Will Cullen Hart is
brooding. "Can you all hear me?" The leadsinger
and guitarist of Circulatory System stares out into the
audience, frustration drenching his face. "Yeah,"
two or three yell back. "Really? Because I cant
hear myself." For much of the night, Hart has strained
to overcome the lack of a sound monitor. As the night
plays out, the frustration mounts and Harts mood
deteriorates; shoulders sagging, he sighs, rolls his eyes,
and at one point threatens to quit. "No, no, no,"
Jeff Mangum, the drummer and tonight Harts cheerleader,
exhorts. "They can hear you. Keep going." "Really?"
Hart beseeches the small crowd. We all answer in the positive
even though his vocals are for the most part only faintly
audible. No one wants him to stop.
Circulatory System was
formed not in the ashes but in the fractures of Olivia
Tremor Control, the central project of the founding members
of Elephant 6 (a musical collective whose membership includes
such bands as Apples in Stereo, Beulah, and Neutral Milk
Hotel). OTC released music, two albums in particularDusk
at Cubist Castle in 1996 and Black Foliage
in 1998, in which layer upon layer of sound coalesces
into a whole wherein much of the history of recorded music
can be heard.
With OTC member Bill Doss
concentrating on his band Sunshine Fix, Will Hart and
cohort John Fernandesthe Garth Hudson of the groupformed
Circulatory System. Working off all original songs from
Hart, Circulatory Systemrounding out the group with
other Elephant 6 associates, including Jeff Mangum, Pete
Erchick, Heather McIntosh, and Scott Spillaneweave
multiple levels of music and sound into their first album,
the self-titled Circulatory System. If, like me,
you consistently yearn for the type of production most
commonly associated with that of the Beatles, Beach Boys,
the Who, or the Rolling Stones, then youre in luck.
Circulatory System, not necessarily in emulation but certainly
in comparison, provide music that is sonically challenging
and yet pleasing at the same time. A few hours before
they were set to play, I talked with Will Hart and John
Fernandes about their music, their influences, and just
about anything else that popped up.
the main difference between Olivia Tremor Control and
John: Circulatory System
is Wills songs, whereas Olivia is 40% Will, Bill
[Doss], Pete had a song and other people contributed parts.
Will: This album, everybody
brought in arrangements, but I brought in the original
songs, I guess. Thats the difference, I guess. We
dont really try to think of it like that. It was
just the next phase or a next phase maybe.
Is OTC something you
think youll return to then?
Will: Its kind of
looking like it might someday.
John: At least Bill might
come play some shows with us and record, and we might
do the same with him. But hes kind of concentrating
on Sunshine Fix, and were concentrating on Circulatory
Your music certainly
sounds like it would be a collaborative effort.
Will: As far as the songs?
Totally. Some of them are sketches; some are a bit more.
Some happened while we played.
Do you go in with a
lot of formed songs or are they ideas that get worked
out in the studio?
Will: Both. Sometimes Ill
have a whole song and then John will comehes
already heard me play it so hes written a part at
homeand well merge with that, move that somewhere.
And sometimes that will create a new piece. So little things
happen along the way that make it a full song, but its
a few parts.
John: On the new record,
70-80% were started recording at Wills house and
then taken over to the studio to do overdubs. And then
20-30% start at the studio and are then taken to Wills
house for overdubs. So theres a dialogue between
One thing I like about
your music, its the kind of stuff that requires
you to listen to it more than one time.
John: Many layers, many
levels, many dimensions.
Is that something that
you consciously set out to do?
Will: Definitely, yeah,
yeah, yeah. Definitely. It happens along the way. Its
more of a feel. Youll put the basic tracks down,
but you know youre going to filter it this way because
youre looking for a pillowy
you know what
I mean? A certain atmosphere underneath a rock song; or
it starts off as an atmosphere and then is a rock song
but not really?!
John: Yeah, to accentuate
the mood of the lyrics. It all goes hand in hand. And
Will does all the artwork for the CDs as well. So all
of it goes hand in hand to try to give you an overall
feeling, an interconnected feeling, other than just one
view. Therere a lot of different levels to it.
And that just fits into
the whole Elephant 6 concept, right? The same way that
the songs fit into an album, the bands fit into a collective
Will: Completely. If Johns
doing something, Ill be there to help him; if Jeffs
doing something, well be there. Same deal. If you
want to call on us, were there.
What kind of criteria
is there to be in Elephant 6? More and more bands are
becoming part of it.
Will: Its so
not defined. We just let it grow organically.
Now there are a lot
of West Coast bands like Beulah and the Minders.
Will: Some of them we dont
even know. Like I know the Minders really well; theyre
really great. Beulah, weve met a couple times, but
theyre more friends of the Apples [in Stereo]. Thats
an Apples connection. So its like, "Oh yeah,
cool" or "Awesome." But weve only
met a couple times, honestly. So its that kind of
a deal thereWest Coast and East Coastbut its
not a division; its just that way.
Its not like Tupac
and Notorious BIG.
Will: Yeah. Im not
driving out to Colorado all the time so we dont
hook up to talk about these things. And I dont think
they do with us. You know, its like Elf Power joins
the clan; it just happens organically, I guess.
Has Elephant 6 worked
out like you originally conceived?
John: I dont think
anyone ever envisioned it becoming more than just the
hometown friends. But it just happenedhappy accident.
Will: Totally. Good way
to put it.
The Circulatory System
album is the first release from your own label, Cloud
Recordings. You guys are so independent. Have you ever
been courted by a major label or is that something you
Will: We chatted.
John: Yeah, after the Beck
and Stereolab tours. I guess some people from a few different
ones [labels] started talking to us, but once they talked
to us and realized that we werent interested in
doing the greatest hits compilations or whatever, they
were like [in faux major label-exec voice] "O-o-k-k-a-a-y-y-y."
(laughs) That was it.
Will: That was it. You
draw how youd like to play the game and theyre
just like, "I dont think so."
John: Will was like, "Its
very important for me to do any kind of album I want.
If I want to do an instrumental electronic album and then
do a pop album and do whatever and theyre like [major
label-exec voice again], "Okay, well, its nice
talking to you."
all that drama, like with Wilco now.
Will: Yeah. They say you
can do it, but you cant. It got as far as us passing
a couple of contracts back and forth, and then it was
like, "We have the right to remix." And they
wouldnt back down on that. So its "Nope,
you cant touch this." You dont want your
shit to be remixed.
Does that ever bother
you on any level? Certainly that affects how many people
are going to know who you are or know that you exist,
John: We started Cloud
Recordings just to have a direct connection to people
that listen to it. Like in the spirit of the Sun Ra Arkestra
doing Saturn Records, pressing up a batch of fifties and
selling them at shows and then doing a totally different
record. Just having the ability to
like if we wanted
to remix the Circulatory System album 50 times
and keep re-releasing it, we could do it. We didnt
start Cloud like some people think: "Oh, its
like you guys are trying to hide away from the industry."
Were trying to get it out there to the best of our
abilities. Were slowly getting more connected so
that the record can get everywhere that there might be
someone interested in it.
Well, how I even found
out about your album is I read about it on Pitchforkmedia
John: Oh, yeah. Those guys
are really nice.
Will: Good work. Thanks,
I think the only kind
of music that is comparable to what you do is some of
the stuff that comes out of EnglandIm talking
more production-wise. But the Elephant 6 stuff is a lot
more organicacoustic guitars, drumswhereas
the British music seems so dependent on technology or
Will: Good point. Thats
awesome. I see that.
John: Its something
that almost follows trends. You know, electronic is popular
and so they make it have drumbeats on the next album.
I can vouch that Wills in his own world (laughs),
with no connection to other things. The albums going
to be 100% him; its not going to have any outside
Will: Ive got to
say if youve been to England, though, you understand
its different. The subculture is not what you get
here. That is the underground.
Well, there are no woods
in England. There are no trees.
Will: Exactly. Its
still hip. Its different things. Their underground
is the beats, broken down to various levels. I understand
some of it, but thats not where were headed,
I guess. But theres a lot of that stuff on our shit.
Its sounds leaking in a different level.
Something that always
comes up when youre written about are the comparisons
to the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Are those two groups
that you get a lot of inspiration from?
Will: Yeah. At some point,
they are. At some point in time, I think. I dont
really think about it much anymore. I think you internalize
things when you listen. I dont think you even think
John: Its been forever
since we put on a Beatle album.
Will: Its been forever
since I fucking put on a fucking Beatle album. Its
beautiful, and certain songs have the magic. And when
you need to hear them, you listen to "Strawberry
Fields." Its not an everyday fucking listen.
It has its power.
John: Smile still
you know, every couple of months I still have to put on
Smile. Jeff [Mangum] was like "Anyone want
to listen to Smile?" And everyone was actually
like, "I havent heard that in a couple of months."
just the harmonies, the swimming vocals. Its
so beautiful. And the lyricsVan Dyke Parks was a
real genius, he really was.
Will: Totally. His lyrics
John: Just picking up bits
I just actually downloaded
off of Audiogalaxy where Brian Wilson is drunk at someones
party, and he gets up into the microphone and he goes,
"I just want to say that Van Dyke Parks is the biggest
butthole in the entire world." Its hilarious.
Will: Really? Is it recent?
No. Its from like
the early 80s, I think.
Will: I think he [Wilson]
was weird for a while maybe because he hoped he [Parks]
would stand by him and face the Beach Boys. But he didnt
want to explain his lyrics so he was just like, "Fuck
it. If you want to go back to the cars and girls, Im
out. If you dont want to take the fucking Americana
trip, then Im out." And that kind of left Brian
hangin I guess. He was under tremendous pressure
from the other guys. They wanted to put the stripes back
on. Its silly, you know.
I saw Brian playing
with the Beach Boys on Baywatch one time. It kind
of hurt, actually.
John: Oh, yeah.
Will: We got to see him
at CMJ in 96, I think, when I Wasnt Made
For These Times came out. He sat and played
a couple songs on piano that were amazing. Amazing.
Editors note: At
this point, Jeff Mangum came up to the table with an idea
of how to circumvent the problem of having no sound monitors
at the club they were playing at. After much discussion
and problem solved, Jeff left.
John: Hooray for Jeff.
Will: Hes smart.
Jeffs got those
bootlegs that his website says hes going to issue.
They sell on E-bay.
Will: Those cassettes and
tapes? Yeah, its going to happen. Ive dug
out a bunch of old tapes I have. Its beautiful stuff.
Theyre going to put together some kind of boxset3
CDs or something like that. But I really dont know;
its been a year in the worksbecause I have
tons of shit.
John: I doubt everything thats
on those things floating out there is gonna be on the thing.
You know, like the prank phone calls; Im sure thats
not going to make it on to the re-release.
Will: Exactly. We all want
it on there, but he doesnt. Hes like, "Aw,
you can leave that one out." And were like,
"You gotta fuckin leave that one in."
[laughs] "That ones fun." But, oh well.
Its totally up to him.
We were just talking about
the Beatles/Beach Boys. Whats the extent to which
you were influenced by early Flaming Lips or early
Will: Nah. Maybe them filtered
through Pink Floyd or something or whoever they liked.
John: Yeah, maybe common
influences or something. But weve had that all along.
Especially on our first British tour. People were like,
"You guys must love Mercury Rev." And we were
like, "We havent heard Mercury Rev."
Will: "We havent
heard Mercury Rev in our life." I have now, but at
the time that they said that, I hadnt heard it.
Ive heard Deserters Songs. Thats
the only one Ive heard.
John: I guess maybe some
other influences that arent so obvious because theyre
so hard to get but with Black Foliage maybe like
Hymnen from Karlheinz Stockhausen. People cant
get Hymnen because you have to buy it straight
from his website (www.stockhausen.org)
and its hundreds of dollars. But that as much as something
like the Beatles helped influence Black Foliage.
The way he deconstructs and morphs existing material makes
it sound like its breaking apart.
Will: Yeah. He takes the
national anthems of all the countries and makes them
John: He uses punctuated
Will: A lot of scene changes
within a single secondsomething will happen, and
then it will bubble away for like 20 minutes and then
seep in. Really cool.
John: Theres a French
composer named Alain Savouret. He did a really brilliant
albumSonate Baroque. He uses a lot of cut-up
sounds where he takes a lot of music and cuts sounds and
chops between themreally, really inventive compositions
with a definite sense of humor. He takes more of a lighthearted
approach. Stockhausen is sort of dark, and sometimes you
have to listen to it by yourself. Ive played it
for other people, and theyre like, "Hey, this
is scary." And Im not always in the mood for
it. It is kind of dark. It has a black side to it.
Will: Its supposed
John: Alains like
real fun and lighthearted, and Id have to say thats
another influence. And Stockhausen is more choppy and
Thats the difference
between French and German.
Will: Well, he [Stockhausen]
lost his parents when he was like four. Im sure
hes got some weird shit going on. The whole albums
supposed to be like America versus Russia. Not versus
but he wanted to break down those borders and have just
utopia. So the whole record is supposed to be these countries
clashing against each other and making friends. So, anyway,
its all these little musical snippets and stuff.
Its really interesting, but thats probably
more of an influence than the Beatles on Black Foliage.
Are there any contemporary
artists that you like, that you listen to now?
John: Therere aspects
of so many different things. Ill be like, "Put
me on something that Ive never heard that will really
blow my mind." And Wills always putting on
a track and "Well, I love the bass and drum sound
of this" or "I love the way the vocals lapse
back on this." But its hard to say "This
album is a great album." Its more like "I
love the production of this album" or "I love
the lyrical qualities of this album."
Will: Its almost
going back to a lot of albums that I feel that way. Its
like before what I thought was the greatest ideaThe
White Album. [The Beatles] Its good.
eight good songs on it, actually.
Ill be honesteight good songs and its
got great production. It all sounds really dark, like
its in a basement. If you listen to it, compared
to the other ones, its like the tambourinestheyre
bright but theyre not bright like any of their other
records. Its a real dead sound on The White Album,
etc., etc., etc.
John: I worked in a record
store, so Im constantly trying to find a new band
thats going to blow my mind. There are always eight
or nine things that I like and appreciate. But its
real rare that something just inspires me: "This
is the shape of music to come."
Will: I like Oval. I like
almost everything theyve put out. I cant really
say why; it just resonates with me to hear the tweaking
involved in that. A lot of stuff like that.
Ive been listening
to the White Stripes a lot lately.
Will: I went to see their
shows, but Ive never heard their records.
Its great for
just being guitar and drums.
Will: Totally. They totally
pulled it off. They cranked it up at the shows.
Are you inspired by
other art formsfilm?
Will: I wish I knew more
Because your stuff sounds
like it could be soundtrack music.
John: A friend, Joey Foreman,
he came and did films for us on the last tourmovies
and stuff while we played. We couldnt do anything
like that this time. He also did a short video for one
of the songs on Circulatory System. Its actually
up on our site (www.cloudrecordings.com).
I was really happy. He made Wills paintings overlap
and bleed into each otherlike all the little foliage-type
shapes. He did a lot of stuff with that; it really animated
them. It was perfect.
Have you had any artistic
Will: A tiny bit. My parents
are both interior designers. They met in art school. They
taught me a lot. I went to art school for like a year
and a half. But they really taught me what I know about
artwhich is really a lot more design oriented. Ive
come to realize its a lot more design oriented than
just straight-up painting. Ive grown into painting.
Do you think that affects
your music, coming from that background?
Will: Definitely. The placement
moving things around, making sure the
lighting is right for the show. Or even for the mood of
the recordingits important to get the mood
right as far as things go. Then you can draw up what you
need from the universe; you know what I mean? Its
all about the mood.
Your paintings seem
to be like fragments that are making a whole, and its
the same with your music.
Will: Youre getting
a snapshot of something thats moving, as far as
Im concerned. So were influenced a lot by
One thing I would say
generally about your music is that it is reminiscent of
a lot of old music. Definitely with your horns, even.
You can hear something like Dixieland maybe, but it also
sounds new. Kind of like Bob Dylans new albumits
the same way. It sounds like something that could be from
the 20syou could say 1920s or the year 2001.
Is that something youre shooting for?
John: Sort of. And it seems
like on the new record, a lot of the themes that Wills
talking about are things that happened in prehistoric
times. The universal sort of one huge systemeverything
that has happened since prehistoric times is all inside
you, somewhere inside your mind and your spirit and your
physical form. Some aspects of the musiclistening
back to itit fits in that theres bits of it
that sound like it could be from some 1920s recording
from, you know, Morocco or something like that. And hes
talking about things from another time and instrumentally
trying to suggest that as welltrying to bring in
different worlds and combine them into a new world.
Will: We dont start
out thinking like that. Its more intuitive, I think,
and then in the end we sort of
that we were thinking about yesterdays world, and
then, all of a sudden, theres like some clarinet
stuff that sounds like its from the 20s.
Will: And were just
like, "Wow." Its totally intuitive. It
That would seem to fit
in with your whole focus on dreams or the subconscious.
You never know if youre going to pull something
back from when you were one year old or just yesterday
or that morning, even.
Will: Thats exactly
it. And its the same day. Youre one now; youre
just not on that dimension. Thats the way I see
it. You can see the 60s going on right here. Maybe
theyre seeing us or God: "I just saw a ghost."
I just feel like its all happening at once, but
were just not able to perceive time like that yet.
Well get to that level soon.
I think its amazing
that when youre watching stuff like the bombings
or the war, that they cant even remember that just
ten years ago we were on the other side. Or that twenty
years ago we were fighting a war just like this. Theres
no concept of time at all.
Will: Good example. Its
so true, so true.
With your music, I think
you would call your stuff almost concept albums or something
like thatwhere everything definitely ties together.
Would you agree?
Will: Yeah, definitely.
Thats not even tried, it just happens. Thats
just so natural.
John: Yeah, it just happens.
Will was like, "What should we call this project?"
It started to come together, and I was like, "Circulatory
System." And then as the record took form and all
the songs were in place, it seems like, "Wow."
It couldnt be called anything besides that because
it seems to make reference to the themes that the things
inside the circulatory system or the circulatory system
outsidethe larger system of the revolving planets
around the sun, the general system of having an ecosystem,
the way things circulate and all become each other and
become interconnected. It just seemed to relate on all
the different levels, and its just like, "Wow."
I guess that just sort of happened.
In that way, it wouldnt
be concept albums; you guys are like concept bands.
Will: Thats kinda
cool. But itll change. Each time it will change
so albums is almost as good
yeah, I guess it is
a band. You know, I just look at it as like: people bring
their spirits in and they merge. You know what I mean?
I may start with something, but really everybody already
knows it and they know what to do.
John: You know what someones
going to bring intheir sphere and whats going
Will: You do, and its
beautiful that way. And so in that sense I guess it is
a band-like thing. But each album I feel like does have
a theme. I feel like Black Foliage and Dusk
and all those recordsI feel like they connect.
Do you go into them
with that theme?
Will: Same feel. Theyll
have some stuff, and its just like we happen to
either be singing about the same thing or along the way
we came to the same conclusions on something. Its
kinda cool in that way. I think they all [the albums]
have a different vibe. I dont know; I cant
tell, but in my mind they do.