Cullen Hart, cofounder with Bill Doss of the ground-breaking
pop experiment Olivia Tremor Control, has all the
tell tale signs of genius. When I ask him how old
he is, he says, "Twenty-seven. No. No! Twenty-eight!
Like wait, man. I switched." He's
charming and humble and a little flaky in an endearing
way. I think of all those stories about Einstein and
great seventeenth century composers who couldn't button
their shirts right and wore different colored socks.
Hart is the opposite of pretentious—a little
uncomfortable, kind of shy, impossible not to like.
It's 11:30 a.m.
and he just woke up in his Athens, Georgia, home after
working on his music well into the early morning—recording,
say, crickets and rainstorms and the plink of water
drops in a metal sink; laying down guitar tracks that
he can mix with other, slightly different guitar tracks
to get a swirling, smudged sound; putting down a loping
Paul McCartney-like bass lead that he may or may not
Olivia Tremor Control is Bill Doss, Will Cullen Hart,
Peter Erchick, John Fernandes, Eric Harris and nineteen
other musicians who float in and out of their home
studio. For this interview, Hart is the sort of groggy
spokesman. At a certain point, I start to worry that
he is so self-deprecating and humble that the interview
is going to crumble. He says, referring to Olivia
Tremor Control's stunning new album Black Foliage:
Animation Music (Flydaddy), which is twenty-seven
intricately linked tracks full of the same kind of
ambition and chutzpah that produced Pet Sounds,
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and
Dark Side of the Moon, "Um, I mean,
we did plan all this out..."—which is clear
to me from listening to it over and over—"if
I was a better talker, I could probably make this
whole thing look a lot more interesting. It's like
we spent over two years on this, it's all I've thought
about, and now I'm totally unprepared to talk about
it." He is audibly sullen, voice falling an octave.
"I feel like I'm not going to say anything."
I'm nervous. Let's just chat about the
music, I suggest.
he says, brightening. "No one really wants to
talk about that." This, oddly, seems true. Olivia
Tremor Control's Bill Doss said in an April 8,
1998, Rolling Stone interview
that in England, "every single journalist began
by asking us what drugs we take and in what quantity.
We've experimented with all the normal stuff. But
we're more interested in the imagery and using it
to make something that gets you to a certain place
in your head." They don't like being labeled
as either neo-psychedelics or Ecstasy-fueled techno-pop
hybrids. None of this music just happens while they're
stoned. And if it all has a whiff of the bohemian
about it, it's also laced through and through with
a blue-collar, get-your-hands-dirty work ethic. They're
serious craftsmen, endlessly tinkering with every
song the way some old guy in a cabin might endlessly
scrape away at a duck decoy. And like that old guy,
they know when they're done. And it
might take months for a single song.
music, it seems, is the key to clarity. Hart is off
and running. "Well, we were working on a one-inch
eight-track reel to reel at home for the songs themselves,
the pop songs, you know, the melodies," he says.
"But for the total compositions and all the additional
sounds you hear in the final product, we would record
little things—music, sounds, whatever—and
each take tapes home to tweak this stuff on a four-track
digital machine because it has better editing capability."
you following me?"
would do this other thing, too—this technique
called hand syncing, which took a very long time.
We would make a mix of several different tracks on
graphic cassette, hand it to somebody, whoever, and
they would take it home and put it in their four-track
digital cassette and add two more tracks—another
guitar, drum, whatever. Later, we would bring that
back up to the studio, start the two songs—the
original mix and the mix with two extra tracks—together,
so that the beats were on, and then actually extract
the overdubbed song so that all that remained were
the original song and the extra two tracks. Then the
next day we would do it again, adding tracks, adding
sounds and layers of sound. It was a pain in the ass,
but that's how we had to do it. Sometimes the pinchers
were slightly off and the speed was off and one track
would surge forward, which made, finally, for a very
trippy effect, which we kept."
want to ask him what a pincher is. Fearing
further technical jargon, however, I change the subject
to the music collective Olivia Tremor Control is a
part of, Elephant 6.
to Hart, who doesn't seem eager to talk about this
because he's talked about it so many times before
with journalists, Olivia Tremor Control is the most
experimental part of Elephant 6, which is part DIY
record company, part production outfit and part progressive
pop aesthetic just short of having a manifesto. Elephant
6 includes Olivia Tremor Control, Athens' Neutral
Milk Hotel and Denver's Apples in Stereo, as well
as side projects like the Music Tapes, Marbles, Elf
Power, Beulah and the Gerbils. The founding members
of Elephant 6, Jeff Magnum (Neutral Milk Hotel), Robert
Schneider (Apples in Stereo) and Olivia Tremor Control's
Bill Doss and Will Hart, are all from the same Louisiana
town, Rushton, near Shreveport. I tell Hart I find
it mind-boggling that so much talent came from a one-stoplight
town in Louisiana. He says, "Yeah." I say,
"I mean, isn't that weird?" He says, deadpan,
"I don't know. I guess."
describes the younger selves of the founding members
of Elephant 6 as artsy Southern outcasts, bored by
their surroundings, oppressed in that well-documented
high school way—jocks were threatening, girls
paid them no attention... They started recording together
in the ninth grade—Beatles, Velvet Underground
and Pink Floyd covers. Later, they "found their
musical ears," says Hart, while working at the
Louisiana Tech college radio station, KLPI, listening
to everything from free jazz to Frank Zappa to Pierre
Henri to indie heroes Sebadoh.
Elephant 6 resembles a literary movement like the
Bloomsbury group or an art movement like surrealism
more than anything you might find in music history.
In fact, speaking of surrealism, Olivia Tremor Control's
first full album was titled Music from the Unrealized
Film Script, "Dusk at Cubist Castle."
Was the movie real, I wonder. "We were kind of
thinking about doing a film," Hart says. "But
it would have been five minutes long and a mess. So
we made the album instead. But I was like, hey, is
this really a 'script' or are we kidding around? Honestly,
I don't know. Sort of both."
new album is even more experimental than the last,
though it too is full of great hooks and melodies.
Press for the album describes it as "consumed
with the exploration of dreams... hopes, longings,
phobias and fears" and "a continued musical
exploration of (un)consciousness by a band that is
fascinated by life's surreal moments." It was
all recorded at home, as described by Hart, and then
the band went out to Denver for the final mix to get
help from Robert Schneider at his aptly named Pet
tells me that experimentation is in the air in Athens.
You can go see bands now that onstage look more like
performance artists than conventional musicians. In
fact, Bill Doss says he "thinks the music of
the future isn't going to be made by a bunch of people
in a room playing instruments, but by people collecting
the sounds around them then bringing them all together."
bring up Doss' comment. But Hart doesn't want to talk
manifestoes. I mention Andre Breton; he goes silent
for about thirty seconds. He isn't into defining the
sound or the aesthetic. He says they're just having
a blast, making music with a keen sense of history
and rock tradition that dares to push the envelope
and do something new. "We make pop songs,"
says Hart, now recovered from my invocation of Breton.
"I realize, of course, that the crazy sounds
and the ten minutes of bouncing around and stuff is
too much for some people. They think that all this
instrumental stuff means it's not finished. Whatever,
I guess. You just do what you do."
the interview is over, Hart mentions notes he has
on the recording process and says he'd be happy to
send them to me. Two days later, I receive a tattered
envelope filled with three pages of minuscule handwriting,
scrawled with what seems obsession. They explain how
the album started with the interspersed "black
foliage/animation" sections, which do in fact
sound like something from an old cartoon soundtrack,
and how each of those sections is "built"
with elements from the earlier sections, moving toward
the final segment, which is an amalgamation of all
that came before. He goes on to describe, in excruciating
detail, how the "combinations" sections
are made of bits, sounds, that have previously appeared
on the album; in other words, they're songs made of
nothing but bits of other songs mixed together. In
every straighter pop song are also recurring elements
from other songs. My head starts to hurt. You need
to listen closely. I crank up the album. I listen
closely: pop hooks, great melodies, layer on layer
of noise, creating an ambient sound that is, somehow,
also a hummable tune.
get my tape recorder out. I fast-forward to the part
where I asked if Hart considered himself a workaholic.
I turn up the sound. "Yeah. Definitely,"
he says, voice a little distant, nearly giddy under
the faint hiss of static. "I think it's important
to be dedicated. Music is the only thing I know how
to do. It's my work. It's my life, you
know. I think that's how it should be. Like a machine,
always moving ahead. And it's exciting. Making and
remaking this music is the thing that makes me feel