Not sure what rock we were sleeping under at the beginning of August when news of Olivia Tremor Control mainman Bill Doss’s untimely death at age 43, but we were deeply saddened by this news when we inadvertently came across it the other day. Dusk At Cubist Castle was on heavy rotation around what would become Chez Phawker for the better part of the late ’90s (this is one of our favorite cuts) and we fondly remember seeing OTC perform it at Pilam in February of ’99. Well, we’ll always have that, at least. Goodnight Mr. Doss wherever you are.
POP MATTERS: On Friday, 13 July, Bill Doss took the stage at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival with the Olivia Tremor Control, the band he started 20 years ago in Ruston, Louisiana. Clad in his signature Halloween orange—paisley-patterned shirt, Weasley hair, thickly growing sideburns—Doss led the group through fuzzy psych-pop classics like “No Growing” and “Holiday Surprise 1, 2, 3”, songs that changed the way I listened to music when I was a teenager, lifting me out of my alt-rock haze and pulling me towards compositions that were at once more poppy and more experimental than any I had ever loved. I wasn’t at the Pitchfork performance that Friday. Instead, I watched it from my desk in New York, where I sat when I learned of Doss’ passing, barely two weeks later, at the age of 43. It is the oldest—and truest—rock cliché that Doss was taken from us too soon. The Olivia Tremor Control only released two studio albums during its brief recording tenure, and with the news on Tuesday, it’s unclear if or when they will release another. (The band was apparently working on an album following a 2011 single, ”The Game You Play Is In Your Head, Parts 1, 2 & 3”.) But in mourning Doss, there is also much to celebrate. Because those albums are two of the richest and most sublime slices of lo-fi kaleidoscope pop ever to jumpstart a wildly creative recording collective (Elephant 6), inspire a grunge-addled high-schooler (me), and bring Wilsonian ‘60s psychedelia to a generation of jaded indie kids (among them Pitchfork’s Matt LeMay, who describes a bewildering out-of-body experience at a 1999 OTC show). At 27 tracks apiece, these releases—1996’s Dusk at Cubist Castle and its follow-up, 1999’s Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One—contain more flawless pop songs than most bands will produce in 30 years, lodged between gurgling tape loops and four-track fuzz. And while they are collaborative efforts (significant credit is due to bandmate Will Cullen Hart, who would go on to form Circulatory System), they owe much of their imaginative spirit and brilliant pop craft to the late Bill Doss. MORE
PITCHFORK: The closest I’ve ever come to an out-of-body experience was at an Olivia Tremor Control concert at New York’s Knitting Factory on Halloween of 1999. About halfway through “A New Day”, one of the many highlights on the band’s 1999 LP, Black Foliage: Animation Music Vol. 1, I felt myself come slightly unglued, as if my conscious mind was slowly seeping out of my body to join the light and sound emanating from the stage. When I snapped out of it, I was smiling and sobbing uncontrollably. It was a difficult experience to quantify, and the kind that I generally would have greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism– especially at the time. As a guarded and cynical teenager, I had an incredibly hard time setting aside my self-consciousness long enough to lose myself, and found the very notion of transcendence to be thoroughly distasteful. But the voice I heard from stage sounded so forgiving, so welcoming, like the most clear, generous, and beautiful invitation. That voice belonged to Bill Doss, who passed away Monday at age 43. MORE
Fan-made video using homemade footage from Italy. Bill Doss does not appear in this video.
SOUND OPINIONS: The recent death of Olivia Tremor Control co-founder Bill Doss has Jim and Greg thinking about the legacy of the musical collective he was a part of: The Elephant 6 Recording Company. This week, they revisit their conversation about Elephant 6 with the collective’s chief producer, Robert Schneider. For those new to this crazy universe, Elephant 6 was a label started by childhood friends from Ruston, Louisiana. The bands that came out of this group of music-lovers included some of the most beloved of the indie rock nineties: Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, and Apples in Stereo. Schneider was the chief songwriter, producer, and lead singer of Apples in Stereo. He explains how he and his friends first heard the psychedelic pop of the Beach Boys, The Beatles, and Pink Floyd hanging around Ruston’s college radio station as kids. The collective’s most important albums, among them The Olivia Tremor Control’s Dusk at Cubist Castle and Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, bear the sonic mark of those early listening sessions.
Greg calls The Olivia Tremor Control the trippiest of the Elephant 6 groups. He and Jim discuss their debut release, Dusk at Cubist Castle, a double album whose subtitle, “Music from an Unrealized Film Script,” points to the music’s psychedelic nature. Greg calls Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel the “soul child” of the collective. Jeff went for a stripped down approach that was moving and easily identifiable for many listeners. This is evident in the band’s 1998 release In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a concept album about tragedy, and at times, Anne Frank. The longest lasting of all the Elephant 6 acts is Apples in Stereo. In addition to being the collective’s 4-track guru, Schneider was always the “pop craftsman.” In 2007 Apples reformed and put out New Magnetic Wonder, a return to power pop form for the group, and one of their best recordings to date. MORE
PREVIOUSLY: In 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel released an album of hallucinatory folk-rock called In The Aeroplane Over The Sea that is, it can be said without fear of exaggeration, nothing short of a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, it is lightning caught in a bottle, one of those rare perfect albums that come along maybe once a decade. Or once a lifetime. In 1999, Jeff Mangum — Neutral Milk’s singer, songwriter and primary guitarist — disappeared from public life without explanation, declining all entreaties to perform or discuss the album or record a follow-up. Over the course of his decade-long Salinger-like hermitage, succeeding generations have discovered and come to revere the album, and as such it has become something like The Catcher In The Rye of indie-rock. Two years ago he emerged from seclusion and started performing again, refusing to offer any explanation for his mysterious disappearance or sudden return. No matter. The ambiguity only seems to heighten the intrigue of his legend. Thursday night’s performance at the Irvine Auditorium, at Penn, sold out in 35 seconds. Taking the stage dressed in a white cranberry-checked cowboy shirt and a droopy gray Mao cap, the 41-year-old Louisiana-born Mangum waved hello, took a seat, strapped on an acoustic guitar and tore into the slashing, Who-like opening chords of “Two-Headed Boy,” blaring the agony and ecstasy of the lyric with his trademark, heart-tugging yelp like it was 1998 all over again. MORE
PREVIOUSLY: Of all the bands to come out of the Elephant 6 collective — that loose-knit cross-country cabal of weedy bus-station transcendentalists and grass-stained pranksters — Neutral Milk Hotel was the least beholden to classic psych-rock templates, yet somehow managed to evoke and advance them all at once. On 1998’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Jeff Mangum’s mewling sunshine Superman melodies are colored by bare, ruined choirs of singing saw, fuzz bass, mariachi horns, bowed banjo, accordion, home organ and Salvation Army marching band brass. Produced by the Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider, these harrowing, heart-tugging tunes follow Mangum’s fractured yelp, soaring on wax wings toward the sun only to crashland softly on a surrealistic pillow of sound fashioned out of enough obscure instrumentation to give your average ethnomusicologist a Viagra woody–zanzithophone, euphonium, uilleann pipes and a shortwave radio. Like Jack with his magic beans, Neutral Milk Hotel proved that with little more than a pocketful of seeds and stems, you could grow a beanstalk to heaven. – JONATHAN VALANIA