The Elephant 6 Recording Co.
2022, NR, 92 min. Directed by C.B. Stockfleth.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 1, 2023
When C.B. Stockfleth first released his documentary history of indie music collective the Elephant 6 Recording Co., he did it by hiding fliers and then shipping out VHS copies to people who responded. It's a suitably obtuse and hands-on approach to the history of the art rock scene that defined a certain post-psychedelic sound of the late 1980s and 1990s.
At its simplest level, Elephant 6 was the brainchild of the Apples in Stereo singer Robert Schneider, Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart of the Olivia Tremor Control, and Neutral Milk Hotel bandleader Jeff Mangum. Although, as the home-footage-driven doc indicates, that's simplistic, since everyone was in everyone else's band. There's an old joke that half of the big metal bands of the Eighties were actually a gestalt called Deep Black Rainbow Snake, comprised of the same backline, each with a different guitarist or vocalist: Well, Elephant 6's roster was kind of like that. The quartet of friends out of Ruston, Louisiana (and everyone tries to get out of Ruston), were surrounded by likeminded musicians, especially once they made it to Athens, Georgia – not to key into anything cool, but because cheap housing allowed them to work minimal hours in minimum wage jobs, get real high, and spend all night and all weekend recording in the house they shared with a dozen more musicians.
The Elephant 6 Recording Co. wanders across the label so much that it almost feels like six months of booking at Athens' legendary 40 Watt Club: Indie mainstays like Of Montreal and Great Lakes rub shoulders with former flavors of the moment like Chocolate USA and footnotes like Beulah. It's even purposefully unclear whether "Co." stands for "Company" or "Collective." Inevitably, Stockfleth has to simplify some matters because of the inherent complexity of a scene that expands beyond that "let's put the show on in the band" mentality of the early years. But unlike Meet Me in the Bathroom, Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern's history of post-millennium NYC, it's a little easier to define the outer limits of the story, of who was in and who was out. This isn't a definitive history of the Athens indie scene (as indicated by the way that R.E.M. and Pylon are only mentioned, not heard), but an overview of the people who created and became associated with the distinctive Elephant 6 logo.
Elephant 6 ended up as something a little more conventional than its art-pop-meets-Dada four-track roots, as has happened with The Elephant 6 Recording Co., finally making it to the festival circuit with screenings at DOC NYC 2022. But then that's still not exactly mainstream. At the same time, Stockfleth goes to pains to note that Elephant 6 as a scene avoided the interband internecine war that plagued so many other regional scenes, even if its highs and lows were often defined by interpersonal amity and enmity, and bouts of disillusionment with the whole idea of a label. If anything, the result is a little structureless (there are moments at which it feels like the completion of the final/next album by the Olivia Tremor Control will provide more of a narrative hook, but that's becoming Elephant 6's Chinese Democracy), but maybe structure is not the point. Like much of the music, it's more about the vibe.