Posing the question, ‘What is Elephant 6’?, we’re met with a mystique and a range of enigmatic answers from those closely involved. Winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sound Unseen’s Film + Music Festival in 2022, Director Chad Stockfleth’s The Elephant 6 Recording Co. documentary embodies an intimate lens at the burgeoning indie-psych and art-rock scene in Athens, GA that took place three decades ago, when experimental creativity was at its finest. Featuring the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel, The Olivia Tremor Control, Apples in Stereo and Elf Power, these bands pushed through the barriers of rock constraints, creating an ever-evolving smorgasbord of genre and musicians while still boasting full creative control.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Athens was an absolute haven for misfits. Aptly named “a beacon for weirdos’, musicians would live off of food stamps and work part-time gigs while sharing a house with half a dozen other artists, honing in on their craft and playing music at all hours of the night. “There are certain records you can’t make in New York City”, states Dan Donahue of Great Lakes, referencing their town’s lack of constraints and the freedom to expand their musical horizons. The sense of comradery and support between bands held no hostility or competition, but rather formed a collaborative family that supported one another and extended their talents from one band to the next.
What feels so refreshing and nostalgic about The Elephant 6 documentary is how vast the scene’s unbridled creative energy and do-it-yourself mentality permeated through every live show, every recording, and every personality. Clearly still a kid at heart, The Apples in Stereo’s frontman Robert Schneider chats a mile a minute about his passions with four track recorders and lo-fi static sounds, as well as his more recent career as a mathematician, hosting an enthusiastic TedTalk in 2014. Less interested in mastering technical abilities, bands like The Apples in Stereo and all-women collective Dixie Blood Mustache fueled a cacophony of noise onstage, the latter incorporating surrealistic performance art in the form of kitchen appliances to their audience.
As the 2000’s approached, more and more artists wanted a piece of the Elephant 6 pie, so to speak, in turn losing an integral part of the collective’s artistic vision and making it more difficult to maintain its close-knit community. At its very core, Elephant 6 was more than a simple labor of love towards making art; it’s a reminder that the steadfast bonds of friendship come first and foremost.
THE ELEPHANT 6 RECORDING CO is screening at Austin Film Society today through Thursday, September 7th.
For those that are fans of Talking Heads, TRUE STORIES is screening this weekend, preceded by a musical act from Austin’s very own label imprint, Spaceflight Records. STOP MAKING SENSE, restored in 4K, is also screening at the end of the month.
You can purchase tickets for any of these screenings on Austin Film Society’s website.