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."
Mangum finally left Louisiana at the behest of Hart, whose Virgin Islands excursion had ended with him homeless and living on the beach. Hart later relocated to Athens and formed Synthetic Flying Machine, a predecessor to Olivia Tremor Control that Mangum moved to Georgia to join. When the Machine broke down, Mangum wandered to Los Angeles, where a girlfriend convinced him to head to the Northwest. "I thought, well, grunge is going on in Seattle right now, but it's a big city. There must be something else there," he claims. "So I went there, and it was completely drowning in grunge. I had a miserable experience."
His time in Seattle was not a total loss, though: The city's Cher Doll imprint eventually released Neutral Milk Hotel's first single, "Everything Is," and a pair of EPs, Amazing Phantom Third Channel and Champagne Dancing Party. Soon thereafter, Merge Records offered to put out On Avery Island, which Spin touted as one of 1996's "ten best records you didn't hear."
Koster, the Elephant 6er behind Chocolate USA, persuaded Mangum to capitalize on this attention by assembling a band and touring. Mangum concurred and headed to New York, Koster's home, to hook up with him. En route, he stopped in Austin, Texas, where he found Spillane living in a van outside an eatery called Gumby's Pizza. Spillane elaborates on the events that followed: "I was at Gumby's at two o'clock in the morning, and we always got massively rushed then, because all the drunk people would get out of the bars. I was working the kitchen all alone, so I got Jeff back in the back and said, 'Help me make some pizzas.' So he's slopping pizza sauce on the pizzas, and we finally get all the orders taken care of and walk outside to have a cigarette. We're sitting there, and he says, 'Man, this job sucks.' And I said, 'Yeah, it sucks.' Then he says, 'Hey, I've got an idea. Why don't you come to New York?'" Spillane recalls, "I put in my two weeks' notice that day."
The subsequent tour lasted for most of the summer of 1996, taking Neutral Milk Hotel across the nation and up and down both coasts in the company of acts like the Supreme Dicks and fellow Merge artists Butterglory, the Karl Hendricks Trio and the Magnetic Fields. Mangum also performed numerous solo acoustic dates last year and was mentioned alongside Athens singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt in an article in Option about the Beck-led renegade folk movement. This tag seems to be quite a stretch considering that On Avery Island is dominated by menacing drones and a thrilling mess of distortion, but Mangum isn't bothered by it. "I've done a lot of stuff acoustic all my life, but I don't think a lot of that was really represented on the album. Still, it's an honor to be lumped in with Vic Chesnutt. Vic is a god."
The Hotel's as-yet-untitled sophomore effort will sound more identifiably folk, in Mangum's opinion, because the songs were initially written on an acoustic guitar. But by the time the tunes have fully fermented, few people outside the Elephant 6 family may realize it. According to Mangum, "There's acoustic stuff on the record, but the songs that aren't acoustic are pretty fuzzed out." With a devilish smirk, he muses, "I think we need to get some more fuzz on there, actually. Everything sounds better when it's really distorted. The fuzz isn't anything to hide behind. It's just so warming." His enthusiasm doesn't stop at simple effects. "You'd be surprised at how much actual tape the Elephant 6 collective has of conversation and street noises," he says. "If you can't find the guitar solo, just fry up some bacon and put the microphone by it. There's going to be a skipping orchestra record on this one song; it kind of sounds like a Mellotron. There's also this one song on the new record where Julian's playing saw and it breaks down into a bunch of squealing, weird noises. But it's all coming straight off the saw."
As for the horn parts, they are being captured by a Fifties-vintage microphone to avoid any hint of slickness. In addition, Spillane played some of his riffs using a Chock Full o'Nuts coffee can wired to the bell of his horn to serve as a makeshift mute. "It was the perfect size, and I just wanted to see what it sounded like," he explains. "I just rigged it up for kicks, and somehow we ended up using it two days in a row."
Such whims are part and parcel of Mangum's approach to the studio. "I can't get enough of it," he confesses. "No matter what we do, I feel like we should be doing more." But despite this more-is-more aesthetic, Mangum's work is neither chaotic nor roughshod. Rather, the layers of intrigue and dramatic extremes seamlessly lead listeners from a gleeful retro-flavored pop euphoria into a futuristic flat-line coma.
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Tellingly, Mangum cites Faust as a touchstone, while Schneider, his engineer and right-hand man, venerates Brian Wilson. But such differences cause no friction in the studio, where the instrumentalists exhibit affectionate camaraderie and mutual regard for each other's brainchildren. "Robert's really free-flowing and easy to work with, but there are times that he'd rather things be a little more happy and poppy than they are," Spillane contends. "But at the same time, he's really understanding." Mangum adds, "I think that me and Robert are often talking about the same things, in some respects. On his new album, he talks about death and reincarnation. And one of my new songs talks about Siamese twins freezing to death in the forest. One is saying, 'Don't worry. We've been attached forever, and we'll end up in someone else's stomach together anyway.'"
Imagery of this sort is par for the course with Mangum, whose lyrics are potent, poetic and darkly surreal. "There's a new song called 'Two-Headed Boy,' about a two-headed boy who makes a magic radio for his girlfriend, but then she breaks it," he discloses. "It's also about the end of the world, and he's in a jar, and you can't really tell if he's on display or real or not. But it's also kind of like his dreams. At the end, everything he's ever wanted is in these packages under a Christmas tree in the snow."
Another new song, "Up and Over," which Mangum calls "that song about love for Jesus," has elicited a great deal of comment among those who've heard it. "People have asked me more about that song than any other song," he says incredulously. "Any time you sing about God, people are not going to know if you are being totally serious, which is going to freak them out, or whether you're being sarcastic, which is going to freak them out, too. And I'm not into being sarcastic. But I'm not into being preachy, either. I'm into Jesus, but I'm also into the Buddha and the Tao." His interest in such topics dates back to his Ruston days, when he was a choirboy at an Episcopal church. "I used to go to this camp where we would all sit around and weep for each other and sing songs about Jesus and tell jokes about shaggy monkeys and talk about all the drugs we'd done and smoke cigarettes and listen to Cat Stevens and stay up for 48 hours and hug each other when we left."
In a way, this vignette is reminiscent of life at Pet Sounds, where Mangum has been worshiping at the altar of sound with religious fervor. "It's hard for me to think of more than one thing at a time," he admits. "Like, the artwork for the album isn't even together, and I keep meaning to go to the library to figure it out. And I haven't called my mother in two months. But I'm just thinking about that one song that doesn't have that one little twist it needs. That's all I can think about.