In 2019, director Chad Stockfleth released a lo-fi, VHS-only documentary A Future History Of: The Elephant 6 Recording Co. Following that limited rollout, documentarian Lange Bangs—whose footage was used extensively in the film—came onboard with the folks behind 2020’s Other Music doc, producer Rob Hatch-Miller and editor/producer Greg King, to streamline and expand the documentary. The resulting film, now titled The Elephant 6 Recording Co., sees official release on today, August 25, with a VOD release slated for September 1st.
Featuring a wide cast of characters, including members of Neutral Milk Hotel, The Olivia Tremor Control, The Apples In Stereo, Elf Power, The Music Tapes, The Minders, The Gerbils, of Montreal, Beulah, Dressy Bessy, Great Lakes, and more, plus commentary from fans like Danger Mouse, David Cross, James Mercer of The Shins, and Elijah Wood, the film captures a glorious moment in American alternative culture. And it’s a particularly Southern one at that. As Art Levy put it in his Aquarium Drunkard review of the movie, Athens’ environs were strangely psychedelic in their own right: “The town’s Victorian-era homes with fourteen foot ceilings, overgrown woods, kudzu vines filtering the light, and humming bugs cast an atmosphere, both Edenic and eerie. It’s like time itself stopped and plopped itself down in the humid air. Elephant 6 groups…tapped into this feeling. Their music is explosive and exuberant, but somehow haunted.”
That exuberance, and haunted quality, comes through in the film. Producer and documentarian Bangs (Jackass, Nirvana: With the Lights Out, music videos for George Harrison, Odd Future, Sonic Youth, and many more) joined us to discuss what the Elephant 6 explosion of creativity looked and felt like up close and personal. | j woodbury
Aquarium Drunkard: Watching this movie in 2023, it feels like it showcases an era that’s truly gone in a lot of ways. Do you feel like there are communities around the country that have similar scenes happening—pockets of Elephant 6-ness still occurring out there?
Lance Bangs: There are great pockets of things. There’s stuff emerging from Baltimore, there are things going on in Portland, Oregon. People sharing resources, getting together socially, making things together in a collaborative way, using inexpensive equipment that’s been discarded, that they’re building great sounds and interesting things out of.
On a national level, King Gizzard has a huge number of people excited to go see the stuff that they’re concocting. Think about Tame Impala: [Kevin Parker] using discarded settings on equipment you could have got at Guitar Center in the early 2000s, to make the guitar tone that gets you excited for an entire new record. Ty Segall is building a community—crafting different collaborations with other people, like “This band is me and this person, this band is me and this other person, this band is three of us from these other bands.” That combination of personalities, momentum, and excitement is something that I think is still very present in different musical scenes, and that’s an extension of what was going on with the Elephant 6 people.
AD: At the same time, this movie sort of documents a very particular moment in independent music culture as well. What was the most important element you wanted to get across about what was happening in that place with those people at that time?
Lance Bangs: Each band was its own core unit going on in the grunge era, ‘91-’93, in the aftermath of the breakthrough of Nevermind by Nirvana and other records of that time, where people were expressing loner, semi-nihilistic points of view, and that came through in feel of the guitar playing, drum production, lyrics, and artwork. Whereas, when Jeff Mangum, Will Cullen Hart, and Bill Doss got together in a band called Synthetic Flying Machine and began performing at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Athens, instead of that semi-tortured feel, they were pulling from the best moments of Syd Barrett and the experimental side of The Beatles, and doing pop melodies and harmonies, more than one person singing at the same time, with lyrics that felt inventive and imaginative. You could say it was psychedelic, but it didn’t feel like the same cliches of ‘60s classic rock.
It was exciting and it felt like something new. They all went on to form Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control. It wasn’t as insular and dark and non-community based as say, The Jesus Lizard or whatever. We could go see Jesus Lizard play live and love it, but this felt like a group of people who would share band members, get together to share meals and listen to each other’s four-track recordings, chip in with some weird instrument they knew how to play. It was collaborative and the style of music felt warm and handmade.
AD: How did the scene change once the press picked up on what was happening down there?
Lance Bangs: It was exciting. There was a great moment when Rolling Stone sent Will Hermes down, and everybody got together and took like a large group photo, outdoors in a backyard with backdrops and wardrobe. You had a sense of the larger world paying attention or checking out what we’re doing. It was pre-access to the internet for most music listeners. So people would still have to mail order a cassette from Elephant 6 Recording Co. or find a 7” that had an early Neutral Milk Hotel song on it or a compilation to get a sense of what things sounded like. Some of the records were challenging. Like, if you were calling into a college radio station and they played a song from On Avery Island for you, it could be a 10-minute long noise instrumental, or it could be an amazing lyric-based pop song, or it could be a sad reflective There’s a range of different things on those records, it was a great moment to be discovering things.
AD: One of the things that defines that era is the organic sense of mystery. I came of age after the ‘90s, and when I’m getting into music I’m into Blink 182 before I get into Neutral Milk Hotel. And that’s cool, but there’s considerably less mystery to Blink 182. But the Elephant 6 stuff was suffused with an air of the unknown. Even the name, Elephant 6 Recording Co., begs questions. Wait, so it’s a label? Is it a collective? Is it a cult? It’s a bunch of bands but all the same people? It implied a broader framework and mystique. What kind of conversations did you have about telling the story without spoiling that mysterious quality?
Lance Bangs: I’ve made a couple of previous films that required being sensitive to musicians or figures who wanted to preserve some interior life. I made a feature film about Slint from Louisville, Kentucky who had been fairly reclusive and avoided giving everything away. I’d worked with Nirvana while Kurt was alive and there were internal things that he was going through that we wanted to preserve some space. Making this film, it was important to perverse some privacy for Jeff, while also clarifying for the viewer what was going on. We had to find ways to do that. We pulled from some radio interviews Jeff had given and in conversations with him, we were careful to preserve and respect where he’s at.
AD: That raises an interesting question. At that time, there was a robust ecosystem around music. Zines, on a community level, magazines like Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Spin, and of course all these brands still exist, but it’s harder to imagine the same kind of archival care being paid to online content, as we see stuff wiped out all the time. As somebody who’s made movies about bands where a radio interview is a really crucial thing, I wonder if you, if you worry at all about the state of musical archiving in the present day?
Lance Bangs: That’s a major concern. I’ve always had a strong personal interest and habit of archiving things and keeping print pieces, whether it’s a magazine or something from an alt-weekly, which seemed disposable at the time. I hold onto that stuff: fanzines, flyers, set lists, audio from radio interviews, things like that. of audio from radio interviews and things like that. It’s important to me culturally and personally to preserve things.
And it’s exciting that there are other people who seem to have a similar value system or sensibility, like within the past two weeks, some of their early Neutral Milk Hotel and Synthetic Flying Machine cassettes of songs that people hadn’t heard since 1990 or ‘91 or whatever, someone’s been digitizing those and putting those up on YouTube. So it’s great that there are people out there that held onto physical media.
AD: How was the reception the movie’s received in this long ramp up to release felt?
Lance Bangs: We’ve been very happy that we’ve shown a number of festivals, and we’ve had great audiences. We’ve sold out screenings where it’s all people in their 20s, who weren’t around when it originally happened, who are excited about the music. Maybe they found this music on Tumblr 10 years ago, when they were in that mode of their lives. Music writers still include those record on lists, “the best records of the ‘90s,” and that has brought out new listeners, who discover that there’s still a mystery to it, and so much to listen to, whether it’s Elf Power, or The Minders, or any of the other bands that didn’t put out In In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
There’s still so much music to discover. People put 7”s up on YouTube or Reddit, and new listeners connect with the songs and the shared sensibility. I think access to the internet is helpful for music listeners now too. You know, if you told me that there was like an entire documentary about some Gary, Indiana music scene that I had missed in ‘99, it’s easier to find that stuff now and listen to it than back when you were mailing away $5 to get a 7” record mailed to you.