Though the homespun psychedelia of the Elephant 6 collective has earned a flood of nationwide attention, the scene itself is a tale of two cities: Athens and Denver. Athens, Georgia -- long a vital source for underground music, of course -- is home to most E6 artists (Neutral Milk Hotel, the Olivia Tremor Control, Of Montreal and the Music Tapes, for starters), while Denver is the headquarters for the Apples in Stereo, Von Hemmling, Secret Square and the Elephant 6 label (operated by the Apples' Robert Schneider).
But what of Beulah? Sequestered out west in San Francisco, this unassuming band is the pariah of the clan. No problem, says the group's cheerful leader, Miles Kurosky.
"It's good. We can do our own thing, and we're not held to unfair expectations or comparisons. I love being associated with Elephant 6. It's just that with any sort of hype that's generated, you find a certain amount of backlash. And with the backlash comes people expecting you to do a certain thing, or not do a certain thing. Anyway, I just love San Francisco."
Beulah's initial coupling with Elephant 6 was almost an accident. Kurosky had casually recorded some demos with a fellow worker, Bill Swan. The group wasn't even named yet. However, a friend had a copy of the tape, and happened to pass it to Apples drummer Hilarie Sidney after a New York club performance. Sidney and Schneider flipped for it, and quickly phoned Kurosky, offering to release the songs via Elephant 6.
The result was 1997's Handsome Western States, one of the label's first full-length albums. Besides Kurosky and Swan, the disc's only other musician was Anne Mellinger, who added violin and backing vocals to a few tracks. While the record was hardly a smash, it sold out its pressing and is currently out of print.
Though Beulah wasn't signed to record a second disc, Kurosky was itching to return to the studio (or more accurately, the tiny rented cubicle where the debut was taped). This time, he had a new sound in mind. The first album's brand of chirpy indie-pop was fine for what it was, but he had more elaborate plans for the sequel. Adding drummer Steve St. Cin, bassist Steve La Follette and keyboardist Pat Noel to the group's core personnel, he then went hog-wild, recruiting almost 20 other musicians to lend exotic texture (flute, strings, accordion, harp, French horn, tabla, clarinet, sax, trombone...need we go on?) to his latest batch of songs. Still, the recording was strictly low-budget, again completed without label support. "Our record cost less than some microphones," Kurosky grins.
"No one was paid for this record," the former Buena Park resident explains. "We just asked them to do us a favor. Most of the folks are friends of friends -- they weren't even friends, directly. I just somehow convinced them to play on our record. I'm still boggled that they decided to do it. Even if we failed at making this record, I think we deserve a 'A' for effort, because of how hard it was to get all these people together to play. Most bands would've given up within the first week or two, after trying to call people and no one wanted to come in and do it. We really had to beg."
Eventually, the album was finished. Hoping for more aggressive marketing than low-key Elephant 6 could provide, Kurosky shopped it to a few labels and found a receptive ear in Sugar Free, a Chicago-based indie. The irresistible When Your Heartstrings Break was finally released in April.
Inspired by orchestrated peers like the Ladybug Transistor, Belle & Sebastian and the Olivia Tremor Control, Kurosky readily admits that the new record is "a little more fruity." No matter -- it's miles better than Handsome Western States. The dense arrangements add sparkle to chiming pop like "Score From Augusta," "Calm Go the Wild Seas," "Sunday Under Glass" and "The Aristocratic Swells," while Kurosky's lyrics ramble through an elusive spew of syllable-stuffed images, touching on motifs of history, religion, cultural mythology and fame.
"Most of the words were written right before I sang them," he notes. "I just think to myself, 'OK, what's this song about?' Then I go to it, and write everything that can possibly come to mind. Sometimes it might seem like there's some sort of disassociation going on, but they do all have themes."
And what transformation will Beulah undergo for the next album? Not even Kurosky can guess.
"Who knows? Maybe we'll do dance music. I want every record to be different, but good. It's always going to be pop music with Beulah, but just from a different angle. One of the bands that we like so much is the Beatles, and the Beatles always changed from record to record. You look at 1963, and they're putting out 'Please Please Me' and 'She Loves You.' Three years later, they're doing Revolver, and a year later, Sgt. Pepper. Such growth. They couldn't have made A Hard Day's Night over and over again -- it would've been suicide. So you can't keep making the same record. You gotta outdo yourself, or try something different. Otherwise, you'll bore yourself to death. Yourself, and the listener."
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