As eternally awesome as the concept of the rock concert is, its basic format could always use some souping up. Major bands typically enhance the basic premise of people playing their instruments by throwing in fancy-shmancy lights and pyrotechnics. Even though the smaller groups' budgets can't quite compare, a smart live band should at least aim to provide something special. Lightning Bolt and Dan Deacon play sets while physically immersed in crowds. Quintron and Miss Pussycat put on puppet shows and employ homemade instruments. Monotonix goes for dangerous stunts like igniting drum kits and leaping from uncomfortable heights. Even the rather staid Yo La Tengo is spinning a gameshow-like wheel to determine what its first set will involve. Sure, these ideas are prone to becoming gimmicky when overused, but if employed properly, they go a mile in making a show feel like a special experience.
This is why the Elephant 6 Collective's Holiday Surprise Tour sounds like such a blast, even if you know barely a note by its artists. For the sequel to its 2008 Holiday Surprise Tour, the Athens, Ga.-based music collective will assemble a megaband that includes members of Neutral Milk Hotel, the Gerbils, Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, the Music Tapes, Major Organ and Adding Machine, Nana Grizol, and a handful of other acts affiliated with the indie rock–leaning project. In total, about 12 musicians will dip into some 50 songs prepped for this tour. It's similar in format to the '08 run, although some performers have joined the hoopla while others have left. "It has been a lot of work, but it's been really fun getting together," Elf Power guitarist-vocalist Andrew Riegler says. "We're all old friends, but as we get older, people have different things going on in their lives and we don't get together as much as we used to. It's almost been more fun to get together and hang out with friends. Playing music is kind of secondary."
Elephant 6 was established in 1991 by friends and musicians Will Cullen Hart, Jeff Mangum, Robert Schneider, and Bill Doss. Even with the talent under its umbrella (Apples in Stereo and Of Montreal are two other affiliated bands) and, according to a few accounts, a signature sound, the Collective remains kind of a vague and confusing concept. "Some people get the idea that it's more of a traditional record label where in actuality, it's more of an intangible concept of friendship and collaboration," Riegler says. The Collective has always been comfortable exploring odd performance art-ish ideas. Around Christmastime one year in the '90s, Riegler and other E6 members played a sprawling collaborative concert at an old church, throwing in theatrical performances and games for the hell of it. Various E6ers fondly remembered that time for years, finally rekindling it with the Holiday Surprise Tour. (By the way, the current tour is retaining the Holiday Surprise name as tribute to an Olivia Tremor Control song.)
Julian Koster of the Music Tapes and Neutral Milk Hotel spearheaded the original tour, describing it as "a big orchestra, variety show, silly happy thing." Riegler says the description still stands, noting that players move in and out of the set instead of the entire gang enveloping the stage. The musicians have spent the last month and a half practicing daily. This run's merch stand will also sport a new tour-exclusive E6 7-inch.
In keeping with the whole "Surprise" thing, the E6 Tour will also feature film screenings and games — the trimmings Riegler summarizes as "weird fun stuff." The flicks will include shorts by artist and E6 cohort Brian Dewan and various E6 leftovers from the '90s, while those Koster-masterminded games will be of the audience participation variety. (Riegler is hazy on the details of the nonmusic aspects; the E6 website also mentions a "12-foot snowman.") Although early on in our interview, Riegler says the show's two-to-three-hour run time might make it difficult for the casual fan to handle, he revises his opinion later. "I don't think anybody will be disappointed, even if they're not familiar with all the bands involved," he says. "You're still going to hear a lot of the songs that you want to hear, but we've made a conscious effort to make it different than your typical rock show."