By Scott Creney
It’s the first real day off I’ve had in a while, and I’d planned to spend the afternoon working on my review of the new Micachu album, but I just heard Bill Doss is dead. I can’t think about anything else, and I don’t want to hear any music unless it’s his.
Bill Doss was one of the leaders, along with childhood friend Will Hart, of Olivia Tremor Control. And what their names lacked in polysyllables, they made up for in polysonics. They created a universe of sound. At a time when indie rock values meant two-dimensional, masculine, guitar/bass/drums, they exploded underground sound into about 15 different dimensions.
They were part of the crowd who founded the Elephant 6 Collective, and if you want to know more about that you can go read fucking Wikipedia. Neutral Milk Hotel is far and away the most acclaimed band to come out of that scene, but OTC’s music still stuns me, still continues to reveal layers of mystery and joy, in a way that Mr. Mangum’s music doesn’t. Which isn’t to say that NMH lacks anything, just that it’s a damn shame only one E6 person gets called a genius over and over again. By any standard, OTC is every bit as mind-blowing.
I live in Athens, Georgia. So did Bill Doss. I wasn’t close to him by any means, but I bumped into him a bunch of times. The last time I saw him, he came into Hendershot’s to get a couple of double espressos. I remember feeling glad I was playing a Flying Nun comp at the time. That sounds kind of fanboy-ish, but what are you going to do. In some ways, you get used to living in a small town surrounded by so many brilliant people (Stars! They’re just like us!), but I saw Olivia Tremor Control back in 1999 when I was a freshman at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts and it had a tremendous impact on my life. Super Furry Animals played with them, along with Elf Power (I think — there was also an Apples In Stereo show around that time and there were some E6 bands on that bill as well). When considering college I was torn between going to be Boston or Athens, and I chose Boston. I went home after the show and, particularly after seeing how much rent cost in Athens, nearly wept.
It’s still one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Music born out of love. There was nothing fashionable, or self-conscious, or uptight about them — they just loved playing music. Some years later, I saw them play again out at Orange Twin here in Athens. I had just moved to town and barely knew anyone, so I rode out on a shuttle that left from the local co-op. During the 10-minute drive, most of us on the shuttle made friends with each other and ended up hanging out through the night. This kind of behavior is unusual at rock shows, but OTC were so generous and open with their music they placed a burden on the listener to aspire to the same thing in their own life.
The Tall Dwarfs opened for them. The entire evening was wonderful.
This song is going to be the one that brings me to tears.
I’ve never met anyone in Athens who had a bad thing to say about Bill Doss, even in private. That’s unusual in our town. He was, by any definition, just a wonderful guy. When they played Athens Popfest last year, I was asked to do a write-up for the festival program. Here’s what I wrote:
One of the pioneering members of the Elephant 6 Collective, Olivia Tremor Control combined a love for 60’s popcraft with a passion for experimentation to craft some of the most adventurous and beautiful music of the 1990’s.
Formed by childhood friends Will Hart and Bill Doss, the two relocated to Athens — along with, it sometimes seems, half the graduating class from their Ruston, Louisiana high school — in the early 90’s and began creating music with their friends that sounded unlike anything else around at the time. In 1999 the band released Black Foliage: Animation Music, one of the most densely psychedelic , uplifting albums ever created — an album made for desert islands and headphones, with music and sounds to get lost in for days. It sounded born out of nature, yet still shaped by pop. It was extraordinary.
The E6 crew presented themselves as a family, one created not out of blood, but by choice. Central to their mythos was the idea that one could create their own community, that one could find people like themselves who held similar values, could provide the nurturing acceptance that they may or may not have received growing up. In short, E6 presented itself as a utopia of creativity.
Which is a hell of a lot for anyone to live up to, especially a bunch of musicians. And though the band were receiving all kinds of acclaim and — to the outside observer — their future seemed limitless, within the next year Olivia Tremor Control had ceased to exist as a functioning band. In spite of their ideals, they were torn apart by internal frictions, and different ideas about where to go next.
Utopias are difficult enough to imagine; they’re even harder to put into practice. We make a lot of promises when we’re young, to ourselves and to our friends. Few of us ever live up to them. For most people, the aging process carries with it a gradual shift from idealism to acceptance, something our society likes to call ‘growing up.’
Still, the band had left behind two albums of incredible music that are as relevant today as they were over a decade ago. When Doss sings Don’t hide away from your daydreams in “Hideaway,” it’s a sublime pop moment. When Hart counters with Or your nightmares, it takes the song into the realm of the highest art, grounding the strong sunny optimism with a grim reminder that darkness has a way of creeping in, that there can be no joy without suffering.
Sometimes a dream can turn into a nightmare, but it is our struggles in life that provide us with the opportunity for growth, the chance to become a better person. A few years ago, Will Hart was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. As his condition deteriorated, Bill Doss, concerned for his old friend’s health, chose to step in. In an effort to provide some much-needed structure and routine to Hart’s chaotic lifestyle, he began organizing weekly get-togethers where the friends would hang out and play music.
It’s been working. In a recent NPR interview Hart said, “We’ve just been so happy and having fun. [My health] is getting better.” The band is currently at work on a new album, and Hart has promised 40% new material during this tour. For these sonic adventurers, one can hardly imagine what sounds they might come up with next.
The call to arms of ‘The Opera House,’ probably the closest the band ever came to a statement of purpose, a generational anthem, urges the listener to make a choice. For Olivia Tremor Control, when things got their darkest, the band chose each other. Saturday night’s show will be, first and foremost, about some incredible music. But it’s also a story of friendship, of perseverance. For Olivia Tremor Control, it would seem that things have come full circle—the completion of a cycle, from Utopia to Disintegration, and now to Rebirth. The Elephant 6 Collective always insisted that their projects were about more than just music. It turns out they were right.
Bill Doss was a man who believed in taking care of his friends; we could all learn from his example. Music is dangerous. Maybe not so much music but the things that surround it, the endless free time, the opportunities for distraction, the unnatural surge and ebb of adrenaline, endorphins, and fear. I’ve lived in Athens for seven years now, and off the top of my head I can think of a half-dozen musicians who died way earlier than they needed to.
I can accept that people die. I just wish they wouldn’t be so goddamned punctual about it.
The greatest gift we can give to the world is to take care of our fellow man. Memory is the only defense we have against death, against oblivion. Remember Bill Doss.