Optical Atlas Interviews with Laura Carter (Elf Power) and Zachary Gresham (Summer Hymns)

These are the last of my “6 Questions with…” interviews from Optical Atlas. Laura Carter of Elf Power mentions the band’s collaboration with Vic Chesnutt, Dark Developments, which would be released in 2008. Prior to Vic’s passing in 2009, he toured with Elf Power, and they stayed overnight at my place. While the rest of the band took up the usual spot in the basement, Vic, being wheelchair-bound, slept on the 1st floor couch. I woke early in case anyone needed coffee started, and Vic was already up. We awkwardly sat in the living room together, unable to spark any sort of conversation, until my dogs hopped into his lap. From then on everything was easy. We talked about dogs. Vic could be a bit acerbic, but he softened up. Later I was asking the band to sign the poster from the show, and I asked Vic if he would sign. “It’s an Elf Power poster,” he pointed out, “my name isn’t on it.” He paused. “Yeah, I’ll sign yer poster.” He wrote “Vic” on it. We all ate pancakes together and then they were off (to Chicago, probably). That’s my Vic story.


Laura Carter/Elf Power: February 17, 2007

Since the band’s inception in 1993, Laura Carter has been the keyboardist for Elf Power, one of the most critically acclaimed bands to emerge from Elephant 6 and the Athens scene in general. But since 1999 she has also been helping to run Orange Twin, a conservation community, record label, and artist’s collective based around a plot of land which is being slowly converted into an eco-village.

1) I’m curious how Orange Twin first formed, and how you came to discover the land Orange Twin is striving to preserve.

We discovered the land for sale, and we fell in love with it and knew it would be a perfect place to start our community. It’s a former girl scout camp about five miles outside of Athens, GA. It’s about 150 acres, 100 of which will be preserved, and the rest of which will be used to build homes.

2) What does it mean that you’ve received approval from Athens-Clarke County for Orange Twin to proceed with its “master plan?” Can you elaborate?

Well, nobody had ever attempted a community like this in Athens before, so we were a little bit concerned about how the county would respond to the idea, but the support has been very enthusiastic. The “master plan” refers to our plan to begin building homes on the land.


3) Can you briefly describe the history of the community house and its current state of development?

It was a house in Athens that was going to be demolished that we bought for $1 and moved out to the land. It’s a beautiful old house, and there’s currently five people living in it. We’ve had several big concerts over the last few years, hosting bands like Bonnie Prince Billy, Tall Dwarfs and The Olivia Tremor Control when they reunited a few years back.

4) The record label was launched in 2001 and it seems to be thriving, having released records by Jeff Mangum, Elf Power, Gerbils, Major Organ and the Adding Machine, The Late B.P. Helium, Je Suis France, Lovers, and more. What was the initial impetus for launching the label, and who was first involved in putting it together? I’m also curious about how you came to release the Sibylle Baier album, Colour Green.

Andrew and I started the label, initially to reissue the Elyse record, a trippy folk rock record from the late 1960’s that we really loved. Most of the other releases have been from friends looking for an outlet to release their music. The Sibylle Baier album we heard a few years back from J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. Sibylle lives near J. in Massachusetts, and her son gave the album to J., who passed it along to us, as he knew we would love it. It is truly a beautiful recording that we thought we should share with the world.

5) What’s on the horizon for Orange Twin in 2007? It sounds like you might be putting out a third Instruments record.

We have new records out by Madeline and the Lovers. Instruments are planning on recording a new record this year, so hopefully that will come out this year as well.

6) Of course, I also have to ask what Elf Power‘s up to.

Elf Power has been recording a record with Vic Chesnutt, backing him up on his songs, which has been a blast. I think it’s going to be a really incredible album. Vic has just finished an album with the Godspeed You Black Emperor! folks in Canada, as well as an acoustic record in Nashville, so I guess this will be the third in his trilogy he hopes to put out this year! We’ll be doing more touring in the spring, going out west for a couple weeks. We’ll also be recording a new Elf Power album later this year, so we’re staying pretty busy!

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Laura photo by John of Diligent Worker


Zachary Gresham/Summer Hymns: April 10, 2006

Zachary Gresham is the lead singer/songwriter of the Summer Hymns, the Athens-based band that presently includes Philip Brown and Chris Riser (past collaborators have included such familiar Athens names as Derek Almstead of M Coast, Dottie Alexander and Matt Dawson from of Montreal, Adrian Finch and Bren Mead of Masters of the Hemisphere, and about a dozen more). Through three full-lengths–1999’s Voice Brother and Sister, 2001’s A Celebratory Arm Gesture (named after a Mr. Show sketch), and 2003’s Clemency–the band has established a consistently subdued, semi-psychedelic sound, utilizing a unique combination of instruments and an eye toward the album form: no song seems to have a particular ending or beginning until the record stops playing. In the three years since Clemency, the Summer Hymns have been hard at work, and the results should bear much fruit in 2006, as new material will be spread across compilation albums, a Summer Hymns Value Series Vol. 2, a maxi-single, and a fourth full-length album.


1) How are you progressing on the new album, and when do you expect it to be released?

We are pretty much done with it except for finishing the mixing, which should be done by the end of April. We hope to turn it in May 1st so that it can come out this fall. We’re itching to get back on the road.

2) How long do you typically like to spend on an album before sending it out? I ask because each of your albums has a very cohesive feel, and the songs flow together beautifully.

Thanks. With the exception of Clemency, we’ve pretty much recorded at our own studio so we can take our time. Typically I don’t like for things to drag on as much as we have for this record but generally I just take as long as it takes to make it the record that I want to hear. And usually I seem to write songs in batches, and in this case there have been too many batches to easily focus in on one group of songs.

3) I think we’re both fellow Alejandro Jodorowsky fans, as “El Topo” figures prominently in Clemency, and he gets thanked in the credits. Why did you decide to use this film as a theme for the album? [“El Topo” (“The Mole”), directed by Jodorowsky, can’t really be described, but briefly: it’s a Zen Western from 1970 about a gunfighter who sets out to slay four master warriors who live in the desert; he later seems to die, but is reborn within a mountain, and tunnels his way to the light (and there’s much more). The English dub of the film makes a few cameo appearances on the album, and it influenced the album’s artwork, as well.]

As with a lot of things, it was kinda accidental. When I got that film, I got into it pretty hardcore and watched it a lot. And some of the times it was playing with the sound down low and I was writing some songs on a handheld, and some of it was bleeding through onto the song, and I just got accustomed to hearing some of those things; and then I was inspired by several things in the film, mainly the image of the mole who digs around underground searching for the sunlight, but when he finally gets out from underground he is blinded by the light because he’s been in the darkness so long. On many levels I could relate to that and even wrote a couple of songs directly stemming from thinking about the mole, such as “Wet Mess.” Everyone thinks that it’s about dirty diapers or some sex shit, when it’s just a lament from the mole’s perspective.

4) I try to avoid asking this question, though because the Summer Hymnshave a very unique, hazy, dream-like quality to the music, I will: who do you like to listen to, and what artists would you consider influential?

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Dylan stuff from the 70’s and outtakes and stuff. I’ve been digging the new Destroyer record. And I love me some Bill Withers, The Staple Singers, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding,Larry Norman, etc… I got a turntable that you can stack 6 or 7 LPs and it drops them down, and I don’t think that Robert Wyatt‘s Dondestan has been in its case since I moved last year. Also in that stack is Dylan’s Planet Waves and Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years. And in the last few weeks I’ve been listening to some Steely Dan Count Down to Ecstacy and ZZ Top‘s Tejas.

5) Do you take a different approach to your songs, or to the band, when you play live?

Yeah, I think so. The songs pretty much have three lives, the life when it’s born with me and whatever instrument I’m writing on, the life that the band brings into it during recording, and then the life after we play it live a bunch. They usually change after playing them live a bunch.

6) Any memorable incidents from the road that you’d like to share?

There’s been a lot of fun times on the road and some of the most memorable I probably shouldn’t share. I love touring and can’t wait to get back out on the road. I would say that the things that come to mind would be staying at Dottie’s aunt and uncle’s farm in Vermont on the Destroyer tour and sitting in their outdoor hot tub heated by a wood-burning stove. And we have had some of the best off days imaginable in Austin, Texas, going to swimming holes and barbeque joints.

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