLUG: Is everyone sharing a tour bus?  Like a big Elephant 6 party?
Carter: Well, we don’t have a tour bus. We have two vans. Hopefully we all fit in that. Of course, we are bringing a tuba and some other really big stuff. We are kind of at the stage where we try to encourage each other to not go crazy. We all grew up in an environment where we didn’t have such luxuries around. So when we are in a party environment, we want to indulge way too much. So I feel like we try to help each other not go overboard, but we do like to party.

SLUG: Is something with a more fluid line-up like the Holiday Surprise Tour commonplace for Elephant 6 shows?
Carter: This is pretty special. I feel like it’s a little like a family reunion. Having some years without these guys in my life everyday, I kind of forgot how much fun we have together, and how we are all drawn to each other because we share the same insane, sick sense of humor. As soon as we all got back together, it all got really fun and funny. I have had a great time in practice. It kind of makes me wonder why we all get so into our work that we drift apart. It takes something like this, us doing a project together, to really get back into each other’s daily lives. Life just goes by so fast.

SLUG: One of the coolest things I have read about the tour is that there will be audience participation games. Can you tell me a bit about how these worked on the previous tour?
Carter: Well, I don’t want to give away any surprises for this tour, but I will tell you about some we have done in the past. We have passed out kazoos: Part of our rider was 500 kazoos for the audience, so we taught the whole audience their little part of the song on kazoos. We led the audience down the street, and played a game in which half the people have to put on bells and the other half are blindfolded. The blindfolded people have to chase the people with bells blindly around the pasture. When a blindfolded person caught a person with a bell, they would have to put on a blindfold until there was only one bell left with the entire audience blindfolded chasing them. We try to expand the show beyond the traditional rock show. Julian really brings the magic in that way.

SLUG: What are the chances of Jeff Mangum making an appearance at any of the smaller shows?
Carter: Jeff does have some big shows coming up and he is going to focus a lot on those. In the past, he has kind of floated in and out of our shows. He is trying to make sure that his fans that are traveling to see him aren’t coming to Holiday Surprise Tour expecting to see Neutral Milk Hotel songs performed.  We are all super excited that he wants to play again. He is going to focus a lot on those. In the past, he has kind of floated in and out of our shows. He is trying to make sure that his fans that are traveling to see him aren’t coming to Holiday Surprise Tour expecting to see Neutral Milk Hotel songs performed.  We are all super excited that he wants to play again. He is mainly trying to protect people from showing up to see him and being let down. So in that sense we should tell everybody, “You will not see him.” Of course, I keep trying to convince him to come. He flows with the wind. I am hoping he will jump in there for some.

SLUG: A reunion tour is certainly a good time to reminisce. How do you feel about the overall impact of the Elephant 6 Collective (yourself included) on indie music as a whole?
Carter: Oh wow, I feel like we’ve packed a punch over the years. I feel like it’s very diverse. The interest and the love of the music of all of the different people involved brought in world music, to punk, to folk and all the little bits in between. I am pretty stoked about what everyone has accomplished.

SLUG: Do you find that there are a lot of younger people at your shows, or mainly older die hard fans?
Carter: The boys get younger every year. It always shocks me how young they seem.

SLUG: Elf Power just released a new self-titled album in September, and Julian Koster is in the studio right now. Has everyoneπ on the tour stayed busy musically?
Carter: Yeah, it is a pretty active group. I’d say maybe The Gerbils (members of Neutral Milk Hotel) are less active, but we have kind of picked up for it. I also play in Nana Grizol, and Nana Grizol tours a lot, and whenever we play in Athens, we try to get Scott Spilane (Neutral Milk Hotel, The Gerbils) to play with us. So even though certain bands aren’t active, the people in the bands are being utilized in other projects.

SLUG: It is always interesting when a band like Elf Power, with such a long discography (14 albums since 1994), decides to make their newest album self-titled. How did Elf Power come to the decision to do this?
Carter: I liked the return to a more simple and cartoonish artwork style, which is very similar to our first record. Our first record featured artwork that was done by people in prison as art therapy for prisoners. I think it was a serial killer who had done the particular picture that we picked. We were kind of fascinated by that combination of dark, sinister action with a cartoonish style. The new artwork that I had found was reminiscent of that—real simplistic. It was not done by a serial killer, it was done by a good friend of ours. I think the title was a reflection of that return to simple roots.

SLUG: This eponymous album seems solemn in comparison to earlier albums. Was this a conscious effort?
Carter: A lot of people have mentioned that we were in a dark phase after Vic Chessnut’s death, and I can kind of see a little of that. I don’t think we intentionally did that, and I don’t actually think the album is that dark. I think that when people know something tragic has happened, they tend to project the darkness on to you.

Come check out the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise tour at Kilby Court on March 11