The Story Of Elephant 6’s Bill Doss, Told In 10 Songs
When a musician dies, they leave behind an aural legacy — songs that serve as eternal reminders of what this person did when the microphone was on. This legacy isn’t always difficult to pick out. Sometimes it’s present in virtuosic mastery of an instrument. Sometimes it’s complex composition. Sometimes it’s just a voice — capable of bypassing your nervous system and flexing your muscles on its own.
Before his sudden passing, nothing Bill Doss did was nearly that obvious. He could clearly play a guitar quite well, but he hardly ever let it rip, be it on recordings or live. Doss obviously possessed a keen compositional mind, but his songs are, for the most part, intuitively simple. He could wield his voice in many ways, but usually elected for a high, drawly whine that always sounded a little like a whisper.
Doss made songs that had the one-of-a-kind quality to influence a generation of musicians, but still sounded as genuine as if they were coming from your next-door neighbor. This same concept applied to the very look of the man: wily red hair, accompanied by sideburns or a thick set of mutton chops. On stage, a printed shirt, or a tie and suspenders. He looked like a transport from another era at times, but it was hard imagine him looking any other way. It wasn’t an act. He embodied the congeniality of the songs.
Something as elusive as a “spirit” can be hard to identify on recordings, especially when it’s responsible, directly or indirectly, for such a large volume of work. With the help of the Elephant 6 collective he co-founded, Doss had no shortage of outlets for his music. Yes, there is the Olivia Tremor Control, the band sprung from Doss’s collaboration with childhood friend Will Cullen Hart (another E6 founding father). That is where his most well-known work resides. But to focus there exclusively is to neglect the Sunshine Fix, Doss’s solo project whose studio-musician list reads like a who’s who of the Elephant 6 family.
However, even focusing on both of those projects belies Doss’ work as a supporting member. He had most recently become a permanent member of The Apples in Stereo, fronted by another childhood friend and Elephant 6 co-founder: Robert Schneider. He also enjoyed a short stint in Chocolate USA: Julian Koster’s band before going in a completely different direction as the Music Tapes.
Doss’s specific impact on each of these bands isn’t easy to quantify. But consider this fact — the four groups I just listed produced eight full-length albums that involved Doss in some way. Not a single one of these works is considered to be a dud. Quite the opposite, in fact. Olivia Tremor Control’s two 27-track psychedelic opuses are all-time classics in the genre. The Sunshine Fix’s releases were met with critical acclaim and contain some of Doss’s most adventurous songcraft. The Apples In Stereo recorded their last two albums with the aid of Doss –- both are among the most successful, critically and commercially, in the band’s long history. Even Chocolate USA’s “Smoke Machine,” which featured Doss, has garnered a cult following years after its release.
In an interview with the blog Surviving The Golden Age, Doss was asked if he felt any pressure when recording the follow up to the Olivia Tremor Control’s first album, Music From The Unrealized Film Script Disk At Cubist Castle.
No, he said. “We never looked at it that way. It was, and still is, all about the joy of making music with your friends.”
Key word there: joy. Perhaps that is what he brought to each of his groups –- that “X-factor” that kept each of them on an ambitious path while walking an everyday stride. Apply this thought to the founding four of Elephant 6, and Doss’s role becomes a little clearer. Schneider brought the Pop. Hart brought deep experimentation. Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum brought raw, unbridled emotion. And Doss? Well, Doss brought the joy.
The collective has produced a plethora of quality songs amongst its myriad bands –- how many of them were inspired, at least in part, by Doss’s very presence? My guess is most of them. And that’s not a bad legacy to leave behind.
With that, I give you 10 songs that span the Bill Doss legacy. They aren’t necessarily his 10 best, but they do cover his impact in multiple places across the Elephant 6 canon.
“NYC-25″ from the Olivia Tremor Control’s Music From The Unrealized Film Script Dusk at Cubist Castle (1996)
A lot is made of Doss’ unrelenting positivity, and rightly so. By all accounts (including my own), he seemed to always be in a good mood on stage and in person. But there’s no denying Doss had a melancholy side – one that shows through on this, the closing track from Dusk. It’s one of a few songs (including Black Foliage’s) “Hilltop Procession (Momentum Gaining)” that ring just a little differently now that Doss has passed.
“Same Old Drag” from the Apples In Stereo’s New Magnetic Wonder (2007)
Doss’s addition to the Apples in Stereo seemed like a no-brainer to anyone familiar with his output and that of the band; they had perfectly overlapping ambitions in pop. Doss wasn’t yet a full member when the Apples recorded this gem from 2007’s New Magnetic Wonder, but he was responsible for the vocal arrangements, essential in making the song what it is. Swooping in and around the hard beat behind them, composed with an ear toward the fun both he and the Apples represent, Doss’s backing vocals here represent one of his finest supporting contributions.
“Wings Away” from the Apples In Stereo’s Travellers In Space And Time (2010)
By the time 2010’s Travelers In Space And Time was released, Doss had toured the world with the Apples and become a permanent member. His comfort level shows on this, the penultimate track on the Apples’ most recent album. Nearly 15 years after the release of Dusk At Cubist Castle, his songwriting sounded as pristine as ever, even in the context of an entirely different band.
“Courtyard” from the Olivia Tremor Control’s Music From The Unrealized Film Script Dusk at Cubist Castle (1996)
There are no shortage of pieces that demonstrate Doss’s skill at writing the straight-ahead pop song. The widely cited “Jumping Fences” and “Hideaway” are chief among them, and make no mistake, those are great songs. But for me, “Courtyard” represents Doss’s pop voice better than just about anything. Even with OTC drummer Eric Harris’s jazzy, shifty drum line and John Fernandes’s wandering bass line, the song still comes off as a head-bopper.
“Sylvan Screen” from the Olivia Tremor Control’s Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One (1999)
Just as “NYC-25″ shows Doss’s melancholy side, “Sylvan Screen” shows him at his darkest. In many ways, the song is Olivia Tremor Control’s second album, Black Foliage: Animation Music Vol. I, in a nutshell — there’s a definite balance of experimentation and songcraft, but everything is coated in a dark, nervous energy.
“A Place We Have Been To” from the Olivia Tremor Control’s Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One (1999)
At their weirdest, the Olivia Tremor Control wielded themes dark, atmospheric, and representative of your most unsettling inner nightmares. But by the same token, the band had moments of pure speed and clarity, and those moments nearly always came from Doss. “A Place We Have Been To” may not be widely considered to be among the band’s best, but it is certainly among their most energetic.
“I’m Not Feeling Human” from the Olivia Tremor Control’s Those Sessions (1997)
I’ve thrown around a lot of very grand-sounding words to describe Doss so far in this list, so it’s important that I don’t forget one very simple one: silly. Bill Doss could be pretty freaking silly. “I’m Not Feeling Human” is among the earliest Olivia Tremor Control Songs, originally recorded before Dusk At Cubist Castle saw the light of day. However, it remained a staple of their live sets, best captured in the band’s 1997 Peel session.
“Friends Win” Bill Doss’s contribution to the compilation Powerpuff Girls: Heroes And Villains (2000)
It’s telling that when the creators of cartoon series The Powerpuff Girls were compiling the soundtrack album for their show, they approached such luminaries as Frank Black, Devo, Shonen Knife … and Bill Doss. The compilation showed yet another, childlike side to Doss’ songwriting, and countless kids were given a porthole into the wide, weird world of Elephant 6. (Full disclosure: I was one of those kids, but the song that hooked me was the Apples In Stereo’s contribution to the comp. It’s not for the anti-twee, folks.)
“My Cherry Bomb” from Chocolate USA’s Smoke Machine (1994)
It’s difficult to say exactly what Doss did on Chocolate USA’s second album, as he is credited simply as “multi instruments.” However, given the myriad directions this album goes in, chances are he was responsible for no small amount of musicianship. In this track, he makes a subtle appearance on backing vocals — among his first performances captured on tape.
“Age of the Sun” from the Sunshine Fix’s Age Of The Sun (2002)
This track is notable mainly for the way it separated Doss from his peers. For most of his Elephant 6 work, Doss is working with others. In the Sunshine Fix, he’s the lone man at the controls. The result is something just as pleasing as anything else in his catalogue — the signature of a well-rounded musical mind.