By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Will Cullen Hart answers the phone out of breath, stopping our interview before it starts by asking whether I could please call him right back and let the phone ring until the answering machine picks up to give him a chance to find his temporarily misplaced cordless phone. As the phone rings a dozen or so times before Hart's abrupt message cuts it off, it's not at all difficult to imagine what's happening on the other end of the line. You can almost hear the Olivia Tremor Control singer-guitarist rummaging around the living room of his Athens, Georgia, house, sifting through piles of half-painted canvases, mountains of records and books, and various guitars and drums and other high school band-hall detritus strewn about. You can just see him combing through heaps of finger cymbals and Tibetan prayer bowls to find out where the insistent buzzing is coming from.
He finally answers again a few minutes later, and the cordless phone, not surprisingly, still hasn't been located; you probably couldn't find a haystack, much less a needle, in there. Hart's house--where much of the band's sprawling 1996 debut, Music from the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle, and its soon-to-be-released follow-up, the equally ambitious Black Foliage: Animation Music by the Olivia Tremor Control, were recorded--probably looks like some tiny Northeastern arts college's lost-and-found. At least that's what you expect from a musician and artist who counts himself as a member of the loose collective known as Elephant 6, a group of musicians that abides by an anything-goes-and-most-of-it-stays philosophy.
Born in tiny Ruston, Louisiana, and now split primarily between Athens and Denver, Elephant 6 fosters the kind of creative atmosphere in which 7-foot metronomes are constructed to play drums (as Neutral Milk Hotel multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster recently did for his side band, The Music Tapes) and tacking on a bonus ambient disc to an already double-album-length debut (as the Olivias did with Dusk at Cubist Castle) is standard operating procedure. The only rule is that there aren't any, and the canvas is as big and bright as you're willing to paint it. To the groups that make up Elephant 6--the Olivias, Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal, and Elf Power, to name a few--it's a musical utopia where everyone's in the band, even if they just stopped by to grab a beer or a bong hit.
"Elephant 6 is kind of an approach, and that's what we consider it," Hart says. "It's definitely collaborative, but not as much as people make it out to be. Sort of. You know, everybody does their thing at home, and then you get a phone call, 'Hey, I'm coming over.' And when they drop by, you hand them an instrument."
Among the many people who dropped by to give Hart and the Olivias a hand during the two and a half years spent recording Black Foliage were Neutral Milk Hotel's Koster and Jeff Mangum, the Apples in Stereo's Robert Schneider, and Dallas transplant Joshua McKay of Macha. Their contributions ranged from rather substantive (Schneider played guitar and sang on a few tracks, and helped mix the album in his Denver studio) to little more than making noises with strange percussion instruments. Yet their roles on the album are more important than just that--especially Schneider and Mangum, without whom there might not be an Olivia Tremor Control.
Hart met Schneider and Mangum, as well as bandmate Bill Doss, in Ruston when they were all in junior high. Ruston is a sweat-stained city in an armpit of a state, home to Louisiana Tech University and little else. Not exactly the best place to live if you're a geeky misfit who likes to sit around and play guitar and listen to records all day--which Hart was and is. In Mangum, Schneider, and Doss he found friends--allies, really--young men who felt as constricted by Ruston's tight boundaries as he did, who itched to move on but couldn't.
"There were like 20 of us, I guess, that were sort of a sect, and here we are now," Hart recalls. "It's pretty much the same people. I knew Robert, and he introduced me to Jeff, and then we started kinda playing together. They went to different schools, but it's a small town, you know. You walk into the only guitar store, and there's like some guy with long hair, and you start up a conversation. He's probably the only other kid in town who likes Ozzy."
Throughout high school, Hart, Doss, Mangum, and Schneider played in bands together. After practice they retreated to their separate houses to get their ideas down on cheap tape recorders, trying to impress one another with their homemade symphonies bashed out on whatever was handy. On those tapes, they emulated their idols in the Beach Boys and the Beatles, as well as all of the other bands they were learning about by spending their weekends working as DJs at the Louisiana Tech radio station, soaking up the station's library of records and then going home to re-create it the best they could.
"It pretty much saved our asses," Hart says, laughing. "Really. That was our musical education and otherwise. If that wouldn't have happened, I probably wouldn't be talking to you. Well, I'd probably be doing something, probably be doing artwork or something. But I definitely wouldn't have found all the records that influenced me so greatly, like Pink Floyd and a lot of the psychedelic stuff and a lot of jazz. I had like five albums up to then."