Interstellar Pop Underground: A History of the Elephant 6 Collective
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A natural-born leader with unbridled enthusiasm and inexhaustible work ethic, Schneider would soon inspire his friends to new heights. Developing musical skills and production techniques that would go on to aid the entire collective in their sonic endeavors, Schneider would master the art of 4-track recording, modeling himself after the Tall Dwarfs’ Chris Knox.
“It was so great to work with him,” says Fernandes, “because just knowing everyone for so long there was this amount of telepathy going on where you didn’t have to say much to explain exactly what you wanted. I think we were already all on the same page. We all loved the same records and had shared a lot of the same influences.”
“Robert Schneider is my mentor,” adds Hart. “And Bill said the same. And I think Jeff would say the same. He’s just such an amazing, great guy and he has been ever since we met him. I mean, he had a four-track cassette two or three years before anyone in eighth grade.”
In spite of such high praise, Schneider would be the first to diminish his role in light of the amazing contributions made by everyone in formulating the Elephant 6. From the surrealist-inspired sonic prose of Hart, to the textural moodiness of Mangum, and the sunshine daydream ambience of Doss, the Elephant 6 was always—and has remained—the sum of its parts. No more and no less. Which is one of the things that distinguished it from any other underground movement going on at the time.
Yet, during those early days in Ruston, the Elephant 6 as an entity had not yet been formalized. The components—the working parts of the machine—were in place, but had already managed to outgrow the little town which had brought them into being. Having successfully, if crudely, synthesized the basic ingredients that would become their defining attributes—mind-warping psychedelic overtones and catchy melodies combined with an experimental attitude and unique instrumentation—the members of the Elephant 6 would have to escape the strictures of northern Louisiana and spread their wings in separate parts of the country to truly learn how to fly. Which is exactly what they did. With Schneider leaving for two years of university at Centenary College in Shreveport in 1989 and ultimately ending up in Denver to study at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1991, it wouldn’t be long before Hart, Mangum and Doss followed suit after making good on a high school pact to move to Athens, Ga. As a place which had captured all four of the young men’s imaginations as the home of some of the most groundbreaking rock and roll of the 1980s, Athens would prove to be a natural fit for the E6.
Miles apart, and yet connected by the strong bond they had forged in childhood, the group began hatching plans to turn their tiny subculture into a nationwide movement that would unite like-minded souls across the country. In Denver, Schneider would stumble upon the founding members of what would be his most enduring project in the form of the Apples in stereo—named after the early Pink Floyd song “Apples and Oranges”—with Jim McIntyre, Hilarie Sidney and Chris Parfitt joining the early ranks of the collective. While in Athens, Hart, Mangum, and Doss would make the first of two forays into the capital of indie cool with their bands Neutral Milk Hotel and the Olivia Tremor Control. It was during that time that, while on a visit to Athens, Schneider and Hart came up with the name that would come to define the rest of their musical careers. After discussing the idea of starting an independent record label that could put out releases by each of their bands, as well as some of their old cassettes, Hart—in his usual stream-of-consciousness way—rattled off the name Elephant 6, which Schneider quickly added the words “Recording Company” to to give it an “old-fashioned feel.” Parting ways a few weeks later with the seed of a dream planted in each of their minds, it wouldn’t be long before Hart—a gifted visual artist who has done the covers for many of the label’s releases—would come up with the iconic lysergic/art deco logo that would become the trademark stamp of all things Elephant 6.
TONE SOUL EVOLUTION
After releasing the first official Elephant 6 recording in the form of the The Apples in stereo’s Tidal Wave 7" EP in 1993, things would take off from there, with the collective releasing some of the most startlingly original albums of the ‘90s indie-rock explosion, although not always issued by the label itself. From the dark majesty of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (an epic song cycle based off of the diary of Anne Frank which would utilize beautiful brass arrangements and singing saws to startling effect), to the Olivia Tremor Control’s psychedelic opus Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle, Elf Power’s When the Red King Comes and The Apples in stereo’s Fun Trick Noisemaker, the group would set the stage for an onslaught of some of the most imaginative pop music to ever come from America. Collaborating on each other’s records either as players, producers, artists, or just plain cheerleaders, the collective would soon begin to snowball into a hallucinogenic multi-headed hydra that would have fit right in with the synesthetic musings of the summer of 1967 were it not for the fact that they sounded like they had all been recorded by an unruly combination of George Martin, R. Stevie Moore and Calvin Johnson.
“On one hand we had the model of Flying Nun and how you could have an actual indie label that was underground,” says Schneider, “and on the other hand we had the model of Apple Records—the Beatles’ label which was this totally anarchist, hippie, free form record label—and we loved that. It was so fun and and colorful and wild. So we had that as a model and then we also had the model of the surrealist movement. And the surrealist movement had a manifesto. They had an idea, a motto and a philosophy. So we had one too.”
Issuing a proclamation of intent along with a small hand-drawn catalog with their early releases, the group began to seek out other bands and artists who wanted to share in the spirit of camaraderie and music that had come to define the Elephant 6 from its earliest days in northern Louisiana.
“Our manifesto was an invitation,” says Schneider, “Like, ‘Join us.’ We wanted [to find] these little pockets of people in different cities who listened to Pavement and the Beach Boys and were recording on 4-tracks. We knew that we weren’t alone, but the population of people like that was so sparse that we would never run into them any other way. We thought of Elephant 6 as being a place where all of these oddball, non-hip, non-rock, non-music industry, non-grunge people could gather, and we could make friends and share music and trade tapes.”
With groups all the way from San Francisco to Brooklyn answering the call, over the course of the mid-to-late ‘90s, the Elephant 6 family began to grow in leaps and bounds with bands such as Beulah, Dressy Bessy, the Minders, and the Ladybug Transistor joining their ranks. Although there would be something of a cooling-off period during the early 2000s, when the Olivia Tremor Control would call it quits and the reclusive Jeff Mangum stopped releasing music and playing shows altogether, the Elephant 6 would continue to carry on in spirit through groups like Will Cullen Hart’s Circulatory System, Doss’ the Sunshine Fix and The Apples in stereo. Having officially stopped using the logo after the release of The Minders’ Cul-de-Sacs and Dead Ends in 1999, bands such as Elf Power and Of Montreal would only continue to grow in popularity with each new album away from the label and would go on to become some of the most beloved acts in indie rock.
Yet in spite of the internal disarray and personal acrimony, the story of the Elephant 6 wasn’t over. After assembling many of the core members of the collective—including all of the original Ruston gang—to record The Apples in stereo’s New Magnetic Wonder in 2007, things began to take off again as the old friends began to circulate new ideas for upcoming projects amongst themselves and reiterated a need to work together again. And they did. Even going so far as to reintroduce the collective’s logo on the new album. And starting with the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour in 2008—which featured members of many of the bands from throughout the collective’s history taking part in a celebratory lap through clubs across the country—over the course of the next five years, not only would the Olivia Tremor Control permanently reunite to start working on new material, but Jeff Mangum would give his first concert performances in a little under a decade, including a curatorial role at the UK wing of the indie-rock gala known as All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2012. Inviting a slew of Elephant 6 bands to join in the revelry, the event proved to be a vindication of all of the hard work they had put into the collective over the preceding two decades and saw them performing alongside many of their personal heroes, with everyone from Thurston Moore, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the Raincoats, Young Marble Giants and Mike Watt and George Hurley from the Minutemen taking part.
“The past five or six years has been another real era of friendship, music, creativity, love, and ambition that’s been kind of exploding and flowering and has just sent ripples of enthusiasm through our social circle,” says Schneider. “When it comes down to it the Elephant 6 is a social circle. It’s a group of friends who are all musicians, artists, and producers, but that’s less important. What’s most important is that we’re friends. It’s this group of people who love each other and hang out and listen to records and share big ideas. That will never end.”
“It’s not like we’ve gone on to become like U2 or some super huge band or something like that,” he adds. “We’re underground artists. Some of our bands are more popular or whatever, but at the soul of Elephant 6 we’re underground and this was something that was sparked by the small underground culture around the art school and radio station in Ruston. And they embraced us and encouraged us. It’s like we were the top and they spun us and we’re still spinning. And it’s awesome that we’re all still best friends and still making music together and all recording on 4-track cassette recorders. It’s a wonderful friendship and life of friends. And our friendships have grown. And then of course there’s more people. I’m sure there’s hundreds of people who have been involved in Elephant 6 if you were to actually name off the people that now currently, and over the years, have been involved in our Elephant 6 scene. We’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of people who have been intimately involved with all of us. It’s been an amazing life of growing up in this creativity, and love, and sort of craziness that has been our Elephant 6 scene. And the germs of that—the seeds of it—were there even when we were in junior high school. We were aware of it. We were cultivated, and we cultivated it ourselves. And it’s sort of been spinning, and growing, and going, and it’s still there.”