Credit: Chris Bilheimer
Before We Vanish by Zach Lewis Featured Film

The Elephant 6 Recording Co. — C.B. Stockfleth

August 23, 2023

Though the blues and jazz and bluegrass and country and frankly the whole catalogue of American music comes from the American South, the region’s role has largely been relegated to history books and academic interest. It’s hard to find a bar playing the blues or a grocery store tuned to the ragtime jazz station; instead, these progenitors gave way to rock and bebop as they followed the waves and ripples of the Great Migration. Black music became “American music” played by whites and consumed by whites, especially those whites north of Mason-Dixon. Yes, Southern musicians still make it to the top of the industry — just look at Britney Spears, Tom Petty, Al Green, or Ray Charles — but these are figures seen as incidentally Southern and who, if dead, are buried in Los Angeles. Country music is still popular, but, thanks to a rightward political turn in the late-’80s, the genre has become persona non grata in wider pop culture. Only Southern rock (and even that gets watered down into the general rock corpus) and Southern regional hip hop survive as markers of a thriving musical culture. The sounds of the Allman Brothers grace the halls of bars in California; Lil Wayne still brings energy to nightclubs in Chicago. But the South has not seen the likes of a musical scene like the art rock of the Velvet Underground in New York City or punk in Great Britain or techno in Detroit. That moment was the blues and jazz, a loose network of folks who lived near nobody and never got paid for their work, and that’s for the historians.

Of course, that’s not quite true. Dig a bit deeper, and the networks of musicians emerge, still mostly relegated to the sidelines of music history, but there they are nonetheless. One such group has long deserved the historical recognition of something like the Velvet Underground, as its influence on underground music (heretofore labeled the nondescript but technically correct “indie”) is still being accounted for. Some of the works have had such an influence on young people finding music on the Internet that the album itself, without context, is a meme thanks to being recommended so frequently. Others have inspired cultish devotion and nearly all the major releases have made their way to the plethora of top-albums-of-all-time lists. This is the Elephant 6 Recording Company, the product of a few nerds from Ruston, Louisiana who made music so magnetic that their scene grew, moved, blossomed, and plateaued. And, thankfully, C.B. Stockfleth’s new documentary, simply titled The Elephant 6 Recording Co., attempts to gather and recollect their legacy.

A few years ago, Stockfleth originally recorded a documentary on Elephant 6 to be disseminated only on VHS by individual request — quite the Elephant 6 move. But such a move also guarantees that only Elephant 6 obsessives would view the movie, so, here’s the conventional doc for the curious, full of history, talking heads, samples, and archival materials. Stockfleth mostly tells the story in chronological order, allowing each member of the collective to recount, contradict, and amend the general narrative. It goes something like this: a couple of tragically unhip weirdos in Ruston form two bands and split ways. Robert Schneider (notably not going by “Rob”) formed The Apples in Stereo and left the South for Denver; meanwhile, Will Cullen Hart, Jeff Mangum, and Bill Doss formed The Olivia Tremor Control and headed for the college town of Athens, Georgia (go Dawgs). Since these boys grew up away from the big city networks of cool that would birth grunge, they were free to get more experimental, more into production, and more into a psychedelic pop that hadn’t been hip since the Beatles. And though the two bands forged dual centers of this group, nobody pledged loyalty to just one band. Whoever was around became a new band, and new friends who were attracted to this happy little scene formed new bands, all of which were united only by Schneider’s distribution label “Elephant 6” (named after a mishearing of a Max Ernst painting). Though everyone interviewed emphasizes how democratic and free the scene was, everyone also agrees that it was maintained, archived, professionally produced, remixed, and vocally celebrated by the chipper genius Schneider. Suddenly, though mainstream attention was still unimaginable, music nerds from all over the country began noticing the Elephant 6 label and were met with a labyrinthine network of never-ending releases if they dug further (Elijah Wood and David Cross make appearances in the film to affirm this). Then, Jeff Mangum’s new band, Neutral Milk Hotel, records the immortal In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which marked the apex moment of the Elephant 6 family in both size and popularity. The doc finally follows Schneider’s output after the second Olivia Tremor Control record until Bill Doss’s unexpected death and the afterlife of Elephant 6.

Like any straightforward talking-head doc, the visual appeal of The Elephant 6 Recording Co. lies only in diehard fans’ adoration of seeing these figures from the liner notes talk about their experiences. Otherwise, Stockfleth relies on a trove of collected artifacts: old photographs, VHS tapes of shows and songwriting, and the visual art from the Elephant 6 folks. This keeps things interesting for a while, but there’s no getting around the raw information contained in the boring standard video interview that Stockfleth insists upon. These moments are fine when edited like a conversation or when a subject focuses on the art of their storytelling; they’re less fine when arranged as a series of facts that would’ve been better compiled in a book. But some of these anecdotes, especially for such an understudied scene, give a rich texture to how this scene lived and worked. Thanks to the free time afforded by a jobless existence as well as the communal attitude to gear and space, bands were free to emulate Schneider’s tactics, at one point modifying a banjo recording into such an otherworldly drone that the hordes of cats all gathered and stared at the speakers, letting the bands know they’ve achieved the right sound. Remarkably, everyone also remembers no discord nor petty jealousies that usually come from young art collectives; instead of fighting to headline a gig, they all worked together to put on as many of their bands as possible. And if their Southern roots seemed distant, many also point out that the high ceilings, long days, semi-isolation, and overgrown kudzu provided a “writerly” atmosphere where lyrics can meander and double back into themselves just like lines from Faulkner.

Though Stockfleth’s documentary acts mostly as a primer for the Elephant 6 collective, it separates itself from the legions of other musical history docs by staking out new territory and demanding Elephant 6’s rightful place in the mix. The best moments are nearly ethnographic studies of an art scene that fulfilled the utopian dreams that city-based collectives yearned for when they weren’t stabbing each other over mild success. The paradise made in Ruston didn’t last long; but it lasted forever.

DIRECTOR: C.B. Stockfleth;  CAST: —;  DISTIRBUTOR: Greenwich Entertainment;  IN THEATERS: August 25;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 33 min.