For years I ran a website called Optical Atlas, dedicated to the music of the Elephant 6 collective (Neutral Milk Hotel, The Apples in Stereo, The Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, of Montreal, and on and on). I retired the website in 2010. Sometime after that, my renewal notice for the domain name came through – to the wrong email address – and what I had hoped would be a permanent archive of E6 interviews and old news items instead has become a link to several dubious dating portals. However, I do have a backup, and though it’s a labyrinth to navigate, I’m uncovering many things I’d either forgotten about or had long since given up for lost. So what I’d like to start doing is reposting some of those old materials here on my personal website, so they can be available to those interested in these fantastic musicians.
To start, here is an interview that means a lot to me. Bill Doss of The Olivia Tremor Control, The Sunshine Fix, and The Apples in Stereo passed away on July 30, 2012. I always had a strong connection to Bill’s music. In the OTC, he would answer all of Will Cullen Hart’s avant-garde, head-warping travelogues with crystal clear 60’s-inspired pop – it was exhilarating to emerge from the tangled, ominous Black Foliage of sonic collages into the sunny clearing of Bill’s Beach Boys-inspired “Hideaway” or “A New Day.” The two proper Olivia Tremor Control albums, Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle and Black Foliage Animation Music: Vol. 1, remain high watermarks of the E6 collective, right alongside In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
This interview was conducted on July 15, 2006.
“So long Seku, goodbye Wren.” Whisper these lyrics to a true fan of indie pop and watch the fellow buckle at the knees. That the words actually seem to reference Egyptian mythology and William S. Burroughs is almost beside the point; when sung by Bill Doss on “Hideaway,” they embody the pinnacle of psychedelic pop bliss. For six years or so Doss split singing/songwriting duties with Will Cullen Hart in one of the most critically acclaimed indie bands of the 90’s, The Olivia Tremor Control (critically acclaimed in hindsight, anyway, as these bands always seem to be best appreciated just after they’ve split up). The Olivias released two albums and a handful of singles, and with each release seemed to be drawing into tighter and tighter focus a concept of what pop music ought to be: a dream-like space you could occupy in your headphones. It was rumored, or just misunderstood in certain circles, that they really wanted to put out a film of their Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle, perhaps to star Yoko Ono. When Optical Atlas asked about this, Bill Doss replied: “Well, it does say ‘unrealized’ right there in the subtitle. Some pipes you see and some you don’t! We always put Yoko on the guest lists at all our shows because well, you never know…” The follow-up, Black Foliage Animation Music: Volume One, combined the ever-refined pop songs of Will and Bill (and now Peter Erchick) with vast experimental landscapes. The band never officially split, although they performed a “farewell tour” in 1999 (a brief reunion tour strode the countryside last year). Hart launched Circulatory System, and Doss began recording under the name he used for an early Elephant 6 cassette release, The Sunshine Fix. Age of the Sun, on Kindercore/ Emperor Norton, is a pop fantasia on the title topic. Green Imagination, while still a bit trippy, stretched his sound with the addition of a children’s choir and a bit of soul. Following a successful tour as a member of The Apples in Stereo while opening for The Strokes, Bill Doss agreed to talk to Optical Atlas about the tour, the reunion shows with Olivia Tremor Control, and a new direction for the Sunshine Fix.
1) I love Green Imagination, and the addition of the Georgia Children’s Chorus on a few of the tracks (“What Do You Know,” “Runaway Run”) really adds to the Sunshine Fix sound in a unique way. How did you become involved with the group, and what was it like working with them?
I had always wanted to have kids involved in my music and the song “Runaway Run” seemed like the perfect place to do this. My wife, Amy, actually set that up for me through her boss. He is involved with the local Presbyterian church here in Athens and the Georgia Children’s Choir is part of that church. So, he put in a call to the choir director and we met and went over the songs so that they could make sure there was nothing too off-color for the kids to sing. I was worried that the song might be too difficult for children to sing but to my surprise, the material they were warming up with was far more complicated than what I had for them! In fact, they learned and perfected the parts so quickly and with so much time left that I decided to also have them sing the refrain on “What Do You Know,” which wasn’t originally planned. The director even had us all go into a classroom to discuss each line of the lyrics individually so that the children could completely understand what they would be singing. This was a little uncomfortable because of the lyrical content. I wouldn’t say that the lyrics are anti-God or anything like that–quite to the contrary–but they are definitely not pro-Christianity or even pro-organized religion. They more refer to a oneness that is expressed better in religions like Taoism. I think ambiguity helped mask that fact. Either that or the kids were down with the Tao! My goal now is to have the kids sing every song on my next record and me not sing at all. I prefer the sound of their voices to mine!
2) What was it like to spend some time on the road with The Apples in Stereo? Are you involved with their new record?
Robert [Schneider] and I have known each other for a long, long time – since the early days of high school. In fact, our band, Fat Planet, though not my first band, was my first real band in that the people could actually play, and that really pushed me to get better. So now, playing in a band with Robert for the first time since then, not counting one-offs and the occasional recording session, has just been incredible. It has the carefree feeling that you can only get when you are young and think that you are going to take over the world someday–and maybe someday we will! Plus, our voices really blend well together. There are only a handful of people who I really enjoy singing with and I would have to say that Robert is at the top of the list. I must also commend Hilarie [Sidney] too. Even though this is the first time she and I have sung together, it’s effortless to blend voices with her. She is quite an amazing singer as well and pounding the hell out of the drums at the same time! Quite a feat! Not to mention that all the Apples are super great people to hang with. As for the new album New Magnetic Wonder, Robert came down to Athens recently and brought his entire set-up–computer, mikes, and a rack of mic pres and compressors and set them all up at my house. He was in town for a couple of weeks and we did a lot of overdubs–mostly singing–and had a great time. Will Hart was involved on a track as well. We all hung out and just had a fantastic time getting high and making up stupid parts, some of which actually made it onto the record! The creative energy was unbelievable.
3) Last year Olivia Tremor Control briefly reunited for a pretty spectacular little tour to enthusiastic crowds. How did it feel to play and tour with your old band again?
It was just amazing. I couldn’t believe that so many people even remembered who we were, much less wanted to come out and see us dust off those old ditties. I always felt that we aborted the band far too early in our “career” and getting back together with the old guys felt very good. We fell right back into the music without skipping a step. It was very natural and effortless. Plus my friends Andrew Hawthorne and Kevin Evans put together some fantastic visuals and projected them behind us for some of the shows. That made it even extra special for me. I would love to re-rail that train back on the tracks for some new stupidity but that will have to come in its own time.
4) Can you confirm the rumor that you’re credited as “The Bill Doss” on the Powerpuff Girls tribute album, Heroes & Villains, because the Cartoon Network (or perhaps Kid Rhino) thought “The Sunshine Fix” might be a drug reference? And how did you become involved with this record?
Starting with the last part first, apparently Craig McCracken, the creator of the show is a fan of Elephant 6. How about that, huh? He told me that he had bought a copy of the first Sunshine Fix single (the one with the insert controversy) and liked it enough to ask me to be on that record. Then they sent me a bunch of episodes of the show and asked me to become familiar with the characters and try to inject them into my song. It was great fun! I was sitting at home watching cartoons and thinking,”I’m working! What better job could anybody have?!?” Plus, the songs were mastered (mine was mixed as well) by Mark Mothersbaugh which thrilled me to no end! As for the name change, yes, the show (or it may have been the label, I forget) thought that The Sunshine Fix was too much of a drug reference for a record about a kids show. I never intended for that name to be a drug reference but when I thought about it I could definitely see it! I’ve always liked names that have multiple meanings and I suppose that one could mean several things depending on how you look at it. So I decided to just use my real name–I played all the parts myself–and thought I’d be really clever and stick a “The” on the beginning so that it would sound more like a band name like The Pink Floyd or The Sonic Youth.
Of course it came off sounding egoistic as in I am “The” Bill Doss. So much for clever! Actually, I am one of several Bill Dosses. I recently got an email forwarded to me from a paramedic in Ohio named Bill Doss who had received a fan letter saying how much they loved The Sunshine Fix. Nutter.
5) Are you writing or recording any new material at the moment?
Oh yeah, I am always writing and recording. I got into ProTools recently and have been experimenting like crazy with it just learning the program. I have also been trying to shy away from writing 60’s-style pop songs and instead come at my songwriting from a different angle, which is not as easy as it sounds after so many years in one direction, and also the reason I don’t have a new record out yet. I will definitely get back to the 60’s thing eventually but for now I am enjoying trying to do things differently. The new stuff is darker and lots of minor keys and sadness closer to Leonard Cohen than John Lennon, I suppose. I don’t know why, actually, because my life is wonderful and I am very happy, but the darker themes seem to be coming through in the new material. I suppose it’s all part of whatever it is…and as Lou Reed said, “I just write ‘em, I don’t explain ‘em…” or some other such nonsense. Plus after writing a galling amount of songs about the sun and light, an about-face was inevitable.
6) What are you listening to at the moment that you find particularly inspiring?
Right now, I am listening to a lot of Middle Eastern Music–especially from Lebanon. Also, some old stuff from Japan. It’s all so strange to ears that are used to hearing music from the west–all wooden and tinkly. I also recently got into Paulo Conte. He is an old Italian eccentric who’s crusty and sort of Tom Waits-y and just wonderful. With any luck, I could definitely see myself growing into that sort of character. Also, since I started playing with the Apples, I have gone back and listened to that stuff again and have really rediscovered their music. I think I had forgotten just how brilliant those records are. That has really inspired and reinvigorated me musically. And of course with the passing of Syd [Barrett], I have gone back and listened to all my old Pink Floyd and Syd solo albums. It’s sad for us that he is gone but at least now he is free from any earthly pain and besides, we lost him nearly forty years ago anyway. I think that has inspired me to keep working. You never know how much time you have to do the things you want to do. To paraphrase my friend Will, it’s best to enjoy your sunny day while taking the time to waste it.
Portrait photo by Amy Hairston
Live photo of Olivia Tremor Control by Chris Yetter