The Olivia Tremor Control are one of the most beloved bands in the Elephant 6 collective, together with Neutral Milk Hotel and the Apples In Stereo. They standed out from the other bands in the collective thanks to their surreal psych-pop, a continuous flow of sounds and visions. They gained success in the late 90s and disbanded in 2000, after releasing a number of extraordinary gems of pop psychedelia. Soon after that, Will Cullen Hart, Olivias' frontman, gave birth to a new project, the Circulatory System, getting deeper into the experimental side of Olivias' music. Their debut album was out in 2001, and after being far from the scenes for long time, also due to some personal problems of their leader, the Circulatory System were back with a new album in 2009. Will granted us this interview where he tells weird stories and gives Olivias' fans a juicy anticipation.
In order to trace Will Cullen Hart's music path we must go back to the end of the eighties, when two boys in Lousiana (Will Cullen Hart and Jeff Mangum, the future Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel leader, respectively) under the moniker of Cranberry Lifecycle recorded music tapes to be given as a gift to their friends. What about those days, Will?
Those were the days. These are the days too. Beautiful times. We weren't thinking about what we were doing and were learning and having fun. Total openness.
Then things started to get more serious: you and Jeff became popular in Athens and its surroundings playing your music in local venues. How was your first experience with a live performance?
The first official show was at the Downstairs. It was really fun and exciting. It was nice to have people connecting in a way. It was the heyday of grunge, so we felt a little out of place, but we connected with people like Julian Koster (Chocolate USA, The Music Tapes, Neutral Milk
Hotel) who we ended up playing music with later. We brought popsicles to hand out at one of the early shows. We had sections of unpredictable tapes and noise and would go into that at anytime when somebody would give the cue - such as chanting "Scandinavian headdress" three times when anybody from the band would ask the crowd "Do you want to hear some avant-gardeness?" and then we would go straight back into the song we were playing. These were informative times, and we still incorporate elements of this into what we are doing now.
Will Cullen Hart, Jeff Mangum and Robert Schneider (the future Apples In Stereo's frontman, e.n.) together with Bill Doss (co-creator of the Olivia Tremor Control, e.n.) are the founders of one of the most popular music collectives in the nineties. The three guys first met in a concert of Cheap Trick, in the Louisiana Tech University, when they still were little boys. Could you tell me about that night? I read somewhere of a guitar pick thrown out during the show that fell just next to your feet... was it fate?
The guy threw out tons of guitar picks, so it probably wasn't fate, or maybe it was?
A question you have been asked one million times, but I am so curious about it that I can't help asking once again. I know that you are the creator of the name "Elephant 6" but the information I found on the web about the real origin of the name is controversial and uncertain. You are the best person to help me with this name dilemma...
The name comes from the misunderstanding of the title of a Max Ernst painting. "The Elephant Celebes".
In the E6 manifesto Robert Schneider wrote: "We believe in homespun devices, in ingenious ways of coming up with stuff, and in writing songs that communicate with people. We want to make classic records that can stand up out of their time and that people of all ages can listen to." What does a song need to communicate with people in a universal way?
That the song is real. It comes from a real place.
Among the collective's "homespun devices" a special mention should go to the 4-track, that has been widely used by the E6 musicians and that has always been part of your music. I read somewhere that its use also reflects in the final mood of the recordings, as if with this device you were able to convey more intense emotions into the tracks, "feeling" music in a deeper way. Is it so? How do you relate with the 4-track?
Something about recording something to magnetic tape has a true feeling to it. It's our medium. Something about recording in your room - you can go straight to the source, instead of trying to conjure it up six weeks later in a studio. But, we like all the options available to us right now. We
currently utilize studios whether professional or at home in conjunction with 4-track tapes.
In a short time the E6 collective defined an unmistakable style and a peculiar way of living music (the so-called "Elephant 6 trademark"), gaining a huge agreement and thus catching the attention of media. When did you realize the importance of this thing you guys were creating?
I think we felt strongly about what we were doing all along. Slowly over time we started to realize that people were connecting, and we were happy about that.
What did the idea of a (music) collective mean to you and what does it still mean today?
(Will does abstract detuned guitar solos.) Since it is more than a couple of souls involved, it keeps the name out there even if one of the projects isn't doing something at a particular time.
The Olivia Tremor Control chapter. Still a question you have probably been asked many times - but in this case I did not find any information on the web, so I hope you will forgive me for asking! How did the band name originate?
Jeff Mangum made up the name The Olivia Tremor Control. And I made up Neutral Milk Hotel.
Sixties pop and psychedelia: this Olivia Tremor Control blending has inspired many bands right since the end of the nineties, and it still keeps on recruiting followers all over the world. Is there any band or musician of the present psych-pop scene that impressed you in a special way?
I don't keep up with modern music very much. I liked Atlas Sound, Comets on Fire, and SunnO))) at All Tomorrow's Parties.
Your music has always been characterized by a marked experimentation. What are the most "weird" sounds you have ever added to your tracks? Do you have any curious anecdote to tell?
John running across a gravel driveway on the "Giant Day" 7". There is a recording of our dog's stomach mixed in on "The Bark And Below It".
Black Swan Network is the name of the ambient-oriented side-project by Olivia Tremor Control. This mysterious band has released only one album, "The Late Music", whose origin is quite unusual. One year before it was released, in fact, in the liner notes of "Music From The Unrealized Film Script, Dusk At Cubist Castle" there was written: "The Black Swan Network: tell us your dreams - send a cassette taped details describing your favourite, most interesting dreams (real or otherwise) for a future project". How did this idea originate?
We tried to get a deeper connection with people that were listening to our music. The idea came from Zappa taking over the Mothers Of Invention press release campaign from MGM, and taking ads out in comic books etc. - finding people who would connect to the music. Something that would reveal a different world out there that you can find. If somebody bought the album we could try to find a bigger way to connect.
What were the consequences of this invitation addressed to the buyers of "Dusk At Cubist Castle"?
We got maybe fifty tapes of dreams. We chopped up and utilized some of these on the Black Swan Network / The Olivia Tremor Control release.
A non-sense palindrome and a mannequin's head with a flowered hat: the Olivias' website is just made of a simple web page with nothing interactive to click on and with no sub-menu to visit. Nevertheless, it only needs a sentence and a picture to lead the visitor into the Olivia Tremor Control's crazy brilliance. Is there any hidden meaning beyond the creation of this site-not-site? How did you choose the sentence and picture?
Eric Harris put together that website. Fun in the late '90s.
In 2000 the Olivia Tremor Control disbanded. From the ashes of the Olivias two new bands arose: Bill Doss' Sunshine Fix on one side and Will Cullen Hart and John Fernandes' Circulatory System on the other. The latter mainly explored the most experimental territories of OTC's music, still keeping part of the melodic pop texture. Could you tell me something about the birth of the Circulatory System?
John and Jeff encouraged me to finish some songs I was working on. The first show was at my house. I started recording at home, and then brought the mixes to work on at Chris Bishop's house. People started stopping by and adding things, and after about a year we finished a record. We toured with Peter Erchick on organ, Heather McIntosh on cello, John Fernandes on clarinet, violin, and bass, Jeff Mangum on drums, and Hannah Jones on drums.
Is there any link between the name "Circulatory System" and the concept of "floating" which crosses all your music, starting from the lyrics, and seems to have a symbolic meaning in you way of conceiving art?
There must be a link, but it just came naturally and isn't intentional. John came up with the name Circulatory System. It seemed to fit with what the ideas we were expressing.
A propos of art, I know that you are the creator of the E6 logo and the author of many posters for E6 live events as well as art-covers for albums by the collective bands. You also like painting, you created all the artwork for the Oliva Tremor Control and the Circulatory System albums and in general you have a passion for visual art that is as intense as the one you have for music. Is there a painting or an artwork of yours that you are bound to in a very special way?
The first The Olivia Tremor Control album cover, and "Black Foliage" for that matter. It's hard for me to say which one stands out - it's history to me. I just enjoy doing it.
There are eight years of time distance between the Circulatory System self-titled debut album (released in 2001) and the following second release, "Signal Morning", released last year. What are the similarities and differences between the two?
A couple of the songs on "Signal Morning" were going to be on "Black Foliage". It's kind of a continuum. A Circulatory System? (laughs)
I read on Optical Atlas that all the former Olivia Tremor Control members made their appearance as guests in the latest album, and the memorable duet Hart-Doss reunited for this occasion "singing in harmony once again on the first song "Woodpecker Greeting Worker Ant"". Is it a preludefor a band reunion (I know you have some new OTC tracks...) or rather the premise for a new "extended family"?
Bill was just over here yesterday. He asked if I was ready for doing more things together. Absolutely, and I gave him a couple of cassette tapes from '93 - where "Giant Day" came from - and another bit we could work on.
Together with the Circulatory System project, you and John created a little label called Cloud Recordings, that among the other things sells some hand-refined album rarities, some exclusive paintings by Will Hart and has a precious gallery of sounds and images. How do you live this experience with a label of your own?
We just enjoy doing it. To be able to get more personal things directly to people who are interested.
In 2008, together with some other Elephant 6 musicians, you took part to the Holiday Surprise Tour, an itinerant party to celebrate the music of the collective bands. The tour started on the day when "The Singing Saw At Christmas Time" by Julian Koster was released and it ended on the day of Jeff Mangum's birthday. People who had the luck to take part to the concerts you made all across the United States talk about them as memorable events. How did you live that experience?
We didn't know what to expect because it had been a while. But we loved it, and had fun with each other. It seems like new people were interested that hadn't had a chance to see us when we were touring in the late '90s.
Is there any hope, in the next future, for a sort of "European Surprise Tour"?
That would be great if there is the interest and cash to make it happen. Circulatory System might come over there for the Primavera Festival and some other shows later this spring.