The Elephant 6 Recording Co.: The Fiercely Experimental DIY Collective

What a beautiful dream / That could flash on the screen / In a blink of an eye and be gone from me / Soft and sweet / Let me hold it close and keep it here with me


The best scenes in music are about community. The famed musical collectives of the past are about neighborhoods, cities, circles of friends, eclectic musicians living in one house, and swapping members between the needs of their projects. Music scenes — although they still must exist by creative necessity to make anything together — flourished directly ahead of the advent of the Internet Age of Music. The Elephant 6 Recording Co. was a famed Blog Rock-era record label that provided one of the last gasps of idealistic creative communes. It was the end of the ’90s and rock made for the radio was over. See, we were in this sweet spot of internet discoverability, where it did not yet replace all the old tools and methods for transferring music between creator and audience. At the same moment, as our context of use with music was radically changed by technology, there was the briefest moment when the internet opened a beautiful portal where the audience, press, and artists communed in a centralized blog game, where the main effort was to find the best new stuff that nobody else was talking about.

The Elephant 6 Recording Co. was entirely composed of bands like that: the Apples in Stereo; Elf Power; Neutral Milk Hotel; and Olivia Tremor Control being an early roster which formed the sonic identity and stylish imprint of the recording label. In the documentary, a colorful primer on the label and the people involved, there is a whole small segment devoted to the art of collages. There seems to be no sweeter and more precise defining style to the way Elephant 6 worked. They took their name from a misread piece of art, their cover art was often clipped and collaged pieces of art, and the makeup of their recording studio, a home where many of them lived and came and went, all feels like a cohesive collage of people and ideas.

The documentary is a special piece of recollected history, which spends enough time with the label’s premier recording project, Neutral Milk Hotel. Neutral Milk Hotel is a short history that deserves volumes of its own documentation. One of the most beloved albums by the internet, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is its own kind of internal documentary about the furthest possibility of The Elephant 6 Recording Co.’s plausible start and end point. There was, once, the possibility that Neutral Milk Hotel would exist as the stewards of outward-facing indie rock but it ended up being the last project of musician Jeff Magnum. This leaves us with the bittersweet reality of the recording label itself, which sprouted branches and layers so quickly and beautifully, and shone as brightly as any indie label ever had for one glorious moment.

That long-sought success, built out of a communal foundation of its members, was so attractive to the outside world. Bands everywhere just wanted the Elephant 6 logo stamped on their records. That meant the record was a part of something. It was immediately worthwhile to a collector and a very-online music connoisseur. Great bands signed to the label. It grew a little too fast and spread and spread until it sputtered into the necessary changing of the guards in the music industry. Everything in the culture of music suddenly changed any nobody involved was to blame, they just happened to mark one of the last cultural pinpoints of doing music the old way.

In the new documentary, you can feel the history all over it. It is such a tribute to members of the collective and the music they made together. There is a great vitality to the captured moments of the late-’90s, this last bastion of necessary 4-track recordings and indie garage rock spirits. The ending is deterministic because that’s just how music was always going to go. That’s also how it’s always going to go when creative folks live together, reach a level of notoriety, and then suddenly need to go live the other part of their lives. There is such a great affection for the product and the way of making art here, that the documentary begins to resemble the process, itself a collage of faces, places, and the songs that defined that weird era of online music writing. To have made so much great music as a collective is an astounding effort and the look back is a surreal realization of what we had and how far away from it we are now. As Jeff Magnum once wrote, “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.”


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