As one of the founding members of the Elephant Six music collective and the band behind the neo-psychedelic classic Dusk at Cubist Castle, The Olivia Tremor Control was quietly one of the most influential bands in the mid- to late-’90s indie music scene. After a prolific four-year run that saw the release of two double albums, an instrumental album, and a singles compilation, however, the group parted ways, leaving current and future fans to wonder if they had seen the last of the Olivias. Luckily in 2011, after some tentative signs of life in 2005, the band started playing numerous shows around the country and even released their first single in over ten years, "The Game You Play Is in Your Head, Pts. 1, 2, & 3," that August, letting the world know that the reunion was in full swing. This past weekend saw the band playing one of their last scheduled gigs at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. There i caught up with Bill Doss, John Fernandes, Will Hart, and AJ Griffin and talked to them about reconnecting as a group, the possibility of a new record, and what would make a great band mascot.
You’ve been out of the public eye for a while now, at least as a group. What prompted you to come back?
Bill Doss: We got invited to play All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2005, and it kind of seemed like it was time to do it, too.
John Fernandes: Everyone was missing playing together.
BD: It just seemed like the perfect catalyst for it and, if I can get a little deeper into it. I was on tour with Apples in Stereo at one point and we got a phone call that said Will was in the hospital and had been diagnosed with MS and what happened…it’s what alcoholics would call a moment of clarity and it was just…why haven’t we been playing together for the past five or six years? This is ridiculous. The thing I enjoy most in the world is playing with this group of guys. So all of those things kind of converged; for me personally and it just worked out perfectly.
JF: We did some tours, The Elephant Six Holiday Surprise tour, where it was a variety show where we played some Olivia songs in there. It felt really great. More offers kept coming in for certain shows and we thought, let’s keep doing this.
BD: Starting with the whole ATP thing in 2005, Will and I started getting together and just hanging out because we had been broken up for a while, not only as a band also as friends. Just over bullshit stuff, none of it really mattered in the end. We started hanging out again and rekindling a friendship and then all the sudden the four-track came out, sat on the floor like high school, playing around with stuff, and then some of the other guys heard it and were like, we should be working on this stuff. So we got together and started playing at somebody’s house and just started jamming and recording, and all the sudden we had this whole catalogue of music we’d been recording. And it was like, maybe we should just work on a record now?
In the years since you broke up, a lot of fans have discovered your work and have been waiting a while to see you live. Do you ever worry about meeting the expectations they may have?
Will Hart: I’ve thought about that a couple of times, actually, and I thought, as long as we’re happy and good, which I think we’re just as good. I don’t really read reviews, but I kind of did, at first, and they were good!
BD: You always have that in the back of your mind a little bit, at least I do, but you can’t really let it get in there and fester. You just have to do what you do, and if it’s fun and you enjoy it and keep doing it and people like it, great.
WH: If we’re happy then it shows.
BD: Yeah, if we’re having a good time it comes across, people respond to that.
JF: There’s a certain chemistry that we all have together . We all played in a lot of different projects and stuff, but once we all got together again it’s like…
BD: It’s like the time had not even passed. And of course, we’ve known each other for like twenty years. We come from a similar background musically, we all grew up listening the same records, worked at the same college station.
AJ Griffin: I’m the one young who hasn’t known everyone for twenty years.
BD: But the thing about AJ is, he’s sort of a similar soul in the way that he grew up listening to the same albums we listened to, maybe at a different time, but it’s obvious he comes from the same background.
JF: He’s the youngblood. He’s like half our age, can play anything. And it’s funny because when we’re working on arrangements for some songs, we have to ask him like, what was this like on the record?
AJG: That’s my job: I’m the guy who remembers the songs. They’re like, look, basically you tell us this chord progression to this song that we wrote or we’re going to dunk your head in this toilet.
You guys have a pretty dense, complex sound. What’s the process to recreating that live?
BD: It takes quite a few people!
AJG: Before I started playing with you guys, I was really curious as to what it was going to sound like. I had never seen the band live obviously, I had only heard the records. I was really interested to see how they go about playing this live.
JF: I try to play some violins and clarinet stuff and originally, when Bill asked me to play in the band, he showed me some bass lines and was like here, play this and play this.
BD: Yeah, before [John] came in I was playing bass. I love playing bass, it’s my favorite thing to play ,but I wasn’t coordinated enough to play bass and sing at the same time.
JF: And when we can, we try to bring our horn players. On one of Bill’s songs in particular, there’s a horn part. They couldn’t come with us overseas on our last trip, but they came up here [to Pitchfork].
What’s the oldest instrument you guys are playing that you guys are still playing right now?
JF: The violin that I play is the same violin I grew up practicing with. I started when I was seven so I had littler ones, but the first full-size violin I got is still the one I play. It’s got cracks in it from that unfortunate incident at the Filmore when our drummer went crazy and threw drums everywhere. But it still plays!
What animal would be your mascot for the band, like if you can’t pick an elephant?
BD: I was trying to think of the one in Napoleon Dynamite. What did he draw?
BD: Yeah, a liger!
AJG: Well, you know, Derek’s middle name is Griffin, and my last name is Griffin, so maybe a Griffin.
BD: See, that’s something else you bring to the table, the mascot! I also like the jellyfish because it morphs and moves, and I feel kind of like that’s what our live thing does.
AJG: And it has no brain!
What’s the status of the new record? Any time frame or just “it’ll be done when it’s done”?
BD: It’s definitely coming!
JF: We don’t want to say it’s going to be next year because it’s still up in the air. Will’s like, we gotta do another double! But at the same time…I work at record store, I hang out with a lot of younger kids, and I realize not many people these days listen to a full forty-minute record, much less a seventy-minute record in one sitting.
BD: It’s kind of all about singles right now. But we just have to do what makes us happy and make the records we want to hear and then if people like it great. If not, they don’t, you know? But years from now we can pick up the records we made and go, yeah, we’re still proud of this. JF: No matter what people are expecting these days, we’re going to do what we do. I mean, even the single we just released is a three-parter.
BD: We turned in an EP one time and it ended up being forty minutes. It happens, you know?