As a slow Southern sun sets in Athens, Georgia, Olivia Tremor Control songwriter Bill Doss is talking about bedtime. “I get very excited about going to sleep, because I know I’m going to have some kind of a dream, and in a dream anything’s possible,” says Doss from the house he shares with other members of the Elephant 6 indie-pop collective, of which the Olivias are the axis. “You can fly, you can swim the ocean, you just never know what might happen. And to me, that’s what I think true psychedelic music is.”
Since co-founding the band with high school chum William Cullen Hart, Doss and his comrades have striven to capture and communicate that sense of magical, limitless possibility through music. In 1996, the band released its jaw-dropping debut, Music From the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle, which became a more wondrous listening experience once you realized the material had been recorded on lo-fi, four-track equipment.
Now, more than a year after it was originally set for release, the Olivia Tremor Control have finally issued their follow-up. Black Foliage: Animation Music by the Olivia Tremor Control (the new disc’s title came to Hart in – you guessed it – a dream) ups Dusk’s ambitious ante and succeeds with often ravishing results, expanding on the skewed pop ideas and surreal cut-and-paste sound collages that gave the OTC’s debut its shimmery allure. We caught up with Doss just as the Olivias were about to embark on a two-month tour in support of their latest release.
Were there elements of Dusk that you wanted to expand upon and parts you wanted to leave behind with Black Foliage?
We definitely wanted to make it a more coherent and cohesive album because Dusk sounded so patchwork to me. Our last album was just a recording project to start with between me and Will and we didn’t really think about recording an album or touring or marketing per se. There were some songs on Dusk at Cubist Castle that we started experimenting with, and that’s kind of what we wanted to do – find new ways of looking at the same thing. The way you see something or hear something is so subjective, and there are millions and millions of ways of looking at things, so we wanted to explore that. I wanted this record to sound more like us as a band. And that happened.
How did you know you were done?
At one point we thought we were finished but then around Christmas – not this Christmas but the last Christmas (1997) – I thought that something wasn’t right. We were trying to get the album done but I’m a prep cook – I just got promoted from dishwasher to prep cook where I work – and I’ve learned that you have to let some things simmer for a long time before they’re ready. I’m glad we waited because little things were added here and there and I think it turned out sounding special. Of course, it was hard to tell the record company (Flydaddy) that.
Your music’s often been described as cinematic or surreal. How do you hear your music?
I think the cinematic thing stems from the fact that we try to make music that’s very visual and we want to incorporate sounds that will make you see cartoons in your head. It’s like when you watch those old MGM Bugs Bunny cartoons and you hear the sound effects that go with, I dunno, a frying pan that turns into a hammer or something. It’s amazing stuff.
What’s it like living in the same house with some of the other Elephant 6 band members? Is it easier or more difficult writing songs with such a close-knit group of friends?
Oh, it’s easier, and that’s the fun part of it really. Sometimes Jeff (Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel) will stop by and add something to what I’m working on, or somebody else will have an idea. I mean, there’s definitely tension sometimes, but as long as there’s more than one person in a room – whether you’re married or in a band or whatever – there’s always going to be tension. As long as you don’t think [an argument] is the end-all and be-all of everything, you can get through it and you’re fine.
Olivia Tremor Control’s albums evoke the experience of childhood. There’s a sense of real joy and magic about them. Do you think of music as an escape or a reaction to the events of everyday adult life?
Probably so. I think that music is definitely a nice place to hide. Jeff said something to me the other day when we were having coffee. He said, “Do you ever wake up and get kind of freaked out that you’re in your body?” And I said “no, but now that you mention it, I kind of am.” Sometimes life can get kind of rough and kind of weird, and you just want to retreat with your eight-track.
Is it a difficult balance, living out a kind of artistic ideal collaborating with close friends and also dealing with the pressure that comes with being on a label?
There’s a little more pressure, because as they say, you’ve got your whole life to make your first record and then only a certain amount of time to make your next one. So yeah, it’s a strange juxtaposition.
Where do you guys go from here? Have you had any time to start thinking about your next project?
For the next album, there’s a lot of stuff I want to try out, like country stuff. My dad listened to a lot of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and for the longest time I fought it, but now I’ve just given into it. I’ve written this Willie Nelson kind of song and I think that for the next album, I’d like to try it out and record it and see what happens.