Inside the VHS-only documentary about the most mysterious musical collective ever

A new movie about the Elephant 6 Recording Company, which housed bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, of Montreal, and the Olivia Tremor Control, receives an unconventional release.

Inside the VHS-only documentary about the most mysterious musical collective ever

A new movie about the Elephant 6 Recording Company, which housed bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, of Montreal, and the Olivia Tremor Control, receives an unconventional release.

If you’ve been a fan of indie rock in the last 30 years, either you know about the Elephant 6 Recording Co. — a loose-knit, idiosyncratic psych-pop collective that began with four friends in the early ’90s and sprawled to encompass dozens of artists — or you’ve heard its influence in festival headliners across the world. Neutral Milk Hotel, The Apples In Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, of Montreal, and many other bands that eventually wore the E6 badge helped define a generation of underground music and continue to remain relevant.

The music is compelling, but so is the story of how this labyrinthine collection of misfits carved out their own scene. A voracious fanbase has been whispering about it, and collecting tales for years. That’s why filmmaker Chad Stockfleth spent nearly a decade on his rich, impressionistic documentary, A Future History Of: The Elephant 6 Recording Co, which tells the story of the collective through its members and fans.

At this point, you might be thinking, “That seems like an interesting way to spend a Tuesday night. I like rock docs, and I like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Time to fire up the Roku.” Not so fast. While the documentary has been out for two months, you can’t find it on any streaming service. You can’t even find it in the artsiest of arthouse theaters.

There’s only one way to see it: Locate a cryptic flyer for the Elephant 6 Video “Rental” Club in a random coffee shop or record store, call the number on it, follow the instructions, then wait patiently for your VHS tape to come in the mail (complete with a “library card” to sign when you mail back the tape).

A collection of Elephant 6 Video

A collection of Elephant 6 Video "Rental" Club VHS tapes containing the documentary A Future History Of: The Elephant 6 Recording Co. at director Chad Stockfleth's office in Louisville, KY. Each cassette features one-of-kind artwork.

That’s right: You can only watch it on a VCR by way of an answering machine. It's the most backward, esoteric, hilarious, eccentric, communal, ridiculous way to release a film in 2019. It’s also the perfect way to release a film about the most backward, esoteric, hilarious, eccentric, communal, ridiculous musical family tree in the indie world.

The roots of the documentary go back about a dozen years, when Apples In Stereo frontman and unofficial E6 ringleader Robert Schneider moved to Lexington, KY, to attend the University of Kentucky. That’s where he bonded with a young Stockfleth over their rural “make your own fun” upbringings — Schneider had grown up in Louisiana alongside Elephant 6 co-founders Bill Doss, Jeff Mangum, and Will Cullen Hart, while Stockfleth was from the hills of Kentucky.

By 2010, Stockfleth had a Schneider-approved mission: Make an Elephant 6 documentary. At this point, members of the collective had been on late-night TV, inspired dozens of younger acts, and been covered by every music publication conceivable. The story of how a few small town kids ballooned to a menagerie of renowned indie trailblazers and became a force in the music industry deserved to be told. But it was wildly unwieldy.

“It's an enormous thing to take on,” Schneider told The Outline. “One angle is a movement of music, but then another angle is that it's a collective with literally hundreds of people. And they're all important, and really unique. So it's kind of like, where would you even start?”

That might seem daunting to some, but Stockfleth had Schneider cheering him on. As he recounted, “Robert was like, ‘I think you can do it, man! Other people have tried, but I think you can do it.’”

It also helped that Stockfleth wasn’t an E6 super fan, as antithetical as that may seem. Such a complicated story might scare some off, but being unaware of the deeper mythology lent him a little bravery. Being a neophyte also meant not setting off alarms among a group of leery musicians. If he’d started off asking the myriad hot-button questions fans speculate about — like why did Jeff Mangum stop making music? — “they would have clammed up a lot,” Stockfleth reasoned.

Schneider’s thumbs up spurred Stockfleth’s first trip in 2010 to E6 stronghold Athens, Ga., for a visit with Olivia Tremor Control co-founders Doss and Hart. After winning their trust, a chain of mainstays in the collective vouched for Stockfleth personally. It resulted in countless recording sessions across the country with E6ers like Doss, Hart, Schneider, Kevin Barnes, Hilarie Sidney, Scott Spillane, John Fernandes, Laura Carter, Julian Koster, Rebecca Cole, Dottie Alexander, Andrew Rieger, Martyn Leaper, Paige Dearman, Bryan Poole, Tammy Ealom, and at least a dozen others (Mangum wasn’t interviewed for the documentary, but appears throughout). There are even celebrity cameos from fans like Elijah Wood, David Cross, and Danger Mouse.

As Schneider sees it, getting that far was a monumental accomplishment. “Chad was able to forge meaningful relationships with dozens and dozens and dozens of very difficult people,” Schneider said with a laugh. “And I don't mean difficult in the negative sense necessarily. I would consider myself to be in that category of people that are really, really hard to pin down. He was able to do it, and everybody loves him.”

Relationship building was only part of the reason why it took so long. Things stalled on July 30, 2012, when Doss died of an aneurysm. It shook everyone in the Elephant 6 family to their core. “That was like the worst thing that's ever happened to me,” Schneider said. “It seemed like maybe the documentary was off after that for some years.”

Stockfleth agreed. On top of losing a key champion and friend in Doss, he didn’t want to appear crass or opportunistic. “How can you say, ‘Hey, do you want to do an interview about this?’ right after your childhood friend dies?” he said. “It feels like you’re piggybacking off of it.”

He picked up the camera once enough time had passed, and over a few quiet years compiled ample footage to fulfill his creative vision. During this period, Stockfleth also set up a widely-publicized PledgeMusic campaign to augment a budget that previously involved scraping together gas money for a trip every few weeks.

The film itself was only part of the project, though. His desire to honor the lo-fi, anti-commercial Elephant 6 aesthetic — which often included handmade visuals, mail order exclusivity, and oddball packaging — meant doing something special for the release.

After being approached by multiple film festivals to premiere the documentary, a conversation with Schneider in early 2018 inspired the VHS club idea. It was distinct from what he’d done in the past, but very much in keeping with the E6 ethos. “It provides a very rare experience to a very small number of people,” Schneider explained. “It seems really classic and classy. Is there any cooler way to release a film?”

Patrick Fleming, an Elephant 6 devotee and frontman of the acclaimed indie act The Poison Control Center, agreed with that sentiment, after getting his tape in the mail. “It totally goes with the aesthetic of mid-’90s tape trading,” he stressed. “It felt just like what the E6ers were doing back then.”

Correspondence from viewers about the documentary.

Correspondence from viewers about the documentary.

Correspondence from viewers about the documentary.

“It was like something you would’ve seen on public access,” said longtime fan and visual artist Yoko Molotov, who appreciated every tiny choice that went into the project, including the font on the flyer. “I loved how it was all put together. Even just the look of it on the VCR added so much.”

In mid-May, Stockfleth sent flyers to coffee shops and record stores in Chicago, Atlanta, Athens, New York, Portland, Los Angeles, and other cities. Postcard after postcard from satisfied fans rolled in with similar sentiments almost immediately. Demand was so high, he had to rummage around thrift stores to find enough plastic cases for his collection of 26 tapes. It’s only spread from there: Each tape Stockfleth sends out includes a flyer stuffed inside the package, for the viewer to hang up in their neighborhood.

For Schneider, the entire experience — seeing the hand-decorated VHS cassette and one-of-a-kind case, signing the library card, and watching the expressive movie in its fuzzy splendor — created something that transcended the Elephant 6 story.

“It’s a swirling series of feelings that feels more like art,” he explained. “So I can’t tell if Chad made a documentary about our collective, or if he just used our collective to make his own collage art to express something much bigger than that, and we were just the magazines he cut out to make the collage. We’re the art that’s being drawn from for him to make his own greater artistic statement.”

Whether or not Schneider can define what A Future History Of: The Elephant 6 Recording Co. actually is, he knows that the film’s themes cut through time from the ’90s to 2019. “The message of the film is people outside of the commercial sphere, rejecting that, doing something on their own, and doing all aspects of it on their own. With kids previously, only much smaller groups might have understood that,” he said. “That's the story of young bands and kids today, though. They’re doing it all on their own. If the film had been made 10 or 15 years ago, it wouldn't have resonated as much. It felt like it was more contemporary than I thought it could be.”

Five places where you might find a flyer (if you’re lucky)

Highland Coffee (Louisville)

Wuxtry Records (Atlanta)

Red E Coffee (Portland, North Portland location)

Permanent Records (Los Angeles, Echo Park location)

Hooked On Colfax (Denver)

Sean Cannon is a Peabody Award-winning podcast producer, journalist, designer, and cat rap pioneer from Louisville, KY.