MusicMusic Features

The Return of Circulatory System

Circulatory System is putting the finishing touches on its second album, which at last mention was to be called Blasting Through. It’s also a bit darker and heavier than the previous album and just as—if not more—experimental than the group’s debut album… And with years of work on this project, expect Will Cullen Hart and the crew to deliver a strikingly memorable album.

So said Flagpole way back in 2004, three years after the release of Circulatory System’s first album. Five years from that statement, the Circulatory System album that was right around the corner way back then finally greets its public. “That was John [Fernandes], my other half, kind of announced that,” says Will Cullen Hart, the chief organizer and songwriter for the band. “And it was getting there, but not exactly, really. He didn’t know the full extent of my situation. And I didn’t either! Going to the doctor, brain scans. That wasn’t like me to not do finished stuff before.”

A few years back, Hart was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The disease had been affecting him for years before he or anyone else was aware of it, and lesions growing on the surface of his brain had a serious impact on Hart’s mood, actions and ability to process information.

Hart is receiving steady treatment for his condition now, and has reasserted control over many aspects of his own life. He has to inject himself every day to treat his multiple sclerosis, and he’ll have to do so every day for the rest of his life. He says it can be annoying, but that it doesn’t bother him much anymore—it’s become part of a routine for a guy who didn’t have any routines for a long time.

He’s been painting more—his artwork has always adorned the covers of albums from Circulatory System and Olivia Tremor Control, his previous band which was at the core of the Elephant 6 music collective. What was tentatively called Blasting Through is now Signal Morning, released last month on Hart’s own Cloud Recordings label. It’s a tight album, surprisingly rocking but still heavily psychedelicized and, according to Hart, it’s able to fit into just 45 minutes “all these pop songs, but the buzzies and spacies, too.”

The whole Elephant 6 crew gets tagged with overt Beatles emulation, with the Olivia Tremor Control in particular drawing on the band’s White Album-and-beyond period. It’s not quite an easy formula to shoehorn the bands into, but if that is the case, then consider Circulatory System, and much of Hart’s songwriting, to be some sort of nightmare-world version of McCartney’s pop sensibilities and surfeit of melodic ideas—the second half of Abbey Road given over to the growling demons instead, or Wings’ output minus the good cheer and drenched in existential spelunking.

Of the two main Olivia Tremor Control songwriters, Hart often got pegged as the sonic experimenter with Bill Doss the pop genius. But, as is the case with most collaborations between groups of fiercely creative people, nothing’s really as simple as all that. To give Signal Morning a listen is to descend into depths of layered sound, sure, and an almost giddy shunning of convention, but tunes like “Particle Parades” and “This Morning (We Remembered Everything)” are electrified by the space between Hart’s pop melodies and the just as vital esoteric sonics, sound collages and ambient constructions.

Onetime Athens resident Charlie Johnston, who still plays with Circulatory System and who had a band here in town called The 63 Crayons, contributed a lot of work to Signal Morning, helping Hart edit together a number of the tracks and work through much of the multi-tracked decisions. Hart attributes most of the album’s cohesion and success, though, to his friend Nesey Gallons. In fact, throughout most of our interview, Hart often complimented Gallons in the middle of statements about the specific songs, turning to him and saying “You’re so cool! Thank you!”

Gallons, an on-and-off Athenian for the past eight years who also plays in the Music Tapes, met Hart and the Olivia crew when he was a 15-year-old music obsessive in Vermont. He moved to Athens the next year, in the spring of 2001. Hart approached Gallons about editing together and producing the new Circulatory System with the explicit hope of producing an album that clocked in at well under the hour mark.

“I had all these songs in bits and I didn’t know what to do with them,” says Hart. “He and Charlie and the band helped me pick and edit them. I said to him, ‘Can we have a 45-minute record?’ Which was shorter than anything I’d ever been involved in. Which was a crazy [goal]. Because of all the stuff! Could we include all the stuff?”

Says Gallons, “There were easily a hundred songs, and a lot of different versions of the same songs, and they all had great things about them. For me it was just some kind of feeling that just guided everything that made it incredibly easy to do, and to express what I felt could be expressed in the frame of a 45-minute album.”

The tracks for Signal Morning come from much of Hart’s songwriting career, and both the writing and the recording span the past 16 years. The album’s opening track “Woodpecker Greeting Worker Ant” comes from 1993, with newer overdubs added, while the album’s title track was written and recorded with the intent of working it onto Olivia Tremor Control’s ’99 album Black Foliage: Animation Music.

Heather McIntosh, the band’s erstwhile cellist, says of the album after Gallons’ contributions, “I think it needed to have some fresh perspective on it. I think it was the only way. Will heard us say a million times how awesome it was, and we always meant it. But it was good to have someone new [work on it].”

She adds, “This record has been such an incredibly long time coming. Some of the songs we’ve been working on since the ’90s. Early, early stuff. There’s so many layers going on there it’s just such a relief to have it done. We made it to the other side of the last record! [Signal Morning] is really dense and awesome, but there’s a lot of room in there.”

A lot of the overdubs and new additions to Hart’s original tracks were laid down last fall, as the Elephant 6 gang practiced downtown for the Holiday Surprise Tour, a revue-style show that ran through songs from Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, The Gerbils, Elf Power and more. As the individual members would get together to work on the show, Gallons would recruit people as necessary to record tracks for Signal Morning. Hart willingly gave up a lot of the decision-making, but found that to be liberating. “Every single stupid bit, every crash of cymbal, had to be a decision,” he says about Circulatory System’s self-titled 2001 debut. “It’s hard for me to give up that control, but it’s getting less and less. When I put the album on… I don’t usually put my own albums, on… I mean, God! But this one I can! I don’t feel bad or self-conscious. And a lot of times I’m listening and rocking out and something happens that I don’t know is going to happen, and it’s like [makes a whooshing noise], and that’s great!”

Freshly back from an East Coast tour, expect to find Circulatory System invigorated by its time on the road. Two shows earlier this year—a summer set at Farm 255 and a Nuçi’s Space performance during AthFest—were straight-up knockouts, and Hart calls them some of his favorite shows ever. “Just stand up and play!” Hart told himself at the time. “Project better!” Those two sets presented a united front not seen from Circulatory System for a long time; a few years back, even, a lot of people around the music scene wondered about the continued viability of the band, as performances like the improvisational “Circulatory System Phase Two” devolved into an inaccessible mix of half-mad cacophony. (And not in a good way!)

“I had the honor of living with Will Hart,” says A Hawk and a Hacksaw bandleader Jeremy Barnes, also the former drummer for Neutral Milk Hotel, “and it was immensely enjoyable to go to bed at night and listen to what he was recording in the next room. He was a big inspiration for me, in terms of finding what you love and just doing it, whether or not anyone was interested in it.”

Signal Morning invites interest, and rewards it accordingly.

WHO: Faust, Circulatory System
WHERE: 40 Watt Club
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 10