In the early aughts, the music released by Of Montreal glowed like bright pink fluorescent paint under a blacklight. Their wildly melodic music, with its dense arrangements and anti-personal lyrics, contrasted with the cathartic, personal albums released during indie rock’s singer/songwriter boom years. Likewise, their concerts seemed like be-ins for our post-millennial times. The band’s sprawling lineup plays an eclectic style of music, drawing from pre-rock pop formats and more au courant styles, and the members frequently dress in unusual costumes and incorporate sketches and dance numbers into their sets.
While Of Montreal contrasted with the sturm und drang of their indie rock peers, their psychedelic-inspired eclecticism makes more sense when seen in the context of the Elephant 6 Recording Company. Kevin Barnes and his cohort of merry pranksters were not among the founders of the influential record label and music collective, but their exuberant style kept it in the public consciousness after its initial wave crested and ebbed.
Kim Cooper’s 33-1/3 book about Neutral Milk Hotel’s album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea points to a childhood friendship between NMH leader Jeff Mangum and Apples In Stereo frontman Robert Schneider as the genesis for the record company. By the time Mangum and Schneider matriculated to Ruston (Louisiana) High School, they and their friends Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart formed a series of bands and became active in the Louisiana Tech radio station.
After they graduated, Doss, Hart, and Mangum pushed off to college rock mecca Athens, Georgia, and founded the band Synthetic Flying Machine. Schneider, who had enrolled in the University of Boulder (CO), expressed pride in his friends. “I wanted to have a band, too, and it seemed easy the way they did it: friends making friendly music,” he said on the official Elephant 6 website. Inspired by his friends’ creative output, Schneider started playing with his friends and classmates Hilarie Sidney and Jim McIntyre under the name Apples In Stereo. The four friends from Ruston kept their connection alive by exchanging tapes in the mail, and thus the nucleus of the Elephant 6 Recording Company came together.
Schneider eventually built a recording studio in Colorado, and he found himself at the center of a power pop community that included bands like Beulah and Dressy Bessy. Meanwhile, the Athens, Georgia axis of the Elephant 6 Recording Company explored more psychedelic sounds, as in the Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, and Mangum’s band Neutral Milk Hotel. In a 1998 interview with Rolling Stone, Schneider made a wish for the label/collective: “I’d like to get to a point where every band we like is an Elephant 6 band. The more the merrier.”
The Olivias and NMH’s popularity brought some like-minded artists to Athens. Among them was Kevin Barnes, an Ohio native whose first albums with Of Montreal featured members of the Elephant 6 Recording Company. Of Montreal’s second album, The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy, sounds like the missing link between Elephant 6 and the forthcoming indie rock movement. The lyrics explore a doomed love affair between Barnes and a woman from Montreal with heartbreaking honesty and a whimsical fatalism; the melodies all but invite listeners to sing along, and the jam-packed arrangements feature instruments not found in American pop music.
As the millennium drew to a close, so too did Elephant 6. Following the release of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Jeff Mangum stepped out of the public eye and concentrated on smaller projects. After recording a pair of ambitious double albums, the Olivia Tremor Control went on hiatus in early 2000. Of Montreal wasn’t the only former Elephant 6 band still extant, but with their large lineup and frequent touring schedule, they were the most visible.
Of Montreal’s omnivorous sound built on Elephant 6’s psychedelic aesthetic and brought it into new territories. While the Olivias would incorporate films into their shows, Of Montreal would act out their songs in sketches and stage fake sword fights at concerts. Barnes looked to the psychedelic funk of the 1970s for influence, mining R&B and disco on 2002’s Aldhills Arboretum. Barnes’s songwriting switched between personal stories about his friends and his daughter, and character sketches in which he would assume different personas (most notoriously, the black genderqueer figure Georgie Fruit).
His work also became more bacchanalian. While other Elephant 6 bands wrote more innocently about sex and only sidled up to the subject of lysergic influence in interviews, Barnes embraced these subjects. He wrote songs that tipped the hat to boundary-pushing writers like Jean Genet and Georges Bataille, as well as to the erotic movie VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS. In videos for the songs “Sails Hermaphroditic” and “Fugitive Air”, Barnes appears with his wife, Nina, both in various states of undress.
At the tail end of the aughts, Elephant 6 became an active entity again. The Olivia Tremor Control came out of retirement to play a series of live dates. After making an appearance at Occupy Wall Street, Jeff Mangum got the band back together and Neutral Milk Hotel has headlined several festivals on both sides of the Atlantic. Prior to this renaissance, however, Of Montreal had included the Elephant 6 logo in the sleeve art for many of their albums. As the Elephant 6 artists have stepped back into the limelight, it’s nice to see one band who kept their legend alive. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…Of Montreal.