Rolling Stone Magazine - April 1998
The geographic split was a matter of temperment. "I just had to get out of the South," explains Schneider in his usual mile-a-minute ramble. "I love all those guys, and they really like that whole big [music] community down there. But I like, um, a smaller community, which is why I don't live in Athens." A compact, affable nerdy guy, Schneider is E6's leader by default. With
|| idea who they are. I just love that!"
Hart is holding forth in one
Used without permission, Sorry.
||of rooms in the collective's Athens
headquarters - an over-size collegiate art slum packed with fantasical, brightly colored canvases and littered with film
projectors, Christmas lights, toy xylophones, portable multitrack recorders, a theremin, a disemboweled piano and a
twelve-foot-long Chinese New Year-style dragon. A cacophony of reed instruments and TV-soundtrack tape loops
blares from down the hall, and every few minutes another comrade - or kid, or dog - wanders into the room.
It's hard to nail down precisely what Elephant 6 is or how it functions; even its figureheads seem a bit fuzzy on the
subject. E6 is partly a bedroom record company that releases some (but not all) of the collective's projects; it's partly
a production outfit. And, perhaps most significantly, it's a national clubhouse for a cult of musical friends. At present
the E6 family includes founding bands Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Olivia Tremor Control; side projects
like Marbles, the Music Tapes, and the Gerbils; and affiliate bands the Minders, Elf Power, and Beulah. While each
group has a distinct sound, all of them are united by common loves: classic psychedelia, oddball instrumentation
(piccolos and ukuleles get equal time with euphoniums and ring modulators), lyrics rife with druggy imagery (pets
"dissolve and drain away"; a neighbor "sees the sky open wide and rides the solar system") and a baroque approach
to low-fi recording. It's as if a bunch of kids weaned on classic-pop songcraft and trained in indie rock's DIY outlook
set out to make records as challenging as the most adventurous electronica.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that the E6 aesthetic is, at least on the face of it, pharmacologically fueled. "When we
toured England, every single journalist began by asking us what drugs we take and in what quantity," cracks
Olivia Tremor Control's Bill Doss. "We've experimented with all the normal stuff. But we're more interested in the
imagery and using it to make something that gets you to a certain place in your head."
E6's tiny revolution began in and around Ruston, Louisiana, a small town near Shreveport that was home to the
collective's core members: Hart, Doss, Jeff Mangum, and Robert Schneider. Pals from around the way, they began
recording together in ninth grade - Beatles and Velvet Underground covers - thanks to a local shop that rented four-track
cassette recorders for five dollars a day. They also gorged their musical appetites as young hangers-on at KLPI, the
student radio station at nearby Louisiana Tech, absorbing everything from the free jazz of the Art Ensemble of Chicago
to low-fi heroes Sebadoh. After a few itinerant years spent trading homemade tapes through the mail, they settled in two
locations: Hart, Doss and Mangum in Athens, and Schneider in Denver. The trio formed Olivia Tremor Control and
released one EP, California Demise, before Mangum left to form Neutral Milk Hotel. Meanwhile, Schneider started
Apples in Stereo and built the tellingly named Pet Sounds Studios.
||-influenced pop. Though
Schneider is working in twenty-four-track these days, Tone Soul's expansive melodic sense is of the same sort that
distinguished even E6's earliest work from that of fellow four-trackers. "I guess we were making low-fi records back
then," he explains. "But we always thought of them as hi-fi records."
If Apples in Stereo are about immaculate songs, Olivia Tremor Control are about a more unhinged experimentalism.
Their 1996 debut LP, Music from the Unrealized Film Script "Dusk at Cubist Castle", is a heavily layered song cycle that
reflects the way the group works, with each member contributing home-brewed loops and multi-tracks. "I think the music
of the future isn't going to be made by a bunch of people in a room playing instruments," waxes Doss, "but by people
collecting the sounds around them on their own recordings and bringing them all together."
Lumbering through the Athens house, hugging and kissing anyone within lipshot, Neutral Milk Hotel's Mangum is
E6's great emoter; more so than anyone else in the collective, he makes music with his heart doing cartwheels
on his sleeve. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel's latest, opens with the image of a kid
daydreaming while his parents brutalize each other, then moves into passionately warbled love songs aimed
variously at a two-headed boy, a Dutch girl buried alive during World War II and Jesus Christ. The songs' rawness
can be unnerving. But the music's carnival spirit turns Mangum's private purgings into a celebratory communal exorcism.
During a recent show at Athens' famed 40 Watt Club, Mangum was bolstered by Salvation Army-style brass, a bowed
saw and the aforementioned dragon, which snaked through the audience on the shoulders of half a dozen E6
accomplices. "I try hard to make people feel things," is how Mangum sums up his strategy.
It's impossible not be touched by E6's utopian ambition, the way a group of friends have tailed one another around
the country and created a collective muse as a reason to stay together. And it's sad to think that one day, like most
inseparable post-college crews, the collective will probably splinter. But for now the family seems intact, and the
music hasn't lost any of its hand-cobbled beauty. And Hart doesn't see any limits to the power of collective thinking.
"I'd like to get to a point where every band we like is an Elephant 6 band," he says half-facetiously. "The more the merrier."