Writer-director Chad Stockfleth’s documentary The Elephant 6 Recording Company is the inside story of the 1990s psychedelic music scene in Athens, GA. Bands featured include Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The Apples in Stereo. They’re the founding groups behind the Elephant 6 collective, among other acts that were drawn to the movement and swept along in the energy of the place and time.
The musical jump-off point was Beatles psychedelia. But the collective took it far past Sgt. Pepper with a plethora of inexpensive tape decks, hallucinogenic drugs, weed, and an ever-expanding exchange of ideas as people came and went. Friends played on each other’s recordings and performed together in a shifting melange of band names and experimentation. The central enabling technology of cassette tape made music conveniently portable, and the cassettes were shared freely as the medium of choice. The new Fostex 4-track to cassette recorder figured prominently in Elephant 6’s creation of their art.
Throughout The Elephant 6 Recording Company, Stockfleth interviews key figures who survived the times. He also includes older footage of interviews and performances. Film star Elijah Wood introduces the film and has a cameo in an interview, speaking of his love of the music showcased.
The vibe of Elephant 6 is reminiscent of the Raudelunas, a group of artists and performers from the University of Alabama in the 1970s. They shared the same subversive and chaotic nature. Their “Pataphysical Revues” are still noted, and the documentary Icepick to the Moon showcases the Raudelunas through one of their bright (but insane) stars, Fred Lane. The fact is that many of the people writing and performing in this “fiercely independent, experimental D.I.Y. movement” were not trained musicians, and many weren’t talented as writers. As a result, a lot of the output was chaos.
“…the inside story of the 1990s psychedelic music scene in Athens, GA.”
Yet out of the cacophony of self-indulgent noise, much of which sounds like shopping carts tumbling down a stairwell, some absolutely magic musical gems emerged. The most accessible and memorable of the bands is Neutral Milk Hotel, led by Jeff Mangum. They reached their pinnacle with In the Aeroplane over the Sea. Mangum checked out as a musician around 1999 and has rarely been seen since. An article published in Slate described Mangum as the “Salinger of Indie Rock.”
The Elephant 6 Recording Company moves through a sad moment when touching upon the 2012 death of Bill Doss from Olivia Tremor Control. His friend and bandmate Will Hart still struggles to talk about it. This event was the first moment when hard reality intruded on the fantasy that had been the Elephant 6 experience.
Though some of the early Elephant 6 crew came from Denver, ultimately, Athens, GA, became the perfect incubator for this scene. R.E.M. had put it on the map as a musical mecca, the demographic was enriched by the University of Georgia, and the pastoral serenity of the countryside lies a quick 90-minute drive from Atlanta.
In The Elephant 6 Recording Company, Stockfleth has assembled the definitive document about a scene that is exceedingly difficult to define. The achievement of getting his arms around the concept and presenting it as such a coherent and entertaining experience is impressive and important. The music is at the heart of the story, and one can enjoy the experience by letting the sounds wash over you. Most viewers who are introduced to this music for the first time will be compelled to start digging into the history and bands presented and add it to their internal catalog of influences.