Like a Machine
The experimental pop of Olivia Tremor Control
By Greg Bottoms

From Gadfly April 1999


Will 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 extract later.

Athens-based 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."

Now I'm nervous. Let's just chat about the music, I suggest.

"Cool," 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.

The 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."

I'm glazing over.

"Are you following me?"

"Yeah. Sure."

"We 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."

I 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.

According 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."

Hart 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.

Now, 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."

The 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 Sounds studio.

Will 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."

I 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."

When 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.

I 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 really good."