The Milk of Human Kindness: Inside Elephant 6

Elephant 6 bands are on a trip they'd like to share

The band was an hour late for sound check, a sleeting rain was beating against walls of the Middle East music club in Cambridge, Mass., and the sound man was starting to get worried. Neutral Milk Hotel's show here was sold out, and the club hadn't heard anything from the band, who were driving up in this mess after playing a show at New York City's Knitting Factory.

Suddenly, the back door swung open and in walked NMH's Scott Spillane, carrying a rusty old saw, a monstrous trombone, and an ancient washboard-type contraption held together by bits of twine. "Ahh," Spillane mused softly to himself as he plunked down his cargo, sounding as though he'd lived through this scenario a thousand times. "*This* is the chaos."

What's amazing about Neutral Milk Hotel and the handful of other bands that comprise the Elephant 6 Recording Co. -- a congregation of friends and artists who write, play music, and, in some cases, live together in a house in Athens, Ga. -- is how consistently they manage to create beauty, even magic, from that chaos. Works that carry the Elephant 6 stamp -- literally, right there on the back cover -- are typically of the low-fi pop variety, but studio technology is the only primitive thing about them. The records are kaleidoscopic in scope, Technicolor in imagination, and densely, lovingly, populated with an endless parade of fairy-tale heroes, villains, and objects as seen through E6's warped looking-glass: flying phonographs and green typewriters, red kings and communist daughters.

These days, word -- not to mention distribution -- of E6's miniature mythology is spreading nearly as fast as the ideas that keep sprouting from the heads of people like NMH songwriter Jeff Mangum, Olivia Tremor Control's Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss (who are currently at work on the group's second album) and artist/producer/audiophile Robert Schneider, whose own band, Apples In Stereo, have just had *their* new album, Tone Soul Evolution, picked up for major distribution by Sire. The band, which toured last fall when the disc was first released on the indie imprint spinART, is getting ready to hit the road again.

This marks the first time an Elephant 6 band will receive the promotion and support of a major, and Schneider welcomes the exposure. "I feel like it's really great music but I've always thought that it's the kind of music that's often overlooked," says Schneider. "I've always felt that our music is something your little sister could like, your friends would like, and, at the same time, your dad would like. We wanted to make a record that was timeless."

These kinds of themes -- time, memory, friendship -- figure prominently in the E6 world, which more or less began when Mangum, Schneider, Doss and Hart (four friends who grew up together in Ruston, Louisiana) began trading homemade tapes of original music through the mail. Eventually, everyone but Schneider settled in Athens and started a band called the Olivia Tremor Control (Mangum would soon quit to follow his own muse in the Neutral Milk Hotel). Meanwhile, Schneider moved to Denver, formed Apples In Stereo, and built a recording studio he aptly named Pet Sounds (where he's currently producing the Olivia's second full-length album).

"Before we started Elephant 6, we used to joke about how we already had this long career behind us and talked about ourselves as if we had many different creative phases -- that by the age of 20, we had lived through the '60s or something," says Schneider. "We all have these stories that weave together and somehow all of it mixed together into Elephant 6. It's strange, because it was always this kind of a joke with us. Even now, we're all very ambitious musically, but at the same time, we're having a lark."

Along the way, E6 has spawned or recruited into its semi-circle numerous bands, splinter groups, and side projects, among them Elf Power, the Music Tapes, and Beulah to name a few. But despite the fact that E6's cavalcade of would-be stars routinely pitch in on each other's efforts -- contributing a harmony vocal or fuzz bass here, a trombone or flugelhorn there -- each band's personality and approach remains distinct from the other.

"The idea of having a band is that everybody sort of morphs into the project at hand," says NMH's Mangum before his show at the Middle East. "Even when the projects contain some of the same members, it's really important for each project to have an identity of its own and to be taken seriously as its own entity."

Julian Koster, who does double-duty playing bowed banjo, accordion, and singing saw with NMH and performing with his own E6 offspring, the Music Tapes, says playing with each group affords him the chance "to explore a different side of creating things that you'd never have the opportunity to do if you were in one normal band. We all share a big love for each other's visions, so if one of us has an idea, the rest of us jump in trying to help realize that vision. That's kind of the beauty of the thing, I think."

"As far as bands bleeding into each other," adds Schneider during a separate conversation, "I think we all inspire each other as far as keeping the marker high and constantly upping the ante. It's not exactly a competition, but it *is* in that all of us are trying to make albums that are as good as we can possibly make them."

Schneider's Apples In Stereo are the poppiest of the bunch, unabashedly in love with the sunny side of Brian Wilson and the Beatles. The band's bright, shimmery sound reflects Schneider's pursuit of faithfully capturing on record "the perfect hi-fi" he says he hears inside his head. To achieve this goal (which he believes he's met, by the way), the band moved up to 24-track recording for the first time on Tone Soul. Meanwhile, the Olivia Tremor Control mix topsy-turvy, fun-house psychedelia with disorienting ambient interludes. And as for Neutral Milk Hotel, well, they're perhaps the most compelling and peculiar of all the E6 bands.

The group's idiosyncratic new album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (Merge), is a sepia-toned, baroque folk-pop affair steeped in melancholy acoustic guitars, funereal marching-band brass, and lyrical imagery that hints at secrets as haunted and hidden as moss concealed under stones in a forest. In a live setting, the material only becomes more dramatic. Mangum on-stage is far different from the laconic, soft-spoken 26-year-old he is out of the spotlight, who confides that his favorite sound is the crackle of a 78-rpm record. Up there, Mangum's voice, body, and spirit seem possessed by a mass of contradictions -- child-like wonder and ancient wisdom -- and the music he makes is of shivering beauty, unfettered in its reach.

But ultimately, the music -- like Elephant 6 itself -- seems grounded and connected by one over-arching tenet. "It's hard to find 30 or 40 people that I really love and respect and have a lot of fun with," says Mangum as Koster nods his head in silent agreement. "And I just think that the music is a reflection of the friendship."