Suddenly, Will Cullen Hart is talking about stray cats. And no, not the 1980s rockabilly band.
“There’s so many of them in Athens, they’re all over the place,” he said, sitting Indian style in the corner of his couch, wearing a beat-up straw hat with an orange tabby kitten asleep in his lap.
“In this town there are thousands, thousands of them. I heard a guy on the radio talking about it and he said it would be better if we eradicated them. But I understand both sides.”
Hart counts five cats in his household, not including the strays perusing the backyard. As he talks, two cats roam the living room, while two more linger on the outside patio.
“Anything outside are just strays, but I feed them,” Hart said, laughing. “I tell you, I love cats.”
Before the conversation darted to stray cats, it centered on Signal Morning, the sophomore album from one of Hart‘s other loves, Circulatory System. But just as soon the discussion heads back to details about the new release, Hart is off talking about four-tracks.
Then tube amps.
Then the power of Twitter.
And then it starts to make sense — this is why it took eight years.
• • •
Athens is an odd place when it comes to bands — they appear to breakup and disappear, but they’re never too far away. Bands form, disband, reunite then dissolve, only to return at some later date, playing a 40 Watt gig on a sleepy Thursday night.
It’s like they have nine lives or something.
So when news came a second Circulatory System album was actually on its way, nearly eight years after the first, the musical collective didn’t think, “Hey that’s weird.”
They just thought “Hey, that’s Athens.”
Slated for a September release, Signal Morning is a 17-track psychedelic gem gleaned from tapes and tapes of layered guitars, radio fuzz, electronic parts, and a collaboration of musicians who’ve been working with one another for more than a decade. Joining Hart on the latest ensemble effort are the usual suspects — John Fernandes, Derek Almstead, Suzanne Allison, Peter Erchick, Nesey Gallons, Charlie Johnston, and Heather McIntosh — with assists from Bill Doss (Hart’s songwriting partner from The Olivia Tremor Control) and Jeff Mangum and Julian Koster of Neutral Milk Hotel.
The end result — a sweeping collection stirring intense discussion and excitement — would have never happened if not for the editing ears of two bandmates.
“There were so many different versions and it was so hard to decide which to use,” said Fernandes, one of the band’s founders with Hart. “We had some friends step in. Charlie (Johnston) who plays in 63 Crayons and Nesey Gallons, who plays with Music Tapes and both play with us now, were the third party that entered the picture to give us fresh ears and say ‘Let’s use this one, this one and this one’ and started piecing it together.”
“We were scattered over seven different studios using different production techniques and we couldn’t get satisfied,” Hart said. “I literally had CD cases full of different mixes and parts and I just handed them over to Nesey. It was just too much. There’s one song called Blasting Through and it could be half a side or a whole side the way I was doing it. So I told Nesey ‘Try to do a pop song, make it a pop song’ — and he did! He went all in. The songs became more concise.”
Overjoyed, the album’s initial single, is evidence of this — coming in at a compact two and a half minutes, it bulges with sound like an overstuffed suitcase. From its layered cello start to its grinding drum center and electronic dirge of an ending (is that an aiplane? A backhoe? Fran Drescher?), Overjoyed reveals a group of musicians braced to burst with anticipation. Of course, as is the way in our digital world, the Internet beat them to it. An early version of the album leaked, bringing with it platitudes, wonderment, and dueling discussions over lyrics and song titles.
“The fact that it leaked is a shame,” Fernandes said. “But maybe it helps. I remember seeing it was the most popular download from this one BitTorrent site — it was Eminem, then Circulatory System — so there’s going to be people that see others downloading us and maybe listening to us who might not have listened to us before. It’s kind of exciting people are so interested.”
“I hope it helps us in the long run,” Hart said. “It’s crazy watching the Internet grow. There was a mistake on the Internet for the name of one of the songs, but the new name was kind of mysterious too, so we went along with it. One group of people thought it was “News From The Heavenly Loom” and another thought it was “New From The Heavenly Loom” (it’s news), and people were debating online, one group saying I hope it’s this, or I hope it’s that.”
Set for release on Cloud Recordings (the label founded by Fernandes and Hart), a CD and digital download version, as well as 1,500 vinyl pressings (featuring cover artwork from Hart) await an avid crowd. Fernandes was quick to point out the leaked version was nowhere near the final one, as changes were made to the master before it was done.
“I think a lot of people are really weird about quality these days, they still want it to sound like it’s supposed to sound,” Hart said. “They’re really into that.”
• • •
To understand where Hart and his Elephant Six Collective bandmates stand now is to understand where they were a decade ago.
And quite the decade it’s been.
Circulatory System was an offshoot formed in 2000 following the breakup of The Olivia Tremor Control, a seminal band of grand experimentation and one of the original E6 projects. While Hart and most of OTC went one way, Doss and Eric Harris went on to Sunshine Fix.
Hart’s new band grabbed lightning quick, as its self-titled release in 2001 found an assembly of admirers and left critics in crushes. Pitchfork, the lauded (and sometimes loathed) Web site, named Circulatory System the fifth-best album of 2001, remarking the work by Hart and crew resulted “in an album every bit as sincere as it is profound.”
The band followed with a good bit of touring and added Inside Views, a cut and paste remix of the debut album. While touring with Sea and Cake in 2003, the murmurs of putting out the sophomore effort surfaced, only to be stymied by busy schedules and indecision.
“We had been amassing a lot of tapes over many years, we’ve been playing some of the songs on the new record since the tours right after our first record since 2001,” Fernandes said. “During the tour opening for Sea and Cake the songs were sounding really good. We thought ‘OK, when we get home we’re going to finish recording these songs and it‘s going to be out.‘ But then we kept doing different versions and going to a bunch of different studios.“
“It had become disjointed and more extreme and stupid in my mind and shit that didn’t make any sense,” Hart said.
The rest of the band members, as Athens musicians are apt to do, spread out to their many side projects. Fernandes recorded and played with New Sound of Numbers and Elf Power; Erchick toured and recorded with Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t and The Instruments; Almstead and Allison joined in The 63 Crayons (with Johnston), but also recorded with Marshmallow Coast and Casper and the Cookies, respectively; and McIntosh played with host of bands, including Elf Power, The Instruments, New Sound of Numbers and Japancakes, and more recently toured with Lil Wayne.
As Hart struggled to make sense of the many tracks floating in his mind, he was struggling with his body as well. Slowly unable to see out of his right eye, he went to the doctor and after several tests discovered he had multiple sclerosis. After years of wondering what was going on, Hart had a diagnosis and a daily shot routine that helped him not feel worse.
And with that, Circulatory System’s return found fewer pit stops and much-needed momentum.
• • •
In June, Circulatory System took to the small outdoor stage at Athens’ Farm 255 and played a handful of new tunes to an appreciative audience, some of who travelled from several states away to be there. It proved a watershed moment for the band.
“The energy in the live show feels like we got a really good dynamic,” Fernandes said. “When we played the Farm, there’s an amazing part where Will’s sitting and playing but he‘s getting so into it and excited he starts to stand up, like he‘s saying ‘I‘m ready to stand up and rock,‘ but then forgets he doesn‘t have his strap on, so he kinda rocks for a second, then sits back down.“
“I’ve decided and stand up and play than just sit around,” Hart said. “I want to be able to project well because it’s more engaging.”
With 35 solid tracks culled from the various sessions for Signal Morning, Hart and Fernandes can see a quick turnaround for a third Circulatory System album. But let’s not get too far ahead — first a fall tour awaits, followed by the slow release of a track here and there for those who do buy the album. After all, all things come in due time, even if that time lasts the length of two presidential terms (or 48 cat years, as it were).
“I was worried that for people who have been waiting a long time, whether the album was going to live up to their expectations,” Fernandes said. “But everything I’ve read so far was what we were hoping people would say. Will is not only an amazing songwriter but an amazing sound sculptor and the placement of sounds is essential.”
“I’m ready to sing and not get all prancy and say ‘I can’t hear myself in the monitors’ and all that dumb shit I did over the years,” Hart said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I’m excited to play, and I don’t want to be like that. I mean, who cares.
“It’s something that comes with age, I guess,” Hart continued. “I had a birthday the other day, and I can’t remember if it was 37 or 38. But really, does it matter (laughs).”