Talking to Will Cullen Hart, the force behind Circulatory System and one of the founders of Olivia Tremor Control and the Elephant 6 collective, is a bit like playing conversational whack-a-mole. He is capable of ducking, diving, and reappearing two clicks down the consciousness stream at a moment’s notice. He’s self-conscious about this, and blames it on his Multiple Sclerosis, which was diagnosed a few years ago when he went blind in one eye. It also speaks also of his creative mind, which is always churning. He talks in sounds as much as he talks in words, which is hard to transcribe. Trust us, he’s really good!
Circulatory System’s new one, Signal Morning, is another psychedelic monster of a record, a little more compact and intense than previous releases. It’s short by Hart’s standards at 45 minutes, and was manipulated and massaged into shape by Charlie Johnston and Nesey Gallons out of over seven years of material. We spoke with Hart about his poor job of tracklisting the first Circulatory System record, his problems with MS, and wanting to leave home recording for the studio, among other topics.
Will: How’s it going?
AD: Hey, Will! Thanks for doing this interview with me.
Will: I’m excited. I’ll just babble on for days if you let me. Please be kind. I’ll say “fuck” every other word.
AD: I’ll trim all the naughty bits out for you! [laughs]
AD: So, you have to be excited about the interest that the record and Circulatory System are receiving—
Will: For a 10 year old band!
AD: —especially from places like Entertainment Weekly, of all things.
Will: I met that guy before…with Olivia. With Olivia. I think so. It’s totally clouded.
AD: Simon Vozick-Levinson…
Will: It was during the Olivia reunion in New York. I remember doing a mini-interview with him on the stairs there. I just didn’t remember his name.
AD: That’s not a typical press outlet for Circulatory System records.
Will: No, but I’m hoping it will be! Really! It’s great! I think it can be accessible…uh, no, well, maybe it’s not. It may not be. It goes in and out, I think.
AD: I will say that this record adheres to the idea of making an album, much like your other work with Circulatory and OTC.
Will: Thank you. Yeah, the idea behind this one was to do a single album. 45 minutes. The first Circulatory System album, on CD, says “Side One” and “Side Two.” John [Fernandes] and I weren’t thinking when we did it. It’s a double album!
AD: It would be side 1, 2, 3, and 4!
Will: This new one, on vinyl, the songs split into this perfect order. I can’t believe we said “Side One” and “Side Two” on the last one. It’s “conceptually” sides of an album, I guess. That’s what we say.
AD: I think you can put 30 minutes on each side, but it sounds bad, right?
Will: There is some concern about one side being 25 minutes, but I don’t know. The Fall’s Hex Enduction Hour is 30 minutes each side, and it sounds great. In the end, I don’t care. I don’t care.
Continue Reading After The Jump……
AD:Did you ever see that Monty Python record that had two sides on one side? It was billed as a three-sided record?
AD: If you dropped the needle on one side, it would catch a different groove.
Will: Wow. Hey, your phone’s breaking up. Is this coming through?
AD: Hello? Hello?
Will: I don’t even have a cell phone. You know, I like it, I love technology, but I talk to my mom, but I’m like “I can’t talk to you on the phone sometimes, Mom.” [makes garbled voice noise] She’s got a bad connection.
AD: Getting back to the music, “Overjoyed” seems like a good single from this album, but—as a former publicist—the thing I struggled with was carving out a “single” from an album like yours.
Will: Finding something that represents it?
AD: Well, you wouldn’t take “Polythene Pam” from the second half of Abbey Road and say that it represents it.
Will: Exactly. Yeah. And we don’t have a formula for what works and what doesn’t and how we do it.
AD: How much material did you record for this album? I know that Charlie [Johnston, formerly of 63 Crayons and current CS member] helped cull it down.
Will: We had to put it into the computers because it got way overwhelming. “Overjoyed” has got 50 tracks on it. And Nesey, Nesey Gallons [also a CS member] helped. We went through his town when he was 15. He loved Olivia. And now he’s 25, and it’s really cool. He knows my stuff like nobody else does. It’s really weird. But it’s cool. I like that. He had as much in his brain as I do. He had the tapes and some people’s brains just work that way. My role in Olivia—and other people, too—was “this instrumental thing can be faded into that. Okay, cut!” I’m good at editing. I’d never given up control before, but it’s cool. I’m really happy with it. I think it’s really listenable. Sorry, I go in different places, especially on the phone. I always tell my friends that I have trouble on the phone because I can’t see your eyes or feel a human connection!
AD: It’s fine!
AD: So you ceded control for the first time. It’s fair to say that you’ve always had a heavy hand in your projects, correct? Why let someone else in? Was it the idea of just putting it out and moving on?
Will: Well, MS. Yeah, I mean, my mind…in the last 10 years I was, like, what’s the deal? I had all this stuff and I was excited, but a lot of things started changing. I couldn’t see out of my right eye. I was going blind, and I went to the doctor, and so I got the brain scan. And he said, “You’ve had it for ten years” and I said that makes sense. That makes sense. It had been sucking part of my creativity out. It’s like I’m trying, but if you don’t know that, you wonder what is going on. I record every day still, and I have amassed so much stuff personally. It got confusing. Which version do you like? Any of them, Will! Let’s just overdub on the version you like…
AD: Any chance for any more Circulatory System stuff out there? Do you have another album in there?
Will: Yeah, we’d like to put one out quickly. You want to keep it going. We could do another single album. It’d be hard to incorporate all of the stuff that we do in our double albums. There are always spacey parts. But, yeah, it got overwhelming [makes Doppler Effect whistling sound].
AD: How has the MS treatment been going? Do you get shots?
Will: Yeah, I do it myself. I hate needles. Everybody says, “That doesn’t hurt”, and I got used to the needles, but it burns going in. It has some enzymes. It’s a drag. My friends are always over here cracking on me when I’m “Hey! I’ve gotta do my shot!” I can’t ever psych myself up.
AD: What is the medicine?
Will: Rebif. It’s not helping it. It’s just helping it not be worse. The doctor, he saved my eye. I mean, mostly. Because I was blind. I was in that state of “What the fuck is going wrong?” Because I was doing creative stuff, but I couldn’t always get it together. And, by the way, it wasn’t any less creative or any less good. I could feel that in my heart and in my brain and stuff. I don’t know. It’s tough to keep it together.
AD: The cover of your album is the most beautiful I’ve seen in years. Has the MS affected your painting? You did the cover, I assume.
Will: It’s over ten years old now. Yeah, I started buying big notebooks because I can only see half. And it only made me want to do more or something. “Don’t give up, man!” “C’mon!” That’s the kind of guy I am. But it was like someone had a huge, damp towel and was smothering me with it. Oh, God. Really. It affects different people differently. It’s like someone is standing behind you holding your shoulders down into the ground. And he’s like, “Hey, cool, you wanna go to practice?” And you are “Yeah, cool!” and he says “Well, too bad.” But the creativity stuff is still there. The heart and soul and music are still there. It actually isn’t. Haha. I’m kind of a freak here. I talk to myself. When I was younger, I did it to get attention. But I have been doing it a lot lately. I’m babbling, and people come over, and I apologize, but they say, “No, it’s your health, who cares? Just chill.” So, people have been helping me.
AD: Life’s too short to worry about what other people think all of the time.
Will: Oh, yeah.
AD: So I live in Athens, and there is this kind of mystique that you haven’t been doing anything for the last 7 or 8 years, and yet I’ve seen you play live plenty of times.
Will: I’ve been amassing tons of shit, man. I have 45 song bits…so many tapes. The first song on this album…the basis of it is a song in my attic with Bill [Doss] in 1993. [Sings opening guitar riff from “Woodpecker Greeting Worker Ant”] That’s it. I made up lyrics ten years later. So I go through my old tapes and mix down and stuff. Add lyrics. Sometimes you save stuff and save it for later and then one day something just pops into your head. Yeah. Even if I’m not inspired to write a “song” song, just do something. Go do a drum track. Be creative. Invent stuff even if you don’t feel so happy or so inspired. I realized something. In a month, you won’t remember that Tuesday a month ago. In ten years, I’ll have totally forgotten about it. “What’s this old tape?” “Oh, wow!” I’m bad at explaining stuff.
AD: Now, I think that was great! One thing people forget about artists like the Beatles or Neil Young or any of those prolific artists is that it was their job to create music. They made music every day because it was what they did, whether they wanted to or not. It was a job.
Will: Exactly! That’s exactly it! Totally. I want to get back to that, to making music every day, but everybody obviously has jobs now. If we could all not work, it would be great.
AD: The Greeks thought that only landowners should participate in the democracy because it meant you were rich enough to have free time to pursue politics. It’s elitist, sure, but look at someone like Leonard Cohen. He’s probably never worked a regular job a day in his life.
Will: Oh, yeah, no baggage. Like Gram Parsons. I wish I was [a trust fund kid]. My dad’s a millionaire, but, you know how it is. Millionaire’s just don’t give their money away.
AD: What informs Circulatory System songs now? What interests you now that might be different than with the Olivias?
Will: Hmmm…I swear, it kinda feels the same. It’s always been—I don’t know—universal in my mind. I feel like that’s the thread through everything. Maybe not. It’s about a bird? It’s about bringing music to people. The first album…wow, that was a weird place that I’m not in now. It’s cool. So creative…
AD: Some people have said—the new one leaked out on the internet—
AD: Hopefully they pick up the vinyl! Anyway, this one is a little more intense, while the first CS album was a little more meandering. I don’t mean “meandering” in a bad way, by the way.
Will: The first album is super-slow because I felt that, and, you know, it was all about feeling that and getting that vibe at the time. Most stuff was slowed down for texture, the drums and stuff. [Sings slowed-down drum sound] Like the Beatles stuff. “Rain“. Most of Revolver stuff. Like “Tomorrow Never Knows“. [Sings fast and slow version of the drum part from that song] It gets that texture with the cymbals [Replicates cymbal wash] It was experimentation with that sound and different electronic music I got into—Stockhausen—and learning those production techniques.
AD: You still record everything yourself.
Will: Yeah. We went to a few studios, but we have old tracks. I don’t have a bunch of mics somebody else might have. I 4 track cassette and computer, but it’s not set up. I have a 16 track digital thing that I used a lot on the first album. This must say something about MS. I can’t even figure it out anymore. It was complicated back then, but now my brain rotted. It’s fucked up. It’s really weird. I just covered it up. 4 track’s my thing. I don’t even know if they are gonna make cassettes, much less the 4 tracks.
AD: I’m sure you could find it on eBay.
Will: That’s where I got the last one because I break things all the time. It just seems to break and buzz. So that was cool. Something like that depends on your craft. But they aren’t gonna make paintbrushes anymore! It’s a tool, in the end. They’re all pushing digital and phase that stuff out. They should make one for the high end 4 and 8 track enthusiast. I’ll help! One with more speed control…[Makes slowing down/speeding up noises]…way more! And you could do more experimentation.
AD: If someone came to you and said, “Will, I want to put you in the studio for the next Circulatory System for the next record.” Would you do it?
Will: Give up control? Slick production? No.
AD: Well, not even slick…it could be good production.
Will: That’s what I want to do! I really do! I thought you were saying someone, let’s call him “Stanley.” “Stanley” would be calling the shots: “Let’s start out with fuzz guitar.” I don’t want that! But a good studio…I want to do that next time hopefully. I want a really puffy compressor. [Makes reverb-y wah wah noise] If it’s bass [Makes bass noises…good ones!] You can limit it where it’s more puffy and floaty. And the engineer can dial it up, and we could have ten great machines to do it. Holy shit, they’ve got the Beatles’ Neumann U67 mic. I rented one last time to do vocals. I couldn’t even get the vocals to sound right, and I tried so many things. I tried EQing it so much. It would be like night and day if I had a studio.
AD: The mics, the good board, the good compressors, the preamps…
Will: Yeah, it can unify in a way that you didn’t think your music could be done. The Music Tapes have amassed a few different compressors and mics and stuff. It’s night and day. I want to learn them all and have them. Brian Wilson used different studios because he knew the sounds of them.
AD: I guess I’m supposed to ask you about the Olivias.
Will: Well, I’m proud of it! I’m glad!
AD: So y’all have patched things up.
Will: Oh, God, yeah. It’s been years now. We started meeting at his house on Sundays. “We.” Well, I haven’t met that much. Pete [Erchick]’s records are great. Pete’s there. Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t.
AD: That stuff is great.
Will: I think this new album is his best. It’s like a stream, uninterrupted by anything besides this feeling he’s creating. It has a real great…it has a great mood. Solemn.
AD: So there are two new Olivia songs?
AD: What do you think they sound like? Like the old stuff?
Will: I think—and the band does, too…and some of our closest friends—I think that it’s good. You ask them “could this be good?” and they say “yes.” I wish we could get together more and do it. I just went over to Bill’s and gave him a stack of tapes to dump into his computer. Maybe he’ll come up with lyrics, and maybe everybody else will crisscross on it: “I added fuzz bass. I added harmonica or whatever.”
AD: How do you think you’re gonna put these out?
Will: Good question. That’s the thing. I don’t think that everybody else would say this. I’d like to be where it’s a job. Let’s try to do eight songs. And is it good? Cool. I think it’s good. It sounds the same to me. But I don’t know about everybody else. It’s got that hi-fi mixed with lo-fi. I brought my stuff in to Robert [Schneider]’s. That was the goal, a blend of the two because that’s what we were into. So he would do the drums and some of the hi-fi stuff, and we did some stuff on the 4 track in the basement.
AD: I love hi-fi distortion.
Will: I love bringing in the crappy fuzz pedals with the buzz in them.
AD: So the lineup as it stands right now in Circulatory System…who all is in this version?
Will: John and I. Derek Almstead. Pete Erchick. Charlie Johnston and his wife, Suzanne [Allison]. And Heather Mac. She’s leaving to go play Michael Jordan’s son’s…sister’s…Michael Jordan’s…birthday party? Wait, Lil Jon. No wait, Lil Wayne. It blew my mind. We knew Danger Mouse. He lived here and worked at Wuxtry. That’s how she got this gig. You knew him.
AD: He was always Brian to me.
Will: Yeah, exactly! But now he’s called Danger Mouse. Anyway, it’s fun if people pick my brain about exact recording techniques. It’d be fun if we sat around and listened to tapes. You know this song and what is this noise? [Makes keyboard arpeggiator noise] How did you do that? It’s great when I have a song and people say it’s good, and I say it’s not done yet. So I add a sound or texture and then it’s really done.
AD: So, Cranberry Lifecycle… [Cranberry Lifecycle was an early project of Jeff Mangum and Will Hart’s]
Will: Love ’em!
AD: [laughs]…but you were in the band!
Will: No, I’m being sincere!
AD: I’ve heard it. You guys were in high school when you did that, right?
Will: It was the first year in college.
AD: I’ve heard some four track stuff from people that age, and yours is far superior to most. The ideas are really good.
AD: There are songs that show up on other records…”Gardenhead” is on there. I think people would be very interested in it.
Will: Exactly. I felt proud of it. [Jeff’s] voice is really strong. It was really formed. It’s what he does. Mine, it needs more work to be better in tune with the double vocals, but I don’t care. It’s got spirit.
AD: You guys were kids, basically. It’s got a vibe.
Will: That’s the thing. That’s the thing with that band. It’s got a vibe outside of it. We’re having fun. [Jeff] would come by after class. Usually Bill wasn’t there. But Jeff and I were so back and forth. We had drums there and crappy guitars with two strings. [Sings riff] He’d do a verse, and I’d go take a shit or something and walk away and not hear it. And I would do my vocals and we’d listen to our different takes. You know that one “Shaving Spiders”? [Sings a phrase] It was so fun. It’s fun to get together with everybody. That’s the Olivia thing. We should do it while we can. Let’s have a little pressure.
AD: Music that’s good shouldn’t be held back, I think.
Will: [laughs] We had proud rocking moments! A bunch of afternoons for two years. I wouldn’t put out the whole thing…there’s this phone thing that’s kind of nasty. I just mixed it down and found two new Cranberry songs from long ago. We were having fun. It does show!
AD: It has to sound legitimate, that something about your experience and emotion is transferred through the process, whether it’s having fun or pain or whatever. “Vibe” is a dippy word but it works.
Will: That’s the only way to say it, really. It’s not ultra-hip, but that’s the shiznit. Is that what people say?
AD: I don’t know. I don’t think so anymore. That’s the talk like “Double Dutch Bus”.
Will: Grandmaster Flash…I remember growing up in Carbondale, Colorado. My sister would go to discos, and you would walk into these places and it was awesome. It was daylight, and it was dank, and it had lights, and the music was loud. Awesome.
AD: I’ve never understood rock and roller hatred of disco.
Will: Me, too! Robert Schneider said the same thing. He didn’t know that I liked it, too. I don’t have a hatred for any thing, except for the dark metal and the posers, where if they don’t drink goat’s blood then…wait, I’m reversing myself again. You know Royal Trux? They are one of my top favorite bands. They’re posing around and doing their thing. “I’ve got this cool looking hat on!” Fuck it! I love that. I’m gonna go into one of these astrological things. I’m a Gemini! I’m two people. words/ lucas jensen
MP3: Circulatory System :: Overjoyed