Think back to the last time you had a really bizarre dream, the kind in which familiar places suddenly become strange, friends metamorphose and the rules of physics collapse. Now try to imagine the soundtrack. If you can, you've taken a giant step toward understanding the unbridled storms of creativity and brash experimentalism that have made the Olivia Tremor Control one of the most compelling and challenging groups around.
The Athens, Ga., group is so intriguing because they're impossible to pigeonhole. Just when you think you've locked in on their approach, their music veers off the radar screen and expectations are turned inside out and upside down as ephemeral melodies dissolve in and out of chaos. The Olivia Tremor Control's music is sort of psychedelic, sort of pop, sort of ambient, sort of electronic and sort of jazz. It's also none of the above. It's a stimulating conundrum, one that defies simple genre tags.
"I have never come up with a good description," says Will Cullen Hart, who, along with Bill Doss, is the band's visionary team. "We actually prefer that you describe it," he says. "That way it's kind of what you think it is, but I don't think that any one of those words (psychedelic, pop, retro) is right. We hope that it's a little above retro, but it's open to interpretation."
Interpretations have been bandied about indeed. One magazine went so far as to call their latest release, Black Foliage: Animation Music by the Olivia Tremor Control (Flydaddy), more consistently great than the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper. To this Hart cries bullshit: "It couldn't be. That was a long time ago, and this is a totally different time. We like that kind of music a lot, but ... that's nice of them," he says, laughing.
Humility aside, there's no doubt that Black Foliage is a much more ambitious work than their previous outing, Music from the Unrealized Film Script "Dusk at Cubist Castle." With 27 tracks sprawling over slightly more than 70 minutes, Foliage is a tour of nearly every influence that has crossed the Olivias' path; at times the record has the sound of scanning the radio dial while floating in deep space. The sounds of opening and shutting doors mix with wrenching metallic clanking, a cello bows to whirling satellite beeping and trash-can lids dance over melting xylophones. Yet somehow it all returns to earth with a sunny pop hook or a flashback to an earlier theme.
Black Foliage was nearly two-and-a-half years in the making but largely stemmed from some unfinished work left over from Cubist. "Two or three of the songs are carried over from the past record because we didn't get them the way we wanted, and we sort of grabbed those," Hart says. "Once we got them the way we wanted them, we were like, 'Hey, we've got another record here.'
"It has more of a coherent feel all the way through," he continues. "Cubist was like 14 different dreams, and this one is like two dreams all related and tied into one another. Certain people in the band like different things, so when we bring in an idea that's extreme one way or another -- whether it's super pop or a refrigerator miked up -- we're all willing to give it a shot."
And that's just the music. The lyrics are equally balanced between surreal imagery, such as on "Grass Canons," in which they sing: "Cloud shadows stretch several states, and bubbling music seemed to fill the highways and the towns"; and pure popisms such as "Don't hide away from your daydreams," from the deliciously hummable "Hideaway."
"The lyrics are impressionistic," says Hart. "Four lines might relate to lines in another song. Mine are like that. They're not linear stories."
Then there are the evasive melodies: On first listen, only the most obvious ones leap out -- most of them are twisted, distorted and mangled beyond recognition. "The importance of melody is great to us. Even the electronic interludes and some of the instrumental stuff is very melodic," he says. "Maybe it's just a different kind of melody, but it's all based on traditional stuff that might be really tweaked. The melodic themes are totally intended as the focus of the record. Sometimes we make like 40 examples of tweaking one melody, and on the album some are audible and some just flash by."
While Hart and his fellow bandmates are dead serious about pushing the edge of sonic experimentation, anyone who listens to an OTC album will soon realize the band never falls into the prog-ish pitfalls of some psychedelia. They maintain a good sense of humor throughout the journey while examining the depths of the recording studio's potential.
"There are some things we don't like about psychedelic music, like 20-minute guitar solos," he says. "We lead you up to the point where there would be the big guitar solo, and then we're like, 'Uh-uh.' You might get cricket sounds instead. We were just trying to have a laugh." Plus, he says, "we created it for headphones. Stereo placement is one of the most interesting things about music and what we like about recording. Nobody uses stereo to its full effect. Your average recording makes it sound as if you're sitting in the middle of the room, but take a Beatles record where you have a guitar flying in from the left -- that's what we like."
Though the band's layered, almost cluttered, studio sound may seem impossible to reproduce live -- the Beatles retreated from live performance because they couldn't replicate the studio experience -- Hart says they have ways of producing the same vibrant feel without getting bogged down in too much technology.
"We add certain effects, but we don't try to play it like on the record, except for the basic structures," he says. "We kind of toy around with stuff. We put three or four tape players around the room with different effects on them that pop up from time to time, and we all have bells and shakers we play -- just toys, really. We try to get the vibe to be the same without the exact same effects."
If The Olivia Tremor Control were painters, they would surely fall into the abstract-expressionism school - the subject matter does not jump out at you, but, then, the subject is not the most important thing. What is more vital are the movement, the emotion and the subjectivity."I think our music is like a sound painting," echoes Hart. "That sounds pretentious, I guess, but that's what we're going for." Pretentious? Hardly. The Olivia Tremor Control are what you make of them, and that's the beauty. As they sing in the album's second track, "In the blink of an eye you get several meanings."
The Olivia Tremor Control performs at the Side Door on Thursday, May 6.