It’s been roughly four years since we last spoke. In certain respects it feels like an eternity ago and, I suppose, in certain respects it is. I don’t remember too much about the specifics of our conversation. Things like tone and subtly and humor have since vanished into the ether, and all that remains are those transcribed portions readily available online, the cold hard facts from the lead up to the successful but brief touring reunion of his old band, The Olivia Tremor Control. He was no doubt in good spirits during our interview, though it’s impossible to say for certain.
And now, nearly half a decade later, while those details seem forever disappeared, one thing is clear: Will Hart sounds different. For the first few moments, I’m not completely certain that I’ve got the right Will on the phone. I’d phoned a number left over from that 2005 interview and asked for him by first name, no doubt a popular one in the Athens, Georgia area code. In fact, for the first few moments, I have some difficultly making out what the man on the other end of the line is trying to tell me.
A lot has changed in Hart’s life, over the past four years—far more than the standard tours and records and band in fighting customary in the life of any active rock and roll musician. Three years ago Will Cullen Hart was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“I take some pills that make me stutter like I’m drunk as fuck,” Hart explains, with a laugh. “I think those pills have helped me. And they do affect the brain and the motor skills, because I’m excitable, anyway.”
One morning three years ago, Hart woke up, blind in one eye. “I went to the doctor with what little money I had,” he recounts the story with a surprising sense of easiness. “I had to get to the hospital, so he could save my eye. Steroids, that’s how he did it. He saved one eye, visually, that’s how he did it.”
I was worried at first, afraid to broach the subject. It’s public knowledge now, I suppose, revealed by Hart’s bandmate, Jon Fernandes in an interview with a website late last year. I’m resolved to let the subject arise organically, and it does, without missing a beat. Hart broaches the topic himself, as a way of answering a question about what the artist has been up to in the eight years since his band The Circulatory System—playing New York this week and also playing the upcoming All Tomorrow’s Parties festival—released its first and most recent record.
“Not really that much,” he answers with a laugh. “I’ve got multiple sclerosis. It sounds like a joke…That’s what happened, I guess. You don’t know what the fuck is going on with yourself. You’re like, ‘why am I different now?’ You know something is definitely going on. I thought something was going on with my brain. I was like, God, why am I different?”
“How are you different?” I ask.
“Mentally somewhat,” he answers, quickly. “It’s changing, though. I’ve started taking these shots. You have to take shots every other day, and it was like, ‘I don’t like taking shots.’ But now it’s different, because I don’t mind given them to myself now.’ It changed my brain chemistry. I swear to God. I know it sounds crazy. It helped me change back into something that was like 1996.”
From the moment he says it, it’s clear that “1996” means a lot more to Hart than just a bygone date. It was a banner year—arguably the banner year—for Olivia Tremor Control as both a band and as one of the pillars of Athens’ absurdly fruitful and influential Elephant 6 collective. That year saw the release of the band’s astoundingly beautiful and complex Music from the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle and its ambient counterpart, Explanation II: Instrumental Themes and Dream Sequences.
That year would also see the release of On Avery Island, the first LP from Neutral Milk Hotel, the brainchild of one-time Olivia drummer Jeff Mangum. Childhood friend Robert Schneider was in-between the Apples in Stereo pop masterpieces Fun Trick Noisemaker and Tone Soul Evolution, and fellow collective members Elf Power and Of Montreal were kick starting their own fruitful recording careers.
Two years later, 1998 saw the release of Olivia’s next LP, the equally wonderful if somewhat more haunting Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One. In the interim, there was a seemingly endless parade of off-shots and side projects—such was the nature of Elephant 6’s place in the Athens community, a free flowing collective of multi-instrumentalists far more concerned with the creation of art than the area’s escalating rent prices. Hart painted, too, beautiful psychedelic canvases that often graced the covers and inserts of his music output. It was a good time.
And then something happened. Something in his brain. “I think I called the band off, but I’m not sure,” Hart explains, attempting to piece together the last strains of that golden era. “I think I was getting crazy and I’m not sure what was going on. I was making music, but I wasn’t sure what was going on. Plus, you’re in a band, I was turning 30. A lot of shit happened real quick, and it just confused my brain.”
In 2000, The Olivia Tremor Control broke up. Fellow songwriter Bill Doss dusted off the moniker The Sunshine Fix for a new solo career, drummer Eric Harris joined up with Elf Power, and Hart and the rest of the band rebranded themselves The Circulatory System, releasing their self-titled debut a year later, a work on-par with anything released by the band’s previous incarnation. Asked why they parted ways, Hart won’t go into detail, but he seems more than willing to except his share of the blame.
“His doctor was saying that around the late ’90s, his MS started kicking in,” Doss tells me in a separate interview, a week or so later. “That’s when it really started affecting him. And he really did start acting weird at that time, but he’s a weird cat, so it didn’t seem abnormal at the time. Plus there were pressures on the band at the time. We were getting more well-known, which was cool, but the pressure and the MS hitting him caused him to go into another place in his brain.”
“We were the main songwriters,” he explains, “and so, you know…Things got crazy for a while. That’s a decent enough way to put it.”
“When the band split up, I think I was a little lost,” Doss tells me later. “I didn’t know what to do and he was acting a little strange. That, of course, changed out dynamic. To be honest, there were several years where we didn’t hang out. He was a little mad at me, I was a little mad at him, and neither of us really knew why. I think it was that was kicking in. he was changing and it was weird, and neither of us really knew what was going on.”
In 2005, the band staged a brief reunion. At the behest of Vincent Gallo, The Olivia Tremor Control got back together to play that summer’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in the U.K., Doss included. The band also played a small handful of gigs in the States, including two shows at the Bowery Ballroom.
In fact, Hart credits Doss with much of his own mental rehabilitation. “He helped me actually start taking the shots,” Hart explains. “Once he did, after months, we were friends again. I don’t want to go into the whole thing, but my brain chemistry changed. Literally. It was crazy, actually. That’s why I keep saying ’96.”
“He started dealing with it,” Doss recall. “He reached out to me, and it was like, ‘this is ridiculous. ’We’ve been mad at each other for several years now, over nothing.’ We started hanging out and talking about stuff and becoming friends again. I tried to help him deal with the MS the best way I could, bringing in Montel Williams books to read and looking up stuff on the Internet. We all were.”
Now, in 2009, it’s all 1996 again for Will Cullen Hart, so much so that the artist tasked a group of friends with the responsibility of combing through the old Olivia demos, in search of material for Signal Morning, the second Circulatory System record finally released a full eight years after its predecessor.
“I’ll always have that to pull from, if necessary,” says Hart. “And it felt necessary. Actually, someone else chose that and it made me more excited. ‘Really? You chose that? I love that! I love “Woodpecker.” ’ My two friends picked these songs. I was happier with that, because we weren’t getting anywhere with the band format, but you know. We’ve always really used different production qualities from Olivia to know. Everything carries on, it really does. Visually and otherwise.”
Of course a lot has happened in the Elephant 6 camp in the intervening decade or so. The Apples in Stereo (with whom Doss now plays) and Of Montreal have become indie rock stars and Olivia’s one-time drummer Jeff Mangum has come to possess the sort of enigmatic status traditionally reserved for the Syd Barretts and Skip Spences of the world.
And rent prices rise and people get day jobs, too. “The whole thing besides that has changed a good bit,” says Hart. “Everybody’s moved on with their life, for one. We were barely making rent, at that point. We were always traveling around. And now it’s, ‘I’m working,’ at this point. It’s like see you the next day. I wish everyone could live off of music. I wish I could use it to pay rent.”
But when the tube amps fire back up, there’s no discerning ’96 from 2009. “Bill came over yesterday and we made up something awesome,” And then we went over to his place with my 4-track cassette and bounced what we did off of his computer.” The duo even pieced together the first Olivia tracks in more than a decade. “We only have two,” Hart laughs, “but they’re great!”
“One day I was over at his house and he had a 4-track out and we started to record,” Doss adds later. “’I remember this feeling. I remember doing this for the last 20 years!’”
But for the moment, Hart’s focused on The Circulatory System, with a new album and an upcoming tour—the band getting something of a dry run for the latter in the form of last year’s Holiday Surprise Tour. “And it was fucking great, man. There were so many kids into it.” Kids who Hart insists, laughing, “weren’t even born in ’96.”
>The Circulatory System, Sept. 9, (le) poisson rouge, 158 Bleecker St. (betw. Thompson & Sullivan Sts.), 212-228-4854; 8, $15