by Raj Ranade
Note: Two weeks after this interview was conducted, Olivia Tremor Control singer Bill Doss passed away at the age of 43. No cause of death has been announced, although suicide and foul play were ruled out. During our interview, Bill spoke with great enthusiasm about his plans for the future, and his death is a tremendous loss. Our condolences go out to his family and his bandmates. — Raj
Rock and roll has been a refuge for teenage outcasts since it came into existence, but few stories illustrate that quite as efficiently as the origin tale behind The Olivia Tremor Control. It starts in Ruston, Louisiana, when Will Cullen Hart and Jeff Mangum were playing together on the high school football team, as co-frontman Bill Doss explained: “Everyone was down at one end of the field and there was a big pile-up tackle. And most everyone left to go to the rest of the field, but [Will] and Jeff were just laying there. And one of them looked to the other and said ‘F**k this. Let’s start a band.’”
Now, in 2012, The Olivia Tremor Control are indie rock legends. Their two albums in the 90s, Music from the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle and Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One, were some of that decade’s most thrilling music, combining psychedelic melodies with sonic experimentation that generated gorgeous, intricate walls of sound. (Mangum ended up doing OK for himself as well). The band went on hiatus after Foliage, but they’ve been playing sporadic reunion shows ever since then, and they didn’t seem to have lost a step in their Pitchfork set on Friday afternoon.
There may have been technical hiccups in the mix – I don’t know if there’s an outdoor festival speaker setup anywhere that can do justice to OTC’s complex ensemble of guitars, violins, clarinets, horns, theremins, and ivory-white Sousaphones (!). But the glee radiating off the stage was infectious – Hart was pogoing so much during the sound check that he had sweated through his shirt before the set even began, and his energy level, along with the rest of the band’s, only increased after that.
The good cheer was still present as I explored the band’s past with them in our interview the next day. We started with the profound impact that MC Hammer had on the band – or that his promotional cassette tapes did, anyway. “I would take these MC Hammer ‘cassingles’ and put them in this double cassette boom-box that did tape-to-tape [recording],” said Hart. “So you’d record a song on one tape, play it back, and record on it again, so the sound would just start degrading more and more.”
It may have been a crude recording technique, but the practice of overdubbing tapes was key to the band’s creativity, particularly in their bands that preceded the OTC, such as Synthetic Flying Machine and Cranberry Lifecycle. “What I liked [about those projects] was that it was pure spontaneity,” said Doss. “There wasn’t much sitting together and hashing out songs. It was more like make up a riff and record it, then pass it over and have someone play drums to it, then you write a first verse, and then have Jeff write a second verse, and you were done.”
And on the band’s first album Dusk at Cubist Castle, that kind of technique was employed on a much larger, painstaking scale. “It kind of blows my mind when you listen back to it,” said bassist/violinist John Fernandes. “There’s so many layers of stuff. Our engineer Eric Harris would take something that Will or I had done at home and sync it over an 8-track mix by lining up different pitch wheels, which gave [the record] this cool, slide-y sound.”
“Certain mixes were done on this analog board, where there had to be a lot of changes and mutings and pans,” said keyboardist/singer Peter Erchick. “There would literally be five of us standing at this board, each of us using both hands [to change all the settings]. If someone messed up, we’d have to start all over again.”
Modern computer technology has made the recording process much easier for things like the band’s 2011 one-off single “The Game You Play is in Your Head, Pt. 1, 2, and 3”, but the band has tried to stick to the old ways as much as possible. “Of course, now they have software that can put in the tape hiss sound for you,” said Doss. “But there’s a special sonic quality to recording on 4-tracks and 8-tracks that you just can’t get [with computers]. And there’s something to be said for limitations. A friend and I were joking the other day that since we got Pro Tools [the professional audio editing software suite] years ago, neither one of us has finished an album. You can just keep messing with [the songs]. On tape, once you fill up all the tracks you’re done and it’s time to mix!”
It was at this point in the interview that the Heineken-sponsored beer tent which we were in began to collapse, prompting the band’s PR team to cut the interview slightly short. (My joke about the band bringing the house down wasn’t funny enough to change their mind.) But I squeezed in one last question – was a new album on the way? “It’s coming,” said Doss. “After this show, we’re not going to play for a while and really work on it, so we can have it done as soon as we can.” It may be a bummer that the band won’t be touring more anytime soon. But if it results in an album that matches up to the head-spinning quality of “The Game You Play”, a psychedelic-rock epic packed with catchy hooks, it’ll be hard to complain too much.
The band’s entire Pitchfork set can be seen here.
Raj’s Ace Pitchfork Coverage
Read Raj’s 2012 Pitchfork Festival Ace Wrap-Up here.
Read Raj’s Pitchfork Festival Preview here.
Read Raj’s Pitchfork Festival Live Blog here.
Read Raj’s interview with The Olivia Tremor Control here.
Read Raj’s interview with Alex Zhang Hungtai of Dirty Beaches here.