Archive for August, 2012

An Unrealized Eulogy to Bill Doss

August 3rd, 2012 No comments

The day after Bill Doss, founding member of the Olivia Tremor Control had passed away, I was in transit on the Red Line (El), listening to the album ‘Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One’, and the song “I Have Been Floated” had entered my earlobes. The song had always resonated with me and my emotions had taken over.

It was this chorus, taken/borrowed from Emerson’s Intellect:

I have been floated to this thought this hour
on a series of events I cannot explain
gather your with, your will, your luck, your power
that what it would effect that will not remain

It was more than the words but the way that the chorus had played out. It is sung three times throughout the song, the first time they play it straight, the second time they cut back the instrumentation and do it in a minimalist manner and the third time psychedelic. Every instance felt more powerful than the previous version. I am sitting in a packed sardine of a subway car with a tinge of water in my eyes and in this case there was no putrid smell causing this.

Hailing out of Ruston, Louisiana, four friends Bill Doss, Will Cullen Hart, Jeff Mangum and Robert Schneider who were pretty much daring themselves into writing different types of music. Robert Schneider went to Denver, Colorado and formed the Apples in Stereo. Mangum, Hart and Doss went to Athens, Georgia and formed the Synthetic Flying Machine, which later morphed into The Olivia Tremor Control. In the meantime Schneider formed the Elephant 6 Recording Company and the other three were on board in Athens. Jeff Mangum eventually begins his own project, Neutral Milk Hotel and we see the formation of the core of the Elephant 6 Recording Company (E6).

There was always a collectivist soul when discussing Olivia Tremor Control and well, E6 in general. The band led by front men Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart were able to unlock spaces in our brain with their underwater psychedelic sounds. Their albums ‘Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle’ and ‘Black Foliage’ are both masterful works, both inventive and exploring sounds that opened the doors for artists that have followed in their footsteps.

I had first been introduced to the band back in 1999 at about the time of their release of ‘Black Foliage’. As I had been planning a trip to Georgia to see R.E.M., it had been announced only weeks earlier that they and Elf Power, another Elephant 6 band would be opening for them. I had been instantly hooked at that time, taking in their inventive nature and bohemian style to not just listen to their albums regularly but search out their partners in crime and by 1999 there had been several other bands in existence as well as a healthy amount of side projects.

The concept seemed pretty simple: a love for music and a support of each other’s endeavors. Reading the liner notes of an Olivia Tremor Control album, you would see a host of outside names filling in on instruments. Most of the works in the 90s had been recorded on 4 or 8 Track players where they would have to create detailed schematics that would list when certain pieces would start and end. Of course now with Pro Tools and other computer software programs they can make this work much more simplistic on their end.

Psychedelic is not a fair label. Their style as such was one that engaged many different genres and they were not fearful of taking chances. While Doss had described themselves “Mid-Fi” they definitely had an impact on “Lo-Fi” music as well as seeking out cheaper recording styles and not relying on large labels to produce their work. They did so as well with their inventive nature. Their recordings include some of the most blissful pop sounds (ala Beach Boys and the Beatles) mixed with inventive musical interludes which felt at times they were part animated (See Black Foliage) and other parts mechanical. I had often felt that the band had taken the Beatles song “Blue Jay Way” and deconstructed it and formed a world within it.

“Dusk at Cubist Castle” is quite amazing that they were able to record this on 4 track equipment but they never made it sound like it was a 4 track, rather were intelligent enough to make proper music. I have always revered Green Typewriters suite, a selection of 10 identically titled tracks called “Green Typewriters”, (of note/coincidence, there was a “Green Typewriter” made by the Oliver Typewriter Company). It feels almost like an album within an album. The album contains some of the bands best pop moments with songs like “Jumping Fences” and my favorite “NYC-25” (“Pleasant dreams but please don’t sleep too long”).

Where ‘Dusk at Cubist Castle’ featured several interludes pieced together, ‘Black Foliage’ feels like your true ‘concept album’. While the liner notes provides a healthy explanation, it’s stated intent was to take a section of guitar and create sections of animation based on that guitar and then create different sounds onto the animation and reshaping different sections into each other. Unlike albums that focus on quick rewards, this one takes a good 50 or so listens to even start comprehending it. It’s been 13 years later and I still am not sure I totally get it. There aren’t bands or albums that are made with so much thought to detail so many that were arranging and rearranging, deconstructing and putting back together to put something that felt so real so alive and visual.

The last time that I had seen the band was during the Elephant 6 Surprise Holiday Tour in 2011. The band played on for over 3 and a half hours comprising of over 40 tracks from the Elephant 6 canon of works. Between songs it was the shuffling of instruments from one individual to another. Through it all, you saw the members having fun on stage, joking and laughing as if it was more than just a show but a celebration. They started the show by entering the stage moving through the audience, playing their instruments and treating the event as if it was a communal endeavor and did the same as they left by engaging the audience in singing Sun Ra’s “Enlightenment” as they brought the band down onto the audience floor.

With the Elephant 6, no one person stood out. Sure, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum has received quite a bit of notoriety for his two albums but I get the impression that he would prefer living a quiet live anonymously rather than ever steal the spotlight. This was never part of the act with the E6. That was why I have failed to mention Doss directly through most of this. It never felt like “His” band. It was a band he helped form with Hart, Peter Erchick and John Fernandes as well. It was a group of individuals: (Andrew Rieger, Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, Laura Carter, Jeremy Barnes, and Bryan Poole/Helium to name a few), that would lend support on a project whether it was adding vocals, percussion, brass instrument or some other oddity that helped a project along. It was a community that lost a brother. Each one had a place on the stage whether it was clapping in the background or in the spotlight. It was a group of individuals that appreciated music. As a fan when you embrace that community, you not only appreciate the music that they have made over the years but embrace what they have stood for and this is when it becomes difficult to comprehend.

When you put it all together you find yourself on a subway listening to a song that you have admired for 13 years still having the same power and weight that it did when you first heard it in 1999.

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