Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle
Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One
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.
The loss, for fans of indie and experimental music, is enormous. But Doss’ death is also a loss for fans of thrillingly melodic pop music. As Rolling Stone’s Simon Vozick-Levinson lamented Tuesday, “The world has one less person who can give us the kind of pure melodic joy that was his specialty.” He’s right, of course, and listening to Dusk at Cubist Castle and Black Foliage while preparing this piece, I found myself celebrating that joy not in terms of the albums or bands or even songs for which Doss was the architect, but instead as a pastiche of fleeting, exhilarating pop moments, the type that comes rushing deliriously out of the sound collages of Black Foliage and makes you smile so hard your jaw aches.
Witness those lingering last 40 seconds of “Hilltop Procession”, for example, a commotion of stutter-chopped vocal samples that resolves into an achingly gorgeous “Da-da-da-da-da” refrain. Or hear the encore swell of vocal harmonies in “The Sylvan Screen”, where industrial groans burst open in a sudden last-gasp Beach Boys reprise. There is also that spirited first chorus of “No Growing (Exegesis)” or the warm come-down of “Green Typewriters X”, when fuzzy tremolo guitars fade into one of the band’s dreamiest vocal refrains.
These compositional triumphs, among so many others, demonstrate why music writers use terms like “blissful” and “joyous” and “exuberant” to describe a band whose music is so unflinchingly experimental as to incorporate 11-minute ambient pieces and avant-garde song suites, self-mutating musical themes and heady tape manipulation. Because of Doss, the Olivia Tremor Control’s melodic sense was rich, layered, timeless—but never sugary or cloying. Ultimately, the band’s songwriting held the staying power of many of Doss’ ‘60s idols. LeMay describes seeing the band and being shocked at how many melodies he had thoughtlessly associated with the Stones and the Beach Boys “that had, in fact, only made their way to [his] ears via Doss’ voice and hands.”
But its taste for the bizarre, the avant-garde, was equally unrelenting. The debut, Dusk at Cubist Castle, billed itself as the soundtrack to an unmade movie about two women and an earthquake. Early copies arrived with a companion CD, Explanation II: Instrumental Themes and Dream Sequences. Play them simultaneously, the band said, and you’ll get quadraphonic sound. Oddly, the CD lengths did not match.
Black Foliage, the band’s second effort—and, arguably, its masterpiece—was even more ambitious. Liner notes describe an attempt to construct a song cycle around a single recurring bass guitar theme:
The idea as black foliage began was to take a section of the guitar line from black foliage (now called itself) and make a set of animated departures stemming from that bass guitar melody, twisting it to many variations. As time moved on and the animation sections became intermingled with out daily lives, we added new hunks of sound. Everyday, the animation sections began to include pieces of each other.
The compositions grew even more freakily disorienting when the band began piecing together isolated elements from “songs” into abrupt, fragmented interludes:
As the other songs began to take shape, we began extracting elements from them…. As each song became integrated as a whole into the new songs, edits became edits within edits. Which birthed “Combinations”—pieces of songs. Melodies, vocal parts, drum fills etc. became electronic interludes that are derived from the songs themselves, all of which are in various states of becoming or drifting back from animation.
When I wrote about Black Foliage in 2009 for a 1999 retrospective feature, I described it as “a sprawling trip into the hazy, aural subconscious” and likened the experience to “a surreal dream state, one that brims feverishly with more melody and harmony and psychedelia… than most bands manage in a career.” Melodies and song segments drift in and out of each other with impossible fluidity, and the album’s lyrics often reference dreams or dreamlike imagery. “There are no explanations to the things you see / In your mystery / So don’t look to me to validate your dreams,” goes the chorus of “Hilltop Procession”, which incorporates samples of listeners recounting their dreams on tape (the band had sent out a call for submissions). “I Have Been Floated”, meanwhile, describes a supernatural journey borne out of “a series of events I cannot explain.”
At 15, I had heard nothing like it. Black Foliage seemed like the embodiment of impossible extremes: I had not realized pop music could be so staggeringly complex—and I’d had no idea bracing sound manipulation could come with such sunny vocal arrangements. In my father’s Bose headphones, the sheer density of the arrangements sounded utterly intoxicating and strangely limitless. Once, I sat in my high school library listening to “Grass Canons”. I remember noticing with shock the distant drum pattern in the left channel during the xylophone outro. It seemed to be coming at me from across the room, and even when I removed my headphones, it did not seem possible that it was part of the mix.
After Black Foliage, the group issued Single and Beyond, a compilation of early recordings that contains inimitable flashes of brilliance, in 2000, then called it quits later that year. For me, it was an easy step to half a dozen other Elephant 6 outfits—many of which shared members or alumni with the Olivia Tremor Control, but none of which really compared. Still, the Olivia Tremor Control was never the most popular or critically acclaimed act in the collective. By the early 2000s, former bandmate Jeff Mangum had found cult stardom with the Neutral Milk Hotel, and Elephant 6 cofounder Robert Schneider, who produced Dusk at Cubist Castle, had devoted his full energies to the third seminal E6 band, Apples in Stereo. Of Montreal, meanwhile, had become indie darlings with a sharp taste for the glam.
Doss returned to his on-again off-again solo project, the Sunshine Fix, which released albums in 2002 and 2004. Then the Olivia Tremor Control briefly reunited for a few dates and festival slots in 2005. Eventually, Doss began performing with Apples in Stereo and became a full-time studio member in time for the group’s 2010 album, Travellers in Space and Time. But around that time, he shifted his focus back again: the Olivia Tremor Control announced a formal reunion and entered the studio in 2009.
Enjoying the benefits of its triumphant second run, the band was still touring and working on material up to the week before Doss’ death. The members performed their final show only four days prior, on 26 July. Eerily enough, it took place in their hometown of Athens, Georgia.
Shortly after I learned of Doss’ passing last Tuesday, another one of the band’s golden earworm moments landed in my head. It arrives about two minutes into “Hideway”, the part when all the guitars and horns and xylophone tinkles and studio clutter abruptly drop out, leaving only a spidery organ arpeggio in the right channel and one of Doss’ Pet Sounds-in-heaven harmony lines in the left. Then the dense wall of sound comes rushing back in, this time with a vocal counterharmony, sparkling and loud, for a few thrilling seconds before it all collapses on cue.
In form, it’s typical for the band. Much of OTC’s music suggests an obsession with adding and removing elements, composing to collapse; “things come rushing in,” “things come rushing out.” But this time it was the vocal part that lodged itself in my head, an apparent William S. Burroughs reference begging to be misheard. “So long, Sekhu,” it goes. “Goodbye, Ren.”
At Pitchfork Festival, it was the second-to-last song the band played. Doss sang the line, sloppily, with what seemed to be joy.