While the regular Olivia Tremor Control roster consisted of Bill Doss, William Cullen Hart, John Fernandes and Pete Erchick, around them orbited a copious array of musicians considered Elephant 6's "usual suspects": Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum, The Apples in Stereo's Robert Schneider, Of Montreal's Derek Almstead -- a collective a little too talented to be considered "usual." But at its heart were always Hart and Doss -- friends from a small Louisiana town, and OTC's Lennon and McCartney, if you will.
As it turned out, Doss and Hart were more like a pair of George Harrisons, with a treasure trove of unfinished and/or ill-fitting Olivia-era ideas. There came a time to let it be, and in 2000, after a long period spent supporting 1999's Black Foliage, Olivia Tremor Control went on what then was called a temporary hiatus.
Now, more than a year later, Doss and Hart have returned with "solo" albums. And while for Olivia Tremor Control proper, it seems all things must pass, OTC fans would do best not to pass up either project. Operating under the Sunshine Fix moniker, Doss was the first to venture out on his own in 2000 with the eclectic A Future History of the Sunshine Fix EP. The name was taken both from a "band" that pre-dated OTC and an Olivia song title.
"When I did the EP, I hadn't even started working on an album," says Doss, "I was just recording. Depending on whatever I was listening to, that's what I was into -- and I was writing into that style. So I picked a couple soul songs, a couple country songs, because I didn't have enough to do a soul album or a country album. I picked five completely different songs and put them together. I didn't want it to go in any one direction too much, so there'd be no sore thumbs -- because when it's weird and every song changes from one to the next, that becomes the cohesiveness. And once the album came out, it could end up whatever I liked, with no one expectation."
Both the Sunshine Fix's new full-length, Age of the Sun, and Circulatory System, the debut album from Hart's project of the same name, feature some songs developed -- and sometimes performed -- with Olivia Tremor Control. Doss' latest music is sunny, cohesive pop with influences from Curtis Mayfield to the Meters, from Big Star to Johnny Cash to the Allman Brothers and Skynyrd. But Hart's work with Circulatory System reveals a more somber swirl befitting his more pensive, questioning Gemini personality.
"It eats at my daily thoughts to ask what we're doing here and how it's so beautiful and weird simultaneously," says the cyclically consumed Hart. Hence the project's name.
"After we took the break, I went through a period of depression," says Hart. "I wanted to forget about everything for awhile. People always say I must have been listening to the Beatles, but I didn't even want to hear rock music for a year. I couldn't listen to anything that asked me to feel heavy emotion, because I had so much in me. I wanted something clearing -- and while taking that time to be at peace, ideas came. Sitting in my own space listening to nothing, I found the melodies floating out there."
Doss and Hart worked out of their home studios, though Hart completed much of Circulatory System at Radium Recordings, where he could use a computer-based system to accommodate 50 or more tracks, and he deliriously mixed sounds until they were virtually indistinct from one another.
"Some songs have like four drummers and this and that," says Hart. "I wanted a swirling symphony sort of sound where you can't tell what anything is at some point."
Doss applied the same technique. "I used that Phil Spector/Brian Wilson trick, with 20 instruments playing the same orchestral melodies," he says. "And I tried to mix them where you couldn't tell what was what to keep people on their toes."
Similarities between the two albums -- and to preceding OTC material -- don't end there. Both Doss and Hart employed a roster of talented Athens musicians to bring their music to fruition. In the case of Doss, he relied on a "close-knit" group of 13, often letting intuition lead the way. "I want players to take little pieces and see where they go," he says. "I get to add my stuff on a foundation that's not originally what I planned. But it's fun because the song takes a new shape as I try to fit it all together. I'm going to end up like Ringo Starr and surround myself with incredible musicians. I was there pushing the buttons, but they totally would run with their ideas."
Hart's recording approach involved more than 20 regular Olivia contributors, which results in music more representative of the Olivia vision -- right down to the visual themes of the CD's packaging.
"I just recorded a bunch of stuff started at my house, not intending to make a record -- just music," Hart says. "But after a while, people said the themes were good, and we decided to work on them together. It's still going strong among our group of friends, because that's what it is."
Doss and Hart express a common interest in sculpted silence and all that it implies. The last track on Age of the Sun is a 20-minute triple harmony overdubbed three times. "The point was to listen to it low and ambient like Eno," says Doss. "And while you're listening to it very low, you start hearing things going on around and they start mixing in. It's kind of a meditational thing -- not to be too New Agey."
Hart, meanwhile, brings up the influence of Table of the Elements' Bernard Gunter. "He asks you not to play the record loud to let the traffic noise become part of the record so each song is a new experience. I also want listeners to use their own intuition to find meaning."
But the Sunshine Fix and Circulatory System differ in their attempts to distance themselves from the processes of the past.
"Olivia was this thing that could go anywhere and be anything and anybody -- and I love that," says Doss. "And there's definitely an element of that in this, but I also wanted something a little more coherent. The thing with Olivia was that it was dada, dada, dada. But even though I really liked that, after awhile the unpredictability became predictable. I loved the surrealist thing, but I also wanted something not grounded in chaos -- maybe just topped with some."
Doss continues, "With Olivia, there was never any order, and it was sometimes hard to work, because anything was fine. But anything doesn't always make for a great show. I usually make things flow as cohesive as possible, even if the feel is that of a roller coaster."
Hart -- known for being woozy and sometimes wanky -- continues (somewhat) Olivia's abstract impressionism. "In '98, I was more into editing than writing songs," says Hart. "I wrote songs but really wanted to know if I could dissolve tambourines into birds in a pop song's context. For this record, I looked inside to see what should be made, not made around an outside idea. The songs weren't shaped for a purpose."
Both OTC members have gone about releasing their music through different means. While Doss' Sunshine Fix is signed to Kindercore/Emperor Norton, Hart has revived Cloud Recordings -- a label patterned after Sun Ra's Saturn imprint, which he runs with John Fernandes -- from the early days of Olivia to release Circulatory System. Future recordings (which could come in "properly" finished form or as limited-edition individualized CD-R's, some of which are already available), as well as projects like former OTC member Pete Erchick's Pipes You See, Pipes You Don't, will be available through www.cloudrecordings.com.
There's no end in sight for Doss' output, because there's always things to fix. "With this record, I like it, don't get me wrong. But there are still things I would change," he says. "But those 14 things are the jumping-off points for the next record."
The age of innocence for Olivia may have ended. But recent work by Doss and Hart reveals that Olivia Tremor Control's ethereal alchemy hasn't been diluted. It's merely diverged.
The Sunshine Fix performs Fri., Feb. 15, at The Earl, 488 Flat Shoals Ave. The Gerbils and 3d5spd open. Show time is 10:30 p.m. $6. 404-522-3950. www.badearl.com.
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