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Songs and tips with Elephant 6’s stellar girls

Songs and tips with Elephant 6’s stellar girls

translated by Ilaria Iannicelli

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Today, I come bearing gifts: an interview to Laura Carter and a magical playlist with the most beautiful songs written by the women of the Elephant 6 Recording Company, an american collective of musicians which generated several independent bands of the 1990s.

Many of you might know some of the wonderful groups born inside of Elephant 6, such as Neutral Milk Honey, Olivia Tremor Control and of Montreal. But beneath them, there is a world filled with dozens of good bands, some of which are led by talented girls and women.

I had the pleasure of interviewing the lovely Laura Carter, who plays various instruments for Elf Power. Besides telling us what it was and is like to be a woman in Elephant 6, she gives us some great life advices.

Also, below the interview, check out some facts about the other artists part of the collective featured in this playlist!

As a founding member of Elf Power and collaborator in many other projects, you’ve been part of the Elephant 6 Collective for about 20 years. How did everything begin? What was it like in the early 90s while the collective was taking shape, and how did you get into it?

Elephant 6 was started long before I was on the scene by Will [Cullen Hart], Jeff [Mangum], and Robert [Schneider]. They grew up together in Ruston LA, a small town with not much going on. They started making up songs and recorded cassette tapes for each other and through this process started branding these “releases” with the Elephant 6 logo (Will, the talented visual artist of the gang, drew it). From what I’ve heard, most of the songs of this era are really smashy trashy teen angst songs… except for Robert’s ones which always stood out as being really thoughtful and intricate for him being so young. In the early 90’s we all became friends. When Will realized that while he was busy 4-tracking the Olivia Tremor Control record we were just blocks away 4-tracking the first Elf Power album, Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs, we instantly became bonded. Not too many people were 4-tracking albums in their living rooms in our town [Athens, GA], as music friendly as it is. We became friends and shared our recording progress and interesting sound experiments with each other, and would call on each other to come lay down tracks if anyone in the friend-circle had a special talent or owned a peculiar instrument that would make a recording more awesome.

What has the role of women been in Elephant 6, regarding arts and organization? Did you ever perceive any gender-based differences inside the collective?

The group as a whole has always been very loving and I have never felt held back by my gender in any way. All the women hanging out were super progressive thinkers and contributed to the art, food, and craft of it all every step of the way. I really became close to the group when I went on the road as The Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel’s first sound-person. Which shows they had a lot of faith in me considering I had only been working running monitors at a local club for a year! So if anything, the scene was “pro girl.”

Laura Carter che regge troppi strumenti con gli Elf Power nel '98

You’re also the founder of Orange Twin, the record label born at first as a fundraising organization for the Orange Twin Conservation Community project, which manages a 155 acres wide green area. Tell us about OTCC, its aims and the life inside it.

At a certain point Orange Twin Records has become a proper record label; what have been your most important artistic choices while managing it?

While sharing a love for music, I also have an overwhelming sense of human responsibility for the removal of habitat leading to the elimination of millions of amazing animals and plants that would have enriched our lives. Also the way we handle our water here is just plain stupid… we pump our stormwater into the rivers as fast as possible to get it out of the way, and then complain of drought and water shortages instead of slowing the water down and encouraging it to perculate into our rapidly dropping ground water table. Anyway, I don’t want to get too dark, but it is this condition of the world around us that have inspired many of us to risk considerable time and energy to attempt to develop small clusters of eco-friendly houses, grow the food on site for the occupants of these houses, while preserving 2/3 of the land untouched as a nature preserve. I should quickly add, that we are only in the fledgeling stage.

Currently we have almost paid for the 155 acres, have placed 100 acres in a conservation easement that will perserve it development-free forever. On the remaining 55 acres, we have built one house that acts as headquarters for the project. We now must fund raise for a considerable amount to create the infrastructure required by our county code to prepare the area for additional house building, fire hydrants, etc.

We have 23 members in the group, but only a few of us live out on the land now. The other members hope to build their own houses someday soon, but live in town or are scattered around the world. I live with two other house-mates in the house at Orange Twin. We have goats and chickens, and it is a great life… we play music around the wood-stove and cook a lot. We are all constantly working on one project or another.

The record label was the original fund raising mechanism for this land project… it started as a web store selling arts, crafts, and music, but only the music sold so that side of it grew and grew. We’ve been very lucky to stumble across such talented people over the years and find such gems as we did to release. But we are still hunting for the next gem too.

You’re part of Dixie Blood Mustache, an artistic collective close to Elephant 6 that, according to the little information I could get on the internet, used to make art installations, recorded three tracks issued in some compilations, and made an experimental short film called “Oh hi”. What led you to create Dixie Blood Mustache and how did the idea develop?

laura carter zanzithophoneWell, Dixie Blood Mustache was a playground for the ladies to experiment with some radical sound ideas. Many of the Elephant 6 Athens friend-group begin to really get into hardcore experimental music at the time and we were starting to listen to Stockhausen, Pierre Henry, and the likes… and we were into the idea that music of that nature is all around you in life, you just have to open your ears to it: the sound of the rain hitting the tin roof in combination with the tossing of shoes in the clothes dryer, kids shouting in the distance, and a dog drinking from a water bowl sloppily… that kind of thing… so we would perform recreating such sounds. We’d be know to set up appliances as the sounds as if they were traditional instruments in a band; or we would do installations where you would walk through the composition physically, with the start of the piece in the first chamber that you walk through, and then you walk through a tunnel and more sound chambers that leads you through the piece, and so on. Once we hung symbols all over the club so that the audience had to bash through them to be in the space.

The movie was another fun experiment with Super 8 film. We painted the tops of umbrellas and ran around in patterns opening and closing them; we shot it looking straight down from a bridge.

Part of the key to our sound was that (thanks to Eric Harris [drummer of The Olivia Tremor Control, editor’s note]) we made our own contact mics: we each had bunch, so we could mic up all kinds of things. Electric clippers on pie-tin with contact mic = a sound heavier than Slayer. It was just an awesome excuse to get together and be silly really.

In light of your admirable and multifaceted artistic career, is there any practical advice you’d like to give the girls and boys who would like to approach the independent arts, or who have just begun? Is there anything that inspired you as a teenager that you’d like to share with them?

Hmmmm. I don’t imagine myself a wise one but… if I have to give a few words of advice, I’d say: you gotta dream big. Why not, you’re going to die anyway.

I really like the idea of “un-schooling”, although I suffered through all the public schools personally; but i think it’s really great for people to learn in all kinds of ways. I’m all for the return of the apprenticeship.

I try and enjoy pursuing exactly what will make me the most fulfilled with my day, as long as it doesn’t crush another creatures dreams. And I try not to become too busy or stressed out, as I think you loose your ability to be empathetic and aware when you are.

In general, I think we need to wrestle the power away from the big corporations quick because they are destroying everything.

And in my artistic experience, I’ve found that no matter how lost and broke you are… the music and art communities around the world are amazing supportive friend-families of interesting people, so it’s good to forget about being competitive and focus on building the community relationships that will last the rest of your lives.

The Instruments: Eric Harris, Laura Carter, Heather McIntosh, Pete Erchick, Will Cullen Hart, John Fernandes

Artists of the playlist (in order of appearance)

Hilarie Sidney: The Apples in Stereo, Secret Square, High Water Marks, Von Hemmling

The frontman of Apples is Robert Schneider, a longtime member of the collective, but drummer Hilarie Sidney, his wife since early 2000s, wrote some of the group’s best songs. She stayed in the band after the divorce, leaving it only in 2006. In 1995, she founded Secret Square with Lisa Janssen. In 2003 she co-founded, along with Per Ole Bratset, High Water Marks.

Lisa Janssen: Secret Square

She wrote some of Secret Square’s songs, along with Hilarie Sidney. She also played bass in On Avery Island by Neutral Milk Hotel.

Dottie Alexander: of Montreal, My First Keyboard, Great Lakes

Dottie Alexander is mainly the keyboardist/clarinetist/background singer of Of Montreal. My First Keyboard, her first solo project, has got two songs, and one of them, which is in this playlist, was also included in a compilation of singles by of Montreal.

Kay Stanton: Casper & The Cookies, Supercluster

This insane group, part of Elephant 6 New York section, has songs mainly written by frontman Jason NeSmith, but also gems from bass player Kay Stanton.

Tammy Ealom: Dressy Bessy, The Minders

Tammy Ealom, from the Elephant 6 Denver branch , is the frontwoman of Dressy Bessy, which she founded in 1996. She knows a thing or two about writing a good pop song!

Madeline Adams

Madeline Adams is one of the latest additions to Elephant 6, and one of the most peculiar too. Her traditional, melancholic folk is pretty uncommon in the collective (too normal???).

Heather McIntosh: The Instruments, Japancakes, Circulatory System, The New Sound of Numbers (and many other bands)

Heather, cellist, bassist and singer, is a truly hardworking member of the Elephant 6 collective. True to the spirit of the group, in addition to being the founder of Instruments and Japancakes —with whom she completely remade My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless — she plays in a number of other bands, she composed the soundtrack of the indie movie Compliance, she’s the editor of AUX, Athens’ (Georgia) periodic compilation of experimental music, she toured with Gnarls Barkley and Lil’ Wayne, and she is featured in the last record of Norah Jones and in Animal Collective’s Fall Be Kind. Send help!

Hannah Jones: The New Sound of Numbers, Supercluster

A musician and a painter, in 2005 Hannah Jones founded the weird New Sound of Numbers. She is also a member of Supercluster, a band close to Elephant 6 and led by Vanessa Hay, former 80s New Wave star member of Pylon.

Paige Dearmain: Midget and Hairs

Paige Dearmain, a musician and painter, is one of the most mysterious artists of Elephant 6. In 1996, she released two lo-fi singles with Midgets and Hairs, a band that is also recalled for its crazy performances featuring Jeff Mangum at the drums, and then an album in 2007 (which the internet has no information about).

Sasha Bell: The Essex Green, The Ladybug Transistor

The Essex Green, part of the New York branch of Elephant 6, are unfortunately one of the groups I know less about. However, it looks like Sasha Bell, keyboardist and singer, can really deliver plenty of great pop songs.

Jill Carnes: Thimble Circus

Thimble Circus (that is, Jill Carnes and Eric Harris) are one of the weirdest groups I have ever listened to. Just consider the fact that their contribution to the playlist is their most “normal” piece. Jill is also an illustrator, and she realized the English cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s On Avery Island.

The last song is sort of a bonus track: it’s part of an EP that Oliver Tremor Control recorded in 2000 with Kahimi Karie, a Japanese shibuya-key artist.

Of course, these are not the only women of Elephant 6, but these songs are indeed the most remarkable examples of their work. Aside from them, for example, we can also find Kelly Hart Rubert, married to Will Cullen Hart, who, as the collective’s “historian” and archivist, is a fundamental member of the group, together with many other wonderful people who contributed to the creation of the Elephant 6 Recording Company.


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