The Elephant 6 Recording Co. Documentary Shows Why a Scruffy ’90s Indie Rock Community Still Matters

Read our review of a new film about the beloved collective that birthed Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, and more.
Neutral Milk Hotel
Neutral Milk Hotel, photo by Chris Bilheimer

The 1990s indie-rock obsession with analogue wasn’t just about aesthetics. It was also about the community that bonded over do-it-yourself recording techniques, handmade cover artwork, and theatrical live performances. Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider touches on this point midway through The Elephant 6 Recording Co., a long-anticipated documentary about the ’90s indie rock collective of the same name. “He wanted the noise and the grit and the tape hiss,” Schneider says of Jeff Mangum, the leader of Neutral Milk Hotel, the most beloved Elephant 6 band. “Really, it’s not even that. He wanted the friendship.”

A loose agglomeration of overlapping bands across multiple cities, with their own record label (though its members recorded for others), Elephant 6 seemed to pride itself on being difficult to define. Schneider and Mangum formed the collective with Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart—the duo behind the another revered E6 band, the psych-pop group Olivia Tremor Control—as teenage misfits in the Deep South college town of Ruston, Louisiana, bonding over busted instruments and rented four-track recorders. When they scattered to different cities in the mid-’90s—Denver for Schneider and Athens, Georgia, for Mangum, Doss, and Hart—they brought Elephant 6 with them, eventually extending their banner to a hodgepodge of kindred spirits from San Francisco to Brooklyn. By the time the collective’s first wave of activity died down in the early 2000s, E6 could boast one of the biggest word-of-mouth breakthrough albums of the file-sharing era: Neutral Milk Hotel’s lo-fi, high-concept masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. For listeners who dug deeper than that Merge Records release, Elephant 6 offered proof positive that a gaggle of musically inclined weirdos could do something similar in their own towns, too.

Opening in theaters today, The Elephant 6 Recording Co. captures the slippery collective’s rise to indie acclaim. First-time director C.B. Stockfleth supplements original on-camera interviews with archival footage by filmmaker and former Athens scene regular Lance Bangs (who also appears in the film). Thanks to executive producer Rob Hatch-Miller, director of the like-minded doc Other Music and a relentless clearer of licensing rights, the film sounds like Elephant 6. Thanks to the collective’s sprawling trove of flyers, photos, and surrealistic visual art, it looks like Elephant 6, too.

The Elephant 6 Recording Co. may be as wide-ranging and impressionistic as its namesake, but the film wrestles with the need for a narrative focus. It follows the intertwined musical biographies of the collective’s four co-founders, two of whom are currently unavailable to speak for themselves (Olivia Tremor Control’s Doss died unexpectedly in 2012, and Mangum has for decades declined to participate in interviews). The irrepressible Schneider, who was the E6 production whiz in addition to leading the Apples in Stereo, could easily have run away with the film, and nearly does. In the opening minutes, Schneider portrays a mad scientist alongside Elijah Wood, serenades Stephen Colbert with a satirical ode, and indulges a request from behind the camera for a 60-second history of Elephant 6 (he starts with the Big Bang). But Schneider’s enthusiasm feels endearingly authentic—as comedian David Cross says at one point, “He sounds like an excited 12-year-old.” To watch him go from eager, goateed young musician witnessing the vinyl pressing for the Apples’ first album to eager, fully bearded mathematician giving a TedX talk is a genuine delight, like checking in on a childhood acquaintance and discovering they grew up to be the genius you suspected they were.

Inextricable from all this is the rise of Olivia Tremor Control. Through candid conversations and concert footage from throughout the decades, the film establishes the band’s well-documented McCartney-Lennon dynamic, with Doss the “pop perfectionist” and Hart the “experimentalist,” in the words of self-described E6 historian Ron Kwasman, of Midwest indie-pop band Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s. The Olivias’ multi-instrumentalist John Fernandes, interviewed inside storied Athens record shop Wuxtry, brings in helpful context: When Schneider moved to Denver and started the Apples, the trio of Doss, Hart, and Mangum headed to Athens and began the short-lived Synthetic Flying Machine; Mangum left the band, and Olivia Tremor Control was born. The film lays out the historic significance of the Olivias’ albums, particularly 1996’s Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle (“the greatest psychedelic album of our time,” as Kwasman recalls), along with their fearsome onstage reputation (“Olivia was the best band I ever saw live,” says Ben Crum of the E6 outfit Great Lakes).

Although Doss and Hart, who battles with multiple sclerosis, are often filmed talking about gear (Doss participated in interviews before his death), what stands out most from their story is the human shit. Doss and Hart have an unexplained falling out and drift off into other musical ventures, but they reconcile for Olivia Tremor Control’s triumphant live return in the 2010s. Doss had new material in the works when he passed in 2012, at age 43. It’s touching when E6 members gather at the Athens club 40 Watt to perform Sun Ra Arkestra’s “Enlightenment” in his honor, and absolutely devastating when the survivors attempt to finish the recordings that Doss left behind.

The doc also brings the most legendary E6 band, Neutral Milk Hotel, down to earth. In a 1998 radio interview around the release of the Schneider-produced In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Mangum expresses a degree of humility that is hard to recognize in the current era of influencer-musicians. “The records and a lot of the music wouldn’t exist without all the guys in the band and Robert,” he says. “Not that I’m claiming that it is special, but I know that it’s a lot more special to me because of everybody else’s involvement.” In one moving interview clip, Dave Wrathgabar of Elf Power—an Athens band that preceded E6—recalls Mangum bringing Aeroplane to a potluck. Everyone fell into a stunned silence “within 120 seconds.” Mangum apparently had a vague idea of Hart still adding electronics to it, but everyone knew, sitting there beneath the peaceful kudzu with their vegetarian food, that the record was done.

Where the limitations of the film become apparent is after Aeroplane breaks out and Mangum begins his retreat from the public eye. Footage of his only publicly performed post-Aeroplane song, the harrowing “Little Birds,” from a birthday party in late 1998, hints at what Athens filmmaker Bangs refers to as “the sense of darkness that Jeff was heading into.” Apart from Bangs’ clip of Mangum performing Aeroplane’s title track at the 40 Watt on New Year’s Eve 1998, that’s the last we hear from NMH’s leader until his much-bootlegged return to the stage in 2001, when he speaks openly about having “a little bit of a nervous breakdown.” Regarding Mangum’s semi-seclusion, Elf Power’s Andrew Rieger reasons, “Sometimes the hassles that go along with being a popular person in music like that maybe were more than it was worth.” Still, like Schneider guiding the Elephant 6 spirit remotely from Denver, Mangum dominates the film in absentia. His decision to step away seems understandable, and maybe if he ever grants another interview, mere words won’t shed much more light on whatever mental health challenges he faced in the early 2000s. But it’s impossible not to want to hear from him directly.

With so much to cover, it’s impressive that The Elephant 6 Recording Co. finds space to highlight bands outside its main three. One of the most consistently evolving E6 groups, of Montreal, receives a decent amount of airtime (“I always loved Robert—I was sort of in awe of him,” singer Kevin Barnes gushes sweetly). Of the 15 or so musicians from Ruston who originally decamped to Athens, a particular delight to see are the Gerbils, not only lending color through their deadpan jokes about the town’s water supply but also performing fuzzed-out power pop at a 2001 Swedish music festival. The most tantalizing obscurity is Dixie Blood Moustache, an all-female avant-garde troup with scant recorded output. Briefly or not, viewers also hear from members of E6-affiliated bands like the Minders (whose Rebecca Cole went on to join Wild Flag), Beulah, Dressy Bessy, Sissy Fuzz, and Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t; Heather McIntosh, a cellist around the Athens scene who went on to tour with Lil Wayne and is now an Academy Awards-shortlisted film and TV composer, is another inspiring figure who started out with Elephant 6.

The Elephant 6 collective, photo by Amy Hairston

There’s a world in which The Elephant 6 Recording Co. would fire up young people everywhere to form their own multimedia art projects, like E6 did during its heyday. Unfortunately, life in the 2020s may have grown too expensive, and the social safety net too threadbare, for many such would-be bohemians. Rents in ’90s Athens were so low, and landlords so uncomplaining, the documentary shows, that people in Elephant 6 could live in houses together, work part-time jobs, and play music all night. Perhaps Elephant 6 was most important, in a historical sense, because it helped show a more earnest and otherworldly way forward for indie music after the postmodern irony and slacker disillusionment associated with Gen X heroes like Nirvana, Pavement, and Beck. As James Mercer of the Shins says, “There was a school of thought that ran the ’90s, and they ended it.”

“I can’t explain why it is that I have 10 friends who I really truly love and I happen to love their music and they have 10 friends who I feel the same way about,” Mangum says at the end of the film. “I find it really strange that I honestly really love everyone.” Maybe what the Elephant 6 collective was all about is really simple. Like the ’60s psych-pop bands that inspired them, but with rudimentary equipment similar to the outtakes captured on the Beatles’ mid-’90s Anthology compilations, they were spreading a message of love. With The Elephant 6 Recording Co., they still are.