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By Tom Murphy
In the middle of a late August afternoon, members of Denver's Elephant 6 collective mill sleepily about the duplex shared by Robert Schneider and Hilarie Sidney, both members of the Apples. The musicians, including Athens, Georgia-based singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum and horn-player Scott Spillane of the critically acclaimed group Neutral Milk Hotel, fumble for cigarettes as they shy away from the harsh light outdoors. Cats caper amid piles of shoes, and a coffeepot drips steadily in the kitchen.
The reason scenes like this one have been so common this summer can be traced to Mangum, who is in the midst of creating a successor to Neutral Milk Hotel's excellent debut long-player, On Avery Island (issued last year by Chapel Hill, North Carolina's Merge Records). Because Schneider owns a studio, dubbed Pet Sounds, the musicians can keep recording as long as they're inspired--and as a result, it's been the rare session that has ended at a decent hour. The previous evening, for example, Mangum, Spillane and the honorary Hoteliers went deep into the night, until they could no longer keep their eyes open. They ultimately dozed off to the sound of radio-show host Art Bell's conspiracy theories.
Neutral Milk Hotel is hardly the only band to make an album under such circumstances. The Elephant 6 label is home to the Apples and Marbles, a Schneider solo project; Denver groups like Secret Square and the Minders; and combos such as Chocolate USA and Olivia Tremor Control, whose members are scattered around the country. But whether the musicians are Coloradans or out-of-towners, all of them congregate at Pet Sounds on a regular basis, working for weeks or months at a time on their latest musical efforts. Because the majority of the players float between two or more of the bands, it's all but impossible to figure out who's playing with whom from one moment to the next. For instance, some of the latest Neutral Milk Hotel tracks feature Chocolate USA's Julian Koster playing accordion, Moog, banjo and singing saw, free agent Jeremy Barnes drumming, and Schneider manning bass and organ. As Spillane says, "It's going to come to the point where somebody will go, 'I've got some songs. Who wants to go?' And then however many people in the room will raise their hands, pick up an instrument and start playing."
The alliances that link Elephant 6 have their roots in Ruston, Louisiana, where several of the key players were raised or attended school. "Robert started doing his own recordings in seventh grade, and then Will Hart [of Olivia Tremor Control] and I started our first punk band back then," Mangum says, noting, "Robert's stuff was always way beyond ours. We couldn't really play chords or do anything; we'd just sort of scream and bang on shit. But Robert could play guitar solos and could do backwards guitar solos, and we were really impressed with that. So then Will and I recorded, and Robert and I recorded on and off together over the years."
In 1990 Mangum hung the Neutral Milk Hotel handle on a group that consisted of him on guitar, Hart on drums and Bill Doss on bass. But the original configuration disintegrated when Hart took off for the Virgin Islands with his girlfriend. This drastic change was one that Mangum could understand. "We all lived in Ruston, and we all wanted to get out, but we didn't know how, because it's a very small, conservative, Baptist, Bible Belt college town," he recounts. Comments Spillane: "You had to go out of the county to get liquor."
As this description implies, the area was not always conducive to Mangum's brand of musical adventurism. He and Spillane boast that Clay Bears, an offshoot project in which both of them performed, was thrown out of more northern Louisiana bars than any group in history. "We were a room-clearing band," Mangum divulges, offering as an example one of their more memorable gigs.
"There was this old man that they call Satan because he's this mystical guy and weird shit happens when he's around," Mangum says. "He saw me with the keyboard and said, 'I want you to bring the moon. Bring me the moon with your keyboard. Play me the moon!' He took me outside and said, 'Have you ever heard a night owl calling from your window at night? I want you to bring me that with your music.' And I couldn't fucking play that keyboard, man."
Satan, who had eagerly positioned himself front and center, was then assaulted with a single, dissonant chord that lasted until the club's owner pulled the plug. "The guy came up and said, 'I know what you guys are trying to do, and I'm all for experimental, but you're not very good,'" Spillane remembers. "And Jeff goes, 'But I'm only playing one note.' Then the guy says, 'It's not a very good note, so pack it up.'" Mangum countered by arguing, "It's a great note. It's a Zen thing." But the owner disagreed, in large part because many of his customers were filing out the door.
Happily, Mangum and his friends had a place in Ruston where they could indulge their fondness for sonic extremes: KLPI-FM, a college radio station. As the outlet's music director, Mangum was able to pursue his taste for obscure vinyl by directly contacting representatives from the independent labels of the period. In dramatizing his first interaction with Calvin Johnson of K Records, Mangum affects a more dramatic Southern drawl than the one he still maintains: "I'd call Calvin up and say, 'Hey, man, we got this here radio station, and we want to play yer rekkerds.' And he'd say, 'Where are you again?' And I'd be like, 'Ruston, Louisiana, man. And we love yer shit.'" KLPI lured numerous indie performers to Ruston, and when they arrived, Mangum says they were astonished to find "thirty little podunk redneck kids completely freaking out over their punk rock."