An essential doc for anyone who loves music, “The Elephant 6 Recording Co.” celebrates renegade artistic pursuits and passion over profits.
If you’ve got harmony, you need disharmony for balance.
I feel that, in order to establish a foundation of trust and objectivity, I need to start this review off with an admission. Are you ready? Ok, here goes: I do not, have not, and likely never will enjoy psychedelic music.
As an avowed music lover with an endless supply of “oh, I love that song” options across virtually any and all genres, I find it strange that the psychedelic stuff really does nothing for me whatsoever. Have I heard of the bands? Generally. Have I heard the songs? Absolutely.
I’ve worked in music stores, collected tens of thousands of dollars worth of tapes/records/CDs, been to some truly memorable concerts, and read a ridiculous number of related articles. Music is almost always playing where I am: in the car, at work, doing chores, exercising, writing. You name it. I freaking LOVE music.
And yet, tracks from The Grateful Dead, Phish, The Flaming Lips, and even early Pink Floyd (a band I worship) just don’t move me.
I recognize the talent, I admire the gumption, and I understand the appeal. I’ll simply forever be on the outside looking in, respectful but largely indifferent.
Which is why the Elephant 6 Recording Co. documentary managed to completely blindside me.
Honest, earnest, and rather comprehensive, Chad Stockfleth’s intimate examination of the numerous musicians involved with Elephant 6 (and their largely psychedelic output) is part fever dream, part litany of facts (some useful, some not), and part poetry in motion.
It not only attempts to tell the Elephant 6 story but also genuinely tries to project some of that mid-to-late nineties low-fidelity mojo right through the screen.
As such, regardless of your familiarity with the subject matter, you can’t help but be a little uplifted by the proceedings.
The 90s, for me, were spent largely avoiding the musical mainstream. Grunge was all the rage, of course, but where I lived, it was also gangsta rap and the new iteration of country music. Very little of that appealed to me, so I dove headlong into industrial and classic rock, almost to the exclusion of anything else. As such, if any of the Elephant 6 bands managed to get played/promoted in Sacramento, I wouldn’t have noticed.
However, after watching this documentary, a large part of me wishes I would have.
There is something infectious about the musicians and the music affiliated with Elephant 6. Something magical. A feel-good energy that radiates outwards like endorphin-laced radio waves.
Perhaps listening to these bands during my formative years would have realigned my musical tastes ever so slightly, allowing me a greater appreciation of the psychedelic lo-fi that they were slinging. Maybe, baby.
Featuring nearly every single musician to have been a part of Elephant 6’s numerous bands, the documentary is an hour-and-a-half of archival concert footage, current interviews, old interviews, interludes with folks in the music biz, and a couple of celebrities thrown in for good measure.
There aren’t any soundstages laid out for maximum gravitas, and nobody is dressed up for the occasion. Hell, most of these folks are answering questions in their own living rooms, sometimes while still tinkering with musical compositions while they’re talking.
It’s informal. It’s irreverent. It’s entirely engrossing.
But just what is Elephant 6, exactly? Well, dear reader, that is where things get interesting.
The Elephant 6 Recording Company came to life in the late ’80s, a product of high school friends from Ruston, Louisiana. The studio’s roster primarily consisted of bands from Louisiana and the surrounding southern East Coast states, including such seminal acts as The Apples in Stereo, Elf Power, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Olivia Tremor Control, and many, many others.
Don’t be alarmed if you’ve never heard of these guys – my mind is a steel trap when it comes to music facts, and I’d never heard of them before, either.
This seems almost impossible, especially considering how offbeat the names are like they just threw a bunch of words into a blender and picked what came out. And maybe that’s what they did. Either way, that laissez-faire attitude is all part of the vibe these guys have going on.
What I found rather amusing, albeit not entirely unexpected, is that even the people involved with Elephant 6 seem to have difficulty actually putting the whole experience into words.
For some, it seems almost like a religion. For others, it’s just this cool thing that they happened to be a part of for a while — just this fun little part of their lives… not a big deal at all. This is the only documentary I can think of where I feel like I learned just about EVERYTHING there is to know about these bands, the people, and the movement as a whole while still knowing next to nothing at all.
What cannot be denied is how much these individuals loved (and still love) music.
They weren’t looking for the perfect pop hook; they were looking for the perfectly imperfect sound. They didn’t schedule studio time; nearly every single one of their entire waking hours was spent recording, editing, and re-recording, usually in the tiny bedroom next door.
It wasn’t about getting rich and flooding the airwaves with earworms. It was about making songs on their terms, with like-minded individuals, regardless of whether the finished products ever got heard or not.
In fact, the argument could be made that what they were chasing was music in its purest form.
At one point, one of the interviewers asked a question that, for me, perfectly encapsulates what E6 was all about.
“Is that part of the magic? Like, maybe I can’t recreate this. I can only do this once.”
I feel that all of the bands interviewed must have had that sort of mindset, believing every moment was now or never.
It was as if they were trying to capture a moment in time, but the moment was actually a stretch of infinity, and yet they still somehow managed to steal a tiny piece of forever and put it on cassette for all to hear.
As for the songs themselves, they’re a hodgepodge of pop, acid, experimental, drone, noise, and fuzzy rock that is really hard to describe. Yes, it’s psychedelic, with occasional traces of Zeppelin, early Pink Floyd, and Revolver-era Beatles shining through, but it’s also so much more than that.
What these guys were making is almost like jazz in a way, and yet very much the antithesis to jazz: most jazz musicians are classically trained, wielding amazingly expensive, top-of-the-line instruments, finely tuned to exacting demands.
The Elephant 6 folks, on the other hand, barely had a fully functioning instrument between them and were primarily self-taught musicians. For them, it’s more about the “feel” of the sound, not the technical accuracy.
Such a lifestyle came at a cost, however. These were starving artists in a very literal sense. I think there’s a very real misconception between the allure of a quasi-hippie way of life and how it actually plays out. The documentary only scratches the surface of their daily struggles, but some of it still shows through the cracks.
What they made is arguably the most inoffensive music you can think of, being neither super aggressive nor super restrained.
They’re strangely dreamlike, with occasional breaks from harmony at times, some even veering into dissonance. But that’s to be expected: a lot of these songs emerged from moments where a few people, high as fuck, asked the question, “Hey, wouldn’t it be could if we…?” and then proceeded to tinker and toil with their minimalist gear until they made that idea a reality.
And, since we have such irreverent music, we also get some exposition and hype from a couple of very irreverent celebrities, namely Elijah Wood and David Cross.
It’s nice to see some familiar faces, but their presence is (wisely) kept to a minimum. This is the Elephant 6 story and shouldn’t be overshadowed by famous folks.
It’s mentioned at several points that Elephant 6 was really just one big happy family, including all of the dynamics one would expect from relatives: the unspoken leader, the serious one, the spastic one, the dreamy one, etc. With so many people rotating through Elephant 6, I have a hard time believing that there was never any internal conflict. But, if there were any moments of strife or discontent, those are lost to history, as the documentary doesn’t touch on anything other than the positive aspects of the experience.
This is the only real nitpick I have, as I don’t feel a documentary can be truly complete without showing all sides of a subject.
That’s not to say it’s all amplifier fuzz and tape hiss – the loss of Bill Doss (Olivia Tremor Control) from an aneurysm in 2012 looms large over the final third of the film’s runtime. His death had a profound effect on his friends and colleagues.
But, within the framework of the documentary, they really stayed focused on celebrating his life and legacy instead of giving in to despair and mourning.
I tend not to focus on the technical side of things when it comes to documentaries like this, as most of the archival footage is from the 90s, with all the inherent drawbacks of the technology of the time. Given the source material, however, this almost DIY-feeling documentary feels right at home with the people it is chronicling and is, therefore, a perfect fit.
I may still be averse to psychedelic music as a whole, but after watching the Elephant 6 Recording Co. documentary, I was all in with these crazy people and the crazier sounds they were inventing.
Regardless of the bands you listen to, this documentary is a must-watch for anyone who loves music!
The Elephant 6 Recording Co. is now available to rent or buy on digital.