I Have Been Floated: An Oral History of the Elephant 6 Collective
Rock and roll thrives on romanticism, and one would be hard pressed to imagine a music story with more romance than that of Elephant 6, and the genre-defining music that sprung from a group of four teenagers trading overdubbed tapes recorded on boom boxes in the bedrooms of their parents' homes in a rural southern town.
"I had more fun now than ever playing before." Will Cullen Hart, the redheaded Olivia Tremor Control co-frontman is pouring sweat. He is seated at a table on the balcony, just after the band's second sold-out performance at New York's Bowery Ballroom in 2005. The night ended in a cacophony of instruments and applause and a dog pile of exhausted musicians. These were two intense nights of a short reunion tour for the band after a five-year hiatus. The break proved to only strengthen the popularity of the paisley-fueled, psychedelic pop band.
Rock and roll thrives on romanticism, and one would be hard pressed to imagine a music story with more romance than that of Elephant 6, and the genre-defining music that sprung from a group of four teenagers trading overdubbed tapes recorded on boom boxes in the bedrooms of their parents' homes in a rural southern town. Though the phrase Elephant 6 and the names of the individual bands associated with it have been namedropped in countless music interviews, articles and reviews, no one can say for sure exactly how many Elephant 6 bands exist, because no one can say conclusively what Elephant 6 is. To some it's a proper record label, to others it's a nebulous collective of musicians based out of Athens, Georgia, and to others still, it will forever remain the project of those four youths in from Ruston, Louisiana.
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The Music Tapes
Robert Schneider: From the time we were all into heavy metal bands like Krokus in sixth grade and beyond, we were all this little group that was obsessed with music together.
Scott Spillane: Ruston is a town where it's really hard to find... I don't know if freaks is the right word. There were five or six or eight people that would swap records back and forth. There were no record stores in the town. You had to go 60 miles to go to a record store or do mail-order.
Will Cullen Hart: There was a group of us that gelled together, because we didn't want to be in Whitesnake.
Robert Schneider: I met Jeff Mangum in second grade in Ruston, Louisiana. I had just moved there. I was from South Africa. The first day of school, Jeff came up to me with a Wiffle Ball bat, asking me if I wanted to play. I freaked out and thought he was going to hit me with the bat. He said, "No, I'm not," and I said, "Yes, you are," so I turned around and ran away, and he started chasing me with the bat raised above his head. He chased me all around the playground.
Will Cullen Hart: I met Jeff because he wanted to play football for six months. His school didn't have a team, so he joined the one at my school. He had really long hair for Ruston at the time.
Robert Schneider: I met Will Hart when Jeff and I went to see Cheap Trick when we were in sixth grade. It was my first concert. Rick Nielsen threw out a guitar pick during the show, Will and I both went for it, and I got it. After the show Jeff and I went back to his house and air-guitared to Dream Police with tennis rackets.
Will Cullen Hart: Schneider was a good guitar player; I was always bragging because I couldn't play at all.
Robert Schneider: Will and I took an algebra class to prepare us for high school, and some girl came up to me and said, "Oh, you play guitar," and Will chimed in and said, "I can blow him out the fucking window." We started getting to be better friends in middle school. We started loosely writing songs, and Jeff started taking drum lessons, and I took guitar lessons.
Will Cullen Hart: Jeff and I wanted to play riffs in his basement, but we couldn't, so we decided that we were going to be in a punk band, but we didn't know what that was besides being crude, so we'd just say, "We hate your mom." Robert would show us how to do chords, and we were like, "You gotta just trash it, yell it."
Robert Schneider: Jeff and Will had a band in high school called Maggot. It was a total noise band.
Laura Carter: It was this really sweet thing in the early days, when Will and Jeff and Robert would give each other tapes of these songs, and some of these songs are just god awful, terrible. They were just 13-year-old boys yelling, "Fuck your mama," and bashing on the drums as hard as they can. It was just kids having fun, and they would fill up a whole cassette tape with this, two-track recording of just dog shit, and they put this Elephant 6 logo on it and would be like, "Hey, man, I made you an album!" They're hysterical.
Robert Schneider: Will would record on a boom box. He would record the most insane shit. Highly experimental -- beyond experimental.
Will Cullen Hart: We considered it an EP, taping over MC Hammer promotional cassingles. I would make 10 and give them to 10 people.
Laura Carter: Robert always had bigger plans. Jeff and Will said that Robert was always writing real songs, and they were just expressing themselves. Robert was a natural song craftsman right from the beginning. Both Jeff and Will stuck with it long enough that they started to catch up and write their own songs, too, but in high school, Robert was immediately putting together real songs with real structures and more than one part, where Jeff's and Will's songs might be a one-note, one-part song that just had to do with yelling obscenities.
Robert Schneider: Will had a dream where he woke up with the best name for a band. And he wrote it on a piece of paper in the middle of the night, and when he woke up in the morning he looked on the piece of paper and it said, "Hummingbird 19." He was like, "Oh, man, that kind of sucks."
Will Cullen Hart: Before that, I was writing "Amoeba Kite" on my tapes-like a string with an amoeba at the end.
Robert Schneider: Around the same time, when I asked what the name for our label was going to be, he said Elephant 6 just off the top of his head. And I said, "We'll call it the Elephant 6 Recording Company, it sounds more fancy." My feeling was, There are probably 20 to 50 or so kids in the whole country who might be interested in this thing. Let's put out a bunch of cassettes. We pressed 10 copies of things at first.
Laura Carter: Eventually people started thinking that it was a real recording company.
Will Cullen Hart: Bill was a friend of Robert's. He lived a few miles away in a little town called Dubach.
Robert Schneider: When I was a freshman in high school, I put together a band, and I saw an ad at the local guitar store, a handwritten note card that said something like Van Halen, and I fucking loved Van Halen, so I called Bill up. He wasn't so into Van Halen anymore, but he liked the Beatles and new wave, so we got together and he was the lead singer in my band. The bass player quit, so he switched to bass, and we played like that for a few years. We had a band called Fat Planet.
Will Cullen Hart: Bill had been playing in a lot of bands up to that point. A lot of cover bands, did cover tunes of the day, like Animotion's "Obsession." They decided that they were going to call themselves Altered Images, and then they played a water park, and when they got there, the other band was called Altered Images.
Ross Beach: Olivia Tremor Control started with Will on guitar, Bill on bass, Jeff on drums, and all three of them sang. That was the band that emerged out of Synthetic Flying Machine, which was the three of them, and this girl named Shannon, who was Will's girlfriend at the time. They came after Jeff and Will's original band, Cranberry Lifecycle.
Will Cullen Hart: After three semesters at Louisiana Tech, I couldn't pass math. I got a house, and I was like, "We can record all the time." This to me was the essence of what it all became. We had a drum set, a couple of guitars. It was like we're kind of a little band. I would go to the bathroom or make beans, and Doss would write half the lyrics, and then I would come back and write the other half. We ended up writing the first four Olivia Tremor Control songs like that, passing it back and forth. Spontaneous creations. In 1993 we played our first show as Olivia Tremor Control.
Robert Schneider: I moved to Denver to go to college when I was 20. I moved away from Ruston the month after I graduated high school and moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, where I went to college, and then I moved to Denver -- actually I moved to Kentucky in the interim and played on a riverboat in a little R&B band. I got together with Chris Parfitt and we started the Apples -- the "in Stereo" was added later, in 1995. Jim Macintire and Hilarie Sidney owned a bass and drums, and they were trying to think about learning to play, so they became the bass player and drummer for our band. About the same time, Will and Jeff were recording this incredible stuff under the name Cranberry Lifecycle. They had been recording for a year or two when they were in college. They recorded this four-track stuff, and I got their tapes and was real turned on by them.
Apples in Stereo - Signal in the Sky
Will Cullen Hart: Jeff decided to go in search of some stuff and took off for a year. He was out in Seattle, and Elephant 6 offered to put out a Neutral Milk Hotel seven-inch. He was the first to be on vinyl, which was Everything Is Beautiful Here.
Robert Schneider: Will moved to Denver, and that's when we officially started Elephant 6. He, Hilarie, John Hill, the Apples guitarist, and Kurt Heasley of the Lilys all lived in a one-bedroom basement apartment.
Will Cullen Hart: By then we'd met Julian Koster, and he was getting something together to go on tour as Chocolate USA, and he invited Bill to come on tour to play bass. So Bill went out for a month, and he came back. By then we had saved enough to put out the first Olivia single. That's how he met Pete and Erick.
Jeremy Barnes: I met Chocolate USA when they played Albuquerque and the band I was in opened for them. I was in high school. We hit it off really well, so then Julian called me and said, "I want you to play in this band Neutral Milk Hotel. It's great, you'd love it. Jeff would love you." We had a 30 minute practice, and Jeff said, "Do you want to join the band?" So I dropped out of school and moved to New York with $90. Jeff said, "My friend Scott is going to play in the band. He's a real down-to-earth guy. He's been living in his van for three months, working at a pizza parlor." But Scott knew how to play trumpet and didn't tell anybody, and Julian had a roommate who had a trumpet, and Scott started playing it, and everyone was like, What's this?
Scott Spillane: Jeff made On Avery Island in Denver, and he wanted to tour. I was living in Austin at the time, and Jeff asked me if I wanted to go to New York. I was working as a cook in a pizza restaurant, and I got him back there to help me. The bars there all get out at two, and there's this massive rush, so I was like, "Help me get all of these pizzas done." After that, he was like, "Man, this sucks," and he asked me to go to New York, so I put in two weeks notice and went to New York. I didn't play any horns. I had played in high school and played tuba in college. I went to New York and practiced until I could play the trumpet.
Robert Schneider: The first Elephant 6 release was the Apples first EP, Tidal Wave that I recorded on four-track, and the second was Olivia Tremor Control's first EP, California Demise.
Will Cullen Hart: We each worked at a movie theater and saved enough money to put out California Demise, the second Elephant 6 single.
Robert Schneider: Will did a lot of the artwork, we made the catalogs, we would dub off the cassettes. At first it was a little tiny cassette label and pretty soon meeting orders just stopped happening. After sending off 50 cassettes, we started to fall behind. We weren't trying to get any level of acceptance or success. We were just saying, "Fuck you, here are our pop songs." All we were trying to do was put some good in the world -- and say fuck you.