Lost Classics: The Elephant 6 Collective

tapem200bThey’re nobody’s buzz bands anymore. But since 1993, MAGNET has discovered and documented more great music than memory will allow. The groups may have broken up or the albums may be out of print, but this time, history is written by the losers. Here are some of the finest albums that time forgot but we remembered in issue #75, plus all-new additions to our list of Lost Classics.

neutral-milk545Though its name conjures some long-lost Saturday-morning cartoon, the Elephant 6 collective turned out some of the catchiest, most brilliantly art-damaged rock of the ’90s. Despite a sprawling roster of bands, each bearing a distinct take on vintage pop and lo-fi psychedelia, the Elephant 6’s founders and followers will always find themselves overshadowed by a surreal-yet-brilliant album by one of its founders: Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel (pictured). In The Aeroplane Over The Sea has earned justifiable accolades since its 1998 release, but the Elephant 6 got its start years earlier. Founded in Denver, Colo., by Mangum and longtime friends Robert Schneider, Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart, the collective issued its first release in 1993: the self-titled debut EP by Schneider’s Apples In Stereo (then known as the Apples). With his persistently sunny songwriting and unabashed love for the trebly pop of the Beach Boys and the Zombies, Schneider was the architect of the E6 sound.

Hart and Doss set up shop in Athens, Ga., calling themselves the Olivia Tremor Control on a seven-inch bearing the E6 imprint in 1994. Backed by a revolving cast of contributors (including Mangum and Schneider) dubbed the Elephant 6 Orchestra, OTC released 27-song opus Music From An Unrealized Film Script: Dusk At Cubist Castle in 1996. Culled from more than 200 four-track recordings, Dusk At Cubist Castle was a celebration of Revolver-era psychedelia embellished with layer upon layer of impressionistic sounds, tape manipulations and channel-spanning lunacy via Schneider’s final eight-track mix, giving the E6 its headphone masterpiece.

As its core bands signed with larger labels, the collective grew outward. Members of Neutral Milk Hotel and the Apples In Stereo begat Secret Square. In 1997, Mangum, Hart and Doss formed the Black Swan Network, an ambient project performing scores for dreams described by fans who responded to an invitation in Dusk At Cubist Castle’s liner notes. That same year, Schneider worked with San Francisco’s Beulah, which became the Elephant 6’s first West Coast representative. Soon, the collective’s second wave was underway, including the like-minded guitar pop of Elf Power, the Minders and the Essex Green.

The E6’s decline came slowly but steadily. After In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Mangum dropped out of the industry entirely. Dogged by breakup rumors, the Olivia Tremor Control issued Black Foliage: Animation Music in 2000, but its layers of ancillary sounds and thick noise resembled multi-tracked madness. The band split soon afterward, with Doss forming the Sunshine Fix and Hart gathering former Olivia members for the Circulatory System. Schneider officially disbanded the collective in 2002, but Elephant 6 re-opened its doors five years later. “We invite the world to join us,” Schneider told MAGNET in 2007. “Have big ideas, seek new perspectives, dream in bright colors, join with your friends to do something special, give others something to believe in.”

:: NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL
On Avery Island // Merge, 1996

Jeff Mangum’s debut full-length was so neglected by fans and so overshadowed by the colossus of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, you might assume On Avery Island was some amateur misstep or a ska album. But it’s an extremely sturdy bookend to Mangum’s other opus. Avery Island was considerably more electric than acoustic (the guitars were overloaded into the tape machine with a satisfying static crunch), Mangum’s singing was softer and less braying, and the punk/psych songs were fully developed, beautiful and strange.

“Song Against Sex”: