In certain circles, conventional wisdom holds that there is a “Denver sound" — the Gothic Americana embodied by the likes of 16 Horsepower, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, The Denver Gentlemen and whatever project of Jaysun Munly's you'd care to name. Absurdly enough, some people even try to place all kinds of Americana and country-influenced music and folk under that umbrella. I'd advise these people to stop conveniently forgetting the existence of Alan Lomax and the myriad artists he helped to bring to mass public consciousness — Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Gun Club and Nick Cave, among other artists, not to mention the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack —before making such pronouncements. A significant strand of music from a city, from a scene, does not define the whole thing. Perhaps significant artists such as DeVotchKa, Tarantella, The Lumineers and Ian Cooke could be considered part of Gothic Americana, but in each case, it's a problematic fit; the latter two aren't even particularly Gothic.
An often puzzlingly forgotten movement with roots in Ruston, Louisiana, then Denver and Athens, Georgia, was the '90s wave of indie pop — inspired by '60s psychedelic rock, lo-fi pop of the '80s and an interest in using elements of musique concrète in recordings and performances. That was the group of bands that made up the Elephant 6 Collective and like-minded musicians around the country who realized a new way for pop music to have depth in terms of sounds, artistic ambition and emotional content.
Elephant 6 was founded in Denver in 1991 by Rob Schneider of the Apples in Stereo along with his childhood friends Bill Doss, Will Cullen Hart and Jeff Mangum and Apples bandmates Jim McIntyre and Hilarie Sidney. Doss and Hart are perhaps more well known as members of influential indie-pop band Olivia Tremor Control, and Mangum is fairly famous for a project called Neutral Milk Hotel. In the 1990s that aesthetic in which musical darkness and atmosphere and experimental musical ideas could occupy the same song as incredibly catchy melodies proved to have an enduring impact, and never more so than through the influence of the 1998 Neutral Milk Hotel album, In an Aeroplane Over the Sea.
In an Aeroplane is arguably the most influential record to have come out of Denver. It was an immediately striking record for its strong songwriting, as well as for themes that many fans have attributed to being inspired directly by the life of Anne Frank, which Mangum all but confirmed in talking about being influenced by The Diary of Anne Frank while writing the songs for the record. Recorded at Pet Sounds Studio in 1997, the album came out on February 10, 1998, to little fanfare, though the album-release show, at 15th St. Tavern, was packed to the walls with early fans.
Since then, the album has gone on to be more than just an underground classic. Its sonic fingerprints can be heard in almost all “indie” music since the late '90s. The combination of folk and psychedelia with rich emotional colorings and thoughtfully crafted lyrics has made In An Aeroplane Over the Sea a consistently rewarding listen and an album cited by numerous musicians in the 2000s as a direct influence. Sure, when Neutral Milk Hotel toured playing the album in its entirety in 2014, it wasn't really at stadiums — but anyone who knows anything knows that the most significant music to other musicians is rarely the most commercially successful. See: The Velvet Underground and Mission of Burma.
But aside from the significance of the '90s indie-pop stars who were the core of Elephant 6, it became a movement of sorts because the music was so accessible and inclusive of a wide range of musical expression, allowing for immediate and enduring growth, however loose the association. Gothic American, as such, despite the high quality of the art, did not expand to nearly the same degree because it didn't seem to share the same expansiveness of spirit. The people the music appealed to seemed like a somewhat hermetic clique, albeit one with an undeniable mystique.
But '90s indie pop came to encompass bands from across the country as well as many projects from Denver. Among the former there was Of Montreal, Elf Power, Beulah, the Ladybug Transistor, the Minders, Circulatory System, the Kingsbury Manx and Red Pony Clock. From Colorado, projects impacted by the music that came out of Elephant 6 included, early on, Sissy Fuzz, Breezy Porticos, Dressy Bessy, Thank God for Astronauts, The Maybellines, Supply Boy and the Dinnermints. Though not affiliated with Elephant 6, Denver's Felt Pilotes (which had a reunion show in 2007) were kindred spirits in not adhering to the louder and more aggressive music that was gaining popularity. And K Records and its bands, for the most part, redefined what punk could be in a way that resonated with Elephant 6 bands.
These days, indie pop is not so much an obvious force as an aesthetic that has diffused into and infiltrated so many styles of music, including modern, non-purist Americana. It seems incredibly unlikely that My Morning Jacket, Deathcab for Cutie and The Decemberists weren't inspired by music out of the Elephant 6 Collective somewhere along the line.
Even in Denver, the diffusion of ideas from '90s indie pop was inevitable and its influence, acknowledged or otherwise, exists in so much music out of Denver now. Long after Robert Schneider moved out of the Mile High City, later groups endured, and some of those from the '90s continued to operate up to the present. The sounds and imaginative songwriting that characterized those early Elephant 6 bands could be found in noteworthy yet defunct projects such as Pee Pee, Hot IQs, Bad Weather California, Transistor Radio Sound, Vitamins, Cougarpants and The Haircut, and it still endures in bands like Safe Boating Is No Accident, Sound of Ceres, Fingers of the Sun and American Culture.
Indie pop was about solid songwriting and hooks, but with frayed edges and unbashed expression of the full and honest range of human emotion in all its complexity, qualities that never go out of style. What follows are images of some of the bands inspired by '90s indie pop. Indie pop was simply a much larger movement than Gothic Americana, and should be factored into any conversation of what constitutes a "Denver sound." At the very least, it deserves a place in the Denver music canon.
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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.