It’s one of those intros that just grabs you. If you know it, you know what I mean. It’s “The King of Carrot Flowers,” the first song on Neutral Milk Hotel’s iconic 1998 album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
The band’s second full release, “In the Aeroplane” has been named one of the greatest albums ever written. It’s the brainchild of singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum. And it’s a haunting dream of equal parts pleading, grotesque intimacy and raucous grandeur. It’s as much a solo project as anything, but came out of an eclectic collective of weird talent and homegrown musicianship which birthed a number of notable acts throughout the 90’s, some of whom still perform today.
On this episode of Signal Cannon: The Elephant 6 Recording Company.
“Recording company” is a bit of a misnomer, they’re not a label in the true sense of the word. Their logo, emblazoned on many a nostalgic t-shirt is remembered by its founders as being more of an identity than a business moniker. It’s (quote) “a family crest among a group of friends,” member Julian Koster once described it. And that friendship is a long one.
There are a lot of names that will come in and out, so it’s helpful to identify who’s who, and who became what, in a music sense…especially for the uninitiated. Julian Koster is the leader of The Music Tapes, an experimental pop music project which began as cassette recorder demos in his bedroom. He’s also a member of Neutral Milk Hotel, identified by the singing saw he played on a number of tracks.
There’s Robert Schneider, who today performs as The Apples in Stereo. There’s Bill Doss, who died in 2012, but member of Neutral Milk Hotel and also of a band called The Olivia Tremor Control, which grew out of an earlier collaboration with Jeff Mangum and another high school friend Will Cullen Hart called Synthetic Flying Machine.
The Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel and The Olivia Tremor Control would be the original three bands when Elephant 6 was loosely organized into a collective.
Obviously, that’s a lot of just names. Basically, what became a bunch of musical offshoots began largely as a group of friends growing up and making weird, experimental music together. Later acts in the Elephant 6 orbit would include Beulah, Elf Power, The Minders, Circulatory System, and Of Montreal.
The story of Elephant 6 begins in Ruston. Ruston is a town of about 20,000, situated on I-20 in northern Louisiana. It’s the home of Louisiana Tech University, an NCAA Division 1 school where Jeff Mangum’s father taught. It’s there, in elementary school, that a young Jeff Mangum would meet Robert Schneider and form a friendship that would last for decades.
When it would come time to record In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, Robert Schneider would be there to produce.
It was in Ruston that Mangum and Schneider began discovering music along with friends Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss. They explored their shared tastes, wrote songs and passed them between each other, forming short-lived high school bands to escape the monotony of small-town rural life. There was a bright spot, however, which would foster their love of music and give the boys an outlet into the greater scene: KLPI-FM, Louisianna Tech’s college radio station. Which, being that both Jeff and Robert’s fathers worked at the college, became the center of their young lives. On the air was a mix of alternative rock and punk and grunge; the boys would find their place there and eventually meet a kid named Scott Spillane, another Elephant 6 originator. Schneider told Paste Magazine in 2013, “KLPI was like the sun to our musical earth. The radio station gave us exposure to this amazing music at a really early age and the art department gave us exposure to these kind of freaky people and conceptual ideas that wasn’t available to us in Ruston.”
He goes on: “We were lucky to have this kind of mix of elements going on, to grow up embedded in this environment that was on the one hand safe, and small, and sleepy, and on the other hand was really progressive in a very kind of peculiar way.”
This was the late 1980’s, and Jeff and Robert, with Bill Doss began experimenting with 4-track recording: weird, lo-fi dub-overs on cassette tapes, passed around among friends. Strange little DIY projects and “bands” (in quotations) that came and went. It’s in these young years that Jeff Mangum came up with the name Neutral Milk Hotel, as a way to sort of categorize his artistic explorations. When they got older and started moving out of their own houses, they often lived together, and creativity flourished within. They were party houses, of course. They were in college, after all. But they became little venues in their own right. Mangum, Schneider, Doss and others would play living room shows for sometimes over a hundred people, opening for each other, workshopping new ideas, letting travelling acts crash on their couches, and generally raising hell with crappy guitars and drums and whatever they had.
In a way, they created their own scene. Jeff Mangum was the music director at the radio station for a time and so had access to indie labels and all kinds of music. He’d set up shows and whatever band Jeff or Robert or Will or Bill were in at the time, they’d open for the acts making stops, names like Beat Happening and Sebadoh, and Julian Koster from New York, who played in a group called Chocolate USA and would eventually round into the Elephant 6 orbit.
Between ’89 and ‘91 the group began drifting off in different directions. Robert Schneider moved to Denver, Colorado and startedputting the pieces together for his new band, The Apples, later elongated to The Apples in Stereo to differentiate themselves from other bands with that name.
At the other end was Athens, Georgia, a place that had birthed a bona-fide music scene itself, although a decade or so earlier. Both R.E.M. and The B-52’s came out of Athens, and it captured the imaginations of Mangum, Hart, and Doss as a place far removed from Ruston, a place where creativity was in the air. It would be in Athens where Neutral Milk Hotel and The Olivia Tremor Control as music projects would to take shape. And while separated by 1500 some-odd miles, the seeds began forming for creating an independent music label that could put out all their releases. It would be on a visit to Athens where Robert Schneider and Will Cullen Hart would come to the name, Elephant 6 Recording Company. Hart would design the logo.
In 1993 Elephant 6 put out their first release, an Apples in Stereo EP called Tidal Wave, on 7” vinyl. It was recorded by Robert Schneider on his 4-track cassette recorder.
The Olivia Tremor Control would be next, another 7” EP entitled “California Demise,” released in 1994.
During this period Jeff Mangum travelled. He found himself in Seattle and in 1994 put out the Everything Is EP, Neutral Milk Hotel’s first mass-produced record, on an indie label called Cher Doll. Recorded on 4-track cassette between ’91 and ’93, Everything Is featured among others, Bill Doss, Will Cullen Hart who contributed to the artwork, and Robert Schneider, who mastered.
Over the next few years Elephant 6 would begin to grow and attract other acts. The Apples in Stereo put out there first full length, Fun Trick Noisemaker in 1995. Again, Schneider in Paste, quote “Our manifesto was an invitation. Like, “Join us.” We thought of Elephant 6 as being a place where all of these oddball, non-hip, non-rock, non-music industry, non-grunge people could gather, and we could make friends and share music and trade tapes.” End quote. Acts like Beulah, Dressy Bessy, Elf Power, and Of Montreal began moving under the umbrella of Elephant 6, united in a passion for their low-fi, crudely-made, DIY writing and production process.
In 1996 came On Avery Island, Jeff Mangum’s first full-length record under the Neutral Milk Hotel name.
Recorded on a 4-track reel-to-reel tape player in Denver, and produced by Robert Schneider, On Avery Island would hint at some of the more thematic and atmospheric sounds on the follow-up, 1998’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. Soon after the release of On Avery Island, Neutral Milk Hotel would finally form into a proper band, consisting of Mangum, Julian Koster, Scott Spilane, and Jeremy Barnes.
Into the 2000’s Elephant Six faded as a label as its associated acts moved on and got involved with other record companies. It was a loosely organized indie collective after all. In 2007 after many years Robert Schneider used the Elephant Six logo on his Apples in Stereo album New Magnetic Wonder, a nod to his many years producing music with his collective of friends. In typical Elephant Six fashion, musicians included a wide range of collaborators including Bill Doss, Will Cullen Hart, and Jeff Mangum.
And while Elephant Six no longer lives under one roof, its members remain friends and have played together at various points and toured intermittently in the last decade.
For kids in the country looking for community and a window out of their small world, they couldn’t have done better than music.
This is Signal Cannon.
Signal Cannon is produced by me, Billy Donahoe. It’s distributed by Play Too Much. For more Signal Cannon and other great podcasts, visit PlayTooMuch.com
Our theme music was written by Eric Donahoe. Show art by Julianne Waber and Sara Waber.
“All Jets Are Gonna Fall Today” come from the Chocolate USA album of the same name. It was written by Julien Koster and released in 1992 by Bar/None Records.
“The King of Carrot Flowers Part One” is by Neutral Milk Hotel. It was released on the album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998 by Merge Records.
“Tidal Wave” is by The Apples in Stereo, released by Elephant 6 in 1993 on the Tidal Wave 7” EP and again on the album Fun Trick Noisemaker in 1995 by SpinART Records and Elephant 6.
“Energy” by The Apples in Stereo was released in 2007 on the album New Magnetic Wonder by Simian Records, Yep Roc Records, and Elephant 6.
“California Demise” by the Olivia Trevor Control, was released in 1994 by the Elephant 6 Recording Company.
“For the Planet Pluto” by The Music Tapes was released in 2009 by Merge Records.
“Song Against Sex” is by Neutral Milk Hotel. It was released on the 1996 album On Avery Island by Merge Records.
You can find me on Twitter at @BillyDonahoe.
Thanks for listening. I’m Billy Donahoe and this is Signal Cannon.