The Elephant Six Collective: Interview
“There’s something undeniably special that happens when this gaggle of people in this room get together.”
With a rapidly approaching tour, a new addition to the Orange Twin roster, and a high-wattage radio station in the works, Laura Carter (Elf Power, Neutralk Milk Hotel, Orange Twin founder) and the rest of the Elephant 6 Collective are in the midst of an ambitious new phase in their careers. I had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Carter and, later, many other members of the collective — including Scott Spillane (The Gerbils, Neutral Milk Hotel), Julian Koster (The Music Tapes, Neutral Milk Hotel), Derek Almstead (of Montreal, E6 engineer), Bryan Poole (of Montreal, The Late B.P. Helium), Will Hart (Circulatory System, The Olivia Tremor Control), and Andrew Rieger (Elf Power) — concerning aspirations for the new year, Scott Spillane’s beard, and what fans can expect from the Holiday Surprise tour, which kicks off tonight, February 24, at the WhirlyBall in Roswell, GA.
INTERVIEW WITH LAURA CARTER
What was the impetus to start up the tour again?
Laura Carter: Well last time we didn’t make plans to go out west, and we felt bad because people asked us why. I think we just didn’t know if our whole show was going to fit together. So we were kind of timid. Three or four weeks seemed like a long time at one point, but once we realized that it was actually really fun, working, playing and everyone was having a really good time, then we realized we could actually have gone on longer.
What bands can people expect to see?
Music Tapes, Elf Power, Major Organ and the Adding Machine, Circulatory [System], Gerbils, BP Helium, Instruments, and I guess that’s about it. Maybe Scott will do “The Fool,” which is a Neutral Milk song. We kind of have a rotational sort of lineup.
So you’re not doing a full set for each band.
No. And it will change every night. So we’re going through a lot of songs. We will hopefully do some films and some audience-interactive games.
I also noticed there are no openers for any of the dates
We’re filling the whole three hours. Also we’re not blocking it with one band following another like a set would be. We’re kind of flowing over two or three instruments away — playing songs with a similar lineup.
Is there any new material you’ll be premiering for this tour?
We’re doing a tour single — a 7-inch. And that has some unreleased gems from the past and ones that were unfinished that we finished. That should come back from the plant hopefully this week.
Are there any songs you’re particularily looking forward to playing?
Yeah, but I don’t want to tell what they are. (Laughs). There’s a couple of covers that I’m really excited about. But I don’t want to say.
You’re playing your first show at a bumper car arena.
That’s the show I’m most excited about. It’s a combination bumper cars and lacrosse [arena]. I’ve never been there, and I guess we’re playing in the middle of all that going on. I wish I could be in the crowd for that one show.
I’ve heard there were a couple documentaries that were in various states of production last year. Do you have anything to do with those and is there any plans for them to be released?
Yeah, I’ve heard rumors. We’re an elusive bunch. We’re willing to do interviews, but it’s weird to be on film
“We’re basically trying to gather all the coolest shit we can find.”
How’s the radio station coming along, I heard a few months ago you announced that you had acquired the rights to a station?
Well, we need interested people to contact us to help get it off the ground. People with time. It’s exciting, and it’s there and I’m trying to learn. It’s hard with record label stuff and tour stuff. It would broadcast from Athens and reach as far as Atlanta.
Will the Apples in Stereo make an appearance on this tour?
Honestly, I don’t ever know. The last time we toured, Jeff [Mangum] said he wasn’t coming and the Apples weren’t. So they weren’t joining us, and then Jeff stepped on tour and never left tour. And the Apples — they jumped on and they never left either. This time, I don’t think they’re going, and I don’t think that Jeff is going, but that was the same as last time.
What can you tell me about new Orange Twin signee Al Scorch?
He’s a badass. I love Al Scorch. He’s up in Chicago recording; he recorded today. It’ll be his first record. He’s a young’n — up and coming. I’ve also wanted to pick back up on the Orange Twin field recordings. Pick worldly stuff. Al and I have wanted to do a volume of sea shanties, and he has a lot of knowledge about that and access to reels of recordings. So we’re also planning a collection of sea shanties.
I’ve noticed film has taken an increasing role in the Elephant 6 universe. What kind of stuff do you plan on screening for the tour?
We’re rotating through a bunch of ideas on that. It’s not exactly nailed down. In the past, we’ve shown Brian Dewan shorts, which are animated, wonderful, witty comedies. Those we’ll probably play after the intermission, let everyone go outside. Then when everyone’s back in, we’d start the second half with some little film strips, comedy stuff, and then start the show again. We’ve been looking at comedy stuff, some art projects. There’s also been a lot of projects besides the Major Organ movie; there’s some Circulatory System stuff, and we might even rotate what we show every night so it’ll be different each time. We’re basically trying to gather all the coolest shit we can find.
Is there anything else you want to add concerning the tour?
Well, the crew of this tour is really different from the crew of the first one. That first one I felt like it was — well, Julian really brought it together, and Theo and I double drummed and it was like Music Tapes/Gerbils heavy. This one is going to be a little more Elf Power arrangements; it will be different. It should be good — it sounds really good. I do walk away from practice, like “wow it sounds amazing, everyone’s screaming, and it’s total chaos.” When you get 15 people in a room, it does tend to be chaos, and it is. But it could be worse. It could be chaos and sound like shit. That would be really bad.
INTERVIEW WITH SCOTT SPILLANE, JULIAN KOSTER, DEREK ALMSTEAD, BRYAN POOLE, WILL HART, AND ANDREW RIEGER
Why did you all decide to go on tour again?
Scott Spillane: Julian.
Julian Koster: [Laughs] I guess that means I’m supposed to answer the question.
SS: No, you made us.
JK: I don’t recall doing that actually… Well, we had a lot of fun. It was really fun.
SS: …On the last one.
JK: Yes and incredibly, extraordinarily short. I remember Will [Hart] yelling out “best tour ever” about three thousand times. So we wanted to do it again right away, which for us takes about two years.
Yesterday, Laura mentioned you had a new release for the tour.
SS: There’s a 7-inch that we just got today.
Laura Carter: Hot off the presses.
SS: It’s a conglomeration of this that and the other.
JK: It’s kind of an epic 7-inch.
SS: There [are] 12 different pieces or songs that flow in and out of it. All kinds of material from all kinds of eras. How old do you think some of the pressings are that are on there?
Derek Almstead: 92?
LC: Yeah, I think so. It was some unmarked cassette tapes that me and Eric archived.
SS: So there’s stuff that could be over 20 years old, and there’s stuff that we just did for it. I guess we put it together over a week, to have something fresh for the tour.
What should people expect when they go to a show, in terms of songs and bands?
Bryan Poole: We have a list of songs right there.
[Poole directs my attention to a large chart covered in names of Elephant 6 bands with roughly half a dozen songs each on them, as well as a few recognizable coverers. Scott informs me that the exact songs are to be kept secret.]
JK: We’re going to do like a million songs. Like 50 songs.
SS: However many is on that list.
DA: I believe there’s between 60 and 70 songs.
SS: No way.
JK: We won’t play those every night.
SS: There will be a rotation.
JK: Also movies and carnival games. And Scott Spillane’s beard.
SS: I might be shaving it. Thinking about it.
JK: Don’t do it, or put it in a jar.
SS: It grows back.
JK: Well, if you do it, save it and we’ll put it in a jar, and make a big sign and put it up in front of the mic stand.
[At this point, the conversation largely concerns Scott’s beard for a few minutes and forms of preserving it for posterity in a museum.]
“When you get 15 people in a room, it does tend to be chaos, and it is. But it could be worse. It could be chaos and sound like shit. That would be really bad.”
What are the plans for the films you’ll be screening?
JK: There’s several prospective films, but I’m sure by the time we leave Athens, we’ll have figured it out. But I don’t even know if… some of the things I probably shouldn’t say because we’ll get in trouble. This whole copyright thing, you know. They’re great films. They’re going to be wonderful.
SS: I suggest using words like nebulous, vague, undetailed.
SS: We don’t know. We’re trying here, we’re trying. [Mashes keys of a nearby organ.]
[Will Hart enters the room, singing the chorus to “Run Run Run” by The Velvet Underground.]
Will Hart: Isn’t that a weird lyric ever? “Gypsy death and you.”
So you’re going to be switching up instruments up fairly frequently throughout the set. What will y’all be playing?
JK: Answer that one Will.
WH: Well, I can point. [Gestures to Almstead] Sometimes he’ll be playing bass, and sometimes he’ll play drums. And I’ll sing. It’s true.
Derek Almstead: I like that word.
WH: Yes true. T-R-U-O-E. We’re not helping, or I’m not helping anyway.
JK: I think none of us are helping so far.
DA: Along the lines of acts that won’t be featured, at least for the 40 Watt show. BP Helium unfortunately will not be represented, because you’ll be on the road.
BP: Yeah, I’ll be gone with of Montreal, but it’s the only show I’m not going to attend unfortunately.
JK: He hates Athens. He said “I’ll play a show anywhere, but there.”
BP: I can’t show my face now.
Will of Montreal be represented at all on this tour?
BP: No. I don’t think so. We certainly haven’t gone over any of those songs. If somebody wants to hear an of Montreal song, then maybe I’ll play one for them in the parking lot or something.
JK: But you won’t be here to play them in the parking lot even.
SS: People have the internet these days Julian, so people that read this interview might not only be from Athens.
JK: I forgot about the internet.
SS: Have you heard about it? Al Gore invented it. It sends information around the world. In a series of wires. It’s weird. It’s kinda like the telephone only more so. Well you can now…
BP: Basically we’re doing this tour because we’re all friends and we want to hang out with one another. It’s what I want to do; I like it. It’s kinda like going out with your best friends and spending time with maybe friends you haven’t seen in a while. That’s how it is for me, and I kind of view it as a great chance to kind of go on a big barnstorming tour and hang out with each other.
JK: Yeah. There’s something undeniably special that happens when this gaggle of people in this room get together. It’s hard not to love. I mean I love it. That’s why I do it. We get to play all this music and see each other and then horde around the country. And share it with rooms full of people who are excited. It’s just really exciting.
Do you all plan on shooting any videos of the shows?
Andrew Rieger: There have been some people that have come forward and plan on filming some shows, but nothing we’re involved in.
You guys have a pretty interesting format for the show. Why was it chosen?
DA: I would like to answer that question. ‘Cuz its funner.
JK: Yeah, it’s a whole lot of fun. The whole think is vaguely based on these shows we did a long long time ago in Athens that were actually around a real holiday time. Although the concept of Holiday Surprise was originally about Christmas. That show was just a bunch of friends, and we all made a bunch of food and it was a big potluck in this place that used to be an abandoned church, and it was kind of in transition into becoming a coffee shop and our friend owned it. So we did the show there and had a big potluck and played songs and did kind of special things. It was all doing special things and having as much fun as possible, and it was really fun. I guess that was kind of the embryonic version of this tour. And also because we have such a big family of friends that a lot of times the relationship between — you know, having Scotty sing a Gerbils song with a bunch of us playing a bunch of instruments we might not normally play and have that turn into an Olivia Tremor Control song and have that turn into… you know. Suddenly, we have all these things morphed into all these things that have been so closely aligned for so long because of the friendships and the shared time and magic that haven’t ever been presented that way because it was separate bands on separate tours. It’s just kind of a celebration of that.
“I suggest using words like nebulous, vague, undetailed.”SS: Well-spoken.
DA: And also because we share so much gear, this is the only way we can go on tour.
SS: You don’t want to send your amp on the road with somebody else.
WH: And it makes it cheaper you don’t have to bring your amp, my amp, Scott’s amp, you know.
JK: Exactly. And you don’t have to have… well, you know, Scott’s got a beard. You don’t have to grow one.
[Talk returns to the subject of Scott’s beard with many people talking over one another, about amongst other things, suitable preservation of Scott’s beard should he decide to shave it, and the quality of the false beards obtained for the Major Organ film.]
Why did you guys decide to take such a long break in using the E6 moniker for touring and recording?
WH: I’d like to answer that. There became a time when it was actually used as sort of a tagline or something. “Elephant Six-y.” That kind of thing. And then they hated us. That too. Really. It got passé with the culture. And then the internet came along and ruined it. That’s the way I remember it. They don’t even make magazines anymore.
JK: That was all before Al Gore invented the internet.
So I’ve heard rumors that John’s been playing new Olivia Tremor Control songs at Wuxtry. What’s the status with those recordings and is a release planned?
WH: That’s unfortunate, but true. It’s something in me. People are like, “people like your music, don’t be a fool.” But I don’t think that ever, really. I do what I do. We have about 30 new bits, I might say. They might be link tracks or things that are songs, so we got 30 songs. So that will be something. And we have 10 pretty much done, I’d say.
Do you think the internet has negatively impacted artists?
SS: I think its definitely more white noise. Not the music. But in general.
WH: Too much information out there?
DA: There used to be a time when people would get together and talk about last Saturday’s radio show. Around the 90s, when everyone got 4-track or 8-track recorders, then all this independent stuff came out, and now it’s even 12 times — even a thousand times more than that, as far as different music coming out.
WH: The best thing is they have computers now which makes it great with the zeroes and ones.
DA: It’s all coming out so much faster, and that’s one thing. If it was impossible to make money with music before, then it’s definitely impossible now.
WH: I do find it positive what with new bands, but it does seem like an overload. Jeff [Mangum] and I, in 87 we started working at the college radio station. We were in mid highschool. We were just staffing, and we were like “We’ll do a show. I mean, we hate this town.” [Laughs] It was a heavy alt-rock station. The styles that were around then — there were so fucking many bands around then that were signed to like major or major-ish labels. Now it’s different. Lots of R.E.M. clones then. At the radio station it was cool, because they had been getting records since 68. Jeff and I would go back there and nobody ever cared [about the older records]. Sun Ra? We ended up stealing a bunch of them. When CDs came along, when we were all gone, like a year later, John Fernandes was still there. He was the music director. They just took the records and put them in the fuckin garbage.
SS: They went through the LPs, and if they didn’t recognize it, they threw it out and it was gone. Everything. Anything and everything that was good was thrown out.
JK: I think The Cult made the cut. And The Beatles.
WH: What was the question though? Oh, the internet thing. I feel like I ragged it a little, and I don’t have a problem with it really. It might seem like I do. It’s just the glut of stuff… Well, I feel like it’s kinda the same. It may be better, now that you mention it.
SS: Pandora helps too.
WH: Is that some internet shit?