Total Control

The Olivia Tremor Control, part of Denver's Elephant 6 family, shakes up the underground.

Many of the pop sounds that crowd the airwaves are not so much the spawn of earlier eras as they are slightly embellished clones of their forebears. Make no mistake--the many genres that are competing in this fin de siecle revue are valid, with rich histories. But all too often, the modern representatives display little ingenuity; they are pickled specimens hawked to those without memory or expectation. In spite of the music biz's policy of recycling any hitmaker who crosses its scope, however, a vital underground still exists, populated by acts such as the Olivia Tremor Control, which manages to keep nostalgia and innovation in balance.

Stationed in Athens, Georgia, the members of the Olivia Tremor Control (multi-instrumentalists Will Cullen Hart, Bill Doss, Eric Harris, Peter Erchick and John Fernandes) are part of the Denver-based Elephant 6 collective associated locally with the Apples. As such, they share a number of idiosyncrasies with their fellows, including modesty. For instance, a representative of Flydaddy Records, the act's label, declined to identify the individuals in the photo on this page because "it would make them mad. They prefer to be known as just 'the band.'"

The players' shameless love for Sixties pop, evidenced by the warm hooks and multi-part harmonies that are scattered throughout Dusk at Cubist Castle, their debut CD, can be traced to Ruston, Louisiana, where Hart and Doss first met the Apples' Robert Schneider and Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel ("Got Milk?," September 19). According to Hart, "I guess with us all growing up like that, we were all into the same things--and one of them would be harmonies, because we all liked the Beach Boys and the Beatles a lot. You learn from those folks what you like best."

The first efforts by the pimply adolescents to capture these characteristics on their four-track proved less than successful. "It did not come naturally," Hart admits. "Even when we first started out, we always liked to double up the vocals on the recordings. The lead singer would sing it twice because it sounded thicker. And then we started doing that live." This technique reached its logical extension with the group Synthetic Flying Machine, in which Doss, Hart and Mangum sang lead simultaneously. "That got to be kind of dense after a while," Hart confesses, laughing. "So we started thinking we should start trying to do harmonies live. We could do it on tape, but we were always afraid to pull them out live."

A decade later, the Olivia Tremor Control has mastered this skill and moved on to greater challenges, like translating to the stage the morass of layered instrumentation and sound collages that seep from every crack of Cubist Castle. Of course, some tracks defy in-concert rendering. An example is one of a handful of songs that share the moniker "Green Typewriters"; it includes amplified drips, a synthesizer warble reminiscent of Gary Numan's "Cars," and the distorted roar of vehicles driving in the rain. "In one speaker, it's Athens a year and a half ago, and in the other speaker, it's about a year before that in Austin. It's two different times in one happening," remarks Hart, still stimulated by the notion.

By the same token, the musicians don't use the restrictions of a live setting as an excuse to oversimplify their sound. Instead, they play musical chairs in order to produce a reasonable facsimile of their studio material. "We all switch out to different stuff besides guitars, bass, drums and organ," Hart notes. "We do have natural roles: Eric generally plays drums, Bill and I usually play the guitars, and John plays bass. But if you hear a clarinet, it's John. And if you hear a theremin, that's going to be Eric--but then when he's playing that, I've got to play the drums. It's like, 'Oh, this song doesn't need two guitars on it. I'll play a shaker, because it seems more appropriate in this song to have a really good tambourine line along with the drumming.' We'll see what the arrangement calls for." He concedes, "It doesn't end up sounding like what's on the record, but we're giving it our best shot without having 52 people on stage."

The resulting blend of elements has a corollary in painting, one of Hart's passions (he begat the doodly, melting artwork that accompanies the CD). "I feel like the painting sometimes can overshadow the music for me," he allows. "Like, I don't write songs because I'll be painting for months, and I always think that it's not going to come back. But then I start thinking about painting in relation to sound and music, and it gets me inspired to do music again. I'll be mixing up some yellow and I'll think, man, that's just like putting this sound over the top of this one. I've been interested in abstracting sound--recording sounds from the environment and messing around with it. That feels more like a sound painting to me."

Another of the visual arts in which Hart has an interest is cinema; in fact, the preamble to Cubist Castle reads "Music from the unrealized film script." Hart confirms that the Controllers see the songs on the disc as the basis for a movie that has not yet been made--"and maybe it won't be." However, he adds, "We sit around and talk about ideas all the time. The reason we hadn't thought about previously doing it is because we made it up as a soundtrack to something that seemed like it was real, if that makes sense. There were all these ideas about dreams and dreaming, which is dusk, and we had all these images. But we thought, if we did get somebody to film these, would that spoil everybody's images?" Nonetheless, he says, "We have found someone now who has walked back into our lives from the past and who is an amazing filmmaker. I went to junior high school with him, and high school as well, and I hadn't seen him since. I recently watched a few of his films, and they basically blew me away. We've been talking with him about doing some stuff, so we might get around to doing it."

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