A New Book And Movie Explore What Made The Elephant 6 Recording Co. So Special

Amy Hairston

A New Book And Movie Explore What Made The Elephant 6 Recording Co. So Special

Amy Hairston

The Elephant 6 Recording Co. happened naturally, as if by fate, but also via the tireless dedication of everyone involved. So if it’s surprising to see two long-gestating projects documenting the indie psych-pop collective emerging at the same time — nearly a quarter-century after the peak of E6’s popularity — it’s also weirdly fitting.

For non-initiates, the term “Elephant 6” refers to a network of musicians, artists, and other creatives — sprawling in scope yet tight-knit at its core — best known for groups like the distortion-bombed folk-rock visionaries Neutral Milk Hotel, the floaty psych adventurers Olivia Tremor Control, and the relentlessly buzzy pop-rockers Apples In Stereo. Originating in the early 1990s among a circle of artsy misfits from the rural college town of Ruston, Louisiana, the scene that came to be known as E6 eventually developed outposts in locales like Denver, where Apples mastermind and Elephant 6 resident producer Robert Schneider settled midway through the decade. But the collective is most closely associated with Athens, Georgia, where Schneider’s close friends Jeff Mangum, Bill Doss, and Will Cullen Hart ended up along with a small army of their pals, commingling with like-minded locals like Elf Power’s Andrew Rieger.

Elephant 6 has always exuded a rare magic and mystique. Its constellation of projects seemed to be an outgrowth of real friendship and honest, impassioned creativity. They spurned fancy studios and major-label budgets in favor of four-track recorders and handmade packaging. They crammed en masse into tiny living spaces so they could live off part-time jobs while focusing on their art. They seemed to be a whole charming, homespun galaxy unto themselves, only marginally concerned with broadcasting their work into the outside world — and when Neutral Milk Hotel did set off a hype storm with 1998’s iconic In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Mangum promptly, quietly pulled the plug.

Emerging at the height of America’s corporate alt-rock hangover, E6 was the embodiment of a kind of DIY underground ideal that had been lost somewhere along the way. At the time, taking inspiration from the Beatles and lo-fi eccentrics like Tall Dwarfs was far from on-trend. Today, the scene’s indifference toward the general public — perhaps best embodied by Mangum’s reluctance to capitalize on the cult of adoration surrounding Neutral Milk Hotel — still feels aspirational and instructive. “I think the nature of the music was never that commercial,” Rieger recalls from his home in Athens. “None of us really had any expectations that it would become Smashing Pumpkins or anything.”

E6 still exists in some capacity — a number of the bands are still touring and recording, and Rieger says many of the key players still hang out regularly in Athens — but aside from any current activities, the collective’s legacy lives on via a stacked discography, all kinds of ephemera nestled away in various corners of the physical and digital world, and a pervasive influence on multiple generations of musicians. Still, until recently there was no definitive work documenting the collective’s history. Now there are two. For more than a decade, journalist Adam Clair and filmmaker C.B. Stockfleth have been working on their projects in parallel, occasionally sharing notes but otherwise operating separately. By sheer coincidence, both of those projects have emerged in finished form this year.

This past January, Clair, who has written extensively about Elephant 6 (including for this website), released his book Endless Endless: A Lo-Fi History Of The Elephant 6 Mystery. Ten months later, Stockfleth’s documentary The Elephant 6 Recording Co. is premiering on Thursday as part of the DOC NYC film festival at the IFC Center, followed by a Q&A with Stockfleth, Robert Schneider, and producers Greg King, Lance Bangs, and Rob Hatch-Miller. (Other festival screenings will follow this weekend in Denver and Minneapolis, and between Nov. 11-27, viewers can rent the movie for home viewing via DOC NYC.)

The book and the movie complement each other nicely. Despite its billing as a “mixtape,” Endless Endless is meticulously detailed, mapping out a thorough timeline from the E6 braintrust’s childhood in Ruston to their peak of visibility and on through the long tail of their post-hype aftermath. It’s the kind of treasure trove of information where you’ll learn that, for instance, of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes grew up playing glam rock with future Creed guitarist Mark Tremonti — a fact that was news to Rieger, Barnes’ longtime friend. Although crammed with information, Clair’s book is far from a dry, stuffy encyclopedia. As those details and anecdotes pile up, you’re left with a keen sense of these people’s stories, the values that drove them, and the ways they’ve each been grafted into this musical family tree. Depending on how much mystic reverence you’ve assigned to Mangum, it may blow your mind to imagine him obsessing over the decidedly not-mystical Pavement in his pre-fame years.

Endless Endless also contains the most detailed reporting to date on Neutral Milk Hotel’s reunion, which began with Mangum creeping back into the public eye via group events like the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tours in 2008 and 2011, expanded to a run of solo shows, and culminated with a full-scale world tour in 2014 and 2015. Clair reveals that Mangum reconvened Neutral Milk Hotel at a practice space in New York years before the tour, just to make sure the magic was still intact, and that they’d occasionally get together to slug through eight-hour rehearsals. We learn about the staunch professionalism with which Mangum — who in NMH’s heyday was known for throwing Julian Koster into the drumkit in fits of gleeful enthusiasm — approached the reunion tour, even refusing to roll around in grass with his bandmates for fear of contracting Lyme Disease. “They were pro to the extent that they really, really cared about the music,” Clair says from his home in Philadelphia. “They were not pro in the sense that all the commercial aspects of it were completely anathema to them.”

The film is more impressionistic, filling in an essential audio-visual component to E6’s history and capturing the collective’s whimsical essence. What it lacks in specifics, it more than makes up for in vibes. Take, for instance, a zany excerpt from an Apples In Stereo music video featuring Schneider and Elijah Wood — whose label Simian Records released two Apples albums in the late aughts — which opens the film to disorienting affect. Previously unreleased performance footage shot by Bangs, who lived in Athens in the ’90s, is obviously a treat, and the montage of fans covering Elephant 6 songs that plays during the end credits goes a long way toward illustrating the collective’s impact. While descriptions of Schneider’s madcap energy can be vivid and revealing, nothing can match the experience of seeing him attempt to sum up the Elephant 6 story in under a minute.

Rieger says he wishes the movie, which clocks in at 93 minutes, could have been twice as long in order to cover some of the more obscure E6 projects like Frosted Ambassador, Marshmallow Coast, and the short film Major Organ And The Adding Machine. But he loves that Stockfleth emphasized important aspects of the collective’s ethos, be it Schneider’s in-depth explanation of building out his tape machine into an elaborate home studio setup (tape machines are holy artifacts for these people) or the potluck dinners that used to be ground zero for the Elephant 6 social scene. “Every week it would be a potluck at somebody else’s house,” Rieger says. “I remember one potluck at my house, that was where Jeff first brought the Aeroplane album to play for everybody.”

Even the initial distribution plan for The Elephant 6 Recording Co. was true to the E6 spirit: Back in 2019, Stockfleth posted fliers at record stores and coffee shops in major US cities advertising the Elephant 6 Video “Rental” Club. The fliers included a phone number — a landline connected to an answering machine, naturally — through which you could request an early cut of the movie on VHS, as long as you promised to return it after watching. “So much of Elephant 6, especially early on with their cassette tapes and 7″s and things, it was a mail order system,” Stockfleth says from his home in New Orleans. “You’d get something in the mail that had been handled by those people.” Stockfleth loved how the process mirrored the experience of tracking down physical media in the ’90s, an effort that inevitably led to paying closer attention, forming stronger bonds, and sharing beloved works among friends (all of which was essential to the Elephant 6 experience).

Neither the book nor the movie features an on-the-record interview with the notoriously reclusive Mangum, but he was in touch with both Clair and Stockfleth throughout the process and gave both projects his blessing. Aside from Mangum, all the central figures and quite a few peripheral characters have their say in these histories. As evidence of just how long both Clair and Stockfleth have been toiling away, both the book and the movie contain extensive insights from E6 co-founder Bill Doss, who died back in 2012. (In one moving scene near the end of the movie, Doss’ friends talk about how they’ve been recording on top of his voluminous collection of demos as a way to recapture the experience of collaborating with him.) Others who help to sketch out a panoramic view of E6 include Schneider, Hart, Hilarie Sidney, Julian Koster, Laura Carter, and so many more.

Tracking these people down was not always easy. Clair, 36, has been working on his book on and off for essentially his entire adult life, ever since he realized there was no definitive text on Elephant 6. “When I first started reaching out to people I was 20 or 21,” he recalls from his home in Philadelphia. “I had a pretty limited sphere of experience. I felt very much like an outsider in that sense.” To ingratiate himself with the E6 community, he spent two stints living in Athens, first for most of 2010 and again from late 2015 to late 2017. Both times, he spent part of his stay crashing at the home of Olivia Tremor Control co-founder Will Cullen Hart, who vouched for Clair and acted as a bridge to other sources. Per Clair, a lot of the details and insights in the book could only be gleaned by hanging around town, getting to know people.

Stockfleth, 43, entered the picture via Schneider. In the late 2000s they were part of the same friend group in Lexington, Kentucky, where Schneider moved to pursue a mathematics degree. At the time, between gigs making commercials, Stockfleth was documenting the local music scene: “There were a lot of cool things happening,” he recalls, “and I was chasing it all around with my video camera.” Although Stockfleth had never made a feature-length movie, Schneider encouraged him to pursue an Elephant 6 documentary and helped him connect with sources.

Many flights and interviews ensued, often with Stockfleth operating as a one-person crew. Only years later, after launching the VHS rental club, did he team with collaborators like Lance Bangs (an esteemed filmmaker in the indie sphere), Greg King (a former member of the indie-classical band rachel’s), and Rob Hatch-Miller (director of the Other Music documentary), all of whom significantly altered the final product. “I just set up the framework for what this movie could be,” Stockfleth says, “and all these other people sort of filled it with their spirits and their beauty.”

The DIY-yet-communal approach to filmmaking was another instance of Stockfleth’s method mirroring that of his subjects. It also explains why the movie — and Clair’s book — took so long to come out. Like most of Elephant 6’s output, these endeavors were labors of love, assembled between paying gigs without much hope of turning a profit. Maybe in the ’90s, when rent in places like Athens was cheap enough that thrifty artists could live off of part-time pay, these guys might have been able to finish their Elephant 6 histories more quickly. The economics of it aren’t so friendly now. To wit, at the moment a future wide release for the documentary depends upon an ongoing crowdfunding campaign, though Stockfleth hopes a distributor will come along.

The sense that the dream of Elephant 6 is no longer replicable may contribute to the legendary aura around the collective, but the truth is more complicated. “There probably are dozens of other communities already much like the Elephant 6,” Clair says, “but you probably never hear about any of them because the ability for that stuff to reach people is not what it was.” Of course there are still pockets of young people all around the world geeking out over their favorite bands and harnessing that inspiration to build out their own insular worlds. What’s in doubt is whether these self-contained scenes can still blow up the way Elephant 6 did and whether they could live off that art at a time when neither touring nor album sales seems like a viable income stream anymore.

Ultimately, though, the main point of Elephant 6 was never to get famous or make a career out of creative expression. “On the one hand, we should absolutely be supporting musicians and artists way more than we do, and we should be valuing this stuff more than we do as a society,” Clair says. “But at the same time, for all of the reasons that any individual person has to not make art, not make music — you should still do it anyway.”

The Elephant 6 Recording Co. premieres 11/10 at DOC NYC, with further festival screenings to follow this weekend and next week in Denver, Minneapolis, and New York. Endless Endless: A Lo-Fi History Of The Elephant 6 Mystery is out now via Hachette Book Group.

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