Interview: The Olivia Tremor Control
Published on November 11th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
In 1996, Elephant 6 founder members The Olivia Tremor Control released Music from the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle, an album of such monumental, kaleidoscopic, transporting, transforming, otherworldly and richly harmonic constitution that it instantly upon hearing it registered as that most cherished of things in Rocksucker’s music collection: that of the psychedelic pop album writ large, bold and winding as odyssey.
Songs so accessible that they’ll stay with you for the rest of your life, so challengingly and synaesthetically rendered that no amount of listens can dim its brain-nourishing qualities.Basically, the 1960s heyday of psychedelia called: they wanted their band back.In 1999, The Olivia Tremor Control released Black Foliage, an album that somehow emboldened all those characteristics, strung them all together in a patchwork of mind-stewing electronic sound collages, like beautiful butterflies embedded in an elaborate spider’s web that meant them no harm, catapulting the Athens, Georgia troupe into the stratosphere of bands whose every major musical statement demands not only your attention but also your richly rewarded endeavour.
Main songwriting pair Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart then went their separate ways to form perfectly representational splinter groups – the timeless, energising melodies of the former’s The Sunshine Fix and the drippy, nocturnal psychedelia of the latter’s
Circulatory System – not to mention countless other glorious instances of E6 cross-pollination involving them and their cohorts (including Neutral Milk Hotel, The Apples in Stereo, Elf Power, The Music Tapes, of Montreal, The Gerbils, Summer Hymns and Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t).
An amazing roll call and legacy of recorded music, for sure…but, deep down, anyone for whom those two Olivia Tremor Control albums (not to mention rarities compilation Present: Singles and Beyond – please check out an old attempt by this correspondent to cover the song “I’m Not Feeling Human”) will not-so-secretly have been yearning for a third full-scale work from this precise collaboration of musicians.
Basically, Olivia Tremor Control fans called: they wanted their band back (if that doesn’t sound too ungrateful). In the middle of the last decade, they got that in the form of a string of live shows – yours truly was lucky enough to catch them at London’s The Garage venue in 2005 – and now it looks as if 2012 will bring that longed-for third LP to life, a new age of recording activity heralded with the unveiling of the tangential, “juice and coffee in the morning after staring at the stars all night”-evoking single “The Game You Play Is In Your Head, Parts 1, 2, 3”, as well as last year’s AUX Vol. 2 cut “North Term Reality”…
Rocksucker had the absolute honour of getting to fire a list of ‘excitable fan boy’ questions over to the Olivia Tremor Control camp and was utterly thrilled to receive back the following set of answers from Bill Doss, a man whose songs I and who knows how many others have not just listened to but also learnt (sometimes from scratch), sang and strummed over the years. Enjoy, fellow E6/OTC geeks…
First of all, are you aware of how many are crapping themselves with excitement at the fact that The Olivia Tremor Control is finally back on track? I have to say that I am party to that crapping.
I’m crapping myself, actually. Really happy to be playing with the boys again! There’s a strange and exciting chemistry that occurs when this particular group of people get together and, after a break of undisclosed time, and at least for us, it seems that old magic feeling is still there.
I love “The Game You Play Is in Your Head Parts 1, 2, 3” – it sounds fresh yet instantly recognisable as you guys. To me, it sounds more Dusk At Cubist Castle than Black Foliage – do you think it’s a decent indicator of what your new album might sound like, or is it far too early to say?
Well, to be honest, this track began life during the Dusk sessions. It was slated to be on that album but we ran out of time on the record; can’t get more than about 75 minutes on a CD apparently. So, we shelved it, unfinished. It seemed like a good time to finish it. As for the sound of the new stuff, it’s hard to say what it sounds like yet. It definitely feels like it did back when we were working on the old stuff. Very exciting!
Will it appear as one or three tracks on the album, do you think? And what’s with the squealing pig at the end of part 2?
This track is a single so it won’t appear on the new album. Besides, we have tons and tons of new material so we’ll more-n-likely have a new album as well as a few singles, eps, etc. That noise at the end of that track, and I’m not supposed to be telling this, is actually a…sorry, phone’s ringing, I need to get this…
Is “North Term Reality” being considered for the album or was that just a one-off?
That track was created especially for Heather McIntosh’s AUX compilation. So, no, it won’t be on the new album.
What is the line-up of the band at the moment – as in, who’s playing/doing what?
Everyone does everything. Right now we have W Cullen Hart on Nashville string guitar, percussion; John Fernandes on violins, clarinet, bass, percussion; Peter Erchick on keys, tapes, percussion, guitar, bass; Derek Almstead on drums, guitar, tapes, samples; AJ Griffin on guitar, xylophone, percussion, bass, keys; and myself on guitar, bass, prepared guitar, percussion; Julian Koster on bowed banjo, singing saw; Scott Spillane on horns and guitar. And, of course, we all sing.
Are you looking forward to the Jeff Mangum-curated ATP in England early next year? That’s quite a line-up he’s put together! Do you think Jeff might play with you guys then?
Well, of course I’m looking forward to it all. Gonna be a great weekend! Lots of great bands playing. Really looking forward to Fleet Foxes, one of my new favorite bands! I’m sure Jeff’ll sit in with us. He always does when we’re in the same neighborhood, just like the olden times.
So, Explanation II: Instrumental Themes and Dream Sequences – is it meant to be played at the same time as Dusk at Cubist Castle? If not, have you ever tried doing it anyway? Have you ever been tempted to release something meant to be played on multiple CDs, like Zaireeka by The Flaming Lips?
Explanation II is meant to be played at the same time as Dusk. It must be. It says it right in the liner notes. We actually had a Zaireeka listening party when that came out. About 20 minutes into it, one of the CD players’ speakers caught on fire! Flames, sparks, smoke, the whole business. Not sure if that was the intended result?
I remember reading an interview from a while back in which you claimed that the ‘meaning’ of Black Foliage would become apparent after fifty listens. I reckon I’ve listened to it that many times but so far my findings are only that it is a brilliant album. Help me out a little here…?
So, you’ve listened to the record at least 50 times? I’d like to hear what YOU think it means…that’d be much more interesting than anything I could come up with.
Oh, we’ll get to that in the run-up to album three! Where did you find/how did you create all the strange noises whizzing around the mix on Black Foliage? Did you manipulate ‘found sounds’, use weird keyboard effects, or both? I imagine this must have been quite a painstaking process. Do you listen to much musique concrete? If so, which artists do you admire in that field?
That record took 3 years to finish. So, yes, quite painstaking. During that time, W Cullen got heavily into musique concrete and we all followed suit. I mean, we all knew about that stuff, but Will really held the flag on pushing it to the fore. Those noises were created on a variety of machines, tape cut-ups, digital 4 and 16 tracks, 4-track cassettes, etc. Many sounds were, in fact, found sounds from various hand held tapes that were recorded on our tours into strange and mysterious lands. We have many heroes in that field: John Cage, Pierre Henri, Stockhausen…y’know, the biggies, the rock stars of concrete.
Did you enjoy the shows you did with Super Furry Animals back in the day? It blows my mind that you two bands shared a bill!
That was a fantastic tour! Not only were we already fans of theirs but it was also our first trip to England. On top of everything else, they were super nice guys and really helped show us the ropes of touring over there as well as introducing us to some great bands we’d not heard of at the time, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, The White Noise, etc.
Can you see there being another Circulatory System album in the future?
Let me look into my Magic 8 Ball…ahhh yes, here it is, outlook likely. Will is extremely prolific and so I can imagine that along with his material slated for the new OTC record, there will be something in the way of CS.
Is Bill still playing with The Apples in Stereo? Apparently he contributed to the songwriting on Travellers in Space and Time – will this continue to be the case? Any plans to resurrect The Sunshine Fix?
That’s more of a question for Robert.
Where can we get John’s solo album from? It says on his Wikipedia entry that he released an album this year under the name John Kiran Fernandes…
He sells them on tour in true DIY style. He is planning to have them on our trip to England next month.
If you don’t mind me asking, how does Will’s MS affect him on a day-to-day basis? Fortunately for us fans, it doesn’t seem to prevent him from keeping active at the moment! Will he be doing the album artwork again for the new one? Any ideas for it yet?
Will is constantly dealing with symptoms that are gonna get progressively worse. He is in a lot of pain everyday. Right now, he’s taking medicine for it and it seems to be in a place that he can deal with but it comes and goes. His muscles burn in his neck and legs and shoulders and sometimes his arms and hands won’t work properly. He has good days and bad days but even the good days are very uncomfortable and painful. You’re right, it doesn’t seem to be preventing him from being active but I think that’s only because he loves his music and art enough to work through the pain. He’s a real inspiration to me and the other guys.
Where do you get your lyrical inspiration from? It’s a very overlooked strength of your music, in my opinion.
Mostly from real and non-real life.
Now for a couple of questions from a friend and musical partner of mine, Ben Hawkins, whom I introduced you guys to, if you don’t mind! (I guess you could call it a “three-question suite” – the “Green Typewriters” section of the interview, if you will)…
1) Does somehow getting over the ego of what the one can conceive allow the consciousness of many to become clear and concise? Who conducts?
It very well might but who’s to say. You are the conductor of your own train.
2) Do people even still appreciate the concept of the long play? Is the long play album really something that can only be done so many times a generation before it becomes standardized or so abstract that no one else understands?
I have no idea of what others appreciate. In this digital age, many bands are releasing one song at a time and that is fine but there are others who seem to have more to say so hopefully they’ll continue doing so in a longer format. I just read that the Flaming Lips released a 6 hour song and plan to release one to span 24 hours. Hats off to those boys! Musical Explorers.
3) To me, you took an idea from the sixties (long play album experience) and perfectly reinvented it for your time. Have you heard any albums since that have done the same to you?
First off, thank you for the kind words. The List:White Noise – Electric Storm, Royal Trux – Cats and Dogs and The Beach Boys – SMiLE. Of course, this list changes daily.
Bill, thank you.
The Olivia Tremor Control’s new single “The Game You Play Is In Your Head, Parts 1, 2, 3” is out now. For more information and a list of live dates, please visit oliviatremorcontrol.com , elephant6.com or opticalatlas.com