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The lo-fi psychedelia of Elephant 6

Wednesday, Jul 3 1996
"Must be something in the water": That old adage is one of the foundational theories of the record industry. From one hit-making locale to the next -- from San Francisco to Chicago, Seattle to Dayton -- artist-and-repertoire scouts are forever panning for potential gold.

When and if the members of the fuzz-pop coalition dubbed "Elephant 6" begin to matriculate onto larger record labels, they'll be confounding the A&R reps expected to produce reasonable facsimiles. Various members of Elephant 6 live not only in key places on the rock 'n' roll map (Athens, Austin), but also in regions better known for being a mile high (Denver) or low on fidelity (Long Island). One of the group's primary members actually lives nowhere at all; his belongings are scattered "all over the country."

There is one place that provides a harmonic convergence of sorts for the Elephant 6 participants: Ruston, La., pop. 15,000. It was in this modest hamlet between Monroe and Shreveport that the Elephant 6 principals all grew up. Given the consistently wonderful recorded output of their little-known bands -- Neutral Milk Hotel, the Olivia Tremor Control, the Apples in Stereo -- any A&R rep worth his or her most recent House of Blues tab should pack up the PowerBook and the cell phone and head directly for the nearest Greyhound terminal, destination: Ruston.

It's anybody's guess as to why this particular Nowheresville would give rise to such a mind-blowing spate of psychedelic pop records as those falling under the rubric of Elephant 6. One listen, however, to the timeless vaudevillian melodies of Neutral Milk Hotel's On Avery Island (Merge), the 'shrooming rock operettas of Olivia Tremor Control's Music From the Unrealized Film Script "Dusk at Cubist Castle" (Flydaddy), or the unabashed bubble-gum fetish of the Apples in Stereo's Fun Trick Noisemaker (Spinart), and folks who still regale friends with the stereophonic merits of the Beatles' "Baby You're a Rich Man" will want to collect the whole set.

Growing up, the Olivia Tremor Control's Bill Doss didn't even have the comparative cosmopolitan setting of Ruston to enjoy. "My town had one red light and a caution light," he says. "Everyone in my high school was either a redneck or a football player."

"I heard the Beatles when I was around 10, and I was like, 'Wow, this is neat. This music thing is good.' " When Doss met nearby Rustoners Jeff Mangum, Will Cullen Hart, and Robert Schneider, he blurted, "You guys like to sit around and listen to records, too? This is great!"

Mangum, the "one-man band" of many addresses behind Neutral Milk Hotel (they played at the Kilowatt this past Monday), and Hart, who along with Doss co-conducts Olivia Tremor Control, began making tapes together in junior high school. "We had one microphone plugged into the stereo," Hart recalls, "that kind of thing."

"Our first band was called Maggot," Mangum laughs, in a separate phone conversation. "It was kind of a punk band. We would go over to Will's house, get really stoned, make noise, scream and yell. Then we started writing pop songs."

Not long after high school, Mangum and Hart (now both 25) moved to Athens, calling their collaborations Cranberry Life Cycle and, later, Synthetic Flying Machine. "They were super lo-fi," the Apples' Schneider says. Their four-track tapes were "real good, psychedelic, real loose. ... They had the crappiest $4 microphone ever. And I thought they were just brilliant."

Meanwhile, Schneider, who in high school had bought his own four-track recorder with his "life savings," moved to Denver to be near his father. It was on one of Hart's extended visits that the Elephant 6 Recording Co. was born.

"I got Will and Bill [as Olivia Tremor Control] and Jeff [who had by this time established Neutral Milk Hotel] to give me tapes," the chatty Schneider says, calling from a truck stop. "I thought if we could get five or 10 other people to hear this stuff, it'd be really good. ... I wrote up a little treatise on what it meant to us, and we all pitched into that."

In Denver, Schneider added to their growing circle of kindred spirits, inviting drummer/guitarist Hilarie Sidney and guitarist John Hill to join his band. Following a few well-received singles and EPs on Elephant 6 and other small imprints, the Apples in Stereo became the first of the three groups to release a full-length album. With its infectious energy and singsong boy-girl melodies, 1995's Fun Trick Noisemaker sounds like a transistor radio circa 1975, or 1965. Like his colleagues, Schneider freely admits his affinity for the psychedelic era, citing not just the late-period Beatles but Cream, the Beach Boys' Smile, and Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett as influences, widening their collective palette well beyond that of lo-fi trendsetters like Guided by Voices.

"In high school, I had my head in every book about the '60s that I could find," Schneider says. "I was lucky, because it was right around the time of the 'It Was 20 Years Ago Today' thing."

Mangum's Neutral Milk Hotel recently released its own debut record, an interconnected song cycle which has garnered several comparisons to the early music-hall inspirations of Ray Davies. "I am very much into the turn of century," Mangum says. "I listen to a lot of Thomas Edison's earliest recordings." His favorite recent album purchase, he says, is "a barbershop quartet medley."

Mangum's music is laced throughout with the hummable melancholia of a deserted carnival midway; indeed, the cover of On Avery Island features an old photo of a park full of merry-go-rounds. His songwriting style is particularly visually oriented: On one of his periodic visits to Denver, Mangum says, "I spent a lot of time in the library," photocopying old New York Times accounts of World's Fairs and New Year's Eves.

Available on July 9, the Olivia Tremor Control's Dusk at Cubist Castle has its own share of sideshow imagery. Did Ruston have a carnival that might've infiltrated the Elephant 6ers' music?

"Oh yeah," Doss laughs, "with that big ride, the Zipper, that my cousin always threw up on. Every fall, right before Halloween, the carnival would come through."

Dusk at Cubist Castle is a sprawling collection of effusive harmonies, disarming tape-speed manipulations, and a number of nicely crafted instrumentals. Early pressings have an additional disc's worth of ambient "field recordings" -- the water drips, bird calls, and passing cars of rural Georgia, underscored by My Bloody Valentine-like guitar processing. The whole effect is most definitely psychedelic. "It's a good word," Hart says. "Psychedelic can be [John Coltrane's] A Love Supreme or Sgt. Pepper or, like, Zen." Now that its founders have begun recording for better-established labels, the Elephant 6 Recording Co. has gone dormant. "I ran out of money when we started touring," Schneider says. "Pretty much everything went out of print."

"Now, the music is from the Elephant 6 pool of talent, the family. It's as if we have this machine called Elephant 6, and you press a button and a song pops out. It doesn't matter if you're selling it at Wal-Mart or Target, it's still an Elephant 6 song."

There's a mutual sense of excitement and encouragement under the Elephant 6 umbrella. Of the Apples and Neutral Milk Hotel records, Olivia's Doss gushes, "They sound classic." Though they're "fuzzy as hell, and overdriven, they don't sound like indie rock."

"We kind of all do the same thing," he says. "I'm hoping that one day we're all in the same band. I feel like if it weren't for the home-recording revolution, it would have been four guys from one town playing together. Instead, we sat around making tapes for each other."

The Apples in Stereo play Sunday, July 14, at the Kilowatt, 3160 16th St., S.F.; call 861-2595.

About The Author

James Sullivan


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