You may not have heard of the Elephant 6 Recording Company, but if you’re like most Wes students, you’re surely familiar with some of the bands the ’90s Georgia-based collective spawned—including Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal, and the criminally underappreciated Olivia Tremor Control. On the infectious power-pop side of the E6 spectrum sit Apples in Stereo, whose sugar-sweet melodies in their prime find the perfect counterpart in singer Robert Schneider’s overtly psychedelic, space-pop sensibilities.
The band’s latest—and first to feature Olivia Tremor Control’s Bill Doss as a permanent member—is “Travellers in Space and Time,” due April 20 on Simian Records. Longtime bassist and occasional songwriter Eric Allen recently spoke to The Argus about the new record, the creative process, and the experience of hearing his band’s song surface as an all-cast sing-along on “American Idol.”
Argus: Robert Schneider described the new record as “early seventies R&B as played by a UFO.” Do you think that’s accurate, and can you elaborate?
Eric Allen: Well, there are a lot of different sounds on it—definitely an early ’70s R&B influence, some early ’80s soul and disco sounds on it as well, and some straight-up rock. It’s a mix.
A: Do you think this reflects what you and the band have been listening to lately?
EA: Yeah, maybe not just lately—we’ve always been into lots of different music that hasn’t always been reflected on our albums. There’s definitely an ELO [Electric Light Orchestra] influence on this album, which we’ve always been into . . .
A: “Travellers in Space and Time” is also significantly more synth-heavy than any previous Apples album. Was this a conscious decision entering the studio?
EA: I think that’s just how Rob [Schneider] was writing songs at that point, instead of sitting around with a guitar. I guess it was a little conscious—with each album, there’s something new we try to do; it’s fun that way. It’s not like we’ll always be a synth-band forever, but it’s fun to try new things.
A: Do you imagine you’ll ever return to a rawer, noisier pop sound in the vein of [1995 debut] “Fun Trick Noisemaker?”
EA: Yes—I think it’s entirely possible. This isn’t really a rejection of what we’ve done in the past; it’s just what we want to do right now, and the next record will be different than that.
A: “Travellers in Space and Time” is the first album you’ve recorded with Bill Doss as a permanent member. How has his or the Olivia Tremor Control’s influence affected the tone of the album?
EA: He did play on the last album, and I think there’s always been an influence of Bill Doss and the OTC just because we’re all friends and like each other’s music. I got Bill to sing on my song [“Next Year at About the Same Time”] because his voice is so much better than mine [laughs], and the last song on the album is his. He’s been performing with us for about five years now.
A: Which OTC album do you prefer: “Dusk at Cubist Castle” or “Black Foliage?”
EA: “Jumping Fences” is one of my favorite songs. But I love them both equally.
A: “New Magnetic Wonder” was the first album in half a decade to sport the Elephant 6 logo. Does Elephant 6 still feel like a tight-knit community of bands the way it was in the mid-’90s? How has it changed?
EA: It’s a lot bigger now, so that makes it harder to be as tight-knit. And when it started it was just three bands [Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Olivia Tremor Control], and we were all living in the same house. Still, we’re all in touch—by e-mail, and bands swing through when we’re on tour.
A: Are you still in close contact with Jeff Mangum [of Neutral Milk Hotel]?
EA: Yep, we see him every now and then. He played on a couple of tracks on our last album.
A: Any new bands from the past few years sound seem particularly exciting to you?
EA: As far as super-popular bands go, I think MGMT is fantastic. Also, there’s a new band out called Laminated Cat who have a record coming out. In terms of E6-style psychedelic music, I think they’re really great.
A: How do you feel about “American Idol’s” use of “Energy” [from 2007’s “New Magnetic Wonder”] as an all-cast sing-along?
EA: I’m of two minds of that: I think “American Idol” is pretty much a crappy karaoke contest [laughs], but at the same time we want as many people as possible to hear the music, so if some 10-year-old kid hears the song and likes it and gets turned on to our music, that’s a great thing.
A: Was a big surprise to have your song featured on the show?
EA: It was mentioned a month or two before as a “maybe”—no guarantee. We were on tour when it happened, and suddenly everyone’s phone started ringing, your mom or your girlfriend calling and going, “oh my god!”
A: Some of your songs have been featured in commercials recently as well. How do you feel about this?
EA: The first time that ever happened was years ago. It’s not like the radio is playing our songs, and if that’s how people are going to hear it, then that’s how it will be. At the same time, there are obviously products and companies we’d never allow our songs to be licensed for . . .
A: Like what?
EA: Cigarette companies, the U.S. Army, certain things that are incongruous to us personally—but I don’t have a problem with our song playing for 15 seconds in some fruit juice commercial. I’m just happy to hear some decent music on TV.