Talking to Will Cullen Hart is like talking to a tape collage. It is sometimes hard to sort out what is medication, what is self-medication, what is Hart, what is something else. It is even more uncomfortable to try. But he's working very hard, and very politely, to keep it together today.
The Circulatory System leader and home recording pioneer often interrupts his thoughts with an abrupt sound effect, a cross between a whirring tape edit and an electronic cricket. Sometimes, he returns to Will, the sweet Southern Beatlemaniac who, after eight years, is finally seeing the release of his band's excellent second album, Signal Morning. Other times, sitting on a couch in his Athens home, out comes a stutter, a laugh, a backwards loop, a fragment from earlier in the chat.
Conversation with Hart, now in his late 30s, has long been somewhat like this. As a member of The Olivia Tremor Control, the flagship band of the good vibrations-emitting indie rock collective known as the Elephant 6 Recording Company, Hart once solicited listeners to send tapes describing their dreams. When the Circulatory System issued their first album on the self-operated Cloud Recordings in 2001, Hart accompanied it with a CD-R he made by burying his cassette deck in the backyard to capture the humming of passing traffic and worms. A key member of a pool of deeply collaborative musicians, Hart made albums that dreamed big and played bigger, sending a generation of kids hurtling to four-track recorders.
Hart was a standard-issue bedroom rock genius. Staying awake for days, overdubbing hundreds of tambourines, and making intricate psychedelic paintings can have some weird side effects. So nothing seemed particularly out of the ordinary, at first. Maybe the numbness in Hart's arm was just a cramp.
Hart's perpetual indecisiveness didn't seem to be worth worrying about too much, either. That, too, had been a hallmark for years, as with his hero, Brian Wilson. Like his friends, Hart once made a study of Wilson's failed opus, Smile, reassembling it himself from cassette bootlegs. So when it came time to prepare Signal Morning in 2003, Hart presented each Circulatory System member with a hand-decorated envelope stuffed with 10 CD-Rs, each bearing its own intricate art. A typewritten fragment of paper Scotch-taped to one cover read "the actual experience." Another 10 CD-Rs came later.
Hart insisted he wanted to make a concise, 45-minute pop record from this mass of music. Breakups and flip-outs ensued. Then, in January 2007, after complaining of blindness in his right eye, Hart was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Second albums aren't usually this hard.
Today, Will Hart is wearing an obliterated straw cowboy hat and sitting in his messy upstairs studio at the Landfill, the Athens house where he's lived since 1997. "If you sing it like it's real, then it's fucking real," he says, humming "All You Need Is Love" again before trailing off into Liverpudlian glossolalia. That philosophy might equally apply to the origins of the Elephant 6 Recording Company.
Hart first drew the E6 logo as a teenager in Ruston, La., as a playful mutation of the Motel 6 logo. It was to serve as an imaginary label for his teenage clique. Besides Hart, there was Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum, Apples in Stereo's Robert Schneider, Hart's Olivia foils John Fernandes and Bill Doss, and a half dozen others. Their early boombox experiments and punk explosions like Maggot and Cranberry Lifecycle were primitive, but there was a gravity to the music nearly from the start.
Mixing the earnestness of '80s indie rock—The Minutemen, K Records, Daniel Johnston—beamed in via Louisiana Tech University's KLPI, with the wonderworlds opened by Beatles and Beach Boys harmonies, the small crew gradually carved its own benevolent space amid a frequently angsty national scene. By the early '90s, most of the musicians took root in Athens, piping out a dense and tangled discography of home-recorded psychedelia. They grabbed national attention via Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998, one of Merge Records' all-time best-sellers, and The Olivia Tremor Control's Black Foliage: Animation Music, vol. 1, a 69-minute sprawl that refracted Strawberry Fields into a million new hues. There is no vol. 2.
During the heyday of Elephant 6, the Landfill was a notorious party house that hosted regular rock shows. Bands would cram by the front door while crowds watched from the kitchen. The Olivia Tremor Control and most other bands in the fertile crew—Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power and many more from the thriving indie node outside of Atlanta—played there. Many sometimes lived there, too. The rent is still cheap, so Hart never moved out.
Kelly Ruberto, a designer at Flagpole, the city's longtime weekly newspaper, bought the Landfill in 2004. The proprietor of Elephant6.com and the crew's de facto archivist, Ruberto had arrived in town three years earlier. She moved into the Landfill a year after that.
"When I first moved in, Will had boxes and boxes of drawings. And they were all over the floor, getting things spilled on them," she says. "Cats were scratching them up. He'll paint something on glass, and, two months later, it falls off the wall. It's gone forever."
The walls are now adorned with Hart's intricate canvases, which have graced the covers of all of his albums. As Ruberto's archival efforts ratcheted up, though, Elephant 6 seemed to slow down. The Olivia Tremor Control quietly dissolved. Neutral Milk Hotel's Mangum stepped away from music, becoming an indie rock touchstone. The E6 logo disappeared from affiliated bands' discs after 2001. Maybe the collective was no longer real. Maybe it never was. Most everyone just kept making music.
Hart released The Circulatory System and (inspired by Sun Ra's Saturn Records) launched Cloud Recordings with Fernandes in 2001. A quartet of small-batch CD-Rs accompanied the release, with more promised. Tours followed, and—in 2003—it was time to record again.
On the desk at Hart's Landfill studio is a CD-R, its cover adorned with one of his distinctive post-cubist leafscapes. Faux-pressed butterflies nestle within a dense thicket of neon swirls. It looks like an unreleased Circulatory System album.
"It probably is," laughs drummer Derek Almstead, taking down an overstuffed envelope from a closet in his own home studio. "Will gave me this and said, 'Help me decipher it.'"
There are nearly 20 discs, each piece gorgeously designed. "Six minutes of birds from LP. Play on repeat," read the instructions on one. Another contains over an hour of variations on one song. A sleeve is labeled "Foggy Night at Chris's House."
"[Hart] could easily just have a thing that comes out three or four times a year without any headache," says Almstead, who serves as bassist in Elf Power, did a long stint behind the drums in Of Montreal and records bands at his home recording facility, Pixel Studios. "It could be more raw, but I think people would still think it was psychedelic and insane and awesome."
But disaster always seemed to follow Hart: Two years into recording, he and longtime girlfriend (and now ex-Circulatory System drummer) Hannah Jones broke up. A trip to New York in early 2006 to work on the album with the Ladybug Transistor's Gary Olson ended with Hart spending the night in jail after an undercover officer with fake dreadlocks nabbed him and a bandmate for smoking pot on the Lower East Side.
"They kept yelling at me because I only had 26 cents," Hart laughs. "What do you want from me? I just played a gig. The funniest part is there were people smoking in the lockup with rolled up toilet paper. What the fuck?"
"We got a lot of work done in New York," says Almstead. "But we spent a good bit of money, and we worked for days and days and did lots and lots of stuff." The album still wasn't right, Hart insisted. Almstead, too, had to step back from the project.
Today, a couple of members of Future Ape Tapes, an Athens hip-hop act, pass through the Landfill. "Oh, man," says Hart, greeting them as they pass through to another part of the house. "Great band name. Great band. You've got to go see them."
"You gonna come out tonight?" one member asks him.
"Oh, man, I'd like to," Hart says, slapping him five. "I'd like to come tonight, I really do. But, well..."
Hart trails off. Then he laughs.
Though certainly eager for a new Circulatory System album—the last one, like the final Olivia album, received a perfect 10.0 score on indie rock taste arbiter Pitchfork—nobody in Athens was waiting around for Hart. There was, and is, still plenty of music to be made, after all, be it under the auspices of a marketable pachyderm—Elephant 6 T-shirts were once referred to as "the cash cow" on a Neutral Milk Hotel tour—or just old-fashioned music.
Whatever it is, the spirit is alive and well, even on a Thursday night in Athens, a week before the Circulatory System convenes at the Landfill for tour practice.
John Fernandes—the Circulatory System's perpetually enthused violinist, clarinetist and bassist—is playing with The Moths at the 40 Watt Club. He works an afternoon shift at Wuxtry Records, where he is a music buyer helping to stock the venerable shop. (Others who've served in the same position include Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck.) He spends the afternoon with his kids, takes a nap at home and walks into the venue, heading straight backstage while frontman Jacob Morris is midway through a solo set.
Moments later, like clockwork, Morris calls up the band. Fernandes emerges, coloring the folk-pop with violin. When the 30-minute set is done, he smokes a cigarette out front and sits backstage to drink a beer. He leaves, bouncing around the corner to the Caledonia Lounge to check out Future Ape Tapes, also featuring Moths' bassist Tommy Television. Fernandes dances enthusiastically at the front of the stage. Night Moves Gold, a new band of ex-Elf Power member Adrian Finch, are up next.
Between Moths, Mouser and other bands, Fernandes estimates he's gigging two or three night a week. He's excited about Supercluster, organized by Pylon's Vanessa Briscoe Hay and featuring "people from a bunch of different generations of Athens music," including Hannah Jones, Heather McIntosh, Deerhunter's Bradford Cox and others.
Around town, the musicians—fully dispersed into the Athens ecosystem—thrive quietly, projects scaling from modest to impossible. Hart and the Landfill simply remain a dot on a much larger map. In his house, Olivia/Circulatory keyboardist Pete Erchick is spreading out his marble notebooks, figuring out what songs to play when Pipes You See, Pipes You Don't open shows for Circulatory System on their upcoming tour. In her cottage behind Eric Harris' place, Circulatory cellist Heather McIntosh adds parts to a recording by The Clientele frontman Alasdair MacLean. She has spent the last two years touring as bassist for Gnarls Barkley and Lil Wayne and has a band of her own, The Instruments. She edits out the sound of an acorn dropping on her skylight.
Earlier in the afternoon, over veggie tacos, McIntosh met with Elf Power mainstrays Andrew Rieger and Laura Carter to discuss a pair of sing-it-like-it's-real projects. During an upcoming October weekend, McIntosh's experimental music organization, AUX—tangentially connected to the University of Georgia's Ideas for Creative Exploration program—will present a pair of shows by krautrock legends Faust. On October 10th, the Circulatory System will open at the 40 Watt. The next afternoon, Faust will appear at the multimedia space Cine Lab, offering a master's workshop in which 30 musicians will jam with them. The same weekend, Elf Power will play at Orange Twin, five miles outside of town. There will be camping. And a swimming hole.
If Elephant 6—the fantastic vehicle for psychedelic dreaming by Will Hart and company—was an imaginary proposition, Laura Carter called its bluff. Orange Twin began as a simple musician's variant on the American Dream: Buy some land together and quit worrying about the rent. It evolved into something much grander.
"I just remember people drawing their dream idea of what it would be like," says McIntosh. "We're talking full-blown awesome Julian [Koster] drawings of imagining the Land for the Music and the this and the that and everything."
Spearheaded by Carter, the group purchased 155 acres of land outside of town, 100 of it protected, with the intention of building a tightly clustered, 43-house eco-village. So far, the land is populated by a small amphitheater (which has hosted shows by Will Oldham, The Olivia Tremor Control and others) and a two-story house. Scheduled for demolition back in town, the house was purchased for $1 and transported to the site for considerably more money.
"I thought it'd [take] six months, then it became a year, then it became full-time," says Carter, who learned about septic systems and wiring a building into the grid. Upstairs is the office for Orange Twin Records, a label Carter runs to fund development of the property.
She has recently tried pouring boiling water on the ants inhabiting a corner of the garden where she wants to place a table. Outside, there is a small chicken coop. A rooster prowls the yard. A massive, organized repair tent shelters several motorcycles. A few Airstream trailers dot the property. It is a decidedly DIY crew, down to the occasional roadkill venison. "I very much learn from doing," Carter says, soothing her feet in the swimming hole after a fire ant bite.
"We've been reading about cities and towns that have been around and thriving for over a thousand years and what they have in common," she says. "They do it from city planning down to a foyer space, or a front porch. A front porch that has enough room for a table with four to six chairs gets used 80 percent more often than a porch that doesn't."
Orange Twin has a long way to go before it is remotely self-sufficient, let alone a city that might survive millennia. It's on its way, though: "There aren't magical swing sets or anything like that, but the festivals they've done have been pretty magical," says McIntosh, an Orange Twin shareholder. "Ideally, where I'm living now, is the last place I'll have to pay rent on."
And it's within functional distance of Athens. Just as some might move to the desert to appreciate its natural beauty, or to a big city for its cosmopolitan culture clashes, one could move to Athens for the perpetual energy of a college town. Harnessed to this ever abundant source of jobs working as coffee jerks (how McIntosh met Olivia's Bill Doss as a UGA student in 1996) and sound engineers (Almstead does live sound at the 40 Watt), the effect is a powerful localism. It can nurture the kind of rock 'n' roll layabout unheard of in a bigger city, or it can nurture the most ambitious conceptualist. Hart might be both.
"I used to worry that it was going to dry up," says Pete Erchick, an inveterate odd-jobber who records his albums as Pipes You See, Pipes You Don't at his own pace. "But then I realized it's not going to." Hart's paintings hang from the wall, as they do in the living quarters of every musician I interview in Athens.
On Saturday, the streets fill up. It is late August. The dorms are open. The town has gained about 34,000 residents. There is drinking and yelling from car windows. One is reminded that Athens is just as much the home of Widespread Panic and Southern college life as it is the sleepy-paced psych-rockers. In the daylight, bright-eyed undergrads walk the street in gaggles, young flesh on parade.
They probably aren't much worried about Will Hart in the Landfill, and how he doesn't really want to—or can't—come out tonight.
Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable degenerative disease. To be diagnosed with it seems a terrifying prospect. "It progresses, and all they can do is slow down the progression," says Erchick. "It affects different people differently. He's dealing with it the best he can."
I ask Hart if he is still doing much home experimentation, musically. "Not as much because we've—I've—been there." He laughs. "That's shitty. That's kind of crappy. 'I've been there.'" More tape flutters, some lip-pops, and a spoing noise that resolves into two notes of melody. He sounds a bit despondent, and sips his drink.
"I don't know right now how to collage something together to make it awesome," he says, dissolving into mumbles.
Later, though, when he hits Play on the four-track in his studio, a wondrous noise emerges. Toy pianos and shrieking voices fill the room. He quickly stops it. "Shit, that was the day before," he says, and switches it out. Now it is Hart's voice, moaning in multiple parts. He moves the faders, adjusting the (dis)chord. The pitches grow higher, sounding like an oversaturated theremin amid glorious lo-fi scuzz. It's not unlike the earliest Elephant 6 cassettes, but also like something that might be fit to work in a grander Circulatory System symphony.
"Taking it out of Will's hands is part of his method," Almstead observes. "It kind of always has been. He does it to a certain point, and then he's incapable of deciding what's best about it. He just blasts stuff out, and it's kind of counterintuitive and difficult to go back and get him inspired about finishing something he already made 20 versions of, seven years ago.
"In the past, that's been Jeff [Mangum], it's been Bill [Doss], it's been Eric [Harris]. It's been a long list of people who've done that job for him. It's been rewarding, but it's a frustrating job, too. It sort of explains why there's been a rotation." It is hardly a crisis of talent, so much as confidence.
"I was always happy to be creating something new, and trying not to freak out too much over the fact that we weren't finishing anything," says Fernandes. "It wasn't all of a sudden. But gradually I realized that we had to make a record."
This time, the job of organizing Hart's mess of music fell to Nesey Gallons and Charlie Johnston, two of Athens' post-E6 acolytes. Gallons, a baby-faced 20something and current resident on the Landfill's couch, first met Hart as a 15-year old while attending a The Olivia Tremor Control gig in Vermont. He relocated to Athens within a few years. (Durham-based Hurrah for Karamazov Records is reissuing Gallons' playfully elegiac Eyes and Eyes and Eyes Ago CD-R on September 8th.)
Like Hart himself reanimating Brian Wilson's Smile from bootlegs, Johnston and Gallons worked intense coffee-fueled hours. Johnston assembled an A-side. Gallons worked on the flip, going back over Johnston's work and orchestrating overdubs with regular players from Hart's psychedelic gamelan, including Eric Harris with his magic tape organ and Julian Koster with his singing saw.
"I'd play Will stuff and mostly he'd just flip out," shrugs Gallons, mostly unfazed.
"It's fun to have somebody else edit it," Hart admits now. "It's like, 'Holy fuck, thank you guys!'"
The resultant Signal Morning is, without question, as brilliant an album as Hart has ever made. Like the songwriter's cover art for it—intricate, oblique shapes hovering in parallel to a rich sky blue—the space the album creates is clearly articulated. It is art-rock thematic enough to be unified, but guileless enough that one could never mistake it for a concept album. Bright numbers propelled by double drummers are punctuated by small collages, cello fantasias, and literally hundreds of moving parts, sold by Hart's instantly familiar melodies, Beatlesque and proud.
Listening on headphones, one encounters an astounding analogue to Hart's recent paintings, where shapes spiral infinitely inward. It sounds like an album that took eight years to make, every bit of it showing in the best possible way. It is hard imagine how this album—or a next one, should it ever exist—could be made in any other manner.
The darkness is far from gone. In a way, it merely gave itself institutionalized form in Hart's multiple sclerosis: a constant reminder of the vitality of music and friends to make it with. It is exactly as real as Elephant 6. Nightmares, it seems, can be real, but so can dreams.
The Circulatory System plays the first show of a two-week tour behind Signal Morning at Nightlight Monday, Sept. 7, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8-$10, and Nesey Gallons and Pete Erchick's band, Pipes You See, Pipes You Don't, opens.