Elf Power On Saving Historic Theaters, Record Production, And Touring A Ton.
I was lucky enough to chat with Elf Power when they were here playing sold out shows at the Orpheum in Boston. A theme emerged in our talk centering around restoration and historic preservation. With me were four out of the five members, Peter Alvanos Drummer, Laura Carter Multi-instrumentalist, Andrew Rieger Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist and Bryan Poole Guitar/Bass.
JFW: It’s great that you’re in Boston and I’m glad that we’re able to sit down and do this. So tell me how the tour is going?
AR: So far so good, this is um, the third show of thirty-three that we’ve played.
LC: Fourth show.
AR: Yeah, tonight’s the fourth show. We’re doing two shows in Boston at the Orpheum, and the first one last night was great. Um, we’re opening for Neutral Milk Hotel and we’re doing the whole tour with them, and it was a big, you know, sold out show – several thousand people and great enthusiastic crowd last night, so um…beautiful old theatre, so yeah, it was great. The show was awesome, so we’re looking forward to doing it again tonight.
JFW: And Laura, you were telling me some interesting stuff about the Orpheum that I didn’t even know about.
LC: Um, yes. What I got out of last night, but there is so much more that I’m not recalling, but it was one of the oldest buildings in Boston and was, like, the tallest building in Boston for awhile. Until the church was built right next door. But basically the entire country is built around that building, because it was first in Boston. This was the first building in Boston, really, that wasn’t a house or a big barn…
JFW: So before the state house or the Customs House.
LC: Yes, and basically everything spread from that spot.
JFW: So that’s some hell-yeah energy.
LC: It’s the core buried in the midst of huge things.
JFW: Right at Boston Common.
LC: But Three Stooges got there start there. That um, well, I don’t know there’s a lot of historical figures, Fredrick Douglas spoke there.
JFW: Harriet Tubman, you said…
LC: Harriet Tubman spoke there. The first pipe organ that was ever brought in a ship across to America was in that building. But because the performers wanted more room on stage for the ensembles they removed the pipe organ.
LC: (Laughs.) So they had to take it away. But the whole thing was lit with gas lanterns in the beginning and horse carriages would come up the back alley and they’d use pulleys and they’d lift pianos and things up in the back alley off the horse drawn carriages…
LC: …and they’d swing it into the stage through those huge double doors to the top of the back of the stage. Anyway, that’s the kinda stuff I learned about the Orpheum.
JFW: That’s cool.
LC: Yeah. Super exciting.
JFW: So, glad that you’re playing there. So um, next stop you’re in Montreal. Know anything about that theatre? (laughs) I guess you’ll find out more.
LC: I don’t know anything about that theatre.
AR: Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve heard it’s nice, but I don’t really know much about it.
BP: This tour has been a series of overwhelmingly nice historical theaters. It’s kind of a blessed tour, in a way, and there’s um, we’re getting a tour of grand theatre architecture of America, I think.
JFW: That’s great.
LC: I mean, there’s a definite push by Neutral Milk to give their production, well –the money for the space — have it go into places that
really need it.
JFW: Historical preservation.
LC: Which is these theaters.
JFW: They need to be preserved.
LC: They totally need to be preserved, and it’s very costly because the insulation is terrible. (Laughs.)
AR: The heating system are…
LC: Inadequate. The original pipes…you know…like the whole staff at the Lowes theatre in NJ were volunteers. All the ushers, all the people working. They said four hundred hours of volunteer labor was spent scraping graffiti and paint off of the the marble tiles, and it was this big group project.
JFW: Oh, wow.
LC: Like all the places that we’re playing, there’s a real effort to put the money back into a good cause. Like some of the money that you pay for tickets is going back into preserving the building and the staff. So there’s been a real effort to manage and get that money into the right places.
JFW: That’s great. Very noble. And now you’re going to try to find Symphony Road, right Peter?
PA: Yes I am. I have ties to Brookline and to Boston. My Great Uncle was an artist here.
JFW: A painter in the sixties.
PA: Hermon di Giovanno. So, I’m pretty excited about that.
JFW: Amazingly cool. Okay. So, you have a new record out.
JFW: And NPR picked it up.
JFW: That’s very exciting.
A collective laugh. (Cause I suck at interviewing.)
BP: Tell us more.
AR: What do you want to know?
JFW: I don’t know. You tell me. I hear, I mean, it’s a very complex record. And it’s a more internal record. And ah…
LC: It’s called “Sunlight On The Moon.”
Sunlight On The Moon
JFW: Right. (Laughs.)
AR: We recorded it over the course of about a year in a couple different studios in Athens. Some of it we did at my home studio and some of it we did at this old country music theatre, out in the country in Lavonia Georgia. It is this place called Gypsy Farms Studios which is this guy named Zeke Sayer. He’s this young guy and his grandfather used to run this country music theatre just kinda out in the middle of nowhere, just kinda out in the woods, basically, but, like, Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis and all these people played there in the sixties and seventies.
LC: Conway Twitty.
AR: Yeah, but it was…
LC: A ticket was a dollar twenty-five.
LC: And they always did children’s shows at six and then at eight the adult shows would go on. So they’d do a short set for the kids and then they’d go to bed and the adults would have the adult show.
JFW: That’s amazing.
LC: Seventy-five cents for the kid show.
AR: Yeah, so it’s been kinda derelict for a number of years, maybe since the eighties, I think. They haven’t really had any shows, but now the grandson of the guy who used to run it is in his mid-twenties and he plays music and is a recording engineer, so he’s kinda transitioned it from a live music venue to a recording studio.
JFW: That’s awesome.
AR: Yeah, and so we recorded some stuff out there, and then we recorded at another studio in Athens called the Glow Studio. So yeah, it was just kind of pieced together at a bunch of different places. And we wrote a ton of songs and then just kinda recorded a bunch of ’em and some of ’em fell by the wayside and the best ones or the ones that we liked the best…
JFW: The cream comes to the top.
AR: Yeah, it was kinda a long process, but um, leisurely. We were working hard, but we took our time with it.
JFW: With an excellent result.
AR: Yeah, I think it turned out really well. It’s a good mix of different sounds and different arrangements and instruments.
JFW: So when you’re working in different studios do you find that there is a vibe in that studio so it changes your music in anyway? The perception of how your working? Or anything like that?
AR: Yeah. I mean, for sure, I mean, the vibe in the old country music theatre was so amazing and different from anywhere else that we’ve recorded. We were excited to go out there and we would have probably done the whole thing out there, but it was an hour drive. We went out there and recorded several times, but if it were a little closer we may have done it all there cause it was such a neat atmosphere.
PA: It had a great live sound to it. And there was a garage door you could open so that would get some of the echo of the rest of the building.
LC: Yeah, if you wanted big echo hall sound, you know, you could move the mics out into the hall. It was the giant, you know, warehouse with the stage at one end. Then they had this room inside of a room. Which I always figured, um, if you really study it closely, is all about illegal alcohol sales because…
LC: Right. Because it’s a box inside of a box and then it has what he’s turned into the engineering suite has these windows that has like padlocks that can bolt down and padlock.
JFW: A safe room.
LC: Anyway, it kinda has this awesome vibe of really old country history. And it’s not like the floor’s been redone, so you know Dolly Parton walked across the same floor, you know, that you just walked on. So it has that feeling. But the sound of every studio is different, and you know, besides the vibe. There’s the vibe, like you feel like, all these great people have been here, so I want to rise to the moment, that’s the challenge, but then there’s also just the fact that two studios sound very different.
LC: Glow, the other studio that we went to is, like, way more advanced technologically, so like, editing possibilities are…
LC: Endless there, but very limited in the old-timey studio. So you’ve got some technical choices where some stuff works better in the old-timey where you’re tracking everything live and the other where you maybe want to try some trickery.
JFW: So when you master the whole thing, you have to kinda smooth it all out, so it all sounds even.
AR: Well we would actually combine. We would actually use the recording we made at the theatre then take them to the more modern place and edit there so we kinda had the best of both worlds by just using, you know, recording stuff at the one place and then adding to it and editing it at the other place. So it worked out.
LC: The feel of the two if you can imagine them, one is this really old country music park vibe, kinda carney, a little, but also country, country – creek running next to it. When they had their shows it was outdoors and six hundred acres of cow pasture and people parking and they just ran daisy chain speakers up the hill and everybody was partying on the roof of their car -like “Conway!!” you know, like that kinda vibe is what I’m sayin’. But the other one is like done up like an Indian restaurant or something it has this incense smell to it.
JFW: Say wha? (Laughs.)
LC: It’s just like completely the opposite world.
PA: Fancy wall paper.
AR: Kinda like the theater.
PA: Like a movie theatre.
LC: Like glitzy. Like temple kinda vibe to it.
JFW: Yeah, gold. (Shoulda said Gold On The Ceiling.)
LC: Well, no it’s not old…
JFW: No, gold.
LC: Oh, gold. Yeah, gilded.
LC: They definitely have different feels. Like dresses have completely different feels to them.
PA: I think the marriage of the two made it. Made it unique and different and textural.
JFW: And people are digging it. So what’s next for ya’ll?
AR: Well, just a ton of touring. The album came out in the fall and we did a couple of weeks of touring then and then did some shows around Athens and Atlanta up until Christmas, then took a break for the holidays. Now we’re going all over America and Canada and Europe we’re playing up until the summer. So we’re just touring a ton.
JFW: Well good luck with everything and thank you so much for talking to me.
Elf Power is touring in support of their latest album release, Sunlight On The Moon. Go buy it and catch them on tour.