Finding Elephant 6 (Or How I Learned To Love Olivia Tremor Control)

Last week, WNYC’s music show Soundcheck — where I work, obviously — asked listeners and guests and staff about music they missed the first time around but now adore. Friday’s show aired a special centered around this Missed It Then, Love It Now idea; I show up (around the 22-minute mark into the episode) to talk about my love of Elephant 6 Recording Company and spin “Love Athena,” a song by The Olivia Tremor Control.

Now for the three people who may not know of Elephant 6, this is the collective comprised of beloved bands first from Denver, but later became synonymous with the Athens, Ga. music scene in the mid-to-late ’90s. These bands include: Neutral Milk Hotel, Circulatory System, The Apples In Stereo, Elf Power, of Montreal, Beulah, The Minders, The Music Tapes, and of course The Olivia Tremor Control — a band centered around Will Cullen Hart, Bill Doss, John Fernandes, and for a time, NMH’s Jeff Mangum.

Now I knew of Neutral Milk Hotel and Of Montreal and Apples in Stereo in early college: I think I first heard In The Aeroplane Over The Sea as a college freshman around 2000, though I’m sure it took awhile longer for me to understand that record’s impact. Still, I guess I never really knew until much later that these bands and many others were part of this larger collective, Elephant 6.

It makes sense though. When these bands were making music in that stretch in the ’90s, I was too young. I wasn’t especially a ‘zine person then, and with little access to the Internet until high school, I’m not sure how I would’ve come to know about certain bands under the radar. Back then, music fansjust had to dig a little deeper and work a little harder to find out about “underground” bands, not to mention actually locate the physical albums. And by the time I was starting to find these bands, many of them were broken up or on extended hiatus — like Olivia Tremor Control, or the reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum.

So it wasn’t until 2004 when I was studying abroad in Germany that I finally was introduced to this world. Cliche or no, it was because I met this girl in one of my language classes, and after talking about music it turned out we had very similar tastes. Here’s a gist of one such conversation:

“Do you know Neutral Milk Hotel?” she asked me one night. I did, yeah.

“What about of Montreal?” Kind of.

“Olivia Tremor Control?” I had never even heard of them, nor Circulatory System, nor the five other bands she name dropped.

Soon, she “gifted” me a stack of burned CDs to listen to. (While this was decidedly the iPod era by then, it was still easier to burn a disc than trade music files for some reason.) The rest of that winter semester abroad, I went down the E6 rabbit hole, listening to records from Apples In Stereo, Circulatory System’s self-titled album, and Olivia Tremor Control’s Black Foliage: Animation Music Vol. 1 and odds and ends compilation, Presents: Singles And Beyond.

What I loved about NMH or OTC or Apples in Stereo or of Montreal was each band’s blend of lo-fi production and super dense technicolor psychedelia and soaring Beatles-esqe melodies and arrangements. This music blended 1960’s pop song structures with experimental noises, bizarro musical interludes, and a playful childlike humor and wonder that few bands embrace.

A few years later, I started working at NPR and NPR Music, and thanks to a couple friends/co-workers who’d spent time living in Athens, and both, mega fans of all things E6, I began to delve even deeper. Over the years they would school me on all sorts of ancillary, sorta-related bands and projects from E6 and it was fun to fully immerse myself in this odd world. The three of us even drove to Baltimore together for a weirdo show from the Elephant 6 Orchestra — a circus-like ramble of members of all of these bands each playing on each others songs.

In the years since, I’ve caught concerts from The Apples In Stereo, of Montreal, The Music Tapes, and Jeff Mangum performing solo after years away from the stage. While many groups like of Montreal have gotten bigger and bigger, but some of the other E6 members are reuniting: Circulatory System put out an album in 2011, Neutral Milk Hotel is finally reuniting to everyone’s shock. And even Olivia Tremor Control showed signs of resurfacing — putting out a song or two in 2010. But sadly, with last year’s sudden death of key member Bill Doss, that band’s future is in question.

These days, way more people know of Elephant 6 bands than ever, but still not enough people are all that familiar. I try to remind myself that we come to music when we’re supposed to, and even I came to this music later than a lot of people did. Strangely, all these years later, I have literally no memory of that girl’s name or where she was from — she was American, so we can narrow that down at least. But when I hear songs like OTC’s “A Sleepy Company” or anything from that era, I still think back to that random person introducing me to all this music I now love.

Tegan And Sara: Synth Pop And Sticky Melodies

Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara performing in the Soundcheck studio. (Photo: Michael Katzif/WNYC)
Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara performing in the Soundcheck studio. (Photo: Michael Katzif/WNYC)

Today we had the identical twin-sister duo Tegan And Sara in the studio to perform songs from this its fizzy synth pop album Heartthrob. I’ve listened to this band for many many years at this point — really loved The Con from 2007. But with Heartthrob, the two are taking things in a much more mainstream radio dance pop direction — which on songs like “I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” and “Closer” really really work. thanks to killer production and sticky melodies that burrow deep into your mind. Hard to do in modern radio pop.

When not making music together, Tegan and Sara Quin have both pursued writing for more pop-oriented artists like David Guetta and Alesso and Carly Rae Jepsen, among others. And you can really tell those collaborations have really sharpened Tegan and Sara’s hooks and songcraft.

“Bands constantly come to us for advice — young artists, aspiring artists, singers, writers, etc,” Tegan Quin said in her interview on Soundcheck. “And I always say, ‘the best thing you can do is go and collaborate with someone else, because you are broadening your horizon right away; instantly you are learning from someone else.’ And I think that that’s the best way to become a good writer.”

These songs are so well constructed to be memorable and singable, which is, no doubt, why Tegan And Sara has expanded beyond its admittedly feverish and diehard fanbase that has been with the band for years, into wider audiences and landing at No. 3 on the charts.

After so many years toiling in the indie rock circles, breaking many ceilings, and slowly building a devoted following, it’s cool to see them finally finding bigger success, while being true to themselves artistically.

We shot video and they gave a really solid interview, which effectively blew up the Soundcheck Web site. I also took a ton of photos which you can see on Tumblr.

Yuck Is Back With A New Song And A New Frontman

Yuck is set to release its sophomore album this fall. (Photo: Chris Coady\courtesy of the artist)
Yuck is set to release its sophomore album this fall. (Photo: Chris Coadycourtesy of the artist)

My favorite new band of 2011 was Yuck, a grungy ’90s-leaning band with members far too young to have experienced that music the first time around. Yet the band’s fraying distortion and hooky, guitar-driven melodies on songs like “Georgia,” “The Wall” and especially the droning noisy freakout “Rubber” made it clear the band has that era’s music down pat. In 2011 alone, I caught the band FOUR times — twice at South By Southwest and twice at the Black Cat in D.C.

After some time off, Yuck recently announced it parted ways with frontman Daniel Blumberg — who has gone on to pursue his solo project Hebronix. It was odd news. Blumberg may have been something of an introverted persona on stage, content to hunch over his pedals, his mop of curly hair hanging below his eyes, or face inward towards his amp as he created swirls of feedback and static. But his musical voice and angsty songwriting — not to mention the scribbled hand-drawn illustrations that served as the album covers for the record and various 7″ singles — were so key to the Yuck’s aesthetic.

Yucks Daniel Blumberg performing at the Black Cat in Washington D.C. on May 6, 2011.
Yuck's Daniel Blumberg performing at the Black Cat in Washington D.C. on May 6, 2011. (© Michael Katzif - Do not use or republish without prior consent.)

Honestly — and no slight to the other three members, guitarist Max Bloom, bassist Mariko Doi, and the afro’d drummer Jonny Rogoff — it was hard to imagine the band without Blumberg.

Still, Yuck band is carrying on. The band is set to release its new album later this year — produced by Chris Coady (Beach House, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Smith Westerns) — and with its first single “Rebirth,” we’re now getting a sense of what this new iteration of Yuck might sound like.

“Rebirth” features Bloom taking on the frontman role on vocals, and his voice is awash in hazy reverb. And the song is more dreamlike, at least compared to the full-throttled grunge pop and distortion-fueled shoegaze on the Yuck’s killer self-titled debut. While it may not have the “so-loud-it-hurts” power of “Rubber,” this song’s textures are signs that Yuck is growing in instrumental scope. And Bloom and the band are still capable of crafting songs with a defined mood and excellent melodies.

Few bands survive after essentially losing their head like Yuck has, but it also presents an opportunity for reinvention. As the title suggests, “Rebirth” is a clear line in the sand between the old and new. So with Bloom at the helm, it should be interesting to hear what Yuck has in store both with the full record and its live show.

Yucks Max Bloom performs at the Black Cat in Washington D.C. on May 6, 2011. (© Michael Katzif - Do not use or republish without prior consent.)
Yuck's Max Bloom performs at the Black Cat in Washington D.C. on May 6, 2011. (© Michael Katzif - Do not use or republish without prior consent.)

UPDATE 8/14: Yuck has officially announced its second album, Glow & Behold, will be out on Oct 1. on Fat Possum. And the band has offered another new single, “Middle Sea,” that feels a bit closer to the grungier power pop of its first release. Can’t wait to hear the whole thing!

With ‘Hesitation Marks,’ Nine Inch Nails Looks Revists Its Past, In Music And Art

From Justin Timberlake and David Bowie and My Bloody Valentine to Daft Punk, Boards Of Canada, and now Mazzy Star, this has been a year dominated by highly-anticipated, long-awaited new records from long-dormant artists. Some have been excellent, and others, well, not. (Though, to be fair, the way these things go, it’s practically impossible to live up to any big-time hype-cycle.)

And then there’s Nine Inch Nails’ “Came Back Haunted” — a new song from a soon-to-be-released comeback album Hesitation Marks (out Sept. 3) — and it actually totally exceeds my expectations. For a band that’s been around as long as NIN has, and especially when you factor in extended hiatuses and breakups and lineup shifts, that’s no small feat.

Even the song’s seizure-inducing video, directed by David Lynch, is pretty amazing.

Yet, Nine Inch Nails hasn’t been gone all that long — at least compared to the 20-plus year eternity between Loveless and mbv. And hell, it’s not like Trent Reznor, the enigmatic iconoclast behind NIN, went away either. In fact, Reznor’s profile has perhaps never been bigger thanks to his stunning, Oscar-winning film score work with Atticus Ross on The Social Network and their follow-up score forThe Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. This year alone saw the release of the stellar album Welcome Oblivion, from Reznor’s How To Destroy Angels, a side-project with Ross, Reznor’s wife Mariqueen Maandig, and Rob Sheridan, who’s also the group’s art director.

Still, even with a four-year hiatus, it’s always a music news event when Trent Reznor announces something new — like say, a Nine Inch Nails reformation, a NIN tour, a new NIN album. And happily, with “Came Back Haunted,” Nine Inch Nails returns feeling refreshed and forward-thinking, while also managing to tap into a harsher, industrial sound that recalls the band’s earliest, and beloved albums Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral.

As much as I loved seeing these new shades of Reznor (and watching the freaking frontman of Nine Inch Nails accept an Oscar!), I’m excited to hear him return to his so-called roots. Those two records, and The Downward Spiral in particular, were my entry into Reznor’s music back when I was in middle school. That record was a seething, unsettling and gothic mess of grinding noise and distortion that, at 13, it sounded incredible. It also felt rebellious, with songs like “Closer” that were impossibly dark, and honestly, pretty fucked up.

And if the song itself didn’t get that message across, at least director Mark Romanek‘s video — with all it’s grim imagery — seared this song into my brain forever.

I can admit I’ve never gone all that far down that hardcore industrial rabbit hole, but I’ve always looked forward to and respected the ambitions and groundbreaking sounds of Reznor. And while I never reached that upper echelon of extreme NIN-fandom, I did at least have a Downward Spiral t-shirt that I frequently wore to school for years, in spite everyone who frequently reminded me the album cover design looked like bird shit.

It kinda did, I guess.

Like the best album covers, this one is so iconic to me that I can’t help picturing it when I hear songs like “Piggy” or the opening strains of “Hurt.” Likewise, this cover looks how this albums sounds; they’re both entwined; inseparable in my head.

Now, as Reznor readies a new iteration of the band and drops a song so reminiscent of his previous work, it’s interesting and tonally spot-on that the new record’s just-premiered covers also look back to the visual aesthetic of the past.

With Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails has tapped artist Russell Mills (the guy responsible for Downward Spiral‘s art) to create four different covers, one for each format: Standard CD, Deluxe CD, vinyl LP and digital. According to the press release on the band’s Web site, Mills’ artwork was created with traditional materials like plaster, oils, acrylics, and wire as well as some less common ones, such as blood, microscope slides, “burning,” and earth.

The digital album cover version of Nine Inch Nails album Hesitation Marks, “Turn And Burn”:

The deluxe CD album cover version of Nine Inch Nails’ album Hesitation Marks, “Cargo In The Blood”:

The standard CD album cover version of Nine Inch Nails’ album Hesitation Marks, “Time And Again”:

The vinyl album cover version of Nine Inch Nails’ album Hesitation Marks, “Other Murmurs”:

Collectively, these bold swaths of color look as tactile and textured as the music in the song “Came Back Haunted.” The pieces are lush and beautiful, and yet with an unnerving quality about them. And like Beck’s 2003 album Sea Change — which was originally issued with four covers by digital artist Jeremy Blake — Hesitation Marks‘ cohesive theme across all four covers seems to be making use and having fun with all the various listening formats one might want to purchase — or for the diehards, you can collect ’em all!

Although I haven’t even heard the entire record yet, these images — like that original Downward Spiral cover — will eventually tie me to its songs.

For some fans, Hesitation Marks could indicate a form of recapitulation to an era that fans love the most. It’s a common reaction: Many bands, after so many years of success, tend to relax into a comfortable gear, and simply rehash its hits. But Trent Reznor, no matter what he does, has time and again pushed ahead into new territory; in music, in music business, in technology, in live show production. While these songs and art feel tonally familiar, there’s a sense that Reznor is folding together various aspects of his past music career into one vessel as a means of creating something new.

By evoking the sounds and imagery of my favorite era of the band, I’ve gotta admit I’m feeling strangely nostalgic for the band, and completely looking forward to hearing this record. If anything, it’s just cool to have Nine Inch Nails back.

Now, I wonder what happened to that old t-shirt…


UPDATE 8/12: The next single for the Nine Inch Nails’ album dropped today, and “Copy Of A” sounds incredible, again by leaning back to previous eras, while not sounding retro in the slightest.

UPDATE 8/19: It’s another week, and another update from Nine Inch Nails. In this instance, another album cover, associated the band’s latest single “Everything.” If the previously-released artwork from the four iterations of the new record weren’t enough evidence that NIN is hearkening back to the visual aesthetic of Downward Spiral, then call this cover — with it’s burnt yellow and weathered tan color scheme — definitive proof. It’s yet another gorgeous, textured piece of art to accompany NIN’s music.

For further explanation about these pieces, Russell Mills describes his works more fully:

The artworks, (30 mixed media pieces) that I eventually produced towards uses in the Hesitation Marks releases, evolved out of lengthy exchanges between myself and Trent and in response to the conceptual ideas that thread through the tracks and to the sonic territory that the album explores. I’ve tried to lock into the album’s prevailing mood and echo the album’s essence. The ideas are not communicated in a literal or easily digested form, as this would be boring for me and would insult the intelligence of a potential audience. I’ve tried to make works that obliquely allude to the essence of the subject matter, to its emotional core.
As with my self-initiated works – the paintings, assemblages, collages and multimedia installations – personal ideas and obsessions seep into these works. The organic, the natural, prevailing over or feeding into the industrial, the man made, is a common theme in my work generally and in this instance was particularly apt for the art required.
The works explore ideas of catharsis, of being into dissolution into being, both on a personal and sociological level. They allude to ideas about chaos and order. They deal with ways of suggesting presence in absence. They are a cross between the forensic and a pathology of the personal in which only fragments remain, in which minimal clues can suggest events that may have occurred. They attempt to harness the chaos of a situation, of now, of the personal trauma, of the human condition, into a form that is coherent, a form that accommodates the mess without disguising it as something else. It attempts to capture the essence of these ideas by implication and exclusion. Beneath the form lies the uncertainty and ceaseless flux of the mess, of the chaos.
An amalgam of the contextually-anchored and the process-driven, they are hopefully powerful, arresting, seductive, suggestive and resonant. I hope that they will invite multiple readings.

Brood Like It’s 1993: ‘Siamese Dream’ Is Twenty

When I finally managed to guilt-trip my parents into buying me an entry-level Fender Stratocaster in middle school, the first song fragments I got under my still-clumsy fingers were the twangy James Bond theme, the opening riff from Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love,” and the shimmering guitar part from Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today.” It was 1994 afterall, and even a year after its release, that song — from Smashing Pumpkins’ still-new-to-me instant classic Siamese Dream — was all over the Lawrence, Kan. college rock station I was obsessed with at 11 and 12.

I couldn’t wait to learn it.

Like a lot of kids, my parents spooned me a steady well-balanced diet of classic rock: The Beatles, the Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, and all the usual suspects. But ’90s alt-rock, Britpop, and grunge were the first music I truly embraced as my own. And Smashing Pumpkins, in particular, with its sneering club-filling guitars, thick mess of blissful distortion, and Billy Corgan’s bleak, pent-up emotions all spoke to my sullen adolescent angst.

Like Nirvana’s teeth-gnashing anger, Corgan could brood and mope and rage on “Cherub Rock” or “Geek U.S.A.” And yet, in songs like “Disarm” or “Luna,” the Pumpkins could also find beauty and melodic depth that make those swirling conflicted feelings seem romantic and majestic.

A majority of Siamese Dream‘s songs reflect on depression, isolation, disillusionment and violent impulses, which could all come off as a touch maudlin and melodramatic to younger ears now. Still, even 20 years later, the songs’ themes remain universal, and the record’s complex swell of sounds — aided by Butch Vig’s ornate production and Corgan’s endlessly overdubbed guitars — are as timeless and influential as ever.

The Graphic Design Of CHVRCHES

CHVRCHES performs at Music Hall Of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NY on June 18, 2013. (© Michael Katzif – Do not use or republish without prior consent.)
CHVRCHES performs at Music Hall Of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NY on June 18, 2013. (© Michael Katzif – Do not use or republish without prior consent.)

Glasgow synth pop band CHVRCHES don’t even have a full album out yet; The Bones Of What You Believe is out Sept. 24 in the U.S. on Glassnote. But based on impossible-to-get-in shows at this year’s South By Southwest, and thanks to the strength of an EP and a couple singles — the indie pop jam of the year, so far, “Recover,” especially — it’s become one of the most buzzed-about young acts of 2013.

After finally catching one of the band’s recent New York shows at Music Hall of Williamsburg, it’s clear that hype is justified.

CHVRCHES’ dense electronic dance songs are mostly built around serrated computerized beats, layered synthesizers and chirping sampled voices created by Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, all of which propel Lauren Mayberry’s cute, yet commanding vocals that flutter and soars above the mix like embers in the night air. And with clean and buyoant pop hooks, CHVRCHES crafts the kind of memorable choruses on songs like “The Mother We Share” and “Gun” that can fill the club, and later, find yourself singing along to when no one is looking.

Yes, CHVRCHES is a young band. But throughout an incredibly polished 12-song set — where they debuted mostly new songs from the upcoming album that few, if anyone in the crowd had even heard, and then played a perfectly chosen Prince cover as an encore — CHVRCHES showed a confidence, both musically and in stage presence that’s rare at this stage in any group’s arc. This is a promising band that seems to have arrived fully-formed, which makes it all the more enticing to watch where it will go next.

Beyond the music, it’s CHVRCHES’ graphic design sense that I love about the group. For me, all the elements work: the color palette; the sleek typography of the band’s logo juxtaposed with the smaller serif used for the titles; and the basic geometric shapes. And when viewed together as a whole, all these covers really project a crisp, evocative and simple visual aesthetic for this first grouping of songs the band is putting out.

The liner notes for the Recover EP credits Amy Burrows as the art designer, but not sure if it’s only her coming up with all these these covers. Regardless, I really love them, and I’m looking forward to not only hearing more songs, but seeing more album art from one of my favorite new bands of the year.

Phish And Insane Clown Posse: Two Divisive Bands With Diehard Fans

When people find out I used to be really into Phish in high school, I always try to qualify it by explaining that where I grew up — your typical sleepy suburb in Kansas City in the mid-to-late 1990’s — jambands like Phish were our so-called alternative music. Grunge and Britpop were practically gone, and me and my friends wouldn’t know about good hip hop or “indie music” until much later. So if you weren’t listening to the increasingly narrow and bland pop and rock radio, you tended to turn to Phish.

But I’ve particularly never felt shame in that, nor wanted to sweep that musical period under the rug, the way many now-hipster-adjacent people I know might like to. In a way, loving Phish became a gateway drug… to other types of music. The band’s diverse repertoire brought together classic rock and prog rock, jazz and funk and so much more. And with frequent full album covers of Velvet Underground’s Loaded or Talking Heads’ Remain In Light or The Who’s Quadrophenia, Phish served as a rock history course and buyer’s guide for what album I should seek out. And even those lengthy, meandering songs actually introduced me to Miles’ Bitches Brew and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and essentially opening me up to improvised music and jazz.

Still, that messy hippie reputation lingers around this band like three-day-old patchouli.

In his latest book, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse, and My Misadventures With Two of Music’s Most Maligned Tribes, former A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin gets at this type of social stereotype, following Phish and another equally-derided and misunderstood band Insane Clown Posse around the country, and in the process, Rabin finds out a lot about his own mental makeup. On the surface, Phish and ICP may not have much that connects them: one is known for feel good jams, oddball lyrics and general hippie doo-dah-ing, while the other is built around rap rock with violent imagery and the Juggalos with their love of Faygo soda and extreme black and white clown makeup. And yet both Phish and ICP are incredibly beloved within their diehard fanbases with surprisingly strong communities built around positivity and togetherness.

Rabin’s book is a hard read, especially as he begins to delve more and more into his mental anguish as he’s diagnosed as being bi-polar. But as you dig in, you can begin to see the appeal, if not for the music, then at least in how both acts are actually framed more around lifestyle and surrogate family than band.