Elephant in the Room

An influential indie-pop collective reconvenes

Three years ago, Julian Koster released a new record by the Music Tapes, one of several bands he's played in since the early '90s. He used old-timey instruments — like the singing saw and banjo — for the set of fuzz-folk music that sounded a lot like Neutral Milk Hotel, another, more popular band he was a member of.

To drum up support for Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes (as well as for The Singing Saw at Christmastime, which was released under his own name), Koster organized the Holiday Surprise Tour, including many members of the influential Athens, Georgia collective Elephant 6, which made some of the best experimental pop of the '90s.

For years, there's been a slow reemergence of Elephant 6, which included (in addition to those already mentioned) the Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, the Circulatory System, and others. Koster is now bringing together more than a dozen Elephant 6 artists — including Olivia's Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, who helped form the collective — for a new version of the Holiday Surprise Tour!

Elephant 6's most famous, most elusive member, Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum, probably won't show up at the tour's Grog Shop stop this week. But you will hear some Neutral Milk Hotel songs performed by the group, who'll appear onstage in different configurations, while trading instruments and playing each other's songs for a freewheeling set that will span Elephant 6's history.

(Notably, another founding member of the collective, the Apples in Stereo's Robert Schneider, is also absent from this tour. Hart says he's "going back to school to learn some more cool math," a reference to the complex musical scales Schneider dabbled with on his band's recent albums — including last year's Travellers in Space and Time.)

After struggling with multiple sclerosis for much of the past decade, Hart overcame his fear of needles, recovered most of the sight in his right eye, and in 2009, recouped with a new album by his other band, Circulatory System.

But the big news coming out of this tour is the return of the Olivia Tremor Control, who are now mounting a comeback that will result in a new album later this year. Hart says they already have "a bunch of songs recorded" — actually "30 bits," which will most likely be shaped into songs.

Best of all, they'll probably sound a lot like the band's classic 1996 album (and one of the finest records to come out of Elephant 6), Dusk at Cubist Castle. "When Bill [Doss] and I started to do this originally, we wanted to do something that was [not] low-fi, but more home-fi — Sgt. Pepper production-ish," says Hart. "How good it can sound if you [mix] that sound with higher fidelity. We're carrying on with that."

And take note, fans: There's a limited-edition seven-inch, credited to the Elephant 6 Orchestra, that's available only at the shows. "Welcome to Our Story" was mostly recorded in Schneider's Denver apartment on a four-track by Hart, Doss, Mangum, and a few others back in 1994. (Hart calls the collectible a "mini-EP," consisting of older material that's been "changed, but in the greatest way.")

The Holiday Surprise Tour! features more than music. There are also audience-participation games led by Koster and short films by Brian Dewan, who created some of the artwork for Neutral Milk Hotel's best album (and Elephant 6's greatest contribution), In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. "He's a creative genius," says Hart. "He has 20 to 30 [filmstrips]. And he makes synthesizers of his own design. They are my favorite synthesizer sounds, like Roxy Music."

The scope of Elephant 6's growing influence over the years isn't lost on Hart. It's been more than 20 years since the formation of the collective, and in that time, many younger indie-rock fans thought they'd never see most of these bands onstage. It's an exciting prospect, which spreads from the audience to the stage, says Hart. "I'm excited right now over us," he says with a laugh. "Over me!"