I recently had a conversation with a friend in which I expressed some degree of worry over the fact that I've listened to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel just about every day for the past year. "It's probably not healthy," I groused.
"No, I think it's okay," she said. "Most art doesn't get appreciated like that."
In the past 12 months, I've told anyone who would listen about the album, so much so that I'm even a little sick of talking about it. But, as another friend said, it's also the kind of record that people talk about and still go home and listen to at the end of the day. I've got cool friends -- and, to me, that's might be as an important part of Aeroplane as the music itself.
Neutral Milk Hotel, whether they do or don't exist at moment, were born of the Elephant 6 Recording Company. Their story, in a nutshell, is thus: a bunch of friends who grew up in Ruston, Louisiana discovered that they liked to make music together. They branded the tapes that they produced with a logo that read "Elephant 6 Recording Company", a nifty little inside joke. As they reached their early 20s, some of them migrated just northwards to Athens, Georgia. Others headed west, for Denver, Colorado.
Once in Colorado, Robert Schneider founded The Apples (in stereo) and, like a toy piano being supplanted by a baby grand, a very real record label called The Elephant 6 Recording Company came into existence. Back east, Will Cullen Hart, Bill Doss, and Jeff Mangum started the Olivia Tremor Control. Scott Spillane, John D'Azzo, and Will Westbrook started The Gerbils. Mangum shortly broke off to focus his efforts on Neutral Milk Hotel..
Through all of this, they made friends. And they and their friends began to make a terrific racket on all sorts of things -- homemade theramins, flugelhorns, fuzzed out electric basses, bowed banjos, singing saws, and - yeah - a few guitars. Some of the music sounded a lot like The Beatles and The Beach Boys. But a lot of it was a lot weirder -- breaking glasses, sound effects, gurgling water, and other noises have all found their way into microphones and out through the speakers.
Records were released through Schneider's Elephant 6 imprint, as well as a variety of other outlets. They bore ponderous names: Music from the unrealized film script, DUSK AT CUBIST CASTLE (Olivia Tremor Control); Discovery Of A World Inside The Moone (Apples in stereo); In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (Neutral Milk Hotel); The Battle of Electricity (The Gerbils). The musicians shared a fantasy of a pre-modern world, filled with pneumatic tubes and pump-driven contraptions. It is evident in their language, lyrical subjects, and technological creative choices.
A full musical genealogy is pretty tough, and even more useless, to trace. Most of the so-called "bands" in the Elephant 6 stable are no more than names of projects led by certain musicians. Recent projects by The Circulatory System and Major Organ and the Adding Machine contain many of the same folks, but are very different in approach -- the former being a disc initiated by Hart and John Fernandes, the latter a mysterious project designed to highlight the compositions of the ever-absent Major. So it goes. The vast entanglements of musical relationships are probably best uncoiled by the hypertext of Elephant6.com, anyway.
An easy mistake to make, mostly because one can rattle off the titles of dozens of records by these musicians (seemingly several lifetimes of work), and one which I have just fallen prey to through the first 600 words of this article, is to think and write about the Elephant 6 Recording Company in the past tense. They are still very much alive and continue to create a prodigious rate. Two recent endeavors both come in the form of record labels -- Orange Twin Records (run by Elf Power's Laura Carter) and Cloud Recordings (run by The Circulatory System's Will Hart and John Fernandes).
The former - which has upcoming releases scheduled by Great Lakes, Lovers, and others - was founded to fund what has become known among E6ers simply as "the land project -- formally, the Orange Twin Conservation Community, a 155 acre site outside of Athens which will be (eventually) turned into something across between an artists' colony and a planned community. This, of course, is a lofty ambition. But why not? One gets the sense that these folks could crank out a concept album before supper and still have time to read a book.
The latter project, Cloud Recordings, goes a long way towards proving just that. Like Sun Ra's Saturn Recordings, Cloud was designed to meet the high energy output of the musicians. Last September, in addition to the Circulatory System's densely layered debut, Cloud issued four other full-lengths -- Inside Views, a "reanimation" of the Circulatory System disc; Circuits, a Derek Bailey-by-way-of-Pink Floyd disc of Hart's guitar experiments; Lorkakar: First of the Lost Signals, a collage of bells and cooing voices by Hannah Jones; and Silver, an ambient recording created by Hart when he buried a running tape recorded in his yard.
Each of Cloud's releases come in homemade packaging -- spray-painted, markered, xeroxed, and otherwise created with great love. It is inspiring. Holding a Cloud recording, one doesn't feel as if he has made some consumer choice presented to him by a media conglomerate. It's just some music by some people. If one were to record his own album, most of the E6ers would probably be happy not only to hear it, but to trade their latest tapes for it. The Elephant 6 Recording Company has changed the way I relate to music. Music still can inspire genuine community beyond Venn diagrams of products purchased.
Another label that the E6ers have gotten tagged with is "lo-fi". To put it mildly, they are home recording enthusiasts. Their first bonding points, back in Ruston, were over boom boxes with overdub functions. Soon, they'd migrated to four and eight-track recorders, on which they created their first major efforts. On albums like the Olivia Tremor Control's Black Foliage: Animation Music, volume 1, they milked the gear for all it was worth. Recently, they have begun upgrading to ProTools systems. If, as it has been contended, the 48-track mixing console was created to accommodate what Brian Wilson was doing in early studios, then surely ProTools was created to accommodate what home recorders like Will Hart were doing in their bedrooms.
It is not low fidelity music. And, if perchance the music sounds a bit frayed at the edges at the times, it's because the musicians were pushing the technology a bit too hard. And, anyway, it doesn't matter. In his essay, "The 'Feminization' of Rock", Tony Grajeda conjectures that - in this age - low fidelity recordings are just as easy to make as good sounding ones: "[it] is precisely what it means to sound alternative, to signify sonically an adversarial or oppositional sensibility". While this might be true to some extent, the Elephant 6ers aren't trying to sound alternative. They're just trying to cram 43 different tambourines into one song without leaving their candlelit sound lairs.
If the technology shows, so be it. All the better, even. Grajeda compares the approach to "Bertolt Brecht's call for showing 'the machinery, the ropes and the flies'". You know something? It just sounds cool. End of story. Almost. Hearing the resulting tape splices and occasional sonic farts can be downright inspiring -- like tattered branches in the wind ready to loose seed. And though the clicks are disappearing thanks to ProTools, one can still hear their influence embedded in the music, in the transparently obvious creative process used to create something like the symphony of noise revealed on The Circulatory System.
It sounds, feels, and is personal music. The sense of play is so overwhelming that it's hard not to react somehow. I was turned onto Aeroplane by a friend of mine. In turn, I've tried to turn other friends onto it. With some, it's taken. And, with those it's taken, it has really taken. In the past year, in addition to listening to the album just about everyday, I've also created my own album. One friend was inspired to start creating a shadow puppet opera. Another took up photography again after taking several years off. Perhaps it was cause and effect. Perhaps not.
Either way, the Elephant 6 Recording Company has tightened friendships and made me want to create art. I feel like a better person for knowing they exist.
Jesse Jarnow is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. He can be reached by email or via his homepage.