At first it was a low rumble from the underground, news from the front line that an era had ended. And then, once it was official -- once the statements were there in black and white, acknowledging the dissolution of the Elephant 6 collective -- the indie-rock world responded loudly and with one voice: Huh?
"Yeah, I don't think we ever really knew what it was either," admits John Hill, guitarist for erstwhile Elephant 6 band Apples in Stereo. "I mean, for about a second there was going to be a record label, but no one even got as far as, like, renting office space. So I don't really know how to explain what it was. It was kind of a free-for-all. And I guess, in a way, it wasn't anything."
Hill's analysis is slightly ungenerous. Though Elephant 6's mission may have been amorphous, indie-rock historians will no doubt look back on 1997-2000 as "The Elephant 6 Age." And for good reason. Back then, the Elephant 6 logo was something akin to a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for people who carry copies of Pet Sounds close to their hearts.
From the outset, the founding collective members shared a taste for dreamy melodies, married with a jam band's free-form sensibility and a studio wonk's zeal for orchestral maneuvers and anything and everything analog. Olivia Tremor Control was a bit more psychedelic; Beulah, harder-edged. Neutral Milk Hotel leaned toward ramshackle folk, and the Apples were the kids with the sweet tooth and a taste for horns. But whatever differences existed among the bands' sounds, all their songs evaded obvious structures and trajectories, preferring to let the music's power accumulate from small moments of ersatz beauty.
But as Hill notes, the dissolution of the collective that effectively never was comes at a time when the Apples in Stereo, at least, have evolved beyond that basic template. If 2000's The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone hinted at a new direction, the band's latest album, Velocity of Sound, confirms a departure. Indeed, Velocity is an album that lives up to its title, not only because it was recorded quickly, but also for its set of tight, three-minute pop songs that are more surf rock than surfer girl in their fuzzed-out growl.
"I just put my foot on the distortion pedal and never took it off," Hill recalls of the recording sessions for Velocity. "I mean, it's not like there was some kind of agenda to make the songs short, but we knew off the top that we wanted to make a band record, one that just kind of rocked out, the way we do live."
The songs on Velocity of Sound are lean machines. "Mystery" is concentrated power pop akin to Weezer, while "Rainfall" is paradigmatic of the new sound: a hit of pure adrenaline, with drummer-singer Hilarie Sidney making like Kim Deal on the mic, a hint of sneer in her voice as she fights over the strutting guitars. For the first time, the Apples in Stereo sound tough. The Elephant 6 nostalgists out there may grumble about the absence of horn-section fills and sugary synth flourishes, but the masses are sure to take more of a shine to the Apples' buff sound. The video for their first single, "Please," has been in rotation on MTV, and the band even enjoyed a warm reception when it opened for Clinic last fall, playing to a crowd that had come out for Krautrock beats, jagged guitars, and surgical masks.
"The audience has changed a little with every record," Hill notes, "but this time around, we're definitely anticipating a different vibe." In other words, Apples in Stereo shows are no longer likely to be places where you can expect a heartfelt apology if someone spills their beer on your vintage tee.
That is, if the crowd members are even of legal drinking age. Surely the weirdest fan-base development in the world of Apples in Stereo has been the influx of nine-year-olds. For that, the band can thank its inclusion on the Powerpuff Girls soundtrack, as well as the fact that its "Let's Go" video is running on the Cartoon Network.
"That's been a little bizarre," Hill acknowledges. "We've started to see parents bringing their kids to shows. It's like a family affair -- and the kids totally sing along."
Okay, cards on the table: That seems a little depressing -- like proof positive that Gen X is, well, old enough to have kids tagging along to rock concerts.
"Nah, it's fun," Hill insists. "Maybe we're tolerant of it because Hilarie and Robert [Schneider, singer-guitarist] have kids too, but it adds a new element to the mix, you know? Changes the dynamic. Like you've got the old fans coming out and the people who maybe only have the new record, and then you've got the kids sometimes. It makes it all a bit . . . unexpected."
Unexpected? Perhaps the Elephant 6 spirit does live on, if not in the sound of the Apples in Stereo, then in their audience. Hill may spend the whole show leaning on his distortion pedal, pumping his six-string with manic gusto, but when all's said and done, it's still, in his words, "kind of a free-for-all."