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Elephant 6 co-founder, MTU prof shares story at 41 North

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Marquette band Liquid Mike, which includes alumni of MTU, plays during the after-party for the 41 North Film Festival screening of “The Elephant 6 Recording Co.”

HOUGHTON — The poster for “The Elephant 6 Recording Co.” lists a few key bands from the indie rock collective — Neutral Milk Hotel, The Olivia Tremor Control, The Apples in Stereo, Elf Power and Of Montreal.

But alongside them, there’s also a “Sgt. Pepper”-ish gallery of dozens of faces from the groups.

It’s an apt metaphor for the collective, which grew to include more than 50 bands — all brilliant, but not all interested in fame.

“We’re talking about dozens of people who didn’t really want the spotlight, they didn’t want to be in a magazine, they didn’t want people to know their name,” said Elephant 6 co-founder Robert Schneider during a screening of the film at the 41 North Film Festival Friday. “They just privately wanted to make art. And then if somebody wanted to share that, that’s fine. They just wanted to make great art and live great lives. And that’s all we want. And that’s all that really matters, is to do that.”

Schneider, the frontman for Apples in Stereo and an assistant professor of mathematics at Michigan Technological University, attended the screening at the Rozsa Center and took part in a discussion afterwards alongside the film’s executive producer Daniel Efram.

Garrett Neese Daily Mining Gazette Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Robert Schneider, assistant professor of mathematics at MTU and co-founder of Elephant 6 Recording Co., answers questions during a panel discussion Friday night at the 41 North Film Festival.

Schneider spoke about the film, his history with the collective and his path to a career in mathematics, which has led him to a new community of collaborators.

The Elephant 6 collective’s members lived together, and often participated in the other groups’ recordings, hinging on their shared interest in ’60s pop and psychedelia,

The film has a few shots establishing the bands’ larger recognition — Schneider and the Apples in Stereo on “The Colbert Report,” glowing Pitchfork reviews of Olivia Tremor Control albums, the slew of best-of-all-time lists including Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”

But there’s also a trove of footage of communal cookouts, elaborate house shows in Athens, Georgia, and cramped living and recording spaces.

Schneider was embedded in a special group, he said. But he thought there were probably many people in the audience in the same situation — groups of kids in a little college town who feel like outsiders but figure out a way to make it through.

“When I started Elephant 6 with my friends when I was young, it’s because I believed in what we were doing, and I believed that it was different, and I believed that it was necessary,” he said. ” …If you can identify good things that are missing, and you can do it and you want to do it, then you should do it. Or if you know the person that you think should do it, then you should get them to do it. Or you should do it with them.”

With so many contributors to Elephant 6, the film is just “the first click in the rabbit hole,” Schneider said.

“Before that, there wasn’t an access point in this curious private community,” he said. “And so I think that is very beautiful. It’s important to me, and it succeeds in that way. And I don’t think that it needs to do more than that, from my perspective, because I just want to see these friends. Some of my friends have passed away and I can hear their voices again when I see this. It’s a very moving experience for me to see. So many years go by all at once in an hour and a half, and so many of these wonderful personalities shining on the screen. These are people that you all would like to know. You’re like them, too.”

The film was 13 years in the making. Fan C.B. Stockfleth first met Schneider and eventually traveled around the country on his own dime accumulating interviews and even helping salvage pieces of art. While many of the collective memes were initially skeptical of being interviewed, Stockfleth was eventually able to make them feel at ease, Schneider said.

Efram also praised the contributions of editor Greg King, who he said captured the flow that’s important to a musical documentary.

“The psychedelic aspects of the collective needed to be shown in a visual way and a musical way, and in an editing way,” he said. “And I think he did a really incredible job in the final edit.”

In catching up with the members, the film also shows Schneider’s burgeoning interest in math.

He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Kentucky before earning a Ph.D. at Emory University in Georgia.

It hadn’t been a lifelong passion of his; he had flunked math in high school owing to some rebellious slacking. He first developed an interest in his late ’20s, due to an antique tape machine in his Denver recording studio that kept blowing out diodes.

To read the schematic diagrams, he had to learn a bit of electronics. And to do that, he had to learn about math.

He bought a book on basic electronics. He opened up the page to Ohm’s law, which says current is directly proportional to voltage and inversely proportional to resistance.

It was an equation that explained how his studio worked, and how the currents cycled through everything from the microphone to the speakers.

“There’s this entire feedback loop, and it’s so beautiful, and I’m playing with my friends, and they’re my best friends, and that’s involved in us playing in a band together, and the band is supported by electricity, and the entire word that we’re embedded in is supported by this equation,” he said. “And all of my art and everything I think is cool in the world and everything that I love is supported by Ohm’s law. And it just blew my mind. And I got into math.”

He began studying math in his spare time while in the studio or on tour. His wife encouraged him to sign up for a calculus class at his community college, which led him to take university classes on number theory.

By the time he finished touring behind the Apples’ album “Travellers in Space and Time,” he realized he had nearly enough credits for a degree. Faced with a choice between starting to record another album or pursuing mathematics further, he decided to go to graduate school at Emory.

He’d chosen Emory partially because it was closer to his best friend Bill Doss, a member of the Olivia Tremor Control who he’d known since childhood. He’d already decided to pursue math. Doss’s unexpected death in 2012, made him more averse to making music.

Changing course midway through his life was a tough decision, he said. But ultimately it was valuable.

“If you’re skipping from one thing to another, you’re not doing something important,” he said. “If you’re going from one thing and agonizingly getting to the next thing, you’re probably struggling through things that might change the world.”

Schneider gave up music for several years, concentrating on his mathematics work.

In recent years, he’s resumed making music, mostly experimental, along with playing some acoustic shows and forming a couple of lo-fi bands. He’s also formed the drone band Dronologue with Michael Maxwell, an assistant teaching professor in the Visual and Performing Arts department.

The two also sponsor the MTU Mathematics and Music Lab. The goals of the MML are to produce futuristic works of music and installation art, explore music theory using mathematics, and invent new audio hardware and software.

Part of his explorations are the non-Pythagorean scale, which he invented in 2005 before becoming a mathematician. Rather than the regular intervals, the scale is a logarithmic where the notes become closer together as the scale ascends.

“It was so weird to hear me play the keyboard and to hear these weird mathematical tones coming back,” he said. “But after I experimented with it a bit, I came to see that in a unique and different way it was musical, and that you can create types of chords that were both very soothing and very textural and different from the kinds of sounds you can make with regular musical tunings.”

A year ago, he began working with Maxwell to design a software plug-in that would allow people to play the scale on a digital emulation of a synthesizer. They’re also looking for a student to help them build circuits for an analog version of the modular plug-in.

One of their students is coding the plug-in, which Schneider said should be available by this spring. Schneider encouraged other students with interests in math, music, engineering and electronics to check out the lab.

As he’s taken on more collaborators and students in mathematics and arts, he’s understood the importance of banding people together.

“Everybody’s isolated when we’re working in our creative spaces, and nobody else can appreciate that space,” he said. “It’s hard to get somebody else to listen to the thing that you’re saying. The other person that’s capable of listening to it is another artist or another person that already identifies with you. And so you try to find those people. And then you can be happy when you have an audience, and you don’t need anything else.”

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