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."
After he graduated, Hart moved to the Virgin Islands, working at beach resorts before it became too expensive to stay. He planned to return to Ruston, yet never quite made it back, making a pit stop in Athens that has lasted much of this decade. But Ruston's influence remains in his songs, if only in the way he learned anything was possible as long as you have enough tape and imagination. Black Foliage recalls how those early recordings must have sounded--in content, at least--as scores of disparate sounds are worked into an elaborate puzzle, arranged and rearranged until a picture emerges. And if a few of the pieces don't exactly fit, well, maybe that's even better.
"We try to take something really simple and reiterate its theme over and over, and at the same time, like every time it comes in--if you're listening closely or after multiple listens or whatever--you'll notice some things that don't fit," Hart explains. "Or some elements that have been juxtaposed which, at least we think, haven't been. Beach Boys harmonies and grating noise. You know, just things that we like. That's something that we love. We listen to whole albums of that.
"I think you can have the power of guitar in some other way," he continues. "I like the idea of having like three or four drummers and an organ player or something, and it could be just as heavy as a heavy rock band. But the context should soon change. People should start imitating techno with their drumming. Stuff like that. It's just been new to me, to hear, like, Oval records or something. Just to hear something a little different that's somewhere between songs and sound."
Somewhere between songs and sound--it's an almost perfect description of Black Foliage. The album careens between free jazz (the freak-out finale of "A Familiar Noise Called 'Train Director'") and dot-dash-dot ambience (all of the album's dozen or so interludes), Brian Wilson outtakes (the lovely "Hideaway" and "A New Day") and psychedelic prog-pop (almost everything else). The title track itself turns up in six different incarnations...sort of. Five of them are short themes based on the actual song, reprises that tie the bow on a rambling package. And it works: Listened to as a whole, Black Foliage resembles an old AM radio station used as the soundtrack to an episode of Sesame Street being watched in Roky Erickson's living room, full of carnival-pop experiments that rarely fail but always seem on the verge of doing so.
In a sense, it's better that Black Foliage was recorded at home, and not just because it would have cost a small fortune to produce in a real studio. More so than Lou Barlow or any of the other home-taping pioneers, Olivia Tremor Control and its Elephant 6 cohorts have shown exactly what can be accomplished with cheap equipment, that low-budget doesn't necessarily have to mean lo-fi. After all, even though Black Foliage is basically demos recorded by Hart and Doss with overdubs layered on top, it could have been produced by Phil Spector, resting all of its weight on his Wall of Sound. For Hart, recording at home isn't just a technique. The four-track is necessary because, to him, sound is secondary to the feeling, the mood. It's something that has to be captured right away, as soon as he has an idea, and often, he can't improve upon it.
"I usually can't carry the song around," Hart says. "I have to throw it down, or I lose the essence of the melody. It's just A to G to E, you know, any chords. But it's just, like, 'Man, did it go ba-baa-baba, or did it go la-la-la-laaa? Don't remember. Better put it down.' If I've nailed the feeling the first time with an acoustic guitar and maybe some organ, that can be better than if I really tried to work it out."
It's that kind of simplicity that is the real heart of the band, though Hart insists the Olivias are a "pop band that likes to inject sound." Right now, the band's more experimental side is more fully realized by the Black Swan Network, a same-member side project (including bassist John Fernandes, drummer Eric Harris, and keyboard player Peter Erchick) that debuted on the B-side of the "Opera House" single. The Black Swan Network's main objective is taking dream recordings--descriptions of dreams taped and sent in by fans--and cutting and splicing them into warped sound collages. Dream recording is something that Hart says has always interested him, though he has never actually done it himself. He doesn't think he could describe it properly. But maybe, he believes, his music can.
"I really grab more from the mystery of them, rather than the dream itself," he says. "I love the idea of a dream. You know, it makes you feel so good, but then if you try to explain it to anyone you can't put across the emotion, because in the dream, that person [in it] meant something to you. It's a haze of nostalgia. That's what it is for me, like this haze of like, God, I've been there before. You don't wake up and think about your job. You don't think about what you're doing. It's that moment. You go, 'Wow, that's so mysterious.' That's pretty much what I'm reaching for all the time with music, to try to grab that.