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Inside Elephant 6: 8 Takeaways From A New Documentary About The Musical Collective

The Louisiana label birthed Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, Apples In Stereo, Of Montreal, and other amazing psych acts. 'The Elephant 6 Recording Co.' tells their stories.

GRAMMYs/Aug 24, 2023 - 03:19 pm

It’s easy to underestimate the reach and influence of the Elephant 6 Recording Company. After all, bands like the Apples In Stereo and the Olivia Tremor Control aren’t exactly household names. And yet, for indie rock fans, the little label that could typically conveys not just musical excellence but also true artistic passion. 

Born in Ruston, Louisiana in the late ‘80s, Elephant 6 has always been part label, part ethos, and part art collective, birthing intertwined psych pop acts like Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power, Of Montreal, and the Minders. It’s intimately associated with both the Denver and the Athens, Georgia music scenes, and it’s inspired acts like Arcade Fire, the Shins, and Tame Impala

It’s also the subject of a new documentary, The Elephant 6 Recording Co., which hits streaming VOD on Sept. 1. Directed by C.B. Stockfleth, the film attempts to sum up 30-odd years of musical achievement and growth in under two hours, interweaving personal dramas, harrowing tales of awful apartments, and talking head appearances from people like Elijah Wood and David Cross.

It’s a beautiful and deeply intimate look at the collective, as well as a crash course on all of E6’s most beloved and influential recordings. Here are eight cool things we took away from the movie.

It All Started With Four High School Friends 

Growing up in Ruston, Louisiana in the ‘80s, Bill Ross, Will Cullen Hart, Jeff Mangum, and Robert Schneider didn’t have a whole lot to do. When they were bored they’d go goof around at the local music shop, and they all took lessons from the same long-haired hippie guitar teacher. Mangum eventually got a gig working at Louisiana Tech’s college radio station, and, like his three friends, dove headfirst into listening to, sharing, and creating music. 

That quartet began to share tapes of songs they made on four-track recorders, forming de facto bands to open for acts like Sebadoh who’d come through town looking for living room shows. In the doc, E6 members say that in Ruston they learned to be each other’s support system, saying that "kids in places like that tend to get deeper into the things they love… [in order to] escape into something."

The Collective's Name Comes From A Max Ernst Painting

When the group decided to release some of the music they’d made as 7-inch records, they knew they needed a name. They went with Elephant 6 after Hart misread the name of a Max Ernst painting, "The Elephant Celebes." Hart designed the group’s logo, which seems inspired by the swoopy, psychedelic art that was popular in the ‘60s. 

Inside Elephant 6 doc

The Group Valued Authenticity & Experimentation Above All Else

Much of E6’s early output was self-recorded on four- and eight-track recorders, with band members manipulating found sounds and offbeat instruments to create the tones they wanted. Hart says the Beatles’ "Tomorrow Never Knows" was an inspiration for some of "super layered" tracks he loved, while Doss — a much more meticulous performer — says in the doc that he’s a fan of the distinct sound you get from recording on actual tape.

Schneider also says in the doc that he’s always been passionately committed to "not being slick," and says that, for a lot of members of the collective, a slick veneer just isn’t an option.

Members Lived In Different Cities, But Always Worked Together 

Eventually, Schneider moved to Denver while Ross, Hart, Mangum, and about 17 or so other Rustonians moved to Athens, Georgia. They knew from watching acts like R.E.M. and Pylon that the college town had a supportive music scene, calling it a "beacon for weirdos" and a "comfortable fit" for people moving from a small Southern town. 

In Denver, Schneider formed the Apples In Stereo after meeting Jim McIntyre on a city bus and striking up a chat about the Beach Boys. The group produced fun, melodic music that got noticed by indie tastemakers like the creators of the Nickelodeon show "The Adventures Of Pete And Pete," and eventually, in 1995, released a full-length LP, the much-loved Fun Trick Noisemaker. Schneider calls that record "Pavement crossed with the Beach Boys crossed with Interstellar Overdrive," but notes that the band also called itself a psych act.

Schneider also opened Pet Sounds Studio in Denver66, and Mangum would often swing through to stay and work through musical ideas. 

Athens Was Essential To Olivia Tremor Control & Neutral Milk Hotel

In a way, The Elephant 6 Recording Co. feels like a bit of a love letter to Athens, Georgia, the kooky little town that helped pave the way for so much musical experimentation. 

The town, E6 members say, was cheap enough that you could work part time and get by, sharing a run-down old house with the rest of your band. Bands could spend hours upon end working through ideas and playing together, in part because they loved it but also because they were all dirt poor and didn’t have much else to do. 

All of that combined into a stew that yielded inspiring, interesting music, with one E6 member remarking in the doc that, "there are certain records you can’t make in New York City." 

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea Was A Masterpiece From The Jump 

Mangum and the rest of Neutral Milk Hotel recorded In The Aeroplane Over The Sea with Schneider at Pet Sounds Studio. (Schneider says he was also working on the Minders’ Hooray For Tuesday around the same time.) The sessions seem to have been fairly quick and magical, with Mangum nailing all of "Oh Comely" in one take. 

When Mangum brought the record back to Athens and played it for friends, he told them he wanted Hart to lay cool electronic blips and bleeps over parts of the record. The friends, who had been stunned into silence after hearing the record, strongly advised against it, saying "No, this is the record." Even now, In The Aeroplane is considered an indie masterpiece. 

Elephant 6 Created A Big Extended Family

While indie scenes in cities like Chicago and New York were rife with infighting, the Elephant 6 gang in Athens kept things friendly. One member said that their biggest problem was "how do we get all seven bands on the same bill." 

That friendliness ultimately led to E6’s power being diluted, as more and more indie pop and psych bands around the country sought out and were permitted to put the collective’s logo on their records. What was once a mark of a tight group of friends and collaborators became more of a vibe and, in the early ‘00s, the collective became artistically stagnant. 

When Bill Doss Died, A Part Of Elephant 6 Did Too

There’s a lot of footage of Bill Doss in the documentary — both in solo interviews and in tandem with OTC bandmate Will Hart. Unfortunately, though, Doss died suddenly of an aneurysm in 2012, throwing the members of the collective into a bit of an emotional tailspin. 

The film documents his beautiful musical memorial at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, and features footage of Hart and Schneider trying to finish up the unreleased third OTC record in Doss’ honor. Hart has since gone on to focus mainly on his work in other bands like the Circulatory System, while Schneider got a doctorate in mathematics and now works as a professor in Michigan. 

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Rock Band Network Launches Music Store

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Rock Band Network Launches Music Store
Gaming developer Harmonix and MTV Games have launched the Rock Band Network Music Store, which allows independent artists to submit their music as downloadable, add-on content to the game without a formal licensing process. Artists will choose their own price points with MTV retaining 70 percent of all sales. A beta trial was released earlier this year and has since acquired more than 100 songs available for "Rock Band" owners to purchase from artists including the Hold Steady, Of Montreal, the Shins, and Steve Vai, among others. (3/4)

UN Labor Agency Honors Shakira
Two-time GRAMMY-winning and seven-time Latin GRAMMY-winning artist Shakira was honored Wednesday in Geneva with a medal from the United Nations labor agency for her work to help impoverished children. The artist was recognized for her involvement with the ALAS Foundation, UNICEF and for helping to provide nutrition to more than 6,000 children in Colombia through her Barefoot Foundation. (3/4)

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Set List Bonus: Pitchfork Music Festival

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Jenna Goode
Chicago

For many, the Pitchfork Music Festival has become a journey toward music discovery, which these days can be a daunting task, with so much music available at our fingertips. Now in its ninth year, Chicago's Pitchfork Music Festival has been helping music fans discover new music, and artists get discovered with a curated lineup that includes numerous genres, indie artists, established artists, and local bands.

The biggest draws at this year's installment, taking place July 18–20, included GRAMMY-winning producer Giorgio Moroder, GRAMMY winner Beck, indie rockers Neutral Milk Hotel, and GRAMMY-nominated hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar.

Friday drew in yuppies like me who skipped the last few hours of the work week to cut loose and enjoy the perks of a Chicago summer — music, food, art, and sunshine. I began my day at the record market, where I was in vinyl heaven. There were rare albums, discounts and plenty of people passionate about collecting to chat with. In the distance I heard the soothing sounds of Sharon Van Etten's raspy voice while I browsed.

My first day at the festival was spent like many attendees, sitting on a blanket in the field with a view of both of the main stages while children played with footballs and Frisbees and adults enjoyed their beverages and conversation, occasionally interrupting to applaud the current performer. This unassuming, welcoming and laid-back atmosphere sets Pitchfork apart from other festivals.

Day one of the festival closed with a set from Moroder, who had the crowd grooving to his Daft Punk collaboration, "Giorgio By Moroder." Then came Beck, who demonstrated the diversity and depth of his lengthy discography as he performed a few tracks from his forthcoming album, Song Reader. His eccentric, and sometimes erratic, dance moves brought an immense energy to the set. "Loser" was clearly a crowd favorite as nearly everyone belted out in Spanish, "Soy un perdedor." For the encore performance Beck busted through the caution tape strung across the stage and dove into an impressive harmonica solo before singing the comical "Debra."

Day two was notably the most fashionable day of the festival. I saw numerous women rocking heels and platforms well over three inches. Mesh shirts, sun dresses and cutout clothes were also popular attire. Women were not the only ones getting into the fashion; men also sported designer labels and carefully manicured beards.

The elusive Jeff Magnum performed that evening with Neutral Milk Hotel. The anticipation for this set was high since many have waited nearly a decade to see the band live. The TV screens were shut off and the band asked the audience not to photograph during the set, which consisted mostly of songs from their 1998 album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. The crowd swayed and nodded to the catchy "The King Of Carrot Flowers" before they closed their set with the sweet yet haunting "Oh Comely," during which many couples slow danced.

And for those who didn't come with a significant other, event sponsor Goose Island printed and posted missed connections from Craigslist.com on a missed connections board at the festival. A typical post read: "You had pigtails and a floral skirt. I was wearing a Death Grips R.I.P. shirt. Call me."

Lamar was clearly the most anticipated artist of day three as fans pushed their way up to the front more than an hour before his start time. He began fashionably late, but to no one's dismay. Hitting the stage with a full backing band, Lamar was sharp and flew through most of the tracks off his GRAMMY-nominated album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. His encore performance included the crowd favorite "A.D.H.D," during which fans enthusiastically responded "f*** that" back to Lamar during each verse. The crowd left on a high from his performance. Not even the crowded Green Line trains could kill our vibe.

(Jenna Goode is the Project Coordinator for The Recording Academy Chicago Chapter. Goode has interviewed artists such as Tame Impala, Daniel Lanois and Born Ruffians. She has also covered music festivals such as Electric Forest, Lollapalooza, and Pitchfork. Her work has been previously featured on the Chicago Chapter's GRAMMYPro.com page, GRAMMY.com and Loud Neighbor Music Blog.)

Koe Wetzel Press Photo 2024
Koe Wetzel

Photo: Jody Domingue

interview

Koe Wetzel On How New Album '9 Lives' Helped Him Tap Into His Feelings

After establishing himself as an outlaw country act, Koe Wetzel wanted to dig deeper with his fifth studio album. The buzzy star details how new collaborators and unintentional therapy helped him show a new side of his artistry.

GRAMMYs/Jul 23, 2024 - 06:37 pm

The word "rabid" may often be tossed around in conversations about fan bases, but Koe Wetzel's die-hard followers truly deserve the distinction. A quick search of the Texas-born singer/songwriter's fans reveals videos of Wetzel breaking up audience fights, arguments over featured vocalists and many, many Koe-inspired tattoos.

So, what is it about the 32-year-old country star that gets people so riled up? For starters, Wetzel, like Zach Bryan or Cody Jinks, is an outsider in the genre. He found his footing and honed his unorthodox sound — which defies traditional genre conventions to include influences from hard rock and hip-hop — as part of the Texas music scene rather than on Nashville's Music Row, the genre's commercial epicenter. Wetzel debuted in 2015 with Out on Parole, an album released under the name Koe Wetzel and the Konvicts. That record and its follow-up, 2016's Noise Complaint, made Wetzel a star on the college touring circuit, and by the time 2019's Harold Saul High was released, he was charting on Billboard while fielding management and label offers.

Wetzel's rough-and-tumble persona is another draw. He's outlaw country in his music and in life, with the Feb. 28 date of his 2016 arrest for public intoxication now known as "Koe Wetzel Day." He's known for working hard and partying harder — though, as he tells GRAMMY.com, he hopes to soften that image with his new album 9 Lives, out now.

As Wetzel puts it, at the heart of his gritty, irreverent persona is "just a goofball" who "probably should" go to therapy more often. Accordingly, his songwriting on 9 Lives is his most vulnerable to date, mingling meditations on fame and mental health with party anthems and hardscrabble tales of life on the road. Produced by Gabe Simon (Noah Kahan, Lana Del Rey), the record takes the gritty, rough-hewn country rock of Wetzel's earlier releases and lets it breathe a bit, adding touches of pop and roots to his grunge-leaning, hip-hop inspired beginnings.

Highlights on the record include the gritty and groovy title track and "Bar Song," a hypnotically infectious ode to a wild night out; "Leigh" shows off Wetzel's comedic side, as he playfully laments falling for "girls with names ending in Leigh." He also includes two drastically different covers: "Depression & Obsession" by late rapper XXXTentacion, and "Reconsider" by Keith Gattis, a country singer/songwriter who died in 2023 — further proof that Wetzel is anything but your typical country artist. 

On the album's July 19 release, Wetzel chatted with GRAMMY.com about his switch-up with 9 Lives, from recruiting a new producer to covering a rap song and more.

It's rare to speak to an artist on an album release day, so I'd love to hear how your day is going and what the feedback from your fans has felt like so far.

I'm just glad that everybody's taken [the album] in the way I wanted them to, you know? I didn't know how people were going to react to it, because it is a little bit different from the sound that we put out before. But the reaction has been great. I think people are getting a little bit more of a feel for the stuff that we put out in our earlier years. 

Your fan base is so passionate, and it seems like they are also really open to you taking risks and hearing new sounds from you. Does that resonate with you?

Yeah, for sure. It's not that they were getting used to the same sound we had been putting out for the last couple of records, but I felt like they were wanting something a little different than the country rock stuff. And I think with this record, we give them that. We're giving them  something that they haven't heard from me before. 

Take me back to the early days of plotting this record. What got the ball rolling for you?

Well, we really didn't go into it expecting it to be a full record. We hadn't put out music in a while, so we went into it with [the goal of] get[ting] a couple singles out, just to get stuff going for a record, possibly, in the future. I hadn't put out my music in almost two years at that point. And so, the idea was to go in and write some newer stuff. I knew the direction that I wanted it to go — a little bit softer, more honest, vulnerable route. 

We got in [the studio] with Gabe Simon and Amy Allen and Carrie K and Sam Harris in El Paso, and we were there for, I think, two or three days. We wrote four songs: "Damn Near Normal," "Sweet Dreams" and a couple other tunes. We kind of sat back and looked at everything, and it all came really easy for us. 

We looked back like, "All right, man, this sounds great. We should do it again." So, we hooked back up in Nashville at RCA, and we knocked out a couple more. I think we did four or five more songs in a couple of days there. Before we knew it, we're like, "Man, we got a whole record in there." It wasn't planned at all.

It must feel good to go in without any major expectations and come out of the studio with music that fits your vision.

Yeah, for sure. Gabe Simon — he really brought that out. It was my first time working with him. It was kind of scary, going in to write and work with somebody that you've never met before and being so open and honest with them. He pulled out everything that made all those songs [right for] the record.

It sounds like the two of you have a special creative partnership. What do you think it is about your work with Gabe that made him the right fit for the record?

One thing is just us coming from two different worlds. I'm a Texas guy, and he's coming from Nashville. It's just those two worlds colliding, pretty much. And he really cared about me and cared about my life, — things that are going on in my life instead of just being about the music. He cares about my well-being. We're friends now, and he'll hit me up on any given day and ask, "How you doing? How you feeling?" It has nothing to do with music. That's the type of dude Gabe is. 

I think that played a big part in this record. Of course, he cared about the music, but he also wanted everybody to understand the stories that were being told. 

You mentioned earlier that you get into more vulnerable territory on this record. What was it like for you to open up in that way in your music?

Honestly, it was kind of freeing. I don't go to therapy as much as I probably should. And I've said this a couple of times, that when I first met Gabe and Amy and all them, they all sat me down and picked my brain, just trying to get song ideas and [figure out] which way I wanted to go with the record. I always say that was my first real therapy session. And it was total strangers. 

I don't talk about my feelings and stuff as much as I probably should, so whenever I get to write this music and play this music, that's pretty much how I express how I feel.

On the other end of the spectrum, you're great at incorporating humor into your songwriting. On this record, I'm particularly thinking about "Leigh," which is just so clever. What role does humor play in your writing process?

I'm a goofball. [With] my persona, people want to think I'm just this hardass, kind of outlaw dude, but I'm really just a goofball. I like to have a lot of fun. I like my records to have a lot of fun. So throwing in songs like that to keep people on their toes, you know, it's just to let them know it's not always so serious. It's a lot of fun and games. 

We had a lot of fun making that song. At first, it kind of started off as a joke, and then we kind of sat back like, "Holy s—, this is pretty good. This is a fun song." We can't wait to play that one.

The two cover songs on the record fit so well, even though they are from drastically different artists, XXXTentacion and Keith Gattis. How did you choose those, and what made them fit the rest of 9 Lives?

Keith Gattis, I didn't really get to know him or do a deep dive into his music while he was alive. He passed away last year. And Charlie Robison was one of my favorite Texas artists growing up. They passed away pretty close to each other last year. 

Once I figured out that Keith wrote a lot of Charlie's songs, I really dug into his music a lot more… Something inside me was just like, "Yo, you gotta cut this song." I feel like it rounded out the record. We just tried to do it as much justice as possible. 

[It was] kind of the same with "Depression & Obsession." XX is one of my favorite underground rappers. I love that era of music. I love what he did. He was another artist that was gone too soon. There's no telling what more we could have gotten from him. So, I wanted to do it justice and give a nod to them by putting those songs on the record.

You have Jessie Murph joining you on "High Road." How did the two of you connect?

Ron Perry with Columbia, he signed her a couple years ago. When we signed with Columbia, he asked if I'd heard of Jessie Murph. I wasn't familiar with her at the time. Then I looked her up and instantly became a fan. She's a f—ing superstar. Her voice is amazing. 

We talked about having a duet on this record, but I couldn't find a singer that I wanted to have on the record. But it was kind of easy because Jessie worked with Columbia and, like I said, I was a huge fan. So, we hit her up. We let her put her own spin on it, and she absolutely crushed it. 

You're certainly busy enough, with a new record out and a tour coming up. What else are you looking forward to in the second half of 2024?

More new music. We're already trying to get more new music going. We've got a lot of songs that are still in the vault that probably should have made the record but it just didn't feel right at the time. I can't really say a whole lot, but we've got a lot of songs in the vault and I'm still writing. So, once the tour's over with, we're hoping to put on some new music pretty quick.

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GRAMMY GO's new specialization "Crafting Award-Worthy Songs" is now open

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The New GRAMMY GO Music Production Course Is Now Open: Featuring GRAMMY Winners Hit-Boy, CIRKUT, Judith Sherman & More

Enrollment is now open for GRAMMY GO's new specialization, "Music Production: Crafting Award-Worthy Songs," featuring appearances by GRAMMY winners and nominees. Learn music production and creative strategies from today's industry leaders.

GRAMMYs/Jul 23, 2024 - 04:12 pm

The Recording Academy continues its mission to empower music's next generation with the launch of its second specialization in the GRAMMY GO platform: "Music Production: Crafting Award-Worthy Songs."

This new course, a partnership between the Recording Academy and leading online learning platform Coursera, aims to bolster the technological and audio skills of music producers of all levels. The course, taught by Howard University professor and GRAMMY nominee Carolyn Malachi, features appearances by three-time GRAMMY winner and rap icon Hit-Boy, chart-topping and GRAMMY-winning producer/songwriter CIRKUT, artist and celebrity vocal coach Stevie Mackey, five-time GRAMMY nominee and Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr., and 15-time GRAMMY winner Judith Sherman.

Enrollment for "Music Production: Crafting Award-Worthy Songs" is open now.

Mixing a unique blend of theory and practice, the course teaches music creators of all levels the advanced skills and tools to develop the mindset and confidence of an experienced producer and produce songs of the highest industry standards across all genres. Explore the wide-ranging roles of a music producer, develop critical listening and analysis skills, and master the technical aspects to create music and compositions that cut through the noise. The course's applied learning approach allows learners to sharpen their pre-production skills, utilize Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) effectively, and produce vocals, instrumentals and samples collaboratively. Through critical listening exercises and discussions, learners will refine their abilities to deliver professional-quality demos.

To celebrate the launch, the Recording Academy will host an Instagram Live session today (Tuesday, July 23) at 4 p.m. PT/7 p.m. ET with Harvey Mason jr. and Stevie Mackey. The session will include a discussion on the evolving role of music producers, strategies for working with artists, key elements of top-notch productions, common mixing mistakes, and tips for keeping the creative process fresh. Enrollment details for the course will also be shared during the live session.

Read more: How The Recording Academy's GRAMMY GO Is Building A Global Online Learning Community & Elevating The Creative Class

Building on the success of its first specialization, "Building Your Audience for Music Professionals," GRAMMY GO continues to offer industry-focused education tailored for emerging and established music creators and professionals alike. The innovative platform provides learners with real-time insights from leading music industry figures, ensuring the content remains practical and up to date. GRAMMY GO will also serve as an essential tool in the Recording Academy's global expansion into Africa and the Middle East, empowering music creators through enhanced training, bridging knowledge gaps, and fostering connections within the global music community.

Launched in April in partnership with Coursera, GRAMMY GO is the Recording Academy's first creator-to-creator platform, offering innovative courses tailored for both emerging and established music professionals. The initiative accelerates the Academy's global mission and reinforces its commitment to music education, providing a seamless bridge between all Academy initiatives.

Learn more about GRAMMY GO and the "Music Production: Crafting Award-Worthy Songs" and "Building Your Audience for Music Professionals" specializations.

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