Circulatory System
Outside Looking In
by Kevin J. Elliott

In the fall of last year, anyone who was a fan of the celebrated Elephant Six Collective were rewarded for their patience with the Holiday Surprise Tour, a travelling circus filled with members from the now fragmented bands that helped build the mythology that went dormant in Athens, Georgia some time around the turn of the century.

Of the myriad scenes that took the fore in the mid- to late-90s indie underground, it seems only the albums by these communally esoteric, neo-psychedelics like Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, and Elf Power (and a few from Radiohead) have survived the times, ringing as whimsical and dense as when they first appeared. But of course all good things come to an end and by the time the Olivias dissolved and splintered, Jeff Mangum went into the Witness Protection Program and Robert Schneider started soundtracking cartoons, there were storm clouds hovering over that Georgia enclave and all we were left with was Of Montreal.

While there were a few rumblings in the new century, the most significant contribution post-Black Foliage was the emergence of Will Cullen Hart’s self-titled Circulatory System album. Anyone familiar with the Olivia Tremor Control sound could find comfort in the record, as it seemed to strip away the sunshine fix of those earlier collaborative efforts and bore into a darker, denser world of tape manipulation and kaleidoscopic melancholy. But that was 2001, and it’s been eight long years of silence, with fans clinging dearly at rumors of a new Circulatory System album and perhaps even a full-fledged Olivia Tremor Control reunion. Little did they know that Hart had a perfectly disheartening excuse for his absence; being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis left him unable to piece together the miles and miles of tape he’d recorded for the follow-up in those eight years (and, it seems, the decade prior). With a little help from his friends and some needed medication and treatment, Hart was able to put the puzzle back together.

The result is Signal Morning, a record as layered and idiosyncratic as anything he’s ever made or been a part of. At times it even sounds as if he’s playing the entirety of his work side-by-side, track on top of track. It’s a record that takes weeks to fully digest, and judging by the liner notes and the multitudes of instruments and players involved, a few more weeks to truly hear everything orbiting and underneath. Much like the way in which Hart exists for and within his music, Signal Morning is a living, breathing entity in of itself. Few records can be likened to a being that keeps growing long after it is finally hatched. Given the amount of incubation this egg has endured, the rewards that should follow are well worth the sweat and tears put into it. This is psychedelia of the highest order, the kind that requires chunky headphones and forced flights from reality. Sadly that’s something that’s really been missing these days and it makes pining for that colorful era not so much nostalgia as it is looking to fill a void.

It’s been eight years since the first Circulatory System album. I’m sure you’ve been asked many times what has taken so long. Was it more a matter of the logistics involved or did it actually take this long for you to feel satisfied with the record?

Will Cullen Hart: Two years ago I finally realized I’d been living undiagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I started going blind in one eye so that’s how I knew. When I look back there were plenty of warning signs and those were things that kept me from working. As for the record, I’m not the type of person to sit back for eight years and not make music—that’s all I do. I was always so close, but I wasn’t quite satisfied with it. Sonically I wasn’t satisfied.

Signal Morning is just as dense, if not denser, than the first record and those you did with Olivia Tremor Control. Are we hearing multiple different time periods in those layers? Are there any tapes from the Olivia days hidden in there?

WCH: Definitely. The very first song was recorded in 1993 at the house Bill Doss and I lived at. I always like to keep my stuff cataloged so I can go back to early mixes like that and pick from instrumentals that I like. The other instrumental that came from that time ended up being “The Giant Day,” one of the first Olivia Tremor Control songs. And the last song (“Signal Morning”) on Signal Morning was basically an Olivia track. I like to think of all of these records and recordings as a whole. It’s like Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. He would always talk about taking the first six records and chopping them up to make a whole new world, different albums. So Signal Morning is something by itself, but it’s composed of all different periods of time.

Were you ever overwhelmed by all of the tape that you had? Was that part of the problem?

WCH: That’s basically what I’m trying to say without expressing pity for myself. My mind got confused because of my illness. The music always was right, but to get it together was tough. I was way overwhelmed. Everyone was asking why I would give them so many different demos of the same songs, but I would like the version that wasn’t fuzzy, and I liked the version that was super-fuzzy. They would ask me to pick my favorite so then we could start.

The first record was quickly followed by a remix album that had a completely different vibe to it. Are you planning the same for Signal Morning?

WCH: We’re basically calling it side three. It will be a lot of same songs, but it will be the different versions I talked about, some remixed, some sliced and diced. We were actually doing that upstairs before you called. “Overjoyed,” for example, is a song we started on four-track, but we would keep bouncing it over until we ended up with 50 tracks. It’s those tapes and tracks that we’re going to use.

Is experimenting with sound and making field recordings something you do for personal enjoyment on a consistent basis? I remember the album where you had buried a microphone and came back with some pretty intriguing ambience. Can you divulge anything you’ve done recently?

WCH: I just moved a cool organ that we had at the Olivia place to my bedroom. It’s a ’60s organ, not sure of the brand. When you turn it on it has lights that glow. So I usually make the room dark, tape down a couple of notes that sound like (imitates the sounds of the organ), and then have that filter out through effects and into a microphone. I’ll just fill tapes up with that and see what I think. I guess that wouldn’t be that much of an experiment, but I’ll eventually use those tapes for something. It’s more like a starter or a tonic to get things going.

Obviously you had the concept for Signal Morning quite a long time ago. How did you intend it to stand apart from your debut?

WCH: I wanted it to have the heaviest band ever, like a Styx record. The song “Blasting Through” I wrote to be played live and played louder than My Bloody Valentine. And people asked why since it was something that was more of a montage. So I looked at it and saw it was more about colorized sound. Then I decided that’s what I want.

How is Athens these days? Back at the height of the Elephant Six, I always imagined Athens as this magical city where all these wonderful bands would spend their evenings making music together in living rooms and front porches. Was it like that? And if it isn’t anymore, why do you think that is?

WCH: I’m not sure. It’s not like that anymore for me. I don’t go out that much. If there are groups of friends doing stuff like that now, I don’t know them. It was definitely like that back then, though. I guess we have to laugh and look back at the time when the computers were supposed to stop. What was that Y2K? That’s when it all stopped for us. There were different circumstances, but I can’t exactly put my finger on it.

Maybe the picture that was painted of the Elephant Six was a little exaggerated. I mean we all partied together, but we faked that we all lived together. But now a lot of us do live together. That Rolling Stone picture that we took made us look like a communal circus troupe. It’s only gotten less rosy because we’ve gotten older and things change.

What’s the progress report on a new album with Bill?

WCH: Bill was just here. He comes by after work and a lot of those days we make music. It’s casual. We’re hanging out mostly, but it’s all set up in case we need to record something on the fly. Inspiration can be lost; a riff, an idea can be lost. So now’s the time.

In your mind, is the music you are making with Circulatory System an extension of that era continuing on, or is it more of another realm entirely?

WCH: I think I wanted a continuation, but we changed the name. We were headed somewhere different. Even though the band (Olivia) had split up and Bill was off doing the Sunshine Fix, it’s just like those Zappa records. You can cut everything that we did up and mash it back together. We have so much stuff. It might be an instrumental from 1993, but if you add some fairy dust around it, change the lyrics, you’ll still have something wonderful. I feel like I’ve been on the same track all of my life.