A Deep, Unerring Camaraderie: On “The Elephant 6 Recording Co.”
By Grant SharplesNovember 8, 2023
The Elephant 6 Recording Co., a new documentary about the psych-pop collective that included indie rock bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, the Olivia Tremor Control, and the Apples in Stereo, reinforces the idea that robust artistic scenes can sprout up anywhere, not just in big coastal cities. As C. B. Stockfleth’s debut film shows, smaller cities also harbor pools of creative talent; it’s simply a matter of whether their stories get told or not. Although the Elephant 6 collective has always had its fans, The Elephant 6 Recording Co. presents the group to a new generation of music obsessives. The sheer ordinariness of its members, in particular Neutral Milk Hotel’s front man Jeff Mangum, lent the crew a sense of shrouded mystique. One of the documentary’s greatest strengths is the way it gives these artists a newfound interiority and humanity; Stockfleth shows how these idiosyncratic musicians carved out a space for themselves in a region where doing so seemed unlikely, and also shows why such a secluded enclave was necessary to develop their artistry.
Like Adam Clair’s book on Elephant 6 from last year, Endless Endless: A Lo-Fi History of the Elephant 6 Mystery, Stockfleth’s documentary allows the subjects to speak for themselves. Clair adopted oral history as his book’s main method, and Stockfleth’s approach feels similarly unobtrusive. He doesn’t try to pull off the “from-the-field” investigative shtick that some documentarians essay; rather than fabricating spectacle, he amplifies the stories that are already there. Still, The Elephant 6 Recording Co. is a visual marvel, interspersing archival footage with psychedelic imagery that complements the aesthetics of the many psych-pop bands signed to the label. Although Elephant 6, both as a label and an artistic collective, was relatively short-lived, it was a solace from the world at large. Its members managed to foster a creative utopia during its brief lifespan in the ’90s, and Stockfleth showcases just how special that experience was.
In an age of imposed atomization, the documentation of such a hyperlocal scene is incredibly compelling. Though Stockfleth gazes back at halcyon days, to say that this documentary is a purely nostalgic exercise would be a facile reading. The connective tissue that leads into the present day is equally as important, with the realization that Elephant 6, as a concept, isn’t as feasible in our heavily fragmented cultural landscape—a sad paradox given the fact that the internet can often create distances as often as it bridges gaps. Given the devastating effects of escalating inflation on smaller cities, making art all day with your friends while financially supporting yourself with a part-time job feels tragically impossible today. Regardless, the film is a pointed reminder to appreciate the time that you’re given while acknowledging that it will all soon be over.
One of the film’s main interests is time and space, so much so that it unsubtly opens with a surreal collage of images and a repeated voiceover echoing the words “time and space.” This sequence leads into an interview with one of the key characters, the Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider. When he’s prompted to recount the history of Elephant 6 with a one-minute time limit, he starts things off with the beginning of the universe by citing the Big Bang. His next few bullet points include the invention of tape machines, Yoko Ono, and Brian Eno. Fast-forward a little more, and you’ve got bored kids in Ruston with nothing to do but become wholeheartedly devoted to music and art.
Julian Koster of Neutral Milk Hotel and Chocolate USA makes a salient point about Elephant 6’s genesis in Ruston: “I feel like kids in places like that tend to get deeper into the things that they love [and] go further into them.” This echoes what Schneider says moments later in one of his confessionals: every day, he’d go to the arcade with his friends and then visit the town’s sole guitar shop. It was there that he noticed a billboard ad from his future collaborator, Bill Doss of the Olivia Tremor Control. In a small town with not much to do in the way of artistic expression, this cohort of eccentric misfits began playing music together day in and day out.
Through music, they formed a deep, unerring camaraderie. Even in the simple description of their songwriting process, that companionship is palpable. Doss would hear where a riff or melody could go but wouldn’t always push it in that direction. In most cases, he’d let his initial idea get “battered around” by the other guys, as he puts it. The purely analog approach tended towards an egalitarian spirit, whether intentionally or not. Now, with automated mixing and programming, you don’t have to manually move the faders to achieve the sounds, EQs, and volume levels you want. But when you’re recording on tape, you need a bevy of people manning the boards. “All of our hands had to be on the eight-track,” the Olivia Tremor Control’s John Fernandes explains. “We all had our roles where a song would be rolling along, and two minutes and 10 seconds in, someone’s supposed to punch in tracks six and seven [and] pull them out by three minutes and 30 seconds.”
Eventually, Doss, Mangum, and Will Cullen Hart relocated to Athens and formed Synthetic Flying Machine while Schneider set up his home base in Denver and started the Apples in Stereo, guiding E6 from afar. While Schneider’s move to the mountainous west could be interpreted as a foreshadowing of E6’s subsequent split, the geographic distance really didn’t affect the bond among the group. At one point, author and journalist Jason Heller pinpoints Schneider as the Brian Wilson of the collective, an apt comparison given E6’s overt Beach Boys influences and the fact that he named his studio Pet Sounds (though he charmingly referred to it as “Pet Smells” because of the fetid cat odors associated with it). Schneider may not be an overbearing mastermind like Wilson, but as Heller tells it, Schneider “was the sun in the Elephant 6 solar system.”
That’s when the Apples front man got the idea to start a record label called Elephant 6, named after Dadaist Max Ernst’s painting The Elephant Celebes. With help from his pals in Athens, Elephant 6 was officially born. The first release from the label was the Apples’ 1993 debut EP, fittingly titled Tidal Wave 7", but Schneider wanted the label to go beyond his own band. Apples drummer Hilarie Sidney says that they all founded it because they wanted to release work by their friends’ bands, forming a symbiotic, supportive indie label from which everyone benefited. “We wanted to put out our seven-inch, and not only our seven-inch. [And] everybody else was doing something too,” Sidney explains. “We thought the best way to do that would be to start a record label.”
Sidney didn’t even know how to play when she asked to become the Apples’ drummer. In that same vein, Elf Power’s Laura Carter had no musical training when she joined her respective group. Just as Elephant 6 flipped the traditional rock-band structure on its head by experimenting with violins, two-stringed banjos, and horns, so they embraced inclusivity by allowing people with no musical background into the fold. Elf Power ringleader Andrew Rieger liked Carter’s lack of technical proficiency because it led to weirder ideas, as opposed to someone who was taught how to play an instrument the “right” way. It’s in moments like these that Stockfleth’s film shines most brightly: when E6’s communal je ne sais quoi flows like an undercurrent through the story itself rather than being explicitly stated.
Still, there are a couple of ideas that could have benefited from further analysis. When Carter talks about the grunge movement reaching its apotheosis in the early 1990s and how Elephant 6 felt like “a breath of fresh air,” it comes across as a weighty topic that could be explored on a deeper level. E6, in some ways, rejected the conspicuous machismo of acts like Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots as well as the animosity its figureheads sometimes held toward each other (i.e., Kurt Cobain’s disdain for Pearl Jam). But this idea is quickly broached and discarded when it could have lent the film a wider scope by demonstrating where E6 fit within larger musical conversations of the ’90s. Dixie Blood Mustache, an avant-garde group composed of E6 women, likewise gets too little screen time. Although the film does show its members performing a piece in which they play household appliances with kitchen utensils, it doesn’t dive into why Dixie Blood Mustache formed in the first place. Clair’s 2022 book devotes plenty of space to how E6 could occasionally exclude its female members from holding more influential roles in bands and the creative process, and Dixie Blood Mustache was a feminist reaction to the collective’s latent sexism. In this documentary, all of that contentious background goes unmentioned.
Regardless, The Elephant 6 Recording Co. is a stellar film that highlights an oft-ignored scene and musical movement. Its most tender, poignant segments come toward its end. When Doss unexpectedly dies of an aneurysm in the summer of 2012 in his Athens home, it strikes a deep, emotional chord. He was only 43 years old. Doss and Hart were hard at work on an as-yet-unfinished Olivia Tremor Control album, their first since 1999’s Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One. The film includes several interviews with Doss, showcasing the core songwriting duo in the studio working together on new music. Doss had toiled on Olivia’s third LP, and, in the present day, Stockfleth shows footage of Hart, Fernandes, and drummer Derek Almstead in the studio with a four-track, finishing Doss’s work.
“The nature of four-track recording, it’s very mystical to me,” Schneider says toward the film’s denouement. “You’re stacking moments of time that can happen anywhere over hours or years. Your friend may have passed away, but in the sense of a multitrack recording session, you are playing with [them] again.” Just as Stockfleth’s film begins with a short exposition on the significance of time and space, so too he ends it with one, albeit in a more heartfelt fashion. Through music and E6, the group has been able to maintain a connection to their lost friend. During one of the movie’s final scenes, all the Elephant 6 members gather at the 40 Watt Club in Athens to honor Doss’s legacy. They cover Sun Ra and His Arkestra’s “Enlightenment,” each person playing a different instrument (tambourine, trumpet, bass guitar, etc.), each contributing their part and fulfilling their role. As The Elephant 6 Recording Co. demonstrates, community has a purpose. We should all do our part to find it.
Grant Sharples is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Ringer, SPIN, Uproxx, and other publications.
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