Interstellar Pop Underground: A History of the Elephant 6 Collective
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Tragically, right as things seemed to be on the upswing, with the Elephant 6 family well on their way to a new era of critical acclaim, the collective would be dealt a major blow on July 30, 2012, when founding member Bill Doss was found dead in his home in Athens from natural causes at the age of 43. It was a devastating loss and one that sent the entire Elephant 6 family reeling. Having just returned from a successful European tour with the refurbished Olivia Tremor Control with plans of putting out a new album, it has been a shock to the community that still has not yet fully been absorbed.
“It really did just throw us for such a loop,” says Fernandes. “It’s been such a hard time because we had just been spending so much time together on the road again, and playing together, and practicing. Before we went out to play shows we would get together every day for hours and practice, and we had just played the previous Thursday at the Georgia Theater and then we heard the news on Monday that Bill had passed away. And it just came as a complete shock because he was just so happy, and healthy, and so excited about working on the record. It was just so out of the blue.”
With so much excitement in the air between the reception from their last few tours, 2011’s new single, and the prospects surrounding the release of the new record, it’s been tough to digest.
As one of Bill’s oldest and dearest friends, Will Cullen Hart is still in disbelief.
“I’m talking to Bill constantly,” he says. “I mean, I’m here working on our music now. He’s with me…it’s crazy. Every five minutes Bill and I and the band were like, ’We’re back!’ That’s how we felt. It sucks. It sucks now. We’ll make this record, but it was like, ‘This is fucking great! And people like it. We have a chance again.’ It was beautiful, you know? That’s what we felt.”
Asked what it means for the future of the Elephant 6, Schneider is reluctant to give any answers.
“I can’t say what it means for the Elephant 6 or The Apples,” he says. “For me I’ve lost the greatest, dearest, sweetest friend that someone could possibly have: a whole lifetime of experiences that we’ve shared from being teenagers up through traveling around the world together. On a musical level it’s too soon to say. I mean, I don’t want to say definitively that I don’t want to make music again, but on a musical level there’s no way to come to terms with the loss. He was my guy. He was my partner. And we always made music together. Even when we weren’t in the same band.”
Although hard to reconcile with the loss of such a key member of the collective, almost everyone agrees that they’ll continue to make music in some fashion, both separately and together.
“Bill would want us to continue,” says Fernandes. “He wouldn’t want everything to stop. Everyone’s always said to each other, ’Don’t stop when I’m gone. Please continue putting out stuff and keep the music alive.’ And so in honor of him we’re going to continue doing stuff. And his influence on me is so strong that I feel like I can’t let everything he taught me die, you know? He taught me so much about playing the bass, and when I play I think of some of the things he showed me and I’m like, ‘Well, he’s kind of living on through the stuff he brought to everyone else.’ Which is pretty wild.”
As the “psychedelic Boy Scout” who would have given anyone the shirt off his back had they needed it, he was without question the luminescent heart of the Elephant 6’s fraternal vibe and the eternally glowing sunshine fix in the hearts and minds of everyone he met. In fact, more than almost anyone else in the collective, he radiated an inner light that came through in not only his music, but in everything he did, especially when it came to his wife Amy, whom he was loyally dedicated to. Having been raised on the music of the Beatles while still in his mother’s womb, he seemed to embody the best of 1960s optimism in an era of suicidal pop heros and drug-addled musical icons. As a flower child of the 1990s who could wear bell-bottoms and a paisley shirt without the slightest hint of irony, he seemed to be working out of another space and time altogether, with his father even going so far as to tell him he was “born 20 years too late.” And although his death would prove to be a tremendous setback to everyone involved in the collective—with his ghost a constant apparition in the backs of all of their minds—his life would go on to serve as a new inspiration for music yet to come.
NO GROWING (EXEGESIS): THE MANY KEYS TO REUNION
Despite having suffered through the immeasurable loss of one of their brothers in arms, the music of the Elephant 6 is still alive and well today thanks to the determination of the collective to keep Bill’s spirit at the forefront of everything they do and continue pushing the sonic envelope. From finishing the last Olivia Tremor Control LP, to working on the new recordings by The Apples in stereo and Circulatory System records, or working through the E6 offshoots at Orange Twin Records and Cloud Recordings, the music has never lost its place in the hearts and minds of those involved in the collective and is a constantly motivating force. Having celebrated the 20th anniversary of the label’s first official release this past June, there is still much to be done.
“It’s always felt like it was just ramping up,” says Schneider, who is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program in mathematics at Emory University. “It wasn’t like Elephant 6 was the kind of movement that broke big and then fizzled out. It’s always been building over the years. I think to some degree there was a heyday of activity during the ‘90s, but for our group of friends—for the core of Elephant 6—that was still part of what I consider to be the earlier phase of it, and it was still building, and the enthusiasm, and the ideas, and the sort of unrealistic dreams and big projects, and songwriting, and kind of a love too…just the warmth and the affection was still building and growing. And then suddenly I’ll never record with Bill again. And none of us will. It’s awful. And I’m in a weird place because I loved him so much. The last few years for Elephant 6 have been very ambitious and filled with amazing ideas, enthusiasm and a lot of focus. And I hope that energy—and Bill’s energy—can keep going and rolling along and blossoming into the future. He would want that to be the case and I want that to be the case.”
Fortunately for them, the energy seems to be working in their favor, as there has been a renewed interest in all things Elephant 6 with the recent announcement of a highly anticipated Neutral Milk Hotel reunion tour this coming fall and winter, as well as a major endorsement from jamband icons Phish with their inclusion of The Apples in stereo’s “Energy” in their summer setlists. Unleashing a torrent of fanfare and wonder among the E6 faithful, there seems to be room for even more growth in the years to come.
But nowhere is the continued influence and inspiration of the Elephant 6 felt more strongly than in the heart of Louisiana Tech’s campus at KLPI 89.1, back where it all began so many moons ago. With a trainee handbook that lists in its introduction the contributions of both Schneider and Mangum to the station’s storied past, and a young staff that is well-versed in the legend of the collective’s antics running the airwaves, there may very well be no other place that feels the sway of the secret history they created and nurtured in Ruston than the radio station that initially brought them all together. Still a sacred gathering place for misfits and outcasts from across the surrounding areas to commiserate and share music, dreams, and big ideas, it’s the kind of hallowed ground that feeds off of the lipstick traces others have left behind. In fact, so much so, that Jeff Mangum’s trainee tests and application for station librarian are kept like battered religious artifacts amongst the keepers of the flame who now run the station. With programs like “What The Folk?,” “Monday Night Metal,” the nerdcore roundup “E=MC2,” and the debut last year of Louisiana Tech’s very first LGBQ show “Straight Talk,” the Elephant 6’s memory continues to inspire younger generations, just like those before them.
As one student DJ put it, “It’s nice because when you come to a college radio station like this you meet people who have those [same] interests. You meet people who know about Elephant 6, because that’s where they gravitate. I’m sure there are other people around who know about it, but this is the hub.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Savannah Woods, a freshman DJ in training this past year who has become an avid spokesperson for the Elephant 6’s legacy at the station.
“I’ve only been a fanatic for like six months,” she says, “but I was introduced to Neutral Milk Hotel like a year and a half ago. I didn’t know they were from Ruston. And then when I found that out, it was the most surreal feeling that this town produced people that I idolize. And since then I’ve gotten into the entire scene. Bill Doss from the Olivia Tremor Control actually played baseball with my dad. And he passed away recently, and it was just so sad because I didn’t even know that they knew each other until after the fact. There’s so much about the history of my small town that I didn’t know about. I’m from Dubach, not Ruston, and I’ll look on Wikipedia and it says that he graduated from Ruston High—he went to Ruston for his senior year—but for most of his life he lived in Dubach, which is like this small hick town where I grew up. And it’s crazy to think that somebody from where I live made it big, even though I guess it’s not really mainstream. Just the entirety of the blossoming of Elephant 6…and to think that the founders met here in Ruston is just fantastic. I’m constantly telling people about them.”
Which, in the end, is exactly what a radio station like KLPI is for. And one only has to look through the trainee handbook for proof, as the station’s mission is plainly stated: “At KLPI, we make every attempt to play music not heard everywhere else. Although KLPI may play familiar artists, we focus on playing songs that commercial radio stations do not (which means playing songs other than singles). What point in alternative radio programming is there if you can hear the exact same music you would hear on any Top 40 station? We embrace up and coming independent artists marching to the beat of a different drum, much like the ancestors of KLPI did.”
It’s hard not to think that, somewhere, Bill Doss is smiling.