DOC NYC 2022 Interview: Rob Hatch-Miller on the Reverberations of “The Elephant 6 Recording Co.”

When the world wasn’t prepared for the explosion of music that came out of Athens, Georgia in the mid- to late ‘90s, it is fitting that “The Elephant 6 Recording Co,” a new film taking its name from the collective of bands found harmony in a place few others could in a myriad of ways, catches one off-guard with its propulsion, even those who might already be familiar with it. Bands such as Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control specialized in songs that could carry you away with their sunny disposition yet dense with instrumentation, often from unorthodox equipment – an engineer once had to prevent OTC frontman Will Cullen Hart from using a basketball bouncing as a source of percussion, and C.B. Stockfleth’s film allows for a similar adrenaline rush and a latent desire to unpack all you’re hearing.

Although the director would seem to pose an impossible question at the start to Robert Schneider, one of the leaders of the musical movement, when asking him to sum up the history of Elephant 6 in a minute, after some hemming and hawing, he manages a cogent and concise response that sets the tone for what’s to come and in fact, there’s a simple story at the heart of the film about a group of artists of eclectic interests that gravitated towards one another, starting out at a college radio station in Ruston, Louisiana where future Neutral Milk Hotel lead singer Jeff Mangum was a station manager. However, when Hart, Schneider, Mangum and the late Bill Doss relocated to Athens, the birthplace of R.E.M. that was ripe for new acts to take the stage in the wake of their success, a much grander narrative unfolds when a cross-pollination occurred between bands, which traded members freely and led to various side projects, and mediums when everyone wasn’t necessarily interested in just one art form. (Film fans will take note that future “Compliance” composer Heather McIntosh is among those who talk about their Elephant 6 experience in the film.)

While the creative energy was unbridled, the sprawling, melodious collaborations would sync up because of how close they were to each other as a community and it would take Stockleth over a decade to get his arms around the musical scene that no one wanted to leave. True to the spirit of the history he embarked on putting up on screen, he’d bring in formidable collaborators in executive producers Lance Bangs, a frequent co-conspirator of Spike Jonze’s and the director of the Sonic Youth doc “Daydream Nation,” and Rob Hatch-Miller, who showed he knew how to throw a party with the doc about the beloved New York brick-and-mortar store “Other Music,” and as Stockleth was tending to two births this week, with a new addition joining his family along with his celluloid baby making its debut at DOC NYC, Hatch-Miller generously took the time to talk about how it all managed to come together so seamlessly, securing the involvement of Mangum, who stepped away from public life after a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion in 2015, and giving a spotlight to musicians who never actively sought it out.

How’d you get involved in this?

Originally, it was Robert Schneider’s idea. He met C.B. Stockfleth, the director of the film around 2010, and liked some work that he did on an Apples in Stereo Live concert that he filmed and said, “Hey, I was in this group of musicians that was really big in the ‘90s and somebody needs to make a film about it.” [It] is a big responsibility. These bands were huge for me in the ‘90s. I got connected to this project personally because the editor of my last film, “Other Music,” about the New York City record store, was working on this Elephant 6 film before he started working on my film and I was a massive fan in the end of high school and beginning of college, lining right up with 1998-99 and the peak years of Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control.

I had gotten to see an early cut of it about four years ago and of course, there was a lot more work to be done, but it was fantastic and at that time I think I gave some notes to the director and the editor and tried to be helpful where I could. Then they officially invited me to join the team in 2020, during the pandemic and I started working with them to hone the edit and find all the best material we could. Probably most importantly, [we went around] to get everyone’s blessing to release the film because Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel, by far the most well-known band of the group, is someone who’s never done any press since the late ‘90s and is famously semi-reclusive, [the] “JD Salinger of Indie Rock,” people say, so figuring out how to incorporate him into the film in a way that made him feel like a character and also getting him to sign off on that was one of the biggest challenges that I helped them with.

When this was in the works for over a decade, was there pause about continuing on after not only Jeff’s disappearance from the scene, but one of the key members of the collective died?

Yeah, everybody in the collective was really passionate about the project coming out, including Jeff, truthfully. He’s been really supportive behind the scenes and has said really nice things about the film. A lot of the production happened after Bill Doss passed away. He died in 2012 and the director had already been shooting for a year or two before that, which is why he’s got so much great material with Bill while he was still alive. Then after that filming continued, the bulk of the interviews in the movie were filmed 2014, 2015, 2016, even into 2017, so it all really continued, and Jeff, although he hasn’t toured in a long time and hasn’t released new music in even longer, is all for this film coming out. We tried to be sensitive about including him with whatever material we could since he doesn’t do interviews for anyone, so it just was like, “Yeah, you can put me in the film, you can use my music, but you have to get creative.”

What we were able to do is find some old audio sources of interviews that he did on the radio in the late ‘90s and some concerts where he talked about the band in between songs that were bootlegged. He did not allow cameras for the reunion tour that Neutral Milk Hotel did in 2014. People weren’t even supposed to use their cell phones, so luckily Jeff signed off on us using the cell phone footage from people who cheated to [film] the band in that reunion era.

When there’s so much archival material, was there anything in particular that blew your mind when you came across it?

The basis for the film’s existence is really Lance Bangs, who is a documentarian and music video director who appears on camera in some of the “Jackass” movies and TV shows. Lance lived in Athens in the late ‘90s and he films everything by nature, any event he does, he’s always got a camera, so he videotaped all kinds of stuff in Athens at the height of this time period that no one else was. The reason we have footage like Jeff and Neutral Milk Hotel playing in the late ‘90s and a hilarious performance art piece in the film where one of the guys from Elf Power is pouring milk all over himself on stage and things like the band Dixie Blood Mustache that he documented in film, which was an all-female Elephant 6 band — very little known, never made an album, but they were a group of women who made abstract, highly experimental music, played on kitchen appliances — is because Lance was there filming their shows. We’re so lucky that he is a producer on this film and allowed us to use that footage.

This sound looks and feels like one of the albums that would come out of Elephant Six. What was it like figuring out how reflect the music?

The collage aesthetic is very deliberate on the part of the director and the editor, Greg King, [who] is just one of the best documentary editors going. He edited “City of Gold,” a film I loved, about the LA Times Pulitzer Prize winning food critic [Jonathan Gold], and then I brought him on to cut “Other Music” and he just has a brilliant mind for documentary non-fiction storytelling and is also a musician and a visual artist himself, so he weaves all those elements together.

With so much music to pack into it and it tells a story in itself, is there some kind of map you create before going into the cut?

That is part of the process and it’s a logistical piece as much as it is a creative piece. When I’m working on one of these music film projects, we make a spreadsheet of all the songs, firstly to figure out rights holders for licensing and potentially fair use, if there’s things that are used in a narrative way or very briefly. But you can also use that document to map out what you already have in there and what’s missing. You can see, “Oh, actually we didn’t include anything [from] Of Montreal.” [For instance], a band called Secret Square, an offshoot of the Apples in Stereo [that] drummer Hilarie Sidney played guitar in and sang with Lisa Janssen, and I had that CD back in 1999. It only recently came on streaming services and towards the end we added one of their songs, which I’m really glad we got to include.

One of my favorite things is that there is this emphasis on the collective and you’ll have an interview where Danger Mouse is sitting next to somebody in the collective, but he doesn’t speak. Was it important to focus on who was actually involved in this rather than who they influenced?

We very deliberately did not just go for celebrity fan interviews. Everyone for the most part is someone who’s connected — even Danger Mouse, who lived in Athens, Georgia at the time of Elephant Six and worked at Wuxtry, the record store there. His first release he ever put out had a song that had the Neutral Milk Hotel sample on it, so he’s actually deeply connected to Elephants Six and a fan. Then we interviewed James Mercer from The Shins, who is very vocally influenced by Elephant Six and their album “Oh, Inverted World” came out in 2001, right on the tail end of the Elephant Six stuff, so they were big fans and had a similarly sunshine, psychedelic, catchy pop vibe. Elijah Wood actually had released two of the Apples in Stereo’s later albums on his record label and he directed and appeared in music videos for the band as well.

But the film is about so many people. The photo that we’re using for [press photo] just shows some of the scope of it — a group of about 40 people standing there, and that’s not even everybody, so we just didn’t even have room for extraneous people to fit into a 90-minute film that would be hopefully not confusing for people coming into it with very little or no knowledge of these bands. We wanted to make a film that even if you only knew Neutral Milk Hotel, you would start the movie and by the end know, “Okay, this is this band, and maybe afterwards I want to buy the other albums that I don’t have.”

If you came on during the pandemic, this seems like a nice cocoon from everything that was going on. What’s it like putting this out into the world after being so close to it these past couple years?

I’m thrilled because the first time I saw the movie, I was just so excited and wanted to tell everybody like, “Oh my God, you’re going to love this movie when it comes out.” As I said, I was such a huge fan of these bands in the late ‘90s – there was a time in my life when I listened to Neutral Milk Hotel nonstop, and that time has long passed, so being part of the movie and watching it really revived my love for all these groups and deepened and expanded it. Most importantly, I got to know who these people were because at the time, these were just some weird bands with weird names and I didn’t know the names of the members or what they played or what they looked like or who they were as people. They’re just so fascinating and lovable and just getting to know them through watching the film has been a true pleasure.

“The Elephant 6 Recording Co.” will screen at DOC NYC on November 10th at 9:30 pm at the IFC Center and November 15th at 9 pm at Cinepolis Chelsea.

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