Interstellar Pop Underground: A History of the Elephant 6 Collective
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As the type of place where records, books and magazines get passed around like talismans amongst those who share them, bestowing a kind of secret knowledge and blessing to those sharp enough to know where and how to find them, Ruston inherently concentrated local oddballs in whatever spaces were available, and Schneider was among the first in the collective to be indoctrinated as a teenager into an older group of insular misfits and art students who ran KLPI. As the son of the head of the architecture department at Louisiana Tech, he had been used to hanging around older kids on campus from a very early age while attending the A.E. Phillips Laboratory School—an experimental learning facility for students from kindergarten through eighth grade that was located on university grounds and was known for its focus on both arts and academics—and assimilated well into their world. As the place where he would also meet one of his greatest musical partners in the form of Jeff Mangum as a newly transplanted and slightly self-conscious second grader with a British accent who had just moved to town from South Africa, the school would prove to have an indelible impact on both his life and career. Having spent many years and after school hours soaking up MTV and arcade games at The Bulldog Kennel at Tech’s student center while at A.E. Philips, Robert made friends with some of the undergrads who tended to congregate in the same spots he did and who were a part of the KLPI family. As a kind of unofficial remote arm of the university’s arts departments—which were widely known as the stalwarts of the progressive wing of the local community at the time—KLPI was the place where students who didn’t fit in with the rest of Louisiana Tech’s campus culture would come to hang out, talk shop about records and blast music across Ruston’s airwaves.
With a lot of crossover between the two, Schneider remembers fondly the important role it played in organizing many a young outcast from across Ruston. As the first place he ever heard prog rock, New Wave and the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant,” it was the type of hallowed institution that would not only gain in stature in his mind as a crucial resource for music and information about popular culture, but would become the locus of activity of the group of friends who would go on to form the Elephant 6.
“KLPI was like the sun to our musical earth,” recalls Schneider, “The radio station gave us exposure to this amazing music at a really early age and the art department gave us exposure to these kind of freaky people and conceptual ideas that wasn’t available to us in the rest of Ruston. It’s like here’s Mayberry, and then in the art school and radio station we have New York City or something. That’s what it felt like. So there was some very progressive stuff going on in a very small, little pocket of the town. There were really only a few kids who saw the East Village side of it, and that was me, Will, Jeff and Bill and maybe a few of our other friends. I’m pretty sure every other kid our age was oblivious to that. But we were lucky. And we were lucky to have this kind of mix of elements going on, to grow up embedded in this environment that was on the one hand safe, and small, and sleepy, and on the other hand was really progressive in a very kind of peculiar way.”
According to Nikki Scheuermann, a longtime friend of the collective’s from the early days who also grew up hanging around KLPI, “The students who were the most interested in music really sort of gravitated there because they wanted to share what they were interested in. So you had everything from the weirdest of psychedelic rock all the way to old classics…Velvet Underground…you could hear it all. And they played all night, so it wasn’t just a daytime show, it was all night too. Twenty-four hours. There was always somebody DJing. KLPI was a big part of Tech back in the ‘80s and ’90s and almost everyone listened to them at least some point during the day because they played a wide variety of stuff. It wasn’t just indie and alternative; it was a good mix of what was going on.”
Located at the time in a remote off-campus building, KLPI would go on to become something of a clubhouse for the nascent Elephant 6 gang starting at a very early age, and for most, well before any of them had ever gotten out of high school. Will Cullen Hart, who had met Schneider at a Cheap Trick concert in sixth grade through their mutual friend Jeff Mangum—a seminal event that would find Schneider in possession of Rick Nielsen’s guitar pick by the end of the show—was a DJ for his own hardcore punk program starting in 11th grade, where he would spin records by the Dead Kennedys, Butthole Surfers and Throbbing Gristle. As a job usually reserved for students attending the college, Hart ingratiated himself into station life and would become something of a mainstay for several years along with Mangum, who would ultimately become the station manager in 1990 while taking classes at the university.
As John Fernandes, a much younger associate of the group who also DJed at the station and would end up playing with the Olivia Tremor Control after the group moved to Athens, Ga., recalls, “The thing that kind of saved us was the fact that there was a good college radio station at Louisiana Tech and Jeff Mangum was the music director there for a while, so he was calling all these indie labels and getting them to send him stuff that was on Flying Nun and Homestead Records. We were really into the Tall Dwarfs and I remember him setting up shows in Ruston with bands like Beat Happening and Sebadoh and so we kind of got a scene going on there because everyone was doing 4-track recordings and passing around tapes and we had a steady influx of music that was coming in and we were all DJing for each other at KLPI.”
“That’s the way you do it: DIY. And that’s what we did,” adds Hart. “The radio station was a hub for us. There was so much stuff up there. Bill would be up there, and I’d go up there if Jeff was doing a show, and I would go in the other room and copy some of the records onto tapes so I could listen to them at home. And we would lock it up so we could have stayed there all night if we wanted to. You know what I mean? So it was really fucking cool for us. Where we couldn’t do that at my dad’s house.”
Another early fixture at the station, Bill Doss was a couple of years older than Schneider, Mangum and Hart, but had gotten to be friends with them hanging around the local music scene during their freshman year in high school. Originally from Dubach—an even smaller town 15 miles north of Ruston—Schneider remembers running into Doss at Haymaker Music one day while loitering at the shop. As the sole instrument store in town, it was a natural meeting point.
“I was hanging out at the counter kind of just shooting the shit with the guys who worked there—Eddie Haymaker and this other guy named Jim,” he recalls, “and this yellow conversion van screeched into a parking place in front of the store and out hops this super hip looking red-haired guy who was a couple of years older than me. He came in and bought guitar strings and then left and I remember thinking to myself, ‘That guy is so cool. Who is that guy?’ I was so intrigued. He was unusually hip for a teenager in Ruston.”
Fortunately for Schneider, it wouldn’t take long for him to find out. Answering a wanted ad looking for bandmates who were into Van Halen and the Beatles hung on a poster board at Haymaker’s soon after their initial meeting, Schneider was shocked to realize upon calling the number on the card that it was Doss who had put it there. The start of a long and fruitful relationship that would initially find them playing together in cover bands at high school talent competitions—much to the chagrin of local faculty—Schneider and Doss would go on to be both best friends and musical foils throughout the rest of their lives. “We instantly became partners,” Schneider says. “Bill was like my Paul McCartney.”