The Weird and Wonderful Elephant 6

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by Caleb Peck

Say you just heard Neutral Milk Hotel’s famous release, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998), for the first time. You probably saw some music page on Instagram named @rapandindiereviews give it the top spot on their “Top 100 Albums of All Time” list, and were immediately enamored with Jeff Mangum’s odd voice and the noisy indie rock that borders on folk-punk. “What next?” You ask. “I’ve just heard the greatest album of all time, and I want to hear more!” Well you’re in luck, because I, Caleb Peck, top-tier musical expert, am about to introduce you to the wondrous world of the Elephant 6 Recording company.

The magical beginnings of Elephant 6 cannot be ignored. Jeff Mangum, the leader of Neutral Milk Hotel, helped found Elephant 6 with his childhood friends Will Cullen Hart, Robert Schneider (Not the one from Grown Ups [2010]), and Bill Doss. These four, odd individuals banded together to create one of the most mysterious collectives to grace the planet Earth. 

The original home of Elephant 6 was Denver, but it has its closest ties to Ruston, Louisiana and most famously Athens, Georgia. Elephant 6, while not a true record label, cultivated an extremely talented and curious group of individuals. In 2001, their official website listed 41 different bands as a part of the compound, though most had overlapping members. There is no way I can tell you about 41 bands (blame my editors), so I have decided to focus on a few of the most popular, but also a few of the least popular as well. The extraordinary depth of odd collaborations, solo efforts, and nonsense are what makes Elephant 6 special, so I would be mistaken if I didn’t mention some outliers. It is crucial to know that none of these bands will provide you the same experience ITAOTS gave you. In fact, they will almost all give you something completely different. This is the beauty of Elephant 6, the creation of hundreds of songs, all different, but founded in the same values.

The Olivia Tremor Control

Doss and Hart’s original project was the band The Olivia Tremor Control, an electro-acoustic group with a 60s inspired sound reminiscent of the Beatles. Their songs are filled with odd sounds, similar to the trademark ghastly noises found in ITAOTS. This motif of using “noise” and “sounds” rather than what one might call “musical notes” is found all throughout Elephant 6 (many members have dabbled in sound collages and nature albums), but the similarities of these two bands seem to end there, with the Olivia Tremor Control taking on a much softer sound than the punk-edged folk energy of Neutral Milk Hotel.

Much of OTC’s music is fueled by a fascination with dreams, exploring the oddities of the human mind. For their 1999 album under the name “Black Foliage”, they actually requested that their fans send in tapes describing their dreams. Journalist Jeff Penczak once compared their artistic process to that of David Lynch, who claimed that his films were a reflection of his dreams (so if you’re a VMA, give these guys a try).

If you’re interested in learning more, check out these two articles, one from the NYT Archive and one from Stereogum.

The Sunshine Fix

After the demise of OTC in 2000, Bill Doss’s next venture was The Sunshine Fix (A moniker he had used since high school, but dropped once becoming an OTC member). This band made its mark on Elephant 6 with its extraordinary psychedelic sounds. Most of their music focuses on the love of the sun, and the warmth and light in brings the world. TSF’s songs are reminiscent of something I would have heard on the streets of my lovely hometown of Eugene, Oregon, famous for being the home of hippie icon Ken Kesey. 

This oddball take on psychedelic rock is definitely unique. It’s hard to describe exactly what TFC sounds like, but I found a wonderfully descriptive quote from a Bill Doss interview to try to explain. “Take the elegant straightforward pop of the mid-sixties - Beatles, Beach Boys - and pulverize it with a veal hammer. Smoke some pot. Find a pile of dented horns and broken keyboards in the corner of the basement and recruit the kids hanging out at the 7-11 parking lot to sing backup. Smoke a little more pot, eat some down-home country cooking, and start mixing it all up.”

If you’re curious about more things TFC, check out their official archived webpage (web design was so cool back in the day).

The Apples in the Stereo

Formerly known as just “Apples,” Schneider’s homegrown band was graced with the honor of having the first album released by Elephant 6. The 7” EP Tidal Wave was the first offerings of a funky rock band that dabbled in many subgenres. Songs like “Go” sounds like an extra poppy Beatles but with a screaming guitar and horn solo shoved in the center. Other tracks like “Innerspace” have a slow pace and sound oddly modern with an atmospheric indie rock sound. 

The band has also made a strange amount of TV appearances, being featured on shows like American Idol, Yo Gabba Gabba, and Powerpuff Girls. They are also signed to Elijah Wood’s record imprint (why does Elijah Wood have a record imprint?).

The Gerbils

Scott Spillane’s contributions can be spotted all over the Elephant 6 radar. The infamous horns on ITAOTS? You can, in part, thank Spillane. The same can be said for horns found on projects like OTC, Elf Power, and Of Montreal. His own musical venture was named The Gerbils, a sunshiny indie rock band that happens to be one of my personal favorites. In the same vein as bands like Elf Power or Of Montreal, The Gerbils provided a strange amount of normality to a group of playful and ridiculous bands. 

They do have a penchant for adding a bit of fuzziness to their happy guitar licks, similar to what you might hear on an NMH record, but overall The Gerbils are simply a nice and noisy indie rock group. Their debut album Are You Sleepy (1998) was recently re-released for the revival of the Elephant 6 record label.

If you want to hear an official review of this album, check out this one from Pitchfork. 

The Frosted Ambassador

The official Kindercore record label description of The Frosted Ambassador is this: "The Frosted Ambassador started out in 1977 in the group Chronicle Ape And The New Sound. A disappointing solo career in the early 80's prompted his retirement from music and relocation to Belgium to study toast. The master cassette of this unreleased album was found buried under a goose (Freedom Goose) by an American serviceman living overseas, who accidentally sent the tape home to his family in Georgia in place of an intended audio letter (coincidentally concerning the quality of crispy bread in Europe). This tape eventually resurfaced in 1995 in a shoe suspended over a colonial wig in a Georgia thrift store."

Evidence has shown that the Frosted Ambassador is most likely a side project of OTC drummer Eric Harris, just utilizing one of Elephant 6’s patented storylines. The Will Hart-produced album cover presents two jumbled, almost robotic figures, one televising crucifix on top of it’s head. The album itself is 12 tracks all labeled “_________”, creating a discombobulating yet simple psychedelic pop experience. This self-titled tape is a pure embodiment of the Elephant 6 spirit.

The obsession with fictional characters and storylines is constant throughout the recording company, with many members going on to create short films or other art forms. The obsession with the absurd is one of Elephant 6’s most admirable traits in my opinion. Throughout the entirety of their roster, they consistently brought new ideas into the world of music. I love Built to Spill and Pavement as much as the next guy, but in an era dominated by punk and alt-rockers, the Athens, Georgia contingency escaped into their own world of fantastical music and provided a new perspective of what indie rock could be.