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Music

I Have Been Floated: An Oral History of the Elephant 6 Collective

Brian Heater

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.

II. 1992-1999: Going to Georgia

II. 1992-1999         Click here for artist bios

John Fernandes: Will went down to the Virgin Islands with a girl.

Will Cullen Hart: I went down there to live permanently. I brought my four-track. I still had a month to go back to Florida if I didn't like it. The house I got didn't work out, so I had to start sleeping on the beach. She fell in love with some bartender or some convoluted mess like that so I was like, "I'll go back to Florida, and then I'll go back to Ruston or something." I landed in Florida, and then I remembered that I had a friend who lived in Athens, Georgia, from the radio station in Ruston, and I called her to see if I could hang out with her for a week or something, so she came down and picked me up. I called Jeff and was like, "This is a cool little town."

John Fernandes: Eventually, Jeff and Bill both moved up here. They got these three cots in an attic room, and since they were sharing rent on one attic room, they barely paid anything. All they did all day was record. Just get up, get out of your cot and start recording each other's things.

Kevin Barnes: When I first met Will, Jeff and Bill, we actually lived together, as early as 1992, and they had Elephant 6 already started. They were pressing their own copies of seven-inches and cassettes, and they put the Elephant 6 logo on it.

Andrew Rieger: I met Will and Bill at a birthday party. Elf Power had just recorded their first record on four-track, and Olivia had just done their first seven-inch, and we traded records and realized that we were both kind of doing the same thing.

Lauren Carter: The real true beginning of Elf Power was Andrew and a four-track. It was mainly a recording project, which is why we hit it off so well with the Olivias. Jeff was included in the Olivia gang at that point. Here we were in this small town, and we were four-track recorders, and the Olivia guys were four-track recorders, and neither one of us knew each other. The music wasn't that similar, but how we spent out free time, our obsessions, were exactly the same. We would both get off of work, run home, plug in the four-track and stay up all night and blow each others' minds with sound, or try to, and that was our recreation. So when we met Olivia, it was like, Oh, my god, I can't believe that we lived in this same town for a year. So then we started collaborating on each others' projects.

Jeremy Barnes: Neutral Milk Hotel lived in New York. Julian had a rent-controlled apartment. We were paying $200 for an apartment in the West Village in 1995.

Laura Carter: Andrew and I moved to New York, and because we had been friends with the Olivia guys, they were like, "You've got to hang out with our friend Julian Koster." When we went up there, we contacted him and we met Jeff. But it wasn't until we all moved back to Athens independently and I started working sound at the 40 Watt that Olivia and Neutral Milk asked me to do their sound on the road. So on the first tour, I was the sound person. By the end of the tour I was playing on four songs for the finale, running from the sound booth to the stage.

Jeremy Barnes: We didn't have any money, so we moved to Athens because Olivia was there and it was cheap.

Scott Spillane: It was really, really cheap back then. You could find a room for $75 a month.

Will Cullen Hart: The three of us moved into a room and paid $30 a month. It works out for a while until one gets a girlfriend. I worked as a telemarketer for MADD, and Bill did the same. Jeff delivered Chinese food and was washing dishes at an Italian restaurant.

Kevin Barnes: Maybe it was just the house I was living in, there was kind of this communal situation where no one was on the lease, so people could just come in if they wanted to, pitch in for the rent and then leave when they wanted to.

Andrew Rieger: There were always a bunch of different houses that served as meeting places where people had their recordings set up.

John Fernandes: Everyone was getting together a lot, and we'd have these potlucks on Sunday. After we'd eat, we'd just go over to someone's studio or house and start recording and working on each other's things.

Kevin Barnes: The heyday, most of the late 1990s, everyone was involved in each others lives, and we would collaborate more, have dinners where everyone would make something. If you couldn't cook, you would bring Dunkin' Donuts. We'd all get together, hang out and talk about music.

Will Cullen Hart: It fell together cosmically.

Laura Carter: Someone would be like, "I scored a Farfisa at the J&J Thrift Center for $40!" So it would be like, "Of Montreal wants a Farfisa on this song. Call Laura." Will Hart scored a guitar organ, so of course there's a little wave where everyone's album has a guitar organ on it. And then I got the zanzithaphone. It's really a Casio digital horn, but I was not about to have my credit on the Neutral Milk album be for Casio digital horn, so I called it the zanzithaphone. It was very much about who found what instrument when, and how long before that instrument broke.

Robert Schneider: There was definitely this hippie San Francisco 1967 explosion happening in Athens that was exciting, but at the same time, it wasn't that exciting to me. It was my friends and I loved them, but that didn't turn me on. To a large extent, it had to do with out-weirding your neighbor.

Andrew Reiger: We weren't exactly having drug orgies or anything, but everybody was pretty content to just play music, smoke a little pot and have fun.

A Peculiar Noise

Pat Noel: I was doing a crossword, as I was having my bagel this morning, in The San Francisco Guardian, one of the down clues was "Hometown of Elephant 6 and the B-52s." I guess that really means it was a cultural phenomenon.

Laura Carter: The first time I really realized it was huge was when Scott Spillane left a backpack full of money in the Pizza Hut, and I was like, "Scott, how much money was in there?" and he was like, "About $20,000." That's when I first realized we were big time.

Laura Carter: I really was aware at certain shows that this was it, that this had fulfilled every dream I had as far as trying to hit the big time. It wasn't like we didn't feel success; everyone felt success.

Kevin Barnes: Olivia Tremor and Neutral Milk Hotel would take bands on tour like Of Montreal, Elf Power and the Music Tapes. Bands that were more established would help the bands that weren't as well known.

Pat Noel: Beulah lead singer Miles Kurosky and guitarist Bill Swan made their first record, Handsome Western States and Robert had heard it. Apparently he and Hilarie were having some conversation about music today and how it should be and they put the tape in and said, "This is what it's supposed to sound like."

Robert Schneider: A band becomes a member of Elephant 6 band by invitation. One way of becoming an Elephant 6 band by association. Sometimes you would hear a band, like with Beulah, you would be like, "This is a kindred spirit. This is Elephant 6."

Scott Spillane: At the time the Elephant 6 thing was getting out of hand, and we started seeing all of these bands that had little Elephant 6 logos on them all over the place.

Tidal Wave

John Fernandes: It seems like after a while, after bands started touring, there was less time to kind of intermingle, so all the bands started to go in their separate paths, kind of in an organic way.

Jeremy Barnes: I think that Athens would be a difficult place to live in for a long period of time. It's a wonderful town, but you see everybody all of the time, and everybody loves your record and then you get a cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts and you've got three kids talking about your lyrics. I think that got Jeff down.

Jeff Mangum: I was exhausted both physically and mentally.

Laura Carter: When Neutral Milk started to get so popular, Jeff started to back away from the whole thing. A lot of people that were approaching us at shows started to have a cultish behavior, and for me that was scary, because we were just people. We were excited to have this really develop into something wonderful, so at first there was just total excitement. Then as it kept snowballing, there was a little bit of fear.

Jeremy Barnes: Neutral Milk Hotel never broke up, we just stopped playing music together. It's a strange thing. We lived in Athens for another year. We'd see each other and on occasion we'd play together.

Will Cullen Hart: Olivia Tremor Control took a break, and I was making songs on a four-track like I always do, and I wasn't thinking of making an album. It was a lot to happen to a person. I was doing a lot of drugs. I was doing a lot of tripping.

Robert Schneider: I found out I was having a baby, the Apples were real busy and producing records became a strain on me, because I wanted to produce my own stuff. I was putting so much on other records that maybe I wasn't achieving so much on my own records. One day I called Will up and said, "Dude, I'm dropping out. This is high school."

Pat Noel: We kind of made a conscious decision to distance ourselves a little bit from the whole thing. As the reviews were rolling, it was like everyone was getting really pigeon-holed.

Robert Schneider: After a while it gets annoying when your record comes out and it's a work of genius and the reviews come out and half of them are comparing it to other records that are obviously inferior to your records, because it's the best fucking record ever.

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