Interstellar Pop Underground: A History of the Elephant 6 Collective
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Around the same time he met Doss, Schneider had begun experimenting with making homemade recordings on his boombox and a rented 4-track machine and was starting to churn out early examples of the kind of handcrafted sunny avant-garde pop songs that would become his raison d’être. Sparking friendly competition amongst the rest of the group, over the course of the next few years, all four would begin making a wide range of lo-fi recordings that touched on everything from noisenik ear splatter to folksy art songs and interstellar psychedelia that would find them drawing on such disparate influences as the Minutemen, Pussy Galore, Pink Floyd, Sonic Youth, Soft Machine, Black Sabbath, and the Beach Boys, amongst countless others. Utilizing elements of musique concrete and tape collage to add a level of mind-altering weirdness to everything, a nascent identity began to be forged. Inspired by artists on such maverick record labels as K Records out of Olympia, Wash. and Flying Nun out of New Zealand—both of whom would ultimately serve as models for the Elephant 6 Recording Company’s ethos—they began to circulate the tapes amongst themselves and various friends in the community.
Collaborating on many of the projects, with different configurations constituting any number of both real and imaginary bands, it would become a working methodology that would last throughout their careers. Operating under names such as Mangum’s free jazz-inspired noise band Clay Bears and Milk (who would later evolve into Neutral Milk Hotel), Hart’s Cranberry Lifecycle and Synthetic Flying Machine (who would morph into the Olivia Tremor Control), Schneider’s Fat Planet, and Doss’s the Sunshine Fix—many of whom rarely played out in public—they slowly began to create an entire sonic universe based out of their bedrooms in Ruston. Although there was the occasional gig at the Fun-O-Mat or at local house parties like those that took place at the legendary Monroe Street House, most of the early projects rarely left the sanctity and safety of their stereos. With very little in the way of a musical “scene” in Ruston aside from punk bands like the Habitual Sex Offenders and groups like 39 Stonybridge and the Rest, most activity took place in people’s basements, garages or attics.
Scheuermann, who grew up down the street from Robert Schneider, remembers the house of Tom and Pete Goertz—two older boys in the neighborhood who would regularly have jam sessions at their house—as being a favorite hangout for local musicians where members of the collective would come and play.
“At that point they were just sort of playing with music, messing around, trying to get the feel for things,” she recalls. “A lot of times it was just a lot of noise coming from next door. My parents were like, ‘God…what is that?’ There were lots of afternoons I just spent up there listening to them. It was more psychedelic than anything else…throwbacks to the Beatles. The whole group of us were really into them at that time. It was sort of a Beatles resurgence here in Ruston. We were really pulling on stuff from the ‘60s. That was right before the whole grunge movement from Seattle came in and so there really wasn’t a bunch of new music any of us were interested in hearing in Ruston at the time. So they were sort of developing their own brands with a mix of the ‘60s—and even some ’70s—thrown in. It was a fun time because we were kind of making our own way. You know, you’d go to somebody’s house to hang out and somebody had a guitar, and somebody had a violin, and somebody had a drum kit and all of a sudden they’re either making music or making noise. It would just depend on who was playing.”
According to Schneider, “The Goertz’s are an example of a whole scene of college students that were older than us that were very influential and that embraced us. Before I was even in junior high school I was involved in that scene—and all of us were to some degree—and as we went into high school, we got more involved in the scene of these older students and musicians. Out of the whole town, here was this little small group of kids—like these freaks—who were really interested [in what they were doing] and they embraced us and encouraged us.”
Fostering a sense of adventurousness in their young counterparts, Ruston’s freaky forefathers would help lay the foundation for a tidal wave of creativity that would soon engulf Schneider, Mangum, Hart and Doss in the coming years and set the stage for the beginning of a quiet revolution. Providing the collective with the time, space and confidence to develop their own musical identities, Ruston’s elder statesmen would prove to be the catalyst that would ultimately launch their careers. Little did they know what they were about to unleash.
DEFINING A TRANSPARENT DREAM
Despite the fact that most of the early Elephant 6 tapes were admittedly rough around the edges, starting in high school a challenge for true craftsmanship started to take place as Schneider began to create ever more complex arrangements coupled with a blossoming lyrical maturity. Having studied under local classical guitarist/composer/poet Ben Rogers from 10th-12th grade—whom Schneider calls “a hero to us all”—he began to emerge as a leader among the group when it came to fashioning dynamic audio out of such incredibly divergent material. Rogers, a long-time figure on the Ruston music scene since the late-‘60s, when he played in amped-up R&B bands like the Runes, the Beaten Path and the Alliance, had turned his attention to more refined compositional techniques after getting his masters in classical guitar at Southern Methodist University in the mid-1970s and had been teaching around the area for several years when Schneider’s dad approached him about taking on his son as a student. Describing Robert as someone who was “a little ADD” and whose mind moved at “93,000 miles a second,” Rogers would prove to be an enduring influence.
“I can safely say that, along with Brian Wilson, he is the biggest influence on my whole life,” says Schneider. “And he was there at a time in my life that I needed it. And he also gave me a very diverse musical education that no one else could have given me. He was amazing. Technically I was taking guitar lessons, but we very rarely played guitar. It was usually piano-based and I’d come in for one lesson—I’m kind of disorganized, I draw constantly from a lot of different sources for both inspiration and ideas and I also have a lot of different projects going on all the time—and he spoke to that. It wasn’t the sort of lessons where I came in and he was like, ‘Okay, let’s follow up on what we did last time.’ It was never like that. I mean, one time he’d be playing the piano and have me singing fifths against him—or he would play intervals and having me tell him what notes they were and train me to have perfect pitch—and the next time I would come in he’d be reading me poetry. And that would be a whole lesson. And the next time I’d come in and he’d play the Byrds and he’d have me listen to a song over and over again and listen to the production. Another lesson we might talk about the idea and belief in God and the next lesson he’d have me playing Bach on the classical guitar. He’s the most ambitious, creative person. I couldn’t overstate his influence and especially his influence on me and with everybody. He was my master. I feel like I’m carrying on his massive ambition.”
For his part, Rogers is just as effusive about his former student, stating, “He’s a genius. And one must ultimately define the word genius as being innovative. Genius has to be creative. He had the ability to understand at his own level and I didn’t intrude on it. It’s like Max Perkins, who was the editor for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. I read Max Perkins’ autobiography and Perkins says, ‘The editor never intrudes on the vision of the artist.’ And so that’s what I felt like I had to do. Maybe an editor can tweak a little bit or make a suggestion, but an editor has to understand the vision of the artist or the writer. And if he doesn’t understand the vision of the writer he needs to ask before he starts making suggestions. That was kind of my attitude towards Robert. He had his own vision of what he wanted to do. He had his own influences, and in my process of teaching, when I teach a student the tools of playing, for example, the guitar, then they go out into the network of their companions—their peers—and that’s where they learn music. In their own bands. That’s the way it happened with me. I had my people my own age to play music with and so that’s the way it works. Train the student with the skills and they go out and hone those skills among their compatriots. And that’s what Robert did.”
And so it was. Passing along the compositional techniques he had learned from working under the tutelage of Rogers by proxy, Schneider became like a benevolent Pied Piper to the rest of the group, distributing crucial knowledge to the members of the collective as they each began to hone their own musical visions and identities. As a role he actually played in a community musical called It Happened in Hamelin alongside Rogers and John Fernandes in high school, it seemed like a natural fit.
According to Fernandes, who remembers Schneider auditioning for the part, it was most likely a date with destiny.
“It’s kind of wild because he lead us all into this world of all this craziness,” he says. “He brought an acoustic guitar up there and played ‘Honey Pie’ by The Beatles and he just had such a magnetic personality and was such a creative spirit that they didn’t even audition anyone else. They were like, ’There’s our Pied Piper right there.’”