Written by Robert Schneider
Our band started in 1992. I (Robert S.) had just moved to Denver in late ’91 and I met this guy Jim McIntyre on the local commuter bus from Denver to Boulder, where we both attended university. I (being, according to Jim at the time, pathologically friendly) chatted with him daily and he would try to avoid me, as he is not a morning person. One day I asked him what kind of music he liked, and in that heyday of grunge and hard rock he thought a safe way to end the conversation would be to tell me his favorite band: the Beach Boys. Little did he know I was a certified lifelong Beach Boys nut and, as you can imagine, the conversation picked up after that. (I had not met anybody outside of my few best Elephant-6-to-be buddies who ever claimed the Boys as his/her favorite band. Nor had Jim.) Jim introduced me to Hilarie Sidney, his roommate, who also loved Beach Boys and the Beatles too, and also loved Pavement’s singles, the Tall Dwarfs, the Unrest and other great underground stuff which turned out to be right up my pop-obsessed alley. They were both also heavily into the Velvet Underground, oldies radio, psychedelics/psychedelia, punk rock, and four track recording (also right up my alley). And Jim owned a bass and Hilarie owned a drum set, which they “played” in a bizarre “band” called Von Hemmling with their various friends, including a guy called John Hill. Quickly becoming best friends, we tossed around plans to start a band and a record label.
At about the same time I met a guitarist named Chris who was a cool guy, a fret-shredding lead guitarist a la Hendrix, and a classic pop music fan who also had just moved to Denver. He spoke like an entry in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock, overflowing with rock-historic knowledge, which impressed me greatly. I had answered an ad in the Denver weekly paper for his band, which needed a bass player and listed Pavement (pre-“Slanted”, then still really obsuro in Denver) as an influence. His bandmates didn’t like me, but he and I hit it off and decided to write songs together. We wanted to have a band with vocals and production like the Beach Boys, that would rock like “Interstellar Overdrive” and the Velvets, but more fuzzy, like Black Sabbath.
Again, at about the same time I made a two-week trip to Athens, Georgia, where my boyhood schoolmates Jeff Mangum and Will Hart had moved. They had a band called Synthetic Flying Machine, formerly called the Cranberry Lifecycle, now called the Olivia Tremor Control (except that Jeff later quit the band to pursue Neutral Milk Hotel, his “solo” recording project which he had named back in high school,and my old pal Bill Doss moved to Athens and joined to form OTC). The four-track recorder I bought in tenth grade, with which I would record my friends’ and my own developing tunes in high school (I had a Beatles/Velvets/New Wave/Classic Rock inspired band called Fat Planet with my best pal Bill Doss, who is now an Olivia– Jeff and Will were playing various folky, noisy and psychedelic perspectives at the same time)–well, that old four-track broke and, inspired by Von Hemmling and Cranberry Lifecycle recordings, I got a new one (parental 21st birthday present, actually). So i had been recording a LOT in my bedroom, recordings which are now released as the marbles LP. I visited Athens and hung out and recorded with my friends and was very impressed by their band. I wanted to have a band too, and it seemed easy the way they did it: friends making friendly music. One late night Will and I were listening to a Syd Barrett/Pink Floyd bootleg and “Apples and Oranges” came on and I was trying to think of a name for the band I wanted to start, and I said “That’s it! The Apples!” and Will said “That’s it!” and that was it for the name (the hardest part of starting a band, really, besides finding a bass player). I told Will & Jeff how Jim, Hilarie, and I had been planning a record label and we all vowed that by this time (summer) next year we (the Apples and the Synthetic Flying Machine) would put out real vinyl records and we would tour together. Will suggested the name Elephant 6, I added “Recording Co.” and we had a name for the label (the hardest part of starting a label, too).
Returning to Denver, I started practicing with Chris (just two guitars)
and continued my four-track recording. By fall Chris and I decided we should ask Jim and Hilarie to play in the band, and by winter we were practicing. In December we played our first “show”, a few songs at an open-mike bar where I had played acoustically, with Hilarie on toy cardboard drums and Chris’ guitar amp twice as loud as the combined output of the rest of us. Also in December we started recording what would be our first EP, on my new four-track cassette recorder. We KNEW the whole world was just waiting, starving for a band like us with a rough sound and classic songs. We played our triumphant first “real show” at a coffee shop in Boulder in January to a handful of bemused customers and kept practicing and recording. We also met another Denver band, the Felt Pilotes, with similar ethos and for our first year or two played shows with them almost exclusively, and shared a practice space.
We finished recording our EP in April 1993 and went to master it at Aardvark Records, an basement vinyl-cutting studio in Denver (where I have personally mastered nearly every Elephant 6 record since, with Paul Brekus, an eccentric guy who has taken on heroic status in my mind) where the guy somehow crammed our eighteen-plus minutes onto two sides of a seven-inch!! By June we had 500 copies of our EP and Will, now my roommate in Denver, drew psychedelic art and designed an Elephant 6 logo. I laid the whole thing out at Kinko’s and printed up the twelve-page illustrated booklet, the poster, and the stickers that were to be included in the record. We wanted it to be a record that would be a fun, exciting purchase for the listener: interesting production, artwork, packaging, as well as great songs. We wanted the record to be a real EXPERIENCE (this is still our primary goal). It sold out quickly and we played a handful of shows to confused audiences around Denver and kept writing, practicing, and recording. Our band sounded like an artless trainwreck: sloppy, loud as hell, catchy as hell too, but a complete shambles (we have progressed through the years to an incomplete shambles). We could barely make it all the way through a song, but we believed in the songs and the sound and we figured our playing would catch up.
The beginning of 1994 Chris dropped out of the band. We tried out our friend Eric Allen on rhythm guitar, but he was much too punk rock for our new direction (which would be perfect later, as you will learn). John Hill, easy-going former guitarist in Von Hemmling, moved back to Denver from the East Coast and soon enough he was playing in our band. He had a jangly, strummy rhythm guitar style, more like the Byrds contrasted with Chris’ fuzzed out Hendrix or Neil Young. This worked well and I started to make the transition to lead guitar. The band took an only slightly less hard-rock direction and began moving toward the sound which we perfected with “Fun Trick Noisemaker.” We started to record our first LP on four-track, which turned into a new EP, “Hypnotic Suggestion” (which came out on the Bus Stop Label a year later) when spinART Records called and said they would buy us an eight-track (my dream acquisition) if we would record an album for them.
About this time (mid-1994) Jim dropped out of the band and we became bass-less for a long time. My old friend and by then roommate Jeff filled in on bass on and off during this time (and Hilarie and I plus our friend Lisa Janssen backed Jeff up in Neutral Milk Hotel live), as did various other friends, including Jim, sometimes-roommate Kurt Heasley from the Lilys (who never actually learned any songs but he did buy a bass), two Joels, and our great friend Kyle Jones (Jim, Jeff, Kyle, and I shared the bass chores for Fun Trick Noisemaker). Kyle had a house and a small studio and when spinART bought us recording gear we pooled it with Kyle’s house and gear and started a studio, the Sleeping Brotherhood (which still keeps Kyle busy)Pet Sounds (which keeps me busy, though now relocated to Jim’s house). We toured the West Coast as the Apples and Neutral Milk Hotel, then toured the East Coast, played the YoYo a GoGo festival in Olympia, Washington with Neutral Milk and the Apples, then went back to California (I totally subscribe to the California Dream, real or not) to our friend Brandt Larson’s house where he was kind enough to let us spend an October in sunny paradise, recording the basic tracks for Fun Trick Noisemaker. (Kurt Lily and the OTC came and visited us at Brandt’s and we had lots of hyper good times.) Then we went back to Kyle’s house in Denver and finished
Fun Trick Noisemaker by March, 1995. We wanted to make the ultimate psychedelic pop record, somewhere between the Beach Boys, Byrds, Zombies, and Velvet Underground– natural-sounding, spaced-out, and entirely harmonious. Steve Keene, an artist whose work we admired on a Silver Jews record, painted us 36 cover paintings, we chose 8 and the record was in production. Immediately, I started working with Jeff recording the first Neutral Milk Hotel LP and then we started touring like mad for our album. Later that year, our friend Eric Allen mentioned that he could fill in on bass. His punk rock attack and massive rock/jazz/blues/R&B/punk knowledge and smartass persona made him the perfect bass player for us, and he liked it so he joined the band. At the end of 1995 we moved our studio gear to Jim’s house (where it remains), as Kyle needed roommates and not just a not-for-profit studio to pay his house bills.
1996 started with the Olivia Tremor Control coming to Denver and recording their first album. The Apples toured a lot to support Fun Trick Noisemaker, and we started recording our second album on eight-track. With Eric in the band, we actually started to sound somewhat tight and our live shows became exciting, instead of merely tuneful, loud, and sloppy (that too, though). We even got to go to Japan and play to the frenzied youth there. Come 1997, we were frustrated with our new album on eight-track. It just didn’t sound hi-fi or focused enough, and didn’t reflect the R&B/classic rock sound we had been perfecting live. So we decided to re-record it live at a “real” recording studio. We chose Studio .45 in Hartford, Connecticut because of the engineer’s excellent sounds on a handful of records, including most notably on our friend Kurt’s Lilys albums. So we recorded live basic tracks plus some overdubs for two weeks, then went to Japan, toured and toured some more, and in between recorded horns, pianos, guitars, organs, and other such instrumentation in Denver on our 8-track. We then took these tracks back to Hartford, dubbed them onto the 24-track basic tracks, and finished the album. This time we were very satisfied with the recordings. As usual, we toured some more and then headed back to Denver in time for me to record the second Neutral Milk Hotel album. Then our new album “Tone Soul Evolution” (with more great artwork from now-close-friend Steve Keene) came out in October, I think, and we began touring again.
This brings us to 1998. spinART licensed our new album to Sire Records, and we are going to be touring probably even more than before to support Tone Soul Evolution. Our friend and neighbor Chris McDuffie has joined the band on organ/synthesizer/lap-steel slide guitar/percussion and we enjoy playing live more than ever. I think we are pretty tight as a performing band, though there are rough edges which we couldn’t smooth out even if we wanted to. All things considered, I play in one of the most exciting, loud, frenzied, fun, and musical rock bands in the world, with the most friendly and compatible bunch of guys and a girl I have ever met, and that is a constant high. In addition, I am surrounded by talented, ambitious friends who constantly challenge my skills as a songwriter and record producer, in a decade producing some of the best and freest music in the history of our genre. I am a lucky boy and this is a good time indeed.
As an aside, I thought I would mention Apples side-projects. Hilarie and her best friend Lisa have released some extremely psychedelic four-track recordings under the name Secret Square on Elephant 6. Jim still pursues his Von Hemmling path (begun in junior high school with his cousin) of strangeness and beauty, and his first single came out on Elephant 6 the end of last year (1997). John plays in, writes with and produces Dressy Bessy, a spunky fuzzpop group fronted by his girlfriend Tammy. Eric listens to massive amounts of music and constantly seems to be starting strange conceptual groups with the motley eccentrics comprising his (and our) social circle. Last I heard, Chris, our original guitarist, was playing with his band Vince Mole and the Calcium Orchestra in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. And I (Robert) sometimes release “solo” recordings as marbles, although I am usually too busy producing my friends records (like OTC, NMH, the Felt Pilotes,& the Minders) or Apples records to record my own non-Apples stuff (one of these days, perhaps…).
Well, that’s the story. Thanks for listening.