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Music, Etc.: Elf Power, ‘Back to the Web’

Elf Power's new album, "Back to the Web," gets released at the end of this month.

Elf Power’s new album, Back to the Web, gets released at the end of this month. It is their first record since signing with Rykodisc, following an extensive catalog of independent releases by the group dating back to 1993, as part of the legendary Athens, GA, musical collective the Elephant Six Company. Since then, the group has steadily increased its loyal fan base both here and abroad, while making great strides forward from a songwriting, recording and performance perspective. Web is a gentle, moody and dramatic album full of beautiful imagery and sparse acoustic instrumentation, and seems to flow effortlessly from one track to the next.

Elf Power’s journey in the world of recording has its roots in the most basic, “lo-fi” 4-track setup, but now the band leverages the power of the computer–specifically Steinberg Nuendo and WaveLab, the two software platforms on which Web was baked (following some initial tracking on an analog deck). The record was entirely self-produced at bass player Derek Almstead’s home studio in Athens, an approach that helped achieve a highly creative, while inexpensive, result. Pro Sound News caught up with Andrew Rieger, lead singer, guitarist and principal writer on this latest recording effort and Elf Power’s upcoming U.S. and European tour.

On Writing and Pre-Production

I guess it was about a year-and-a-half ago that I started writing the songs, and I began to put them down on a digital 8-track and an SM-57 I had at home. I bought a 12-string acoustic, and I was listening to a lot of Middle Eastern music and Gypsy music–I found that you can kind of emulate the string sounds of that kind of music with a 12-string. A lot of the songs were influenced by listening to that type of music as well as just writing with the 12-string. I would record demos on my 8-track, just playing chords and singing nonsensical words to come up with the vocal melodies. Later on, I would go back and listen to it and come up with the real words, but grabbing little phrases that came out of the nonsense words.

On the Arrangements and Working with the Band

John [Fernandes] plays the violin and the clarinet, and Laura [Carter] plays the accordion. I really felt like the violin and the accordion were going to be dominant instruments that I wanted to use, because they would add to that Gypsy kind of feeling I was going for. So once I recorded the demos and gave them to John and Laura, and the three of us just got together a bunch of times and played the songs acoustically, and they came up with the arrangements. Heather [McIntosh], who plays the cello, lives in New York and just came down for a weekend. She’s such an intuitive player–she just came up with wonderful melodies right off the top of her head. I guess the arrangements resulted from a mixture of these acoustic rehearsals and just kind of going for it. We also brought in a new drummer, Josh Lott, which has worked out great–he has a very powerful style, but he keeps it all very simple, which is what I like in a drummer. We got together, played a few songs and it just gelled.

On Capturing the Exquisite Mood and Feel of the Recording

For the feel of the record, I was definitely riding on the 12-string acoustic. It just felt so natural, and I wanted to use it on every song–I didn’t feel like it would get monotonous, but rather lend a good cohesive feeling to it. We miked it up with an Earthworks, and it just sounded great. A lot of the basic tracks we would record live, with drums, guitar and bass and other basic instrumentation–this led to a more organic feeling for us, for lack of a better word. Our past records have typically been done by recording the drums first, then layering each instrument on top. This time, we achieved a nice live feel by playing it all together.

We actually recorded some of it onto 2-inch; then we would go back, put it on the computer and do a lot of the psychedelic flourishes and vocals in Nuendo. So it was definitely a hybrid mix of analog and digital.

On Transitioning from Professional Studio to Home Studio Environment

We recorded the entire Back to the Web album in our bass player, Derek’s home studio. This was the first time doing that, since we did our last few records in professional studios. It was really great, and a very relaxing way to go about it for a change. Derek is a great engineer, and he’s worked on many good records from bands here in Athens, so we had confidence in him right from the start.

The space was just a big, open room on the second floor of a large 2-story house in Athens. The control room was in the same room as the studio–sometimes we would record stuff out in the hallway, but most times everyone would be in the main room. I used to get shy about my vocal performances, but I’m pretty confident these days and was very comfortable having Derek recording me right there in the same room.

On Past Recording Experiences and the Comforts of Home

All our records have been different, and we’ve had many different experiences recording–our first record was done on a 4-track by myself. But we have slowly gotten more advanced in our recordings. Our second album we did on 8-track cassette, and our third album we did with Dave Fridmann [Flaming Lips] at a big fancy studio in New York. He was great to work with, but the experience of being on the clock, being under the gun and knowing you only have a certain amount of time and money to get the job done was definitely not enjoyable. And even though the album that we did with him is an album that our fans liked a lot, we didn’t really enjoy the experience.

Since then, we’ve really just gone back to recording in mostly home studio setups in Athens. With the way technology has advanced over the past few years, you can get as good of a sound from a good home recording setup as a big, fancy studio–if you just spend the time. The way that I see it, it’s the best of both worlds. You can still achieve that lo-fi charm, but with programs like Nuendo, you can give them an extra sheen.

On Sequencing and Mastering the Record

I feel like we really nailed the sequencing. It took a long time, and we tried a lot of different combinations on the song order, as well as using weird little segues of sounds to bridge the songs together. I think it really paid off, and it does have a really nice flow to it. Derek ended up mastering the entire record in WaveLab, and we couldn’t be happier with the result.

On Bringing Back to the Web on the Road

We did a tour last fall where we were kind of in the middle of recording it. We did play a bunch of the new songs live while finishing up the album in December, but this will be the first tour that we do for the record. We’re doing a month around America, then we’re going to Europe for a couple weeks, making for a busy couple of months. The European tour kicks off with the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival on May 21. We’ve already toured across Europe a couple of times, and we seem to do especially well in Spain and Scandinavia. The new songs work great live–all our fans who have heard the songs without hearing the record have been really enthusiastic.