The Olivia Tremor Control - Biography
By Scott Feemster
As part of the Elephant 6 collective, a loose collection of friends and like-minded post-psychedelic independent groups, which included the Apples In Stereo, Secret Square, and Neutral Milk Hotel, the Olivia Tremor Control were one of the more 'out there' members of the collective, producing music that could be both highly melodic but also deeply strange. Though they were around only for a few years, they became influential in the fearless way they combined elements of pure pop with abstract sound experiments to make for albums that were always an engaging listening experience.
The roots of the Olivia Tremor Control, and of the whole Elephant 6 scene, go back to the small, rural town of Ruston, Louisiana, where schoolmates and friends Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, along with other friends Robert Schneider, (who would go on to form the Apples In Stereo), and Jeff Mangum, (who would later start Neutral Milk Hotel), would gather to listen to albums by the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Beach Boys, the Zombies and Sonic Youth, amongst others, and started learning instruments. After a time, the four would start making their own home recordings, and also started playing in local bands with one another. After graduating high school, Hart and Doss attended Louisiana Tech University, where, when not in class, they worked as DJ's at the college radio station. Their time at the station expanded their musical horizons, and it was during this time that a sort of Elephant 6 aesthetic was formulated, that is, mixing the free-wheeling experimentation of psychedelia with elements of punk and post-punk. In 1990, Doss, Hart, and Mangum picked up and moved to Athens, Georgia, and in that college city's rich musical scene, formed the band Cranberry Life Cycle. Mangum soon left the band, so Hart and Doss decided to continue on without him, and recruited bassist/multi-instrumentalist John Fernandes to join them in their new project, Synthetic Flying Machine. Doss left the band for a short time to play in the band Chocolate USA, but returned soon after, and upon his return, Synthetic Flying Machine mutated into the Olivia Tremor Control with the addition of drummer and “technical advisor” Eric Harris”.
Built around the surreal concept of providing the music for an imaginary film thought up by Doss and Hart, the Olivia Tremor Control debuted with the EP California Demise (Elephant 6) in 1994, and then followed that up with a split 7” release with Robert Schneider's new Apples In Stereo group the same year. The Olivia Tremor Control then released on more 7” EP, The Giant Day (Drug Racer) in 1996 before releasing their debut album, the sprawling double-album Music From The Unrealized Film Script, Dusk At Cubist Castle (Flydaddy)(1996). The album was a mind-blowing modern amalgamation of psychedelia, pure pop, tape loops, and what ever else the band could dig up, but still, (remarkably) still held together as a whole. Even with it’s epic length and breadth of styles, Dusk At Cubist Castle was reportedly pulled together from a pool of over 200 songs and sound experiments the band had recorded. (The first pressings of the album included a limited bonus disc that included more ambient sound pieces the band had recorded. This was later released as Explanation II: Instrumental Themes and Dream Sequences on Flydaddy Records.) More in the vein of their experimental side, the group next released the album The Late Music Volume One (Camera Obscura) under the name Black Swan Network. The sound pieces on the album were inspired by descriptions of dreams sent in by some of the band’s fans. Also in 1997, Flydaddy released a “collaborative” album titled The Olivia Tremor Control vs. The Black Swan Network, (the title was picked reportedly without the band’s permission), which featured a mix of the bands ambient and pop material mixed in with taped descriptions of dreams the band’s fans had sent in to group. The band toured in support of their albums, and as all of the group members were proficient on several different instruments, their shows were often marked with many different instrument changes. Before the group began working on a new album, they added keyboardist Pete Ehrchick to the line-up. In 1999, the second proper album by the Olivia Tremor Control, Black Foliage: Animation Music by the Olivia Tremor Control (Flydaddy) was released. In another bid towards either ambition or bloody-mindedness, the new album was another double-album of near-perfect pop gems snugged up against wild noise and musique-concrete sound collages. Though the band was heralded as one of the brightest new bands to emerge from the American underground, there were internal problems within the group, and they announced that they were going on an undetermined hiatus in 2000. The same year, some of the band’s earliest EP’s and singles were gathered together and rereleased as the collection Singles And Beyond on the Emperor Norton label.
Following the dissolution of the band, the members of the Olivia Tremor Control went on to other musical projects. Doss went on to release a couple of albums as The Sunshine Fix, a project that went from a solo musical outing to turning into a proper band in the process. Eric Harris first released an album using the name Frosted Ambassador, and then went on to issue two releases under his own name on the Cloud Recordings label, a label he co-founded with John Fernandes. Pete Erchick went on to release two records under the name Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t. Will Cullen Hart started his own post-O.T.C. band, Circulatory System, including ex-O.T.C. members Pete Erchick and John Fernandes, and has released two albums with that group. The Olivia Tremor Control has reunited twice since their hiatus, the first time in 2005 to play a series of shows in the U.S. and the U.K. in conjunction with their appearance at the 2005 All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, and again in 2008, as part of the Holiday Surprise tour with the rest of their fellow Elephant 6 compatriots. The band had planned on releasing a new LP when lead singer Bill Doss abruptly died July 31, 2012. Cause of death is still unknown.