The Olivia Tremor Control make yet another case for the Elephant 6 Collective.
By Jim Hanas
MAY 10, 1999: You would think Bill Doss would be tired of talking about the Elephant 6 Collective by now.
"We're definitely still really into that, the whole idea of it," he says, reassuringly, from somewhere on the road with the Olivia Tremor Control. This despite the fact that he has been talking a lot lately about the group of mostly Athens, Georgia-based musicians of which he is a part. Anchored by a handful of childhood friends from Ruston, Louisiana, including OTC cofounders Doss and Will Cullen Hart, and two other bands -- Denver's Apples in Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel -- the members of the Elephant 6 have been creating quite a buzz, not only about their music but about their, well, collectivity. While the output of the various bands only bears a family resemblance to one another, the Elephant 6's spirit of experimentalism and collaboration can be heard throughout, and the bands routinely share personnel for recording and touring.
"Everybody's in like six bands," says Doss. The system has proven fruitful, resulting in a few of the more remarkable albums in recent memory.
Last year's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, the breathtaking second record from Neutral Milk Hotel, turned many eyes toward Athens and many critics to wondering just what was up down there. This year's Elephant 6 model, Black Foliage: Animation Music By The Olivia Tremor Control, is similarly awe-inspiring, if for entirely different reasons.
Aeroplane was a collection of mythic folk ballads, couched at times amid earthy psychedelia but still basically a pop record. Foliage, on the other hand, is not like a record at all, but more like an extended piece, a song, or perhaps a symphony.
"It's like one big song but it's also broken into four movements," says Doss. "More like a movement, I would say, not really a song."
The 27 tracks that make up what is essentially a double-album forge a musical landscape where experimental dunes overlook refreshing pop oases. Tracks composed of parts of other tracks whiz and pop by before segueing effortlessly into sugar-coated clearings jammed with references to psych-pop masterpieces of the past, from the Beatles to the Beach Boys. It's a rare laboratory album where it's difficult to imagine how one would even begin to create it.
Black Foliage began with a track by that name, omitted from OTC's first album, Dusk at Cubist Castle. The song's dirge-like melody is the recurring theme of the record, which reveals itself more and more the more you listen.
"I think we're really influenced a lot by jazz and the way jazz musicians think," says Doss. "With a lot of jazz records you'll have a theme that it starts off with and whoever's playing in the band at the time will go off on a solo part and then they come back around to the theme again. And that's what we were trying to do."
The process of realizing that idea, however, was painstaking, or -- as Doss says -- "obsessive." From the layering of the songs to the jumbling of them for the so-called Combinations tracks between songs, the idea was "to blend the experimental aspect of the music that we made with the pop stuff."
"After a while we realized, no, we're not going to get this done in six months," Doss says. "And then it was like, no we're not going to get this done in a year and a half. And then it was like, no, it's not going to get done in two years. So we finally realized this is just not how we work."
After two and a half years, the result is a heady piece of psychedelia that simultaneously makes the avant-garde accessible while exploding pop forms. Foliage is every bit the watershed for OTC that Aeroplane was for Neutral Milk Hotel, and it will again give the Elephant 6 a presence on many top-10 lists at year's end.
Both bands, in fact, seem to be on a similar trajectory, having both released cohesive and thematic sophomore records that, in many ways, far outstripped their promising debuts. Combine these with the fine craftsmanship of the Apples and a new pop gem, A Dream in Sound, from Elephant 6 associates Elf Power and you do have to wonder: What, indeed, is up down in Athens?
"It's just inspiring when you hear your friends making such great music," says Doss. "It makes you want to make something to send to them and go, 'Well okay. Listen to this.'"
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