Elephants in the Room
Elephant 6 Collective brings Holiday Surprise Tour to Los Angeles
Like many people, my first exposure to the Elephant 6 Collective was through Neutral Milk Hotel’s brilliant 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a near-perfect blend of sonic richness, emotive vocals, fuzzy production and stream-of-consciousness lyrics based on Anne Frank, of all things. This album’s mystique has continued to grow since the band’s frontman and principal songwriter Jeff Mangum essentially disappeared from the public world of music shortly after its release.
Being the musically curious person that I am, I investigated who made this masterpiece, and quickly learned that Neutral Milk Hotel is just one of many bands affiliated with the Elephant 6 Collective, including The Olivia Tremor Control, The Apples in Stereo, Of Montreal and Elf Power. These bands each have their own sounds and identities (although they often share some personnel), but it’s likely that if you like one you’ll probably like the others.
On Friday night, a large group of Elephant 6 Collective members brought their Holiday Surprise Tour to The Satellite in Los Angeles, and it was well worth the drive down from Santa Barbara to witness the event.
The Olivia Tremor Control was well-represented in the band: Will Cullen Hart (guitar, vocals, one of the co-founders of the Collective and the driving force behind the band Circulatory System), Bill Doss (guitar, vocals, another co-founder of the Collective and leader of The Sunshine Fix), Peter Erchick (keyboards, bass, vocals) and John Fernandes (bass, clarinet, violin, vocals).
Several of the players on Neutral Milk Hotel’s aforementioned album were also in the band: Julian Koster (banjo, bass, guitar, drums, vocals and bowed saw, also the leader of the band The Music Tapes), Scott Spillane (horns, guitar, vocals and frontman for the band The Gerbils) and Laura Carter (horns, drums, vocals and co-founder of Elf Power). For the record, Mangum did not make an appearance, nor has he elsewhere on this tour. (He did make a few brief buzz-creating ones on the Elephant 6 tour in 2008.)
Rounding out the band was Andrew Rieger (guitar, vocals, the other co-founder of Elf Power), Derek Almstead (drums, vocals and from Elf Power), Bryan Poole (guitar, vocals, mastermind of The Late B.P. Helium and contributor to Of Montreal and Elf Power), and Robbie Cucchiaro (horns, vocals).
The show started with an a cappella version of Major Organ and the Adding Machine’s “When Father Was Away on Business,” with the performers starting in the audience and working their way onto the stage. This was followed by the psychedelic one-two punch of “Yesterday’s World” by Circulatory System and “Holiday Surprise 1, 2, 3” by Olivia Tremor Control.
Thus began a three-hour sonic journey of distorted guitars, piercing horns, multipart vocals and various instruments that you don’t normally hear in rock-‘n’-roll (saw, toy piano and banjo) in an intriguing sampler of the Elephant 6 output.
This included more pysch-pop gems by Olivia Tremor Control (“Can You Come Down With Us?,” “Hideaway,” “NYC-25” and “Define a Transparent Dream”) and Circulatory System (“The Lovely Universe” and “Round Again”).
Other Elephant 6 Collective bands that were represented were Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t (“Karaoke Free” and “Nothing for Sunday”), Music Tapes (“Majesty”), The Gerbils (“Lucky Girl,” which started with a recording of guitarist Will Westbrook. who died a few years ago, also “Two Skies,” “As Time Passed,” “The White Sky” and “Glue”), Elf Power (“The Separating Fault,” “Spiral Stairs” and “An Old Familiar Scene”), The Late B.P. Helium (“Candy for Everyone” which Poole claimed was written in honor of Sly Stone and during which Carter threw candy into the audience; also “They Broke the Speed of Light”), and The Sunshine Fix (“Hide in the Light” and “Sail Beyond the Sunset”).
There were also several cover songs, including the energetic “Party With Me Punker” by The Minutemen, which closed the first set, “Nothing’s Going to Happen” by Tall Dwarfs and “Alcohol” by The Kinks sung by Carter.
Particularly amazing to see and hear was the bowed saw played by Koster, giving an eerie, theremin-like sound that stood out whether accompanying the band or as the lead instrument in a stompin’ Eastern European instrumental over the background provided by the trippy organ playing tower.
Koster also acted as master of ceremonies for a competition to throw a ball from a giant inflatable snowman over the crowd to a target that represented the moon. A woman named Christina pulled off this feat and got to choose a song for the band to quickly learn and perform. She chose “In My Way, Yes” by Vic Chesnutt — which had been recorded in Silver Lake, the area of Los Angeles where the venue is — and even joined the band onstage to help sing it.
The show ended with a super-cool extended cover of Sun Ra’s “Enlightenment,” including the band chanting the lyrics first onstage, then walking through the crowd, ending up in the backstage area.
If there was ever any doubt about the talent and creativity of the Elephant 6 Collective, certainly by the end of the show everyone had been thusly enlightened.
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.