Near the beginning of the new documentary The Elephant 6 Recording Co., Julian Koster of the band Neutral Milk Hotel says something about Ruston, Louisiana that will resonate with many people who grew up in a small-town America.
“There’s just nothing, except maybe opposition or pressure to not be what you are,” he says. “I feel like kids in places like that tend to get deeper into the things that they love, tend to go further into them, tend to lose themselves more in them because they need to. They have to escape into something.”
In Ruston—for a handful of kids, at least—escape came in the form of home-recorded, wildly psychedelic pop music that ultimately fueled one of the most storied independent musical movements in recent memory. They called it the Elephant 6 Recording Co., a sprawling and aesthetically aligned collective of musicians and artists that produced beloved bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, the Apples in Stereo, and Olivia Tremor Control.
The Minders were one of a few dozen bands granted entrance into the Elephant 6 universe after the group’s founders moved from Louisiana to the collective’s twin home bases of Athens, Georgia and Denver, Colorado. Even 25 years later, the names remain evocative and intriguing: Elf Power. Marshmallow Coast. The Ladybug Transistor. A Hawk and A Hacksaw. Chocolate USA. Major Organ and the Adding Machine. Black Swan Network. The High Water Marks.
And then there’s the big three: The Apples in Stereo released great Beatles-meets-Beach Boys records throughout the 2000s. Olivia Tremor Control made a couple of classic underground psych-pop records and eventually splintered into the Sunshine Fix and Circulatory System. And Neutral Milk Hotel released two excellent albums including 1998’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, a psych-folk masterpiece that has taken on mythical status in the decades since.
The new documentary, directed by C.B. Stockfleth, uses interviews and never-before-seen footage to dig into Elephant 6’s origins and to trace not only the history of those bands and the ones that followed, but also their lasting influence on music and DIY culture. It’s a lot to wrap your head around. So before you attend a screening of The Elephant 6 Recording Co., be sure to revisit those Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, and Neutral Milk Hotel albums, plus these six lesser-known gems from other Elephant 6 bands:
The Minders, Hooray For Tuesday (1998)
Longtime Portlander, Martyn Leaper and his band are still making music, releasing a wonderful album, Psychedelic Blacktop, just last year. Meanwhile, their 25-year-old debut album remains a pitch-perfect slice of Beatles-esque indie-pop and an Elephant 6 highlight.
Dressy Bessy, Pink Hearts, Yellow Moons (1999)
Led by powerhouse songwriter Tammy Ealom, Dressy Bessy is a Denver-based band that stuffs its classic pop-rock with nonstop hooks and positive vibes. Their debut, Pink Hearts, Yellow Moons, finds them at their effervescent best.
Beulah, When Your Heartstrings Break (1999)
Beulah was based in the Bay Area, but their music was a perfect fit for the Elephant 6 aesthetic. All four of their albums are great, but their second, When Your Heartstrings Break, is baroque pop at its finest—horns, strings, and earworms galore.
Of Montreal, The Sunlandic Twins (2005)
Kevin Barnes’s Of Montreal may be the most successful band not named Neutral Milk Hotel to come out of Elephant 6, thanks to his penchant for irrepressible pop songs that dip deeply into electronic music, R&B, and psych oddity.
The Essex Green, Cannibal Sea (2006)
Formed in the Northeast, the Essex Green became associated with Elephant 6 near the tail end of the collective’s most active years. Their bouncy, ultra-melodic take on '60s-inspired folk-pop should not be overlooked, however.
The High Water Marks, Your Next Wolf (2023)
Hilarie Sidney is best known as Apples in Stereo’s longtime drummer, but she also co-leads psych-pop band the High Water Marks with Norwegian songwriter Per Ole Bratset. All three of the albums they’ve released since 2020 are terrific.