By Cooper Levey-Baker
YOUR NORMAL, AVERAGE, EVERYDAY INDIE ROCK BAND: Kevin Barnes (standing, middle) and band mates Matt Dawson(left to right), Dottie Alexander, Jamey Huggins and Bryan Poole
Sarasota Film Festival Independent Visions, 8 p.m. Thurs., April 19, Minxx Nightclub, 7111 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, 923-6200. $20.
The website for the loose indie rock collective known as Elephant 6 features a bewilderingly dense, overlapping network of bands and individuals from Athens, Ga. Twenty-five groups are listed as full-fledged members of the scene; 14 others are dubbed "The Extended Family." Entries on the history of each band are chock full of hyperlinks to bios of transient band members and brief collaborative projects.
Trying to make sense of who recorded what with whom in Athens over the past 15 years quickly makes you dizzy.
For of Montreal bassist Bryan Poole, though, the Elephant 6 thing is notably less complex. The scene "was just a group of friends getting together making music," he says on the phone from Athens during a tour break. "[It] just kind of had a name." Poole had grown up in Columbia, S.C., and was lured to the college town by word-of-mouth buzz about its first-rate music scene, still hoppin' a decade after luminaries like R.E.M. and The B-52's lit it up.
"Back then the Athens scene was more like math rock," Poole remembers. "It wasn't quite the Seattle grunge thing, but it was really heavy." Things were "heavy" in most underground rock spots around the country during the early '90s, with bands offering up variations on the post-punk blueprint but always keeping the noise and the chaos right up front.
Elephant 6ers, though, had a jones for something a little different.
"The Elephant 6 thing was a dollop of psychedelic sunshine," says Poole. That meant flourishes like brass sections and keyboards, and hooks -- loads and loads of hooks. Scenesters that normally regarded musicianship as more of a handicap than an asset weren't quite sure what to make of the new breed. For Poole, though, the period was magical: "Back in the day, it was a utopian collective feeling."
Poole began playing in various incarnations of the band Elf Power, led by friend Andrew Rieger, and joined of Montreal's inaugural lineup, put together by chief songwriter Kevin Barnes, circa 1997. While of Montreal is generally regarded as little more than a pseudonym for Barnes' solo work, Poole -- except for a brief stretch when he left the band because playing in two groups "just got too hectic" -- has been there for the entire run.
"I've been his foil behind the curtain, behind the terry cloth or something," Poole says. "We've been friends for a long time."
Although the Elephant 6 scene started producing some nationally recognized acts (The Apples in Stereo, The Olivia Tremor Control) and even one indisputably classic disc (Neutral Milk Hotel's 1998 burner In the Aeroplane Over the Sea), of Montreal still languished on the Athens B-list.
But while of Montreal toiled in small venues, the Elephant 6 sound started conquering indie rock clubs across the country.
Today, you can hear the bands everywhere. The Shins -- early Athens fans -- took the town's '60s pop obsession all the way to the no. 2 spot on the Billboard charts this past January. The Decemberists performed a similar feat last fall. Even the relentlessly serious art rock of The Arcade Fire owes something to the expanded sonic palette the Elephant 6 groups gave to the underground.
Indie kids today -- for better or worse -- would much rather be pop than Iggy.
Poole doesn't sign on to my theory, calling the game of Who Influenced Who "a big puzzle." He was flattered and honored, though, when The Shins played Athens before they were big and specifically invited the town's indie elite to the show.
The new zeitgeist helped of Montreal generate more and more buzz over its past few albums (2004's Satanic Panic in the Attic and 2005's The Sunlandic Twins), but no praise had ever matched the acclaim that greeted the release of Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? early this year. Tastemakers at Pitchfork gave it a rep-confirming 8.7.
And the disc is superb. "Suffer for Fashion" kicks it all off, with programmed beats, buzzing synths and Barnes' funky upper-register vocal hysterics. "Cato as a Pun" accentuates a not-quite-hip-hop beat with an assortment of odd sound effects and electric guitar squiggles. "Labyrinthian Pop" references the sexed-up funk Beck brought on Midnite Vultures.
The melodies are so bright, I forget pretty quickly that the songs originated in the heartbreak and confusion of a tenuous marriage and an unexpected child.
Before Barnes' wife Nina gave birth to the couple's now-2-year-old daughter Alabee, Barnes poured all the worry and self-doubt of impending fatherhood into some of the songs that would eventually populate Fauna.
Nina, who played bass in the band, was now saddled by motherhood and couldn't tour with her husband. "We're like, 'Wow, we're doing better than ever! We're selling out shows!' but Nina's at home," Poole remembers. "You know, the typical calling home, 'We sold out so-and-so!' and, 'Well. Great.'" After the conclusion of that jaunt, Barnes struggled. "All these things came to a head," Poole says. "And Kevin had a psychosis. He didn't want to leave his house. We came home from tour and he didn't leave his room."
Poole had to begin conducting band rehearsals sans Barnes and the entire group had serious doubts about whether of Montreal would continue. Barnes was eventually coaxed out for a second tour, only to have Nina and Alabee move to Oslo, Norway, while he was on the road. "The pinnacle of the record, 'The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,' he wrote that one after Nina had left him, and he's just alone and spewed it all out," says Poole.
The couple eventually reconciled, but despite Fauna's critical triumph, touring has still proven tough on Barnes and his wife. When I ask Poole if they're bearing up better than before, he answers with a curt "nope," although he notes that now that Alabee's no longer a newborn, she can accompany the band for one-week stretches, helping the mindset of all involved.
of Montreal follows up its Sarasota Film Festival date with a long string of European shows, and then it's on to more recording or gigging later this year. Barnes -- ever prolific -- has already scripted a new set of tunes. And while times seem better for the singer, Poole assures me that the fresh material is "definitely showing a bit of the psychosis in there as well."
Based on Fauna, I wouldn't want it any other way.