Elephant 6 Recording Company: Crash Course
As rock collectives encourage more musicians to think big, it's time to get reacquainted with the oddball batch of bands that defined trippy togetherness
As SPIN looks back at the life of Olivia Tremor Control’s Bill Doss, who died at age 43 today, we’re reposting the history of the Elephant 6 Recording Collective we published in our April 2006 issue.
WHERE: Athens, Georgia
WHAT: Two-dozen-plus bands aligned by their appreciation of creative recording techniques, wacky instruments, and poppy, psychedelic tunes
(MOSTLY) INACTIVE MEMBERS: Neutral Milk Hotel, the Olivia Tremor Control, Beulah, the Minders
ACTIVE MEMBERS: The Apples in Stereo, Circulatory System, Dressy Bessy, the Music Tapes, Elf Power, the Essex Green, Of Montreal, the Sunshine Fix, Ulysses
Between bits of awkward banter, the calibrating of an honest-to-God analog reel-to-reel tape recorder, and the donning of wrist bells, the most celebrated psych-pop band of the 1990s, the Olivia Tremor Control, lovably stumbled through a historic reunion gig in New York City last August. It was their fifth show in five years, and the crowd clung to every banjo pluck and detuned horn blast in the band’s acid-washed oeuvre. Even Jeff Mangum, the reclusive frontman of Neutral Milk Hotel, ventured onstage, unabashedly wiping away tears. As of now, OTC don’t have plans to record a new album, but perhaps the warm reception has piqued their interest. “This is fun shit,” said cofrontman Will Cullen Hart backstage while his bandmates packed up their typewriters, singing saws, and plastic sheep. “I think we might do this again.”
Thanks to the Polyphonic Spree, Broken Social Scene, and Arcade Fire, it’s no longer unusual to find more than ten ecstatically hopping musicians toting unwieldy instruments onstage. But in the mid-1990s, Elephant 6 were the model for sloppy, eccentric, lo-fi ’60s-style group jams. Folks as diverse as the Shins and Danger Mouse grabbed from their playful, woozy aesthetic. “You just never knew what was going to happen or who would be involved,” says R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe of E6’s live gigs. “You had to be there or be square, or hear about it the next day and regret not going.”
The troupe began in the late ’80s with a few high school friends from rural Louisiana. “There was a group of us who gelled because we didn’t want to be in Whitesnake,” Hart explains. Hart came up with the term Elephant 6 to brand the bedroom boom-box recordings that they’d been dubbing over Vanilla Ice cassingles and trading among themselves.
Upon graduation, Robert Schneider moved to Denver and formed the Apples in Stereo, while Hart, Bill Doss, and Mangum relocated to the underground music mecca (and R.E.M. hometown) of Athens, Georgia, in 1993. With Schneider supervising, Elephant 6 became an actual label, specializing in seven-inches and cassettes. Meanwhile, Doss and Hart telemarketed for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and Mangum washed dishes at an Italian restaurant — all three sleeping on cots in the same attic — as more artists entered the fold, rehearsing songs together after Sunday-night potlucks. “We weren’t exactly having drug orgies or anything,” Elf Power’s Andrew Rieger says.
But, by the beginning of the next decade, Elephant 6 had burned up under the spotlight. OTC split, and Neutral Milk Hotel went on permanent hiatus (rumors of Mangum’s whereabouts began circulating immediately; the singer is now married and was recently living in Quebec, where he records unreleased music). “As reviews were rolling in, everyone was getting really pigeonholed,” says Pat Noel of Beulah. Even now, Mangum won’t define the collective in concrete terms: “Elephant 6 is a group of people that I love very much, and without them I would be lost.”
Today a few E6 bands continue to record and tour. In typical ramshackle style, OTC’s reunion gigs left more questions than answers. “We’re going to play, it’s cool, let’s leave it at that,” Hart says. “You talk about it too much, the whole thing falls apart.”
Essential Book: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Continuum, 2005). Kim Cooper’s exploration of the making of Neutral Milk Hotel’s landmark 1998 album has become a best-seller in the 33 1/3 series. Essential Remix: “The Fool (Neutral Milk Hotel) (A Pelican City Experiment),” from The Chilling Effect: Original Motion Picture Score (December First, 1999). A young Danger Mouse, recording as Pelican City, takes a whack at Neutral Milk Hotel’s mournful horn march, adding a rolling beat and flowing strings.
FOR THE RECORD
• Schneider and Mangum met in the second grade, when Mangum chased Schneider around with a Wiffle Ball bat. Mangum first encountered Hart when the two were on the same youth football team. • Gerbils frontman Scott Spillane once left a backpack with all the Elf Power, Gerbils, and Neutral Milk Hotel tour funds inside a Pizza Hut. • Major Organ and the Adding Machine feature members of NMH, OTC, Elf Power, and Of Montreal performing under pseudonyms. The group’s actual lineup has never been revealed. • Chocolate USA changed their name from Miss America upon being threatened by the pageant. • Hart’s Silver (Cloud, 2001) is an ambient minimalist album recorded by burying a tape recorder in his backyard. • Mangum and Hart were in a high school noise band called Maggot. • Instruments used on E6 projects include sarangi, clarinet, euphonium, selemintan, Magnus organ, sitar, magic robot voice, Nepalese copper shawm, flugelhorn, and wandering genie. • Of Montreal’s The Early Four Track recordings consist of 16 songs with “Dustin Hoffman” in the title, including “Dirty Dustin Hoffman Needs a Bath.” MUSIC APPRECIATION by Jon Dolan
The Apples in Stereo
A bouncy quartet whose sound suggests a Smurf-size version of Big Star and the Raspberries’ ’70s pop rock. Key album: Tone Soul Evolution (Sire/Spinart, 1997) Beulah
Few E6ers hewed their post-Pet Sounds loopiness to tunes as studiously as this second-gen San Francisco outfit. Key album: The Coast Is Never Clear (Velocette, 2001) Elf Power
Read The Hobbit 50 times, form a band. A relatively rocking drone-folk outfit with righteous environmentalist sympathies. Key album: The Winter Is Coming (Sugar Free, 2000) Neutral Milk Hotel
Jeff Mangum’s blue-boy yowl brought Luis Bunuel’s vision and J.D. Salinger’s soul to noise folk. Key album: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge, 1998) Of Montreal
Billowy pop with a Dr. Seuss subtext that reaches an operatic peak when nearly every member of the collective sings along. Key album: The Gay Parade (Bar/None, 1999)
The story was originally published in the April 2006 issue of SPIN.