It’s no secret that Louisiana is endowed with one of the richest musical histories of any state in the country. As the iconic birthplace of jazz and zydeco, and home to all manner of legendary blues, gospel and country singers—and even more contemporary acts like pop maven Britney Spears and rap wunderkind Lil Wayne—it’s easy to overlook the fact that the state also laid the foundation for one of the most influential underground rock movements of the past 25 years and one that would ultimately gain international recognition for its unique brand of DIY aesthetics, unorthodox recording techniques and unapologetic Day-glo aura. And although it’s not a story that gets told very often in general overviews of the great sonic tapestry that is Louisiana’s incredible musical heritage, it is one whose vitality and impact is no less remarkable in terms of its sheer scope and diversity.
As the spiritual home of the Elephant 6 Recording Company—the sprawling lo-fi, neo-psychedelic music collective/record label begun by childhood friends Robert Schneider, Will Cullen Hart, Jeff Mangum and Bill Doss in the small town of Ruston—Louisiana can undoubtedly be added to the list of states that have made an immeasurable contribution to the annals of independent rock and roll both here in the United States and around the world. Having produced the leading lights of some of the most brilliant acts of the mid-to-late-’90s alternative rock scene—including the Apples in stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel and the Olivia Tremor Control—Ruston would prove to be a bastion of unhinged creativity and subversive entrepreneurship that would rival anything coming out of more cosmopolitan locales such as Seattle and New York City. And although its roots would grow to include cities across the country—with everywhere from Denver, Colo., and Athens, Ga., playing significant roles in its development—Ruston would always be the town that provided the initial inspiration for the governing principles that would prove to be its reigning hallmark. With a phalanx of kindred acts filling out its roster of intrepid cosmic travelers, from the delightful twee pop of Elf Power and the Essex Green to the wildly eclectic excursions of Of Montreal and the imaginative audio dreamscapes of the Music Tapes, the Elephant 6 Recording Company would raise the bar for wide-scale countercultural activity and underground pop art—both musical, visual and otherwise—well into the 21st century. With more than 50 bands associated with the collective in some way, its tentacles would reach far beyond the confines of Ruston’s city limits and would go on to become a phenomenon whose impact is still reverberating to this very day. Always more than a record company, the Elephant 6 crew were more like an ever-expanding family of abstract theoreticians who were on a mission to create their own sound world and define transparent dreams that only they themselves could see as a reality.
“It’s a group of friends who collaborate together on music and art,” says Elf Power’s Andrew Rieger, a longtime member of the collective and head of Orange Twin Records. “Although all the bands and projects have their own unique sound and identity there is an underlying thread of a love of experimentation and chaos, mixed with a love of melody and pop music. The act of recording is a constant journey: trying new sounds and new ideas to arrive at an unexpected result. I’ve seen many Elephant 6 bands’ songs transform into different things over the course of time, and the thrill of that process is a constant joy to all involved.”
Specializing in a kind of audio shapeshifting that has its roots in the heady sonic experimentation of the late 1960s and early 1970s psychedelic music scene as well as the mid-20th century avant-garde—combined with an unlikely mix of pop hooks and punk attitude—what would become something of a sensation amongst rock critics in the heyday of 1990s indie music madness, actually began as a healthy exchange of lofty ideas, offbeat musical concepts and homemade tapes amongst the Ruston gang as they made their way through high school in search of an escape from the social drudgery of their quiet hometown. Focusing on a brand of wild sonic investigation that was both philosophically refined and aurally unhinged, the Elephant 6 would develop a singularly expansive aesthetic that stood in stark contrast to the prevailing tide of plaid shirts and grunge attitude engulfing the music world at the time. Separated by thousands of miles from both the sound and spirit of Seattle, the collective openly embraced the radical, sunny consciousness of the Summer of Love at a moment in pop culture when much darker undercurrents were circulating in the minds of the country’s youth.
This is their story.
DAWN AT CUBIST CASTLE
Home to Louisiana Tech University, and mere miles from Grambling State, Ruston is ostensibly a college town, though you wouldn’t know from looking at it. Aside from the fact that there’s a college located there, there are few public signs of collegial life outside of the campus itself. With only a handful of bars and music venues, a few coffee shops, and no record stores, it’s not exactly the kind of robust cityscape one would envision as the nesting grounds for a kaleidoscopic music collective such as the Elephant 6. Unlike more famous examples of hip undergrad countercultural meccas such as Chapel Hill, N.C. and Providence, R.I., Ruston seems to be locked into a kind of slow-moving social paradigm that unwillingly budges with the shifting sands of time. As a place where a citywide last call rings at midnight (even on weekends) and the best place to see a big concert doubles as a steakhouse with its own liquor store, it’s hard to conceive of a town with less to offer imaginative young hipsters with a thirst for progressive ideas and cutting-edge art and music. And although the internet has provided Ruston with a window into the world at large in the 21st century, during the mid-’80s and early-’90s, Ruston remained far removed from the sway of popular culture and the constant stream of information so many now take for granted. Which is one of the reasons why friendships like those established between Schneider, Hart, Mangum and Doss remained such vital lifelines in an atmosphere completely devoid of larger social cues for what was cool and happening outside of their little burg. Located in a kind of no man’s land between the much larger cities of Monroe and Shreveport, and several hundred miles north of New Orleans, there was very little chance of discovering things on your own were it not for a daisy chain of associations handed down through older siblings, close confidants, college students, teachers and the rare hub of recreational activity such as the legendary music venue/washeteria Fun-O-Mat, the now defunct Haymaker Music instrument store, and—most importantly—KLPI 89.1, Louisiana Tech’s student-run radio station.
According to Schneider, the widely acknowledged ringleader and unabashed spokesperson for the Elephant 6, “It was a tiny little town that had not evolved beyond the 1950s or early ‘60s. I don’t know if they ever had hippies. They certainly didn’t have punk rock. It was a tiny, little sleepy town that looked like you were walking around in Andy Griffith. It was bigger than Mayberry, but it felt like what that looks like on TV. It’s as classic of a Norman Rockwell-type town as you could live in. It was a wonderful place to grow up. It was a small town where you could ride your bike in the streets and I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and in general that was a wonderful time to grow up. It was a great time to be a kid.”
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.”
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.’”
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.”
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.