Many Layers, Many Levels, Many Dimensions
An interview with Circulatory System
By Jayson Whitehead
Photos by Josh Whitehead

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 can’t 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 Hart’s 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 Hart’s 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 particular—Dusk 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 Fernandes—the Garth Hudson of the group—formed Circulatory System. Working off all original songs from Hart, Circulatory System—rounding out the group with other Elephant 6 associates, including Jeff Mangum, Pete Erchick, Heather McIntosh, and Scott Spillane—weave 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 you’re 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.

Gadfly: What’s the main difference between Olivia Tremor Control and Circulatory System?

John: Circulatory System is Will’s 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. That’s the difference, I guess. We don’t really try to think of it like that. It was just the next phase or a next phase maybe.

Is OTC something you think you’ll return to then?

Will: It’s 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 he’s kind of concentrating on Sunshine Fix, and we’re concentrating on Circulatory System.

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 I’ll have a whole song and then John will come—he’s already heard me play it so he’s written a part at home—and we’ll 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 it’s a few parts.

John: On the new record, 70-80% were started recording at Will’s house and then taken over to the studio to do overdubs. And then 20-30% start at the studio and are then taken to Will’s house for overdubs. So there’s a dialogue between the two.

One thing I like about your music, it’s 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. It’s more of a feel. You’ll put the basic tracks down, but you know you’re going to filter it this way because you’re 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. There’re 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 whole?

Will: Completely. If John’s doing something, I’ll be there to help him; if Jeff’s doing something, we’ll be there. Same deal. If you want to call on us, we’re there.

What kind of criteria is there to be in Elephant 6? More and more bands are becoming part of it.

Will: It’s 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 don’t even know. Like I know the Minders really well; they’re really great. Beulah, we’ve met a couple times, but they’re more friends of the Apples [in Stereo]. That’s an Apples connection. So it’s like, "Oh yeah, cool" or "Awesome." But we’ve only met a couple times, honestly. So it’s that kind of a deal there—West Coast and East Coast—but it’s not a division; it’s just that way.

It’s not like Tupac and Notorious BIG.

Will: Yeah. I’m not driving out to Colorado all the time so we don’t hook up to talk about these things. And I don’t think they do with us. You know, it’s like Elf Power joins the clan; it just happens organically, I guess.

Has Elephant 6 worked out like you originally conceived?

John: I don’t think anyone ever envisioned it becoming more than just the hometown friends. But it just happened—happy 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 would consider?

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 weren’t 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 you’d like to play the game and they’re just like, "I don’t think so."

John: Will was like, "It’s 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 they’re like [major label-exec voice again], "Okay, well, it’s nice talking to you."

There’s always all that drama, like with Wilco now.

Will: Yeah. They say you can do it, but you can’t. 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 wouldn’t back down on that. So it’s "Nope, you can’t touch this." You don’t 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, even.

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 didn’t start Cloud like some people think: "Oh, it’s like you guys are trying to hide away from the industry." We’re trying to get it out there to the best of our abilities. We’re 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 (www.pitchforkmedia.com).

John: Oh, yeah. Those guys are really nice.

Will: Good work. Thanks, guys. [laughs]

I think the only kind of music that is comparable to what you do is some of the stuff that comes out of England—I’m talking more production-wise. But the Elephant 6 stuff is a lot more organic—acoustic guitars, drums—whereas the British music seems so dependent on technology or computer sounds.

Will: Good point. That’s awesome. I see that.

John: It’s 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 Will’s in his own world (laughs), with no connection to other things. The album’s going to be 100% him; it’s not going to have any outside influences (laughs).

Will: I’ve got to say if you’ve been to England, though, you understand it’s 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. It’s still hip. It’s different things. Their underground is the beats, broken down to various levels. I understand some of it, but that’s not where we’re headed, I guess. But there’s a lot of that stuff on our shit. It’s sounds leaking in a different level.

Something that always comes up when you’re 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 don’t really think about it much anymore. I think you internalize things when you listen. I don’t think you even think about it.

John: It’s been forever since we put on a Beatle album.

Will: It’s been forever since I fucking put on a fucking Beatle album. It’s beautiful, and certain songs have the magic. And when you need to hear them, you listen to "Strawberry Fields." It’s 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 haven’t heard that in a couple of months." God… just the harmonies, the swimming vocals. It’s so beautiful. And the lyrics—Van Dyke Parks was a real genius, he really was.

Will: Totally. His lyrics are amazing.

John: Just picking up bits of Americana.

I just actually downloaded off of Audiogalaxy where Brian Wilson is drunk at someone’s 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." It’s hilarious.

Will: Really? Is it recent?

No. It’s 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 didn’t want to explain his lyrics so he was just like, "Fuck it. If you want to go back to the cars and girls, I’m out. If you don’t want to take the fucking Americana trip, then I’m 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. It’s silly, you know.

I saw Brian playing with the Beach Boys on Baywatch one time. It kind of hurt, actually.

[mutual laughter]

John: Oh, yeah.

Will: We got to see him at CMJ in ’96, I think, when I Wasn’t Made For These Times came out. He sat and played a couple songs on piano that were amazing. Amazing.

Editor’s 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: He’s smart.

Jeff’s got those bootlegs that his website says he’s going to issue. They sell on E-bay.

Will: Those cassettes and tapes? Yeah, it’s going to happen. I’ve dug out a bunch of old tapes I have. It’s beautiful stuff. They’re going to put together some kind of boxset—3 CDs or something like that. But I really don’t know; it’s been a year in the works—because I have tons of shit.

John: I doubt everything that’s on those things floating out there is gonna be on the thing. You know, like the prank phone calls; I’m sure that’s not going to make it on to the re-release.

Will: Exactly. We all want it on there, but he doesn’t. He’s like, "Aw, you can leave that one out." And we’re like, "You gotta fuckin’ leave that one in." [laughs] "That one’s fun." But, oh well. It’s totally up to him.

We were just talking about the Beatles/Beach Boys. What’s the extent to which you were influenced by early Flaming Lips or early Mercury Rev?

Will: Nah. Maybe them filtered through Pink Floyd or something or whoever they liked.

John: Yeah, maybe common influences or something. But we’ve had that all along. Especially on our first British tour. People were like, "You guys must love Mercury Rev." And we were like, "We haven’t heard Mercury Rev."

Will: "We haven’t heard Mercury Rev in our life." I have now, but at the time that they said that, I hadn’t heard it. I’ve heard Deserter’s Songs. That’s the only one I’ve heard.

John: I guess maybe some other influences that aren’t so obvious because they’re so hard to get but with Black Foliage maybe like Hymnen from Karlheinz Stockhausen. People can’t 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 it’s breaking apart.

Will: Yeah. He takes the national anthems of all the countries and makes them…

John: He uses punctuated silences.

Will: A lot of scene changes within a single second—something will happen, and then it will bubble away for like 20 minutes and then seep in. Really cool.

John: There’s a French composer named Alain Savouret. He did a really brilliant album—Sonate Baroque. He uses a lot of cut-up sounds where he takes a lot of music and cuts sounds and chops between them—really, 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. I’ve played it for other people, and they’re like, "Hey, this is scary." And I’m not always in the mood for it. It is kind of dark. It has a black side to it.

Will: It’s supposed to be.

John: Alain’s like real fun and lighthearted, and I’d have to say that’s another influence. And Stockhausen is more choppy and edgy.

That’s the difference between French and German.

Will: Well, he [Stockhausen] lost his parents when he was like four. I’m sure he’s got some weird shit going on. The whole album’s 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, it’s all these little musical snippets and stuff. It’s really interesting, but that’s 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: There’re aspects of so many different things. I’ll be like, "Put me on something that I’ve never heard that will really blow my mind." And Will’s 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 it’s hard to say "This album is a great album." It’s more like "I love the production of this album" or "I love the lyrical qualities of this album."

Will: It’s almost going back to a lot of albums that I feel that way. It’s like before what I thought was the greatest idea—The White Album. [The Beatles] It’s good. It’s got… eight good songs on it, actually. I’ll be honest—eight good songs and it’s got great production. It all sounds really dark, like it’s in a basement. If you listen to it, compared to the other ones, it’s like the tambourines—they’re bright but they’re not bright like any of their other records. It’s a real dead sound on The White Album, etc., etc., etc.

John: I worked in a record store, so I’m constantly trying to find a new band that’s going to blow my mind. There are always eight or nine things that I like and appreciate. But it’s real rare that something just inspires me: "This is the shape of music to come."

Will: I like Oval. I like almost everything they’ve put out. I can’t really say why; it just resonates with me to hear the tweaking involved in that. A lot of stuff like that.

I’ve been listening to the White Stripes a lot lately.

Will: I went to see their shows, but I’ve never heard their records.

It’s 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 forms—film?

Will: I wish I knew more about film.

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 tour—movies and stuff while we played. We couldn’t do anything like that this time. He also did a short video for one of the songs on Circulatory System. It’s actually up on our site (www.cloudrecordings.com). I was really happy. He made Will’s paintings overlap and bleed into each other—like 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 training?

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 art—which is really a lot more design oriented. I’ve come to realize it’s a lot more design oriented than just straight-up painting. I’ve grown into painting.

Do you think that affects your music, coming from that background?

Will: Definitely. The placement of things… moving things around, making sure the lighting is right for the show. Or even for the mood of the recording—it’s 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? It’s all about the mood.

Your paintings seem to be like fragments that are making a whole, and it’s the same with your music.

Will: You’re getting a snapshot of something that’s moving, as far as I’m concerned. So we’re influenced a lot by the visual.

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 Dylan’s new album—it’s the same way. It sounds like something that could be from the ‘20s—you could say 1920s or the year 2001. Is that something you’re shooting for?

John: Sort of. And it seems like on the new record, a lot of the themes that Will’s talking about are things that happened in prehistoric times. The universal sort of one huge system—everything 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 music—listening back to it—it fits in that there’s bits of it that sound like it could be from some 1920s recording from, you know, Morocco or something like that. And he’s talking about things from another time and instrumentally trying to suggest that as well—trying to bring in different worlds and combine them into a new world.

Will: We don’t start out thinking like that. It’s more intuitive, I think, and then in the end we sort of…

John: …yeah, realize that we were thinking about yesterday’s world, and then, all of a sudden, there’s like some clarinet stuff that sounds like it’s from the ‘20s.

Will: And we’re just like, "Wow." It’s totally intuitive. It just happened.

That would seem to fit in with your whole focus on dreams or the subconscious. You never know if you’re going to pull something back from when you were one year old or just yesterday or that morning, even.

Will: That’s exactly it. And it’s the same day. You’re one now; you’re just not on that dimension. That’s the way I see it. You can see the ‘60s going on right here. Maybe they’re seeing us or God: "I just saw a ghost." I just feel like it’s all happening at once, but we’re just not able to perceive time like that yet. We’ll get to that level soon.

I think it’s amazing that when you’re watching stuff like the bombings or the war, that they can’t 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. There’s no concept of time at all.

Will: Good example. It’s so true, so true.

With your music, I think you would call your stuff almost concept albums or something like that—where everything definitely ties together. Would you agree?

Will: Yeah, definitely. That’s not even tried, it just happens. That’s 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 couldn’t 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 outside—the 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 it’s just like, "Wow." I guess that just sort of happened.

In that way, it wouldn’t be concept albums; you guys are like concept bands.

Will: That’s kinda cool. But it’ll 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 someone’s going to bring in—their sphere and what’s going to happen.

Will: You do, and it’s 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 records—I feel like they connect.

Do you go into them with that theme?

Will: Same feel. They’ll have some stuff, and it’s just like we happen to either be singing about the same thing or along the way we came to the same conclusions on something. It’s kinda cool in that way. I think they all [the albums] have a different vibe. I don’t know; I can’t tell, but in my mind they do.