ELVES & ELEPHANTS FLY IN AN AEROPLANE OVER THE SEA: Neutral Milk Hotel Soars Again

Getting ready to fly the Aeroplane: Neutral Milk Hotel in a press/publicity still  circa 1998 (Jeff Mangum piloting front and center)

Getting ready to fly the Aeroplane: Neutral Milk Hotel in a press/publicity still circa 1998 (Jeff Mangum piloting front and center)

The cover of "On Avery Island", Neutral Milk Hotel's debut album, 1996.

The cover of “On Avery Island”, Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut album, 1996.

Wings of an Aeroplane: NMH and one of their angelic background singers.

Wings of an Aeroplane: NMH and one of their angelic background singers.

Holy flying phonographs! Still, more plausible (and lighter) than a flying elephant or hotel. Swear I've seen this apparition at a NMH show. If I wasn't such a wuss about pain, this would be my tattoo.

Holy flying phonographs! Still, more plausible (and lighter) than a flying elephant or hotel. Swear I’ve seen this apparition at a NMH show. If I wasn’t such a wuss about pain, this would be my tattoo.

"In The Aeroplane Over The Sea": The watershed album that put Elephant 6 on indie-rock's maritime map.

“In The Aeroplane Over The Sea”: The watershed album that put Elephant 6 on indie-rock’s maritime map.

A colorful bunch: The Olivia Tremor Control freshen up and put on their face.

A colorful bunch: The Olivia Tremor Control freshen up and put on their face.

The LP cover of Olivia Tremor Control's "Dusk At Cubist Castle": Otherwise known as one of my favorite albums of the '90s.

The LP cover of Olivia Tremor Control’s “Dusk At Cubist Castle”: Otherwise known as one of my favorite albums of the ’90s.

We're maybe comin' to your town: Elf Power in a press/publicity still for their brand spankin' new album and tour with Neutral Milk Hotel. Photo credit: Jason Thrasher

We’re maybe comin’ to your town: Elf Power in a press/publicity still for their brand spankin’ new album and tour with Neutral Milk Hotel. Photo credit: Jason Thrasher

The recent news that members of the once-vaunted Elephant Six musical collective — Neutral Milk Hotel and Elf Power, chief among them — are reuniting for a series of U.S. and international tour dates that will take them into 2014, brings back wonderful memories of the time when their alternately sun-splashed and dusk-toned hues of sound sliced through the muck that sucked. I’m talking about the Korn/Limp Bizkit rape-rock dark ages circa ’97-’99, of course. So it was only natural that I would leap at the chance to write about people named after powerful elves, neutral milk, and stereophonic apples for whomever would listen and publish what my ears had told me when I first heard an advance copy of NMH’s “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.” I had adored the communal-spirited Elephant 6 crew — the Olivia Tremor Control was my first and primary love among them [“Dusk at Cubist Castle …” is a cracked little masterpiece in its own right]; and had also put the headphones to the pure sunshine pop of Apples In Stereo; the miniature folk-rock fables of Elf Power; and the skewed psychedelic soundscapes sculpted by Of Montreal.

But Neutral Milk Hotel’s second album was something at once entirely different, and strangely special. Maybe, I’ll admit now, even a bit difficult at first blush, but brazenly brilliant lyrically, adventurous musically, and crammed with ideas and imagination. Peculiar in the best way possible. When I managed to sequester NMH ringleader Jeff Mangum and his merry pranksters for a sit-down interview before NMH’s gloriously cracked headlining show at the tiny Middle East Upstairs in Cambridge in the winter of ’98, I had little idea that a lively and lengthy discussion with the notoriously elusive Mangum about “Aeroplane” would prove to be something of a rarity. Dude never really played out, much less talked to the press or toured, after ’99. But that music has always spoken for him, and long ago ensured his creative legacy. (And really, how the hell do you top a record as divine as that?).

But we can still hope for more — and there are heartening signs we may, indeed, soon be getting more new music and movement from the Elephant Six crew. In fact, Elf Power (see news, tour dates and more here: http://elfpower.com) have a brand new album out called “Sunlight On The Moon,” and there’s a lovely new box set collecting all of NMH’s work and more over at their site (http://walkingwallofwords.com). Sadly, the passage of time has also brought the bitter with the sweet. Tragically, Olivia Tremor Control founding member Bill Doss, whom I had subsequently interviewed for his post-Olivias project, the Sunshine Fix, died last year at age 43 of unspecified causes (an interview I conducted with him is posted below).

But this is a time for rejoicing in the music that was made, and will — hopefully — continue to be made as Neutral Milk Hotel and Elf Power trek across the country and bring their strange, singular sounds to the world once again. And in the meantime, here’s the piece that sprang from my interview with Jeff and other members of the Elephant Six/6 family, written for, and originally published at Rollingtone.com (and, I’m proud to say, the first and perhaps only full-length feature on the Elephant 6 crew the mag ever published).

The band was an hour late for sound check, a sleeting, slanting rain was beating against walls of the Middle East music club in Cambridge, Mass., and the sound man was starting to get worried. Neutral Milk Hotel’s show here was sold-out and the club hadn’t heard anything from the band, who were driving up in this mess after playing a show at New York City’s Knitting Factory.

Then suddenly, with the specter of cancellation looming, the back door swung open and in walked NMH’s Scott Spillane, carrying a rusty old saw, a monstrous trombone, and an ancient washboard-type contraption held together by bits of twine. “Ahh,” Spillane mused softly to himself as he plunked down his cargo, sounding as though he’d lived through this scenario a thousand times. “This is the chaos.”

What’s amazing about Neutral Milk Hotel and the handful of other bands that comprise the Elephant 6 Recording Co. — a congregation of friends and artists who write, play music, and, in some cases, live together in a house in Athens, Ga., — is how consistently they manage to create beauty, even magic, from that chaos. Works that carry the Elephant 6 stamp — literally, right there on the back cover — are typically of the low-fi pop variety, but studio technology is the only primitive thing about them. The records are kaleidoscopic in scope, Technicolor in imagination, and densely, lovingly, populated with an endless parade of fairy-tale heroes, villains, and objects as seen through E6’s warped looking-glass: flying phonographs and green typewriters, red kings and communist daughters.

These days, word — not to mention distribution — of E6’s myths in miniature is spreading nearly as fast as the ideas that keep sprouting from the heads of  people like NMH songwriter Jeff Mangum;  Olivia Tremor Control’s Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss (who are currently at work on the group’s second album); and artist/producer/audiophile Robert Schneider, whose own band, Apples In Stereo, have just had their new album, Tone Soul Evolution, picked up for major distribution by Sire. The band, which toured last fall when the disc was first released on the indie imprint spinART,  is getting ready to hit the road again.

This marks the first time an Elephant 6 band will receive the promotion and support of a  major, and Schneider welcomes the exposure. “I feel like it’s really great music but I’ve always thought that it’s the kind of music that’s often overlooked,” says Schneider. “I’ve always felt that our music is something your little sister could like, your friends would like, and at the same time your dad would like. We wanted to make a record that was timeless.”

These kinds of themes — time, memory, friendship — figure prominently in the E6 world, which more or less began when Mangum, Schneider, Doss and Hart (four friends who grew up together in Ruston, Louisiana) began trading homemade tapes of original music through the mail. Eventually, everyone but Schneider settled in Athens and started a band called the Olivia Tremor Control (Mangum would soon quit to follow his own muse in the Neutral Milk Hotel). Meanwhile, Schneider moved to Denver, Colorado, formed Apples In Stereo, and built a recording studio he aptly named Pet Sounds (where he’s currently producing the Olivia’s second full-length album).

“Before we started Elephant 6, we used to joke about how we already had this long career behind us and talked about ourselves as if we had many different creative phases — that by the age of 20, we had lived through the 60’s or something,” says Schneider. “We all have these stories that weave together and somehow all of it mixed together into Elephant 6. It’s strange, because it was always this kind of a joke with us. Even now, we’re all very ambitious musically, but at the same time, we’re having a lark.”

Along the way, E6 has spawned or recruited into its semi-circle numerous bands, splinter groups, and side projects, among them Elf Power, the Music Tapes, and Beulah to name a few. But despite the fact that E6’s cavalcade of would-be stars routinely pitch in on each other’s efforts — contributing a harmony vocal or fuzz bass here, a trombone or flugelhorn there — each band’s personality and approach remains distinct from the other.

“The idea of having a band is that everybody sort of morphs into the project at hand,” says NMH’s Mangum before his show at the Middle East. “Even when the projects contain some of the same members, it’s really important for each project to have an identity of its own and to be taken seriously as its own entity.”

Julian Koster, who does double-duty playing bowed banjo, accordion, and singing saw with NMH and performing with his own E6 offspring, the Music Tapes, says playing with each group affords him the chance “to explore a different side of creating things that you’d never have the opportunity to do if you were in one normal band. We all share a big love for each other’s visions, so if one of us has an idea, the rest of us jump in trying to help realize that vision. That’s kind of the beauty of the thing, I think.”

“As far as bands bleeding into each other,” adds Schneider during a separate conversation, “I think we all inspire each other as far as keeping the marker high and constantly upping the ante. It’s not exactly a competition, but it is in that all of us are trying to make albums that are as good as we can possibly make them.”

Schneider’s Apples In Stereo are the poppiest of the bunch, unabashedly in love with the sunny side of Brian Wilson and the Beatles and the band’s bright, shimmery sound reflects Schneider’s pursuit of faithfully capturing on record “the perfect hi-fi” he says he hears inside his head. To achieve this goal (which he believes he’s met, by the way), the band moved up to 24-track recording for the first time on *Tone Soul Evolution.* Meanwhile, the Olivia Tremor Control mix topsy-turvy, funhouse psychedelia with disorienting ambient interludes. And as for Neutral Milk Hotel, well, they’re perhaps the most compelling and peculiar of all the E6 bands.

The group’s idiosyncratic new album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (Merge), is a sepia-toned, baroque folk-pop affair steeped in melancholy acoustic guitars, funereal marching-band brass, and lyrical imagery that hints at secrets as haunted and hidden as moss concealed under stones in a forest. In a live setting, the material only becomes more dramatic. Mangum on-stage is far different than the laconic, soft-spoken 26-year-old off of it who confides that his  favorite sound is the crackle of a 78-rpm record. Up there, Mangum’s voice, body, and spirit seem possessed by a mass of contradictions — child-like wonder and ancient wisdom — and the music he makes is of shivering, bounding beauty, unfettered in its flight and reach.

But ultimately, the music — like Elephant 6 itself — seems grounded and connected by one over-arching, core tenet. “It’s hard to find 30 or 40 people that I really love and respect and have a lot of fun with,” says Mangum as Koster nods his head in silent agreement. “And I just think that the music is a reflection of the friendship.”

Red is the new yellow: Bill Doss gets his Sunshine Fix.

Red is the new yellow: Bill Doss gets his Sunshine Fix. Photo Credit: Bobby Bank/Wire Image

GREEN TYPEWRITERS & BLACK FOLIAGE: Bill Doss Drifts Away To The Land of Nod (originally published at Rollingstone.com, April 6, 1999)

As a slow Southern sun sets in Athens, Georgia, Olivia Tremor Control songwriter Bill Doss is talking about bedtime. “I get very excited about going to sleep, because I know I’m going to have some kind of a dream, and in a dream anything’s possible,” says Doss from the house he shares with other members of the  Elephant 6 indie-pop collective, of which the Olivias are a central part. “You can fly, you can swim the ocean, you just never know what might happen. And to me, that’s what I think true psychedelic music is.”

Since co-founding the band with high school chum William Cullen Hart, Doss and his comrades have striven to capture and communicate that sense of magical, limitless possibility through music. In 1996, the band released its jaw-dropping debut, Music From The Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle, which only became a more wondrous listening experience once you realized the material had been recorded on home four-track equipment.

Now, more than a year after it was originally supposed to be released, the Olivia Tremor Control have finally issued their follow-up. The wait appears to have been worth it. Black Foliage: Animation Music by the Olivia Tremor Control (the new disc’s title came to Hart in — you guessed it — a dream) ups Dusk’s ambitious ante and succeeds with often ravishing results, expanding on the skewed pop ideas and surreal cut-and-paste sound collages that gave Dusk its shimmery allure. We caught up with Doss just as the Olivias were about to embark on a two-month tour in support of the new disc.

RSO: What did you want from this record when you began writing and recording the material? Were there elements of *Dusk* that you wanted to expand upon and parts you wanted to leave behind?

Doss: Well, there were some songs on Dusk at Cubist Castle that we started experimenting with. And that’s kind of what we wanted to do — find new ways of looking at the same thing. The way you see something or hear something is so subjective, and there’s millions and millions of way of looking at things, so we wanted to explore that.

RSO: How did you know you were done?

Doss: At one point we thought we were finished but then around Christmas — not this Christmas but the last Christmas (1997) — I thought that something wasn’t right. We were trying to get the album  done but I’m a prep cook — I just got promoted from dishwasher to prep cook where I work — and I’ve learned that you have to let some things simmer for a long time before they’re ready. I’m glad we waited because little things were added here and there and I think it turned out sounding special. It has to hit us in that special way. Of course, it was hard to tell the record company (Flydaddy) that.

RSO: It seems as though this album builds on the sounds and themes of the last one. Was that what you had in mind?

Doss: We definitely wanted to make it a more coherent and cohesive album because Dusk sounded so patchwork to me. Our last album was just a recording project to start with between me and Will and we didn’t really think about recording an album or touring or marketing per se. I wanted this record to sound more like us as a band. And that happened.

RSO: Your music’s often been described as cinematic or surreal. How do you hear your music?

Doss:  I think the cinematic thing stems from the fact that we try to make music that’s very visual and we want to incorporate sounds that will make you see cartoons in your head. It’s like when you watch those old MGM Bugs Bunny cartoons and you hear the sound effects that go with, I dunno, a frying pan that turns into a hammer or something. It’s amazing stuff.

RSO: What’s it like living in the same house with some of the other Elephant 6 band members in Neutral Milk Hotel and Elf Power? Is it easier or in some ways more difficult writing songs with such a close-knit group of friends?

Doss: Oh, it’s easier, and that’s the fun part of it really. Because sometimes Jeff (Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel) will stop by and add something to what I’m working on, or somebody else will have an idea. I mean, there’s definitely tension sometimes, but as long as there’s more than one person in a room — whether you’re married or in a band or whatever — there’s always going to be tension. As long as you don’t think (an argument) is the end-all and be-all of everything, you can get through it and you’re fine.

RSO: What’s striking about each of the Olivia Tremor Control’s albums is that even though they’re sophisticated, mature-sounding works, the music evokes or even in some ways attempts to reproduce the experience of childhood. There’s a sense of real joy and magic about it. Do you think of music as an escape or a refuge, a reaction to the events of everyday adult life?

Doss: Probably so. I think that music is definitely a nice place to hide. Jeff (Mangum) said something to me the other day when we were having coffee. He said ‘do you ever wake up and get kind of freaked out that you’re in your body?’ And I said no, but now that you mention it, I kind of am. Sometimes life can get kind of rough and kind of weird, and you just want to retreat with your eight-track.

RSO: Is it a difficult balance, living out a kind of artistic ideal collaborating with close friends and also dealing with the very real responsibility and pressure that comes with being on a label and putting out albums for an audience that’s growing? Do you feel any added pressure these days?

Doss: There’s a little more pressure, because as they say, you’ve got your whole life to make your first record and then only a certain amount of time to make your next one. So yeah, it’s a strange juxtaposition.

RSO: Where do you guys go from here? Have you had any time to start thinking about your next project?

Doss: For the next album, there’s a lot of stuff I want to try out, like country stuff. My dad listened to a lot of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and for the longest time I fought it, but now I’ve just given into it. I’ve written this Willie Nelson kind of song and I think that for the next album, I’d like to try it out and record it and see what happens.

All the Neutral Milk News You Can Use (including tour dates, releases, charity and promo events here: http://www.walkingwallofwords.com/tour.html

Tickets and info to the Boston Calling music festival, starting Sept. 5, here: http://www.ticketnetwork.com/venues/boston-city-hall-plaza-tickets.aspx?vid=3109&gclid=CKLHzdWtwMACFZJr7AodU00Aqw

Listen to the BRAND NEW Elf Power track, “A Grey Cloth Covering My Face,” from their NEW “Sunlight On The Moon,” (all new Elf Power tracks courtesy of the good people at Team Clermont) right here: https://soundcloud.com/teamclermont/02-a-grey-cloth-covering-my

Listen to the BRAND NEW TITLE TRACK from Elf Power’s “Sunlight On The Moon” right here: https://soundcloud.com/teamclermont/04-sunlight-on-the-moon

Listen to the BRAND NEW TRACK, “Lift The Shell,” from Elf Power’s new “Sunlight On The Moon,” right here: https://soundcloud.com/teamclermont/03-lift-the-shell

Listen to Olivia Tremor Control’s splendiferous lo-fi “Define A Transparent Dream” from “Dusk At Cubist Castle” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnPVo0iU7Ks&list=RD02PStW0hGocY0

Listen to Olivia Tremor Control’s “Jumping Fences” from the same album here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUjd6DHAutU&list=RD02PStW0hGocY0

Listen to “The King of Carrot Flowers” from Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” right here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGWpHxekvsg

Listen to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” in its entirety right here (and then, of course, go out and buy this album!):http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NXz4VVYbJc&list=PL61B3DC00D27AA3CB

Listen to Olivia Tremor Control’s “The Opera House” from “Dusk At Cubist Castle” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PStW0hGocY0

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One comment

  1. Wonderful story and intro, with some memorable phrases that will now permanently enter my everyday lexicon. Foremost among them: the “muck that sucked.”

    Like

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