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The Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider Looks Back on His Legacy

The musician, producer, and mathematician shares his recipe for the Elephant Six Recording Co.’s special sauce ahead of new documentary.

by Maggie McPhee

Photo by Tim Barnes

Robert Schneider beams in from Houghton, Michigan, where he’s days from starting his semester as a mathematician at Michigan Tech University. He’s spent the summer writing three research papers and an experimental science fiction zine composed by human friends, ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion — available for free by mail order. He’s perched on a chair with striped fabric and a white rim that his late compatriot Bill Doss (of The Olivia Tremor Control, The Sunshine Fix, and The Apples in Stereo) had once lugged home from an antique store to paint and upholster.

The breadth of artistry brimming in this sliver testifies to the creative paroxysm that is The Elephant 6 Recording Company, exposed in all its radiant glory in a new documentary. The collective counts among its numbers musicians, songwriters, producers, technicians, inventors, sculptors, painters, poets, performers, and filmmakers. During the 1990s, this tight-knit group of friends percolated in Lo-Fi isolation amongst four-tracks, cassettes, and restored recording equipment to eventually deliver upon the world bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, of Montreal, The Apples in Stereo, and Elf Power. 

The film, The Elephant 6 Recording Co., matches the kinesis emanating from these small-town outcasts. Director Chad Stockfleth released the prototypical version for free on VHS in 2019. The few existing copies all contained different edits – a long, winding, and unconventional visual history – and came with original handmade art. Interested parties would call an 800 number and leave a mailing address on the machine. Once in their possession, they’d screen the tape in their hometown and then return it by post, delicate art and all. 

The Elephant 6 Collective (Photo: Amy Hairston)

“It felt very much like an Elephant 6 type of release to me,” says Schneider. “It felt anti-corporate. Chad was doing this out of an act of love. He embedded himself in our collective for a decade and then came out of it with just a pure art project. I felt like it honoured our collective.” 

Stockfleth spent 10 years sleeping on people’s floors, tracking down artefacts, and combing the country for stories. After the VHS generated enough buzz, producers Lance Bangs, Rob Hatch-Miller and Greg King hopped on board and brought with them footage from the 90s. Fans poured in with clips from gigs. The vaults had been unlocked. This new release represents a collective endeavour to give Elephant 6 the cinematic production they deserve, and audiences access to a story that will inspire them to the nines. 

As the film unfolds, one thread floats to the fore: Elephant 6 was a rare experiment in open-mindedness, free expression, and creative possibility. “In the moment, I felt like we were fucking changing the world and we were different from everybody,” Schneider says. “But looking back, I see that what we were doing was embedded in our generation.” 

Robert Schneider (Photo: Mike Colletta)

These kids from Restin, Virginia, and Athens, Georgia, who devoted their lives to recording tapes on four-tracks, making zines, and scouring record stores, epitomised the DIY subculture of the 90s. Yet their infatuation with the Beach Boys set their music apart. “We had a love for really uncool music that happened to be really catchy. So our punk rock was writing beautiful, meaningful, catchy songs instead of just bursts of noise,” Schneider laughs. “Although there were bursts of noise, too.”  

This underground network of eccentrics connected across the country through mail order. “What we were doing was also being done by other kids in other communities, and many of them joined Elephant 6,” says Schneider. “And that’s why it grew so big so fast, was because we opened it up to being something that other people could join and we wanted to reach them. And we did. It actually worked.” 

Though Elephant 6 were not the only clan luxuriating in the shroud of four-track hiss, they nonetheless emerged as the movement’s representatives. Schneider, who co-founded the collective, attributes that success to a few key elements: luck, “childhood kind of friendships,” and operating in an underground economy. 

“If you’re doing something that’s anti-commercial, it’s not under any corporation’s umbrella. It’s literally an art movement that’s happening in culture,” Schneider explains. “That’s what Elephant Six was, really. It wasn’t happening in the music industry. There was nobody profiting from it.”

This not-for-profit model meant a large group overspilling with personalities remained harmonious throughout its run. Members pushed one another creatively without competing over status of money. Elephant 6 was a club, not a company, and their doors were open to all. 

Neutral Milk Hotel (Photo: Chris Bilheimer)

“We wanted to be able to live cheaply, we wanted to be able to have part time jobs, and spend the rest of our time on art,” Schneider recalls. The collective straddled the poverty line, living together in cheap houses and subsiding off food stamps. “The alternative is either you have a full time job and your time gets sucked away, and your soul dies eventually and then you don’t get to do art anymore, or you have to work really hard to not have that happen.”

What’s more, the collective controlled every strata of production and distribution — recording, printing vinyl, and making visual materials. Band members doubled as album artists and music video directors. Schneider, a bonafide tech wizard, built his Pet Sounds recording studio out of restored equipment, where he later produced In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, among other standout records

“The last thing we wanted was to have a job making music,” Schneider says, though he admits it’s unusual to choose poverty. “It’s a luxury to be able to be broke. But if you can take that luxury for a period, then it’s very productive for your art. In the long term, though, it can be detrimental to your physical and mental well-being.” 

Elephant 6 hacked the system. They indulged in a safe space defined by experimentation and imagination, protected by their peculiar peers. They forged an underground web for sharing and appreciating America’s homegrown art. They denied the existence of industry executives and music publicists. And they thrived. “It could be done for free and in our own spaces and disconnected from anybody else’s economy,” says Schneider. “The sacrifice is that you’re not going to make commercially viable recordings, but you don’t want to make commercially viable recordings.”   

The Elephant 6 Recording Co. is playing in select theatres and will be available on VOD in Canada September 26. View here for a complete list of screenings.