Athens, Georgia, five-piece Of Montreal is guilty by association, and happily so. What's known as the Elephant 6 Collective--Apples In Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power, the Music Tapes, Essex Green, Of Montreal--is centered in and around Athens (save Apples In Stereo, residents of Denver) and issues records on, or in conjunction with, The Elephant 6 Recording Company label. The singular, and arguably more important, linkage: a deeply felt love of classic pop tunesmithery; a ready inclination toward psych's left-field tradition; and a working aesthetic influenced by a contemporary anything-goes, home-recording feel.
With Of Montreal's Tucson appearance this week, locals get to see part of what the underground buzz is all about. The band is the brainchild of Florida songwriter Kevin Barnes, who moved all around the country before eventually settling in Athens, where he found a sympathetic core of musicians who could help translate his increasingly complex pop visions. Indeed, following albums in '97 and '98, last year's The Gay Parade (Bar/None Records), the third Of Montreal long-player, demonstrated a startling depth. It's both a rock opera-esque song-cycle concerning the happiness, heartache and colorful goings-on of the denizens of a little village (regional autobiography, perhaps?); and a dizzyingly multi-instrumental, pop-retrodelic salute to rock 'n' roll's essential sense of fun.
Dottie Alexander handles the keyboards, clarinet, flute and percussion. She's joined by vocalist Barnes, bassist Derek Almstead, drummer Jamey Huggins and guitarist Andy Gonzales.
Currently the band is touring in support of its fourth CD, the tellingly titled Horse & Elephant Eatery (No Elephants Allowed), also on Bar/None. It's actually an odds 'n' sods collection of singles, compilation tracks and unreleased material designed as a stopgap between The Gay Parade and the forthcoming Coquelicot Asleep With The Poppies: A Variety Of Whimsical Verse.
Says Alexander, "Basically, our next couple of records are pretty big undertakings and we wanted to make some of our more rare stuff available. Those two reasons combined made the singles comp seem like a good idea. It was also a good outlet for some of our songs that didn't quite fit into the concepts of the next two records."
Concepts. While Alexander is close-mouthed about exactly what the new album will be (the group's bio simply forecasts a "long, sprawling work that movesäinto more ambitious terrain"), she does allow that the band enjoys translating its prismatic music from studio to stage. "As far as logistical problems in pulling off the musical complexity go, we've never really had any. We use a bit of trickery in the form of a sampler, but mostly we're able to rise to the challenge. As for the stage antics on this tour, I don't really want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that we'll have the 'bee with wheels' in tow [a.k.a. Barnes' brother David, who's responsible for the group's neo-Yellow Submarine record sleeves], loaded up with backdrops and props."
Opening the Tucson show will be the equally libertine Marshmallow Coast, which not so coincidentally is Andy Gonzales' group, and for touring purposes, utilizes the same players as the headliners. (Alexander has her own side project, My First Keyboard, as does Huggins with The Great Lakes, and Almstead, with Summer Hymns. Scorecards, anyone?)
Given the wealth of media attention on Elephant 6 bands of late, is Alexander weary of the topic? Or those inevitable "What's in the Athens water?" questions.
"Why not Athens? It's a cheap place to live, with balmy winters and a pleasant lack of self-importance," Alexander muses. "There's an amazing community of like-minded creative types to inspire us, and enough cynics to keep us humble. But yes, pretty much all Elephant 6-related questions have the same vague answers, so in that regard, they're all tiring."
Okay. One last question to further pique concertgoers' interest: What musical hero would you most like to collaborate with, Brian Wilson or Ray Davies? "A resounding Ray Davies! Brian Wilson is brilliant, but I'm afraid that he's such a fragile perfectionist that one or both of us would end up in tears." No such worries for mere listeners, though, who can definitely plan on much laughter and smiles at the Tucson show.