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The Olivia Tremor Control's Black Foliage Revisited
Sean Kitching , March 26th, 2019 09:20

Sean Kitching talks to Olivia Tremor Control co-founder, Will Cullen Hart, about re-injecting the psychedelic into 60s psych pop and the less immediately apparent influences that inspired The Olivia Tremor Control’s 1999 magnum opus, Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One

Formed in 1994 by Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart, The Olivia Tremor Control rose out of the ashes of Synthetic Flying Machine, an early project that also featured Jeff Mangum, to become, along with Mangum’s own Neutral Milk Hotel and Robert Schneider’s Apples In Stereo, one of the three original projects of The Elephant 6 Recording Company.

Drawn together by their shared appreciation of 60s pop music and a veneration of the Beach Boys’ unfinished Smile project, Schneider’s Pet Sounds Recording Studio was the recording hub for many of the collective’s releases, including Neutral Milk Hotel’s critically acclaimed In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, and both of The Olivia Tremor Control albums.

It was Mangum who came up with the name The Olivia Tremor Control, and Hart who proposed the moniker Neutral Milk Hotel, whilst both were still in High School. Although the earliest Synthetic Flying Machine demos paint a picture of inauspicious beginnings, young friends playing with the process of putting surreal improvisations down on tape, several songs born out of those early chaotic improvisations later became Neutral Milk Hotel or The Olivia Tremor Control tracks, such as ‘Arms So Real’ or ‘Opera House’.

Mangum was still on board when TOTC put out their first EP, the second Elephant 6 release, California Demise, in 1994. The band’s sound was still in its embryonic form, although not entirely without charm. The first few thousand copies of their debut album, Music From The Unrealized Film Script: Dusk At Cubist Castle, came with an additional CD, Explanation II: Instrumental Themes And Dream Sequences, intended to be played simultaneously to the main disc, which predated the Flaming Lips’ similarly experimental release, Zaireeka, by a little over a year. The album received largely glowing reviews, although some writers responded less kindly to more experimental cuts like the 22-minute ‘Green Typewriters’ suite. After releasing an entire album’s worth of such abstract material, which also contained fan contributions in the form of dreams sent to the band, TOTC delivered Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One in 1999, a second double album that blended their two sonic tendencies in a finer, albeit darker, weave than its predecessor.

Both records flirt outrageously with their source influences, yet still wind up just on the right side of timeless by dint of their lovingly obsessive construction which preserves them both in a kind of hermetically sealed ambience and makes them instantly and uniquely recognisable. Both have their advocates amongst TOTC fans as the band’s better album. Dusk At Cubist Castle has some great songs, but Black Foliage pips it to the post as a more internally cohesive, although still in parts rather bewildering, statement that refutes the problem with modern takes on 60s psych pop in a more convincing manner than its precursor.

Although hardly unique among genres specifically tied to historical moments in time in being seen as almost exclusively ‘music of the past’, 60s psych pop has perhaps the greatest disconnect between the original promise of its numinous intent (the expansion of consciousness and the radical reconfiguration of societal power structures) and what has now become the prosaic quality of its corporeal signifiers (Afghan rugs, patchouli oil, paisley shirts and bongos).

As tQ's John Doran noted in a 2014 discussion of what the word psychedelia meant in a modern context: “Many 1960s acts associated with the mainstream boom in psychedelia have lost their ability to transport the listener outside of themselves through no fault of their own. It is perhaps too much to expect The Beatles to remain a potent fuel in the modern psychedelic trip when everything they have ever recorded has become so ingrained into popular mainstream culture.” This is, of course, not something entirely limited to 60s psych pop. Post-punk and dark wave, for example, are just as much era-specific labels that can tend towards pastiche or even veer off into self-parody unless approached with the right kind creative intent.

Although the ‘search for the new’ will undoubtedly remain the holy grail of our type of music journalist, it’s difficult to get away from the fact that originality mostly lies in discovering fresh combinations of earlier styles and conventions. What makes Black Foliage such a winning proposition, apart from the wealth of great tunes it contains, is its incredible attention to detail in the overall sound world it creates. The notion of accentuating the ‘disconnected connections’ between the abstract and linear pieces, a kind of deliberate fractalising of the music, is essential in this regard, as is the play of light and shadow created by the contrast between the tunes and abstracts themselves. The difference between TOTC’s two albums is even detectable in the change in Hart’s artwork as he began to eschew the non-realistic but still with figurative elements illustrations of Dusk At Cubist Castle for the purely abstract colour and shape paintings of Black Foliage. I put some of these thoughts to Hart, who kindly spoke to me from his home in Athens, Georgia.

He said: “To begin with, the notion that Bill Doss was the more traditional tunes guy and me the more experimental, is total bullshit. He’s the one who introduced me to John Cage, long ago. He liked that kind of stuff and excelled at the pop side too. He was good at arrangement in a way that I’m not. Though I do that too, we both straddled that line, though he’s known for the more poppy songs on that record.

"The White Noise’s [1969 album] An Electric Storm was a big influence on Black Foliage. That shit’s insane, I love it. I’d been learning about electronic music, Stockhausen and proper composition - people who went to conservatories - but White Noise was in between because they were BBC sound people, Delia Derbyshire and so on. I wasn’t aware of them until we toured with Super Furry Animals, who turned me on to it. I remember thinking, let’s take a bit of [the tracks] ‘Black Foliage’ and run it through all of these things that we’d learned since I’d been into electronic music. This was our next thing and we’d gotten really into it, how to warp the songs and bring them back around.

"I worked with 4-track cassette, and then we got a studio where we had reel-to-reel 8-track tape. At home, I would do similar things but bring them into the band. ‘Black Foliage’, the song itself, was originally something I’d recorded that was actually going to be on the first record, but then because of the things that we’d learned in those couple of years, when I heard ‘Here Come The Fleas’, I was like: let’s to this super cut-in cut-out cut thing along with this pop thing that we do.

"There’s some of this more experimental stuff on the first record too, so this was always a part of TOTC blueprint. We already did cut-ups on the album before that, like ‘Green Typewriters’, but I thought, let’s take that and the Beach Boys’ Smile, which hadn’t come out yet. Let’s take ‘Black Foliage’ and have the motif appear in several songs as was done with ‘Heroes and Villains’. We took the same approach as that and animated it through all these different sections, and that’s what ‘The Bark And Below It’ is supposed to be - this thing giving nutrients to the tunes growing out of it. In there somewhere, in that eleven-minute song - probably six or seven minutes in - I let it get really quiet and then other pulses come in. It’s a fade back in but your ears rest and when it kicks back in it’s more noticeable.

"I learned that from some of these composers and also from Michael Rother, particularly his Neu! recordings. I met him at a festival. He was doing their old stuff and it was amazing. They were kind of like tricksters - Merry Pranksters. I wasn’t sure of this before because I had a bootleg copy but when you put the vinyl on, there’s that effect on the first two records when it sounds as though the needle’s wrong. If you’d have bought the vinyl in 72, at the time, you’d have been checking your stylus, then thinking: “Ah, it’s OK, they’re just messing with me.” That’s cool.

"It was mainly an organic process. I had a 4-track cassette in my house and a space set up. I had a little digital 4-track and you could put this little disc in and you could record milliseconds. You can do that on a computer but now that I’ve come back to trying that on a computer, it’s somehow not the same. It would record milliseconds of something and that’s what you can hear in ‘The Bark And Below It’, especially these [makes a series of clicking and whooshing noises] sounds, they were sped up like six or eight times. If anyone were to slow it down, it is something from elsewhere the album. It might be [sings BF note progression], or it might be a high-pitched buzz, but it’s something from the record. Also, on ‘A New Day’, that’s John [Fernandes, TOTC bass, violin, sax and clarinet] and I doing a Tony Conrad style dream drone. You’ll hear it as the song goes on - the regular tone is usurped by the end of the tune by the Conrad-esque drone. If you crank it up it’s a little twister for your eardrums.”

On Black Foliage, tunes and abstract pieces are intermingled to create indeterminate zones where elements of the album, in differently time phased aspects and different combinations, coalesce to imply for the listener a kind of subconscious from which the more cohesive tunes ultimately derive. The mix itself is a depiction of the band’s creative process, no doubt as hypnotic to those who constructed it as it is to those involved in close listening to the finished product. Indeed, close listening is the key to full appreciation of this album, and it is best experienced over a decent set of headphones.

A 26-second opener warps nicely into a cut-and-splice introduction to ‘A Familiar Noise Called ‘Train Director’’ - nicely melodic psychedelia with a slightly murky undercurrent and lovely Radiophonic Workshop style whooshing noises. ‘A Sleepy Company’ is a relatively straightforward, propulsive track with an immense overarching drone, pulsating electronics and folky violin. The track’s pace almost has a drowsy, slightly too slow for waking life feel to it, some trippy ‘prankster’ type effects where a listener might reasonably (if momentarily) wonder if there is something wrong with their headphones. Again, there is a very visual and spatial feeling to the recording, like the tune is fading, the band are walking out of the room, only when they get to the studio door and open it, an immense light pours in, accompanied by a spiralling random cacophony of tiny sounds and pulses. ‘Grass Canons’ is driven by a dreamy, circular melody and tinkling percussion gathering momentum that starts to fall apart three-quarters of the way in.

Hart recalled: “At our studio, across town we rented a space and I bought a new organ and when everyone went off that night, I stayed up all night and painted a picture on the organ and then created a song and that was ‘Grass Canons’. I really got into it, playing the drums - that’s how it started. The organ lit up when you played it and I had all the lights out. When everyone came back, they loved it and we started adding to it and Eric [Harris] played along with my drums and made them meatier. Then we had some other friends come over and play the percussion on it. That was a matter of days really. I did it in a night and we added bits.”

‘A New Day’ and ‘I Have Been Floated’ are slightly less successful, straying a bit too close to the source of their inspiration to fully escape the notion of pastiche. It’s sometimes a fine line to tread between inspired original and passing copy, and one that XTC’s two mid-80s albums under the name Dukes Of Stratosphear are forced to repeatedly negotiate. Whilst I personally find a lot to like on both of those records, they also stray a little too close to Strawberry Alarm Clock territory on several occasions, which thankfully Black Foliage largely avoids. ‘Paranormal Echoes’ is considerably better. A fuzzy, hardly present guitar lick, vocal samples travelling in between the listener’s ears, a slowly lurching drumbeat until it turns itself inside out at around the one minute mark and only properly becomes something more resembling a song for its final sixty seconds.

‘A Place We Have Been To’ cuts to the chase with a very strong melody and some wonderful electro acoustic effects. As with everything on this album, production is a pivotal consideration when assessing a song’s success, with texture almost as important as melody. Like a lot of the tunes here, it sounds slightly warped, muffled, under water or out of time. The vocal struggles with a touch of asphyxiation, as the track goes into a chaotic overload of melody, percolating electronic pulses, and electric organ. ‘Black Foliage (Itself)’ operates at a heavily sedated, narcotised pace. This is very dense music, full of unhurried movement and morphing melody all swooshing together in a kind of time-subverting sonic syrup. ‘The Sylvan Screen’ is one of several standout tracks. The introduction is filled with the sound of nameless machines in the distance, voices lurching in and out of focus, watery sounds, ambience implying space. Despite taking over a minute to kick in, the tune itself is dynamite when it finally arrives with swagger and handclaps aplenty, before returning you to that ur-ambience again. Birds tweeting somewhere off in the distance, a plane flying overhead, the sound of its passing becoming a drone that in turn becomes a final Beach Boys style vocal close-harmony style ending.

At 11:24, ‘The Bark And Below It’ is by far the album’s longest experimental piece. Filled with spatial ambient electronics, it feels larger still than its linear running time. Sounds move around in various kinds of proximity to one another but as if in the void, with a heavy cello note arriving around halfway in. An album filled with tracks like this would be rather pointless, but taken as part of the whole context, it succeeds as a representation of the psychedelic manipulation of space and time, taken to its illogical extreme. ‘California Demise’ lands heavily on just the right side of righteous 60s-style psych with an irresistible fuzz guitar and slightly irregular loping pace. It very effectively begins to fragment and then recombine around the two-minute mark for a beautifully uplifting denouement, accompanied by lyrics that nevertheless manage to subtly address the surfeit of optimism so typical to that decade’s ideology: “They don’t bother wearing seatbelts/ To protect them from the wreck/ They’ve already died in the California demise”.

‘Looking For Quiet Seeds’ is either the most abstract tuneful piece or the most tuneful abstract piece on the album. A spooky little dirge, all the colours blurred, all the notes mingling, all the paint running together obscuring the shapes. ‘Another Set Of Bees At The Museum’ is a warped and woozy track that sounds as if it is dissonantly resonating from under the weight of all the sonic detritus that has accrued throughout the album’s progression. The title is interesting too - bees being the industrious workers who create sweet sustenance out of ephemeral flowers, as opposed to the dusty confines of a museum’s exhibits. The lyrics also offer an insight into the band’s intent: “We will find a way to travel beyond density and sky/ How can we liberate the world of sound”. The murk becomes a glorious chorus of fuzz, backwards strings and the chatter and hum of electronic insect voices - the chaotic elements of this track nevertheless reverberating in a beautifully deranged sort of harmony.

Finally, ‘Hilltop Procession (Momentum Gaining)’ returns the album to the kind of goofy, happy psych with undeniable singalong potential that XTC used to end their Dukes records with, voices zooming in and out in stereoscopic effect during the last minute. Despite the conspicuousness of some of its more obvious influences, and the obscurity of some of its more abstract moments, Black Foliage is an exemplary specimen of 60s-influenced psychedelia of many hues and emotional shades, in which the form of its expression perfectly matches the intention behind its ideas. Unlike many other contemporary takes on such source material, it neither stints on nor overstates the optimism of its sunnier moments, nor does it dial down the darkness of its more penumbral pieces. For TOTC fans, two albums is undoubtedly too small a legacy for such an inspired band to leave behind, but despite Bill Doss’s sad and untimely death in 2012, tantalising rumours of an unfinished third album persist.

Hart confirmed: “It is still being worked on, we’re kind of slow with it. It’s going to be the last The Olivia Tremor Control album - another double. We have three sides worth of songs done, though they’re not sequenced properly yet to run three sides. Maybe in a year or so. It’s similar to the other albums - we’re working with the same paints and stuff like that. It’s hard for me to say. We’ve asked our friends and they’re like, ‘Yeah, but there is something different about it’ but they can’t put their finger on it either.”