The Elephant 6 in your Parish: literate pop
Pretty hands do pretty things when pretty times arise. Seraphim and seaweed swim where stick-limbed Myla lies.
"Song for Myla Goldberg," the Decemberists
The air was thick with geekery as a conglomeration of grad-school types assembled at the Parish for a Tuesday-night musical seminar led by Portland, Ore.'s book nerds the Decemberists. Smokers mingled with peevish dorks, who dramatized their discomfort at having to inhale secondhand fumes while explaining that as smart as Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy is, everyone mispronounces the title of their recent EP, The Tain.
"It's pronounced 'The Doin,'" someone sniffed at the merch table, invariably pushing pinchy horn rims up her nose. "I wish they'd get it right."
Intro music swelled, the Soviet national anthem regaling the band onstage. A wave of chuckles swept across the full house that got the joke; the original Decembrists attempted to bring Western ideals to autocratic Russia in the mid-1800s, planting the seeds of revolution. Not many at the show suffered from irony deficiency. Everyone there, band and audience alike, was just too smart for their own good.
The indie music world is lousy with brainiacs these days, valedictorian types who've chosen to churn out incredibly smart (and often smart-assed) pop, issuing a siren call to similarly bright listeners hungry to hear music that appeals to their higher-functioning brains. Happily, there's something for everyone.
For those who want their novels in song form, look no further than the Decemberists, who specialize in wry, smugly erudite, often dark storytelling with a seafaring theme. From odes to lost bicycles ("Apology Song") and baby-girl ghosts haunting London ("Leslie Anne Levine") to the abusive employ of young orphan boys in Victorian England ("The Chimbley Sweep"), the quintet has brought the under-30 set flocking while the over-30s sniff that they're merely a Neutral Milk Hotel rip-off.
Delicate indie-singer-songwriter types suffering the loss of Elliott Smith have Sufjan Stevens, a devout Christian, to rev up ye ole tear ducts on the softly devastating Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State (Asthmatic Kitty). Not only did Stevens pen all its pure paeans to his home state, veiling ambiguous spirituality sans the angst of fellow God Squadder Pedro the Lion, he also masterminded all the arrangements for the 20-plus instruments he plays on his breakout LP.
Let us also not forget Sam Beam, the Florida film-school professor who makes music under the name of Iron & Wine, issuing forth tender, insightful, bittersweet reflections on life, love, and birds stealing bread. His Sub Pop debut, 2002's The Creek Drank the Cradle, is more than just a breakup album. It's an extended moment of superhuman articulation that expresses feelings beyond the grasp of ordinary men.
Then there are the quirkier, more experimental among us who want their music to provide a perpetual challenge. Enter Of Montreal, whose inventive Satanic Panic in the Attic (Polyvinyl) is quite easily their best album. Their recent Emo's visit included weird, futuristic masked mummeries, numerous costume changes, and liberal use of the word "poppet."
Eccentrics have enigmatic angst-monger Will Oldham, among others, to regard as musical hero. Released under his Bonnie "Prince" Billy alias, Greatest Palace Music (Drag City) is a Nashville-shiny reimagining of the ragged, bare songs he created as the Palace Brothers. Is it homage, parody of the country tradition, or just something different? Scholars disagree.
For straight-up rock in the echelon of literate pop take New Jersey's Wrens, who recently emerged from the rubble of a label dustup with the brilliant, rocking The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher), a perfect, educated antidote to Bruce Springsteen's blue-collar Jersey jingoism.
What do all these acts have in common, apart from being blisteringly smart and wryly literate? For the most part, they've all made their way in the music business without the luxury of being scooped up and feted by a major label. A few self-contained units notwithstanding, these artists have relied upon the collective strength of their respective musical communities to propel themselves and their careers into the spotlight.
Elephant 6 wasn't the first musical coterie in pop music history, but the cooperative spirit that gave birth to new projects in the "alternative" vein (a defunct designation, to be sure) most closely resembles the collaborations sprouting up in and around Austin.
Disconnect the Dots
What began as a group of high-school buddies relishing a mutual love of the Beach Boys ballooned into a template for indie artistry of the new millennium. It all began in the late Eighties, when Robert Schneider, Jeff Mangum, and Will Hart turned their childhood kinship into musical adventures, which Schneider taped and the boys traded.
They formed a number of bands together during their youth in Louisiana; when Schneider moved to Denver in 1991, he met Jim McIntyre, Hilarie Sidney, and Chris Parfit, and the foursome formed the Apples in Stereo. Meanwhile, Mangum and Hart had relocated to Athens, Ga., and formed Olivia Tremor Control. These bands in turn begat Elf Power, Neutral Milk Hotel (Mangum's solo project), Dressy Bessy, Beulah, and a slew of other acts with overlapping members and musical sensibilities.
"We started out as a label to put out my and my best friends' music," explains Schneider. "We thought we had something special and could do it ourselves. It wasn't a very ambitious label; we never even collected profits from distributors. We were just happy to put out extravagant records."
What started out as a group of friends making smart pop with gorgeous album art swelled into a nationwide movement, propelled by the power of word of mouth.
"Right off the bat, the Apples, Olivia Tremor Control, and Neutral Milk Hotel all signed to different labels, so Elephant 6 as a label was more like a brand name or something," continues Schneider, talking 90 to nothing. "Every label was in essence pushing every band. Every band and the collective itself would come up in reviews and articles."
The real secret behind such a collective is to know your bandmates and colleagues intimately enough to make music intuitively. This was the driving force behind the Elephant 6 collaborations, an unspoken understanding of what should and shouldn't be present in the finished product.
"When we started, we wrote a manifesto that stated our goals what we were doing. We got that idea from the Surrealists, and we included it with all the stuff that we put out," Schneider chatters. "The difference between having a scene and a movement is that you say that you have a movement, you state that what you're doing is different. When you name it, it's like a band of bands."
There are, of course, drawbacks to being part of a collective identity. Bands like Dressy Bessy, whose involvement in Elephant 6 is peripheral at best, prefer to work alone, apart from the occasional songwriting session with friends. Their sound is unique, and their albums aren't in danger of being lumped in with anyone else's. Conversely, a group like For Stars is always going to be mentioned in the same breath as all the other bands its members are involved in. Schneider agrees.
"If you're just an individual band, you don't have this huge explosion of publicity behind you like you do with a movement, but you do have your individuality. What if another Elephant 6 band does a shitty record?" he frets. "That taints you, and it has nothing to do with you. In fact, you may not even know anybody in that band. The good thing about Elephant 6 is the same thing that turned into the bad thing about it."
Eventually, the movement that once included the Electric Lounge as a regular stop-over fizzled out, going the way of the Rollerblade and riot grrrls. At some point, the collective outlasted its usefulness and only the strongest members, the ones who proved themselves, stood out from the crowd. Survived.
When asked what his vision for Austin's Post-Parlo label was in its inception, Ben Dickey is quick to respond.
I'm a Lumberjack and I'm OK
"I've always been interested in how labels like Sub Pop and Touch & Go and Thrill Jockey have successfully taken a regional scene or sound and exposed a very national audience to it," he says. "I've found that not only does there need to be a label with a strong foundation and connections to national media and radio, it takes a community of musicians, bands, and artists that have the same focus."
The most recent example of a label driven by a collective mentality that ends up making a seminal imprint on the larger music world is Saddle Creek out of Omaha, Neb.
"The roots of Saddle Creek go back to the summer of 1993," recounts Jason Kulbel, the label's first employee. "Conor [Oberst] and his brother Justin put out his first cassette, a terribly recorded demo-quality thing that was LBJ01, the first thing put out by Lumberjack Records. They made 50-100 copies per cassette, which were not only sold just in Omaha, but within a few-block radius in Omaha."
Founded by the Obersts (Bright Eyes), Tim Kasher (Cursive), Todd Baechle (the Faint), and Robb Nansel, Saddle Creek was formed after their teenage band, Commander Venus, was ditched by Grass Records honcho Alan Melzter, who wanted the next act he signed to be famous at any cost. (That band was Creed.)
"Everyone sat down and said, 'Let's make a legitimate effort at this,'" Kulbel explains. "Lumberjack changed names to Saddle Creek, which was the street that ran through the center of that few-block radius where everything happened with Lumberjack. That's when everyone started out on the path they're on now."
Saddle Creek's manifesto, such as it was: "No man left behind." The label's three inaugural bands spanned punk to New Wave to folk-pop in order to reduce competition among the friends. It also offered Oberst, who garnered a landslide of critical praise for Bright Eyes' third release, Lifted, or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, the opportunity to spread his influence across the nation via extensive collaborations with other artists, thereby boosting Saddle Creek's profile.
In fact, listen closely to Lifted's opening track and you'll hear a conversation between Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett of Rilo Kiley, former Saddle Creek labelmates who also played on the album. Lewis has since gone on to contribute to the Postal Service, while Sennett formed his side project, the Elected; both projects released smart, quirky product on Sub Pop.
Indeed, it seems that whenever you pluck at any thread of creative collaborations slung across this great land, it winds up being related to Sub Pop in one way or another. Which is fitting considering the fact that when discussing a label mining a regional sound and fertilizing the figurative soil for a movement, few are more renowned than Sub Pop.
Nurturing a creative aesthetic. That's what made Sub Pop's reputation. First it was grunge, the Pacific Northwest spitting out its post-capitalist bile in the form of Nirvana, Mudhoney, and Soundgarden. As grunge faded from the public's interest (and Nirvana tragically imploded), Sub Pop managed to stay atop the trends and began incorporating groups onto its roster that harbor much goodwill toward Gram Parsons and Brian Wilson.
Who knew that the next generation of hipsters would be all in for the shimmery influence of Sixties pop, reincarnated in the country-pop of Beachwood Sparks and smart-pop of the Shins. From there, these bands have laid the groundwork for groups such as L.A.'s Irving, while also spawning the Tyde and All Night Radio, the latter two being psychedelic side projects from the members of Beachwood Sparks. Sub Pop's latest is Rogue Wave, a lovey-dovey Bay area quartet that may or may not be pretenders to the Shins' throne.
That bands such as these can peacefully coexist on the same label is a testament to Sub Pop's A&R instincts; the bands are alike enough to reach the same fan base but different enough to avoid repetition. Regional trends are Sub Pop's forte, so as long as the Shins remain popular, it's guaranteed that Sub Pop will continue to help catapult similar artists to their own 15 minutes.
Were someone to sketch a family tree of Austin's own movement of hip, young, up-and-coming bands frequently gracing the stages at the Parish or any number of clubs along Red River, it wouldn't take long for things to start looking a little incestuous.
Consider Yourself One of the Family
Dickey, of course, runs Post-Parlo, and plays in three of the label's bands, including Western Keys, which also enlists Zykos frontman Mike Booher on guitar. Zykos, also a Post-Parlo band, often plays with Okkervil River and vice versa. Okkervil River shares members with Shearwater, which is on local label Misra, alongside Centro-matic, who also enjoy a very friendly relationship with Okkervil River.
Furthermore, Jim Eno of Spoon has produced albums for Those Peabodys, Zykos, the Rite Flyers, and S.F.'s Mates of State, who are managed by Ben Dickey, in addition to Spoon's work with John Vanderslice. And this is just a tiny cross-section of the collaborative webs cast across this city and elsewhere. There's no telling when and where the big bang of this particular universe took place, but it's clear that the resulting galaxies of creative energy reach far beyond the borders of our own little solar system, serving to boost this musical community's profile exponentially.
But a manifesto? We don't need no stinkin' manifesto! This isn't a movement, it's a lifestyle, one enforced by the decay of the music industry and the failure of big labels to serve as a safe house for bands still building a fan base. That these enclaves of collaboration, and by extension, the bands and labels participating in them, continue to thrive is due to two things: money-saving deals via networking and genuine respect within the community.
For example, NYC-to-ATX émigré Phil Waldorf is able to operate his Misra label on the strength of his relationships with others in the industry, local and national, a pattern that repeats itself through the business cycle and bleeds into the creative side of things.
"It's based on friendship and trust," acknowledges Waldorf. "I have a good relationship with Matt Pence of Centro-matic, who in turn gives us a great price to make records in a world-class studio."
Waldorf also saves on A&R by mining the instincts and sensibilities of his stable of artists.
"The best A&R source I have are the bands on the label. I think their good instincts are just as good as mine. It's only natural that collaborations come about because typically they're fans of each other."
This trend tends to create a greenhouse effect for bands who would be king, like Spoon. And it's not just local labels and the family of bands they nurture that are looking out for struggling artists.
"We're not trying to sell thousands and thousands of records; we're striving for artistic integrity," says Jason Butler, co-proprietor of Sonance Studios, which is one-third of the companies he runs with Tim O'Neill, drummer for Rhythm of Black Lines. The two also run a label, Sixgunlover, and Sonance Manufacturing out of the UT-area warehouse they renovated a year and a half ago.
That philosophy, the driving force behind the label, also applies to the rehearsal studios they rent out to local bands. "I think that your surroundings really affect your music; your setting is a part of that," posits Butler. "We try to make it conducive creatively. Some of the other places around town seem stale, really impersonal and uncomfortable."
If Elephant 6 provided the template for close friends and creative soul mates in the Nineties, before the music industry withered on the vine, it can be argued that the Austin community provides the template for bands who want to get their music heard in a post-big-label world. It doesn't take a manifesto or a movement these days, it takes community.
It goes without saying that the music industry has changed, from the way labels conduct business and how music is distributed to the rapid decline of the brick-and-mortar record store. Tenured acts like the Beastie Boys continue to enjoy strong album sales despite the quality of their current work, which leaves many young artists holding the bag of their own careers, the Oliver Twists of rock forced to make their way in a cold, uncaring world.
Where does the thinking, literate artist, whose appeal may not be as widespread as something more chart-friendly, find a toehold in a post-big-label market? Gone are the days when all a band had to do was write smart music and labels would take care of the rest. Now acts have to guide those tunes into the world; like Oliver and his adopted family members the Artful Dodger and Fagin, these groups are forced to live by their wits in order to survive.
From this disadvantaged position, tribes gather. Collectives form and their influence spreads across the country from the roots up; musical communities rally around themselves in the worst of times, helping each other cast a longer shadow in the industry.
Locally, the HOME series of split EPs issued by Post-Parlo is doing its part to boost Austin's presence, most notably on the strength of the Britt Daniel/Bright Eyes split, which was reissued earlier this year due to the public's voracious appetite for the music.
"That style of collaboration is definitely a part of my overall vision for what kind of label Post-Parlo should be," says Ben Dickey.
Turns out, it's just such a collaboration that's defining what Austin music should be.