Bill Doss Has a Bagel and Talks About
The Sunshine Fix
Ex-OTC Man’s New Band Could Have Been Called ‘Roman Steele.’
Olivia Tremor Control was formed by two friends from Ruston, Louisiana, named Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart. Another Ruston guy, Robert Schneider, formed The Apples (In Stereo); a fourth is Jeff Mangum, the linchpin of Neutral Milk Hotel. They called themselves Elephant 6, and they traded heavily in power-psych pop that left everyone breathless and intimidated in the 1990s.
But Olivia Tremor Control is no more. Hart got most of the old gang together for a project called Circulatory System; their self-titled album is clearly the best album of 2001. Bill Doss — uh, we mean The Bill Doss — released an EP under the name of The Sunshine Fix last year, and has a full-length album called Age of the Sun coming in late January.
We’ve heard Age of the Sun. It’s amazing. So we thought we’d talk to Doss as The Sunshine Fix tours to promote it. The curtain opens on Doss trying to negotiate the phone call while in a bagel shop somewhere in the Golden State…
Where are you?
I’m just here getting a bagel. Man, they told me it never rains in southern California, but it’s pouring here.
Are you in L.A.?
We’re going there. We were just in San Diego.
How’d that go?
Last night was awful. We were at the Casbah and the sound was horrible. We’re touring with Call And Response, and they came off the stage and they were just like, “Man, the sound sucks!” We said, “Sounded good to us,” but then we went out there and it was awful. We couldn’t hear a thing.
Who’s in the touring band?
Oh, just some friends for this tour. Ryan Lewis is playing drums [he co-founded Kindercore], Seth, Kevin Sweeney [Haywire]. We — hold on, I’ll get out of here and do the interview in the car. I’m getting wet feet. [Pause.] Okay, that’s better.
Is The Sunshine Fix still a Bill Doss one-man project? Or is this band turning into The Sunshine Fix?
Oh, this is just a touring band. I want to play with a lot of different people.
I’ve heard the new album. I think it’s great. My daughter was dancing all around the kitchen today listening to it.
That’s great — how old is she?
See, that’s great. One of the songs on there was actually written for my nephew, and he’s four.
“Digging To China.” I’m glad your daughter likes it. I always feel like if you can write a record kids enjoy, you’ve really done something.
Of course, that’s not the first time my daughter has heard from The Bill Doss. She loves the song you did on The Powerpuff Girls Heroes and Villains album [“Friends Win”]. Are you listed as THE Bill Doss on the new album?
[A little embarrassed] Yeah.
Hey, before we talk about that album — what’s up with the Tin Man picture I’ve seen? Is that in the album too?
Yeah. Isn’t it in your copy?
No, I have no art. My copy doesn’t even have the last song “Le Roi Soleil” on the CD.
Oh, yeah. That’s because it’s 20 minutes long and the record company was afraid stores wouldn’t play such a long song.
Okay. So: the Tin Man.
Well, my girlfriend did that picture. It wasn’t supposed to be the Tin Man — I was trying to do a Bowie knock-off, straight from him, but it turned out the other way. I didn’t really like the metallic paint — afterwards, I thought I’d go get a gig as the father on The Beverly Hillbillies.
[Here followed a long digression as we discussed the career of Buddy Ebsen, who was originally cast as the Tin Man but became allergic to the paint and dropped out, all the way up to Barnaby Jones.]
I don’t really like doing those photos anyway. Maybe if I was the lead singer of Incubus, or some hot-shit-looking guy, it’d be different. But I hate that part of the business, that it’s all about how you look. I mean, there are a lot of great musicians who sell lots of records, but who’d wanna fuck ’em? I mean, no offense to anyone like Britney Spears… wait, don’t write that. She’s my homey [from Louisiana]. I love Britney.
Let’s talk about the album. It’s kind of a concept album, isn’t it? The band is called The Sunshine Fix. The album is called Age of the Sun. A lot of the songs either have the word Sun in the title or refer to the sun in the lyrics. Did you set out to do a concept album? Was it just self-promotion? Or just an accident?
It was totally accidental. The whole sun thing was metaphorical, because I’m hopelessly optimistic. But I have to admit that once I saw it was going in that direction, I played it up a bit. I also did a bunch of reading, and read about Louis XIV, the Sun King, and that’s how I got “Le Roi Soleil.” I always feel like there are about five or six different roads to go down, and suddenly one will just light up.
What are your three favorite concept albums?
Well, I guess Dark Side of the Moon, right? Wow, lemme see. Hey, guys, what are some other concept albums? [Discussion.] Oh, yeah, they’re saying Hemispheres, by Rush. Oh, yeah, my favorite of theirs was 2112. You know, where they find that thing in a cave.
A guitar! That’s right! [More discussion with the guys in the van.] The Who Sell Out. See, I think every album is a concept album, really.
Age of the Sun is a very studio-based album. Is it hard translating those songs live?
Not really. Recording and playing live are two very different things. You do all kinds of things live that you just can’t do in the studio, and the other way around.
The common perception is that Will Hart was the “experimental” one in Olivia Tremor Control and you were the “pop” guy. Now that Circulatory System is out, and is kind of experimental, and your record is about to drop, and has a lot of pop songs on it, a lot of people will be convinced of this. Is there any truth to this dichotomy?
It’s certainly true that [Hart] leaned more in that direction, but he writes amazing pop songs, and I wrote some of that weird stuff too. The way the band worked was that everybody that wrote something would bring it in, and we’d all work on arranging it together.
So it’s not that easy.
Just for the record: there’s no rift between you and Hart, right?
There’s no rift. It was weird for a while; it was like being divorced and seeing your ex: “So, you seeing anyone?” “You playing with anyone?” But we’re cool with each other. It wasn’t about anything between us. It’s just that I’ve had a band for a long time. In The Sunshine Fix, I want to go as far as I can with a song and have that be okay with me without having to check it with anyone else. Also, I thought I was really getting in a rut musically in Olivia, so it was time. Did that make sense?
Made sense to me. Did you Elephant 6 guys knowing each other since grade school make it harder to break away, or easier?
Easier, I think. When we were kids we played together, but then Robert [Schneider] decided that he was going to move to Denver because his dad had lived there, so we all said “Have fun — let us know if you need help.” The rest of us came out to Athens and worked together, and then Jeff [Mangum] said, “I think I want to go this way with things,” and that was okay. We’re all friends.
I understand that Sunshine Fix has actually been a band name for you since high school. Are you playing any of those songs in concert? Do any remain?
All my favorite songs from high school turned into Olivia songs. “Sunshine Fix” was one, and “Olivia Tremor Control” was another. I just thought The Sunshine Fix would work well as a band name now. It’s better than Roman Steele, which was one of the bands in my heavy metal period in high school.
Wow, just like Remington Steele.
I never thought of that before! And that show was so unfair; there was no Remington Steele! The guy was just called that because the detective needed a guy because no one would take her seriously! What a comment on our sick sexist society that was.
[Here followed another long digression about Remington Steele, the hotness of Stephanie Zimbalist, and, inevitably, Buddy Ebsen again.]
All the stuff you’ve done, and this new album, are always tagged with the “psychedelic” label. Is too much made of that, or is it pretty accurate?
I do love psychedelic music, and I think psychedelia is all over the place. It’s in music, yeah, but if people focused more on it they’d see it’s in movies like The Wizard of Oz — see, there’s the Tin Man again! — it’s in books like Alice in Wonderland, it’s in the trees. I mean, climb a tree! Look at the sun!
What is your favorite psychedelic band?
It’s got to be THE Pink Floyd. Back when they were the THE Pink Floyd. Talk about pushing it as far as you possibly could — they just kept going and breaking down barriers. We do a little of that in concert: we have an overhead projector playing with an op-art thing on it, and we have a guy in the back of the hall re-mixing the show as we play in faux-quadrophonic sound. Plus: he’s wasted! So it really turns into a new sound every night.
What’s a surprising influence on you that people wouldn’t know from listening to you?
You didn’t hesitate for one second.
I love Led Zeppelin. We’re actually going to change the name of the band to The Sunshine Fix Blues Band and play everything in heavy metal style. All we need is a ten-onch high Stonehenge and we’ll be all set. No, I think there’s a lot there.
What was the most significant musical influence on you?
I’ll tell you exactly what it was. It was listening to The Beatles when I was eight. It wasn’t even any particular song or album, or even their sound. It was just the idea that they tried so many different kinds of music, and did so well at all of them. I knew right then what I wanted to do in my life.
Are there any contemporary groups or albums that have just blown you away lately?
Circulatory System. No joke. And other stuff by my friends. But no one else, really — I don’t listen to a lot of modern music. I like and admire a lot of modern bands, like The Flaming Lips; I think they’re really original, and they take chances and pull it off. I don’t necessarily listen to them a lot, but they are theoretically my favorite current American group. Oh, yeah, and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci — Olivia was on tour in England with Super Furry Animals and Gruff says, “You’ve got to see my friends play,” and suddenly they’re all running around wearing weird costumes and hats and stuff… and their music is great! But mostly I just listen to older stuff.
Okay, last question. Your album is being co-released by Kindercore and Emperor Norton. Before I knew Ryan was on tour with you, I was going to ask who would win in a smackdown between the two labels… well, I’ll just ask anyway. Is there any antagonism between the two?
There’s no real problem between the two. But if you’re talking about fisticuffs, my money’s on Kindercore. Ryan’s like an animal when you get him going, a real dangerous person. That’s why he’s a good person to have on tour.