A couple months ago, Olivia Tremor Control headlined a three-day, mostly DIY, very niche scene celebration called Austin Psych Fest. It’s one of those things that evolved through the will of a couple close friends all booking their favorite bands. It’s rampantly unaffiliated, thoroughly exotic, and overrun with homegrown passion. Honestly, it’s the exact sort of victory lap a guy like the flute-voiced guitarist/songwriter/OTC co-founder Bill Doss deserves. When I interviewed him a few days before the festival, he talked about the inherent joy of seeing all the young, unspoiled kids at his shows—the kids who came of age long after albums like Dusk at Cubist Castle were making college-radio vets swoon. It’s like his band’s reflective post-hiatus tour brought him close to a generation of newly-minted disciples that were previously outside of his perception. The internet’s egalitarianism is a powerful thing. At 43, Doss learned that the songs he wrote in his early 20s were making outcasts in their late-teens feel weak in the knees. I’d like to think that, during Olivia Tremor Control’s triumphant set, he saw some of himself in each of the fresh faces. Nobody represented teenaged curiosity quite like the Olivia Tremor Control.
Perhaps that’s why Monday's news of Doss’ death came as such a bewildering shock. It felt rattling, disconcerting, perplexing, and remarkably unfair. Olivia Tremor Control was in the midst of a heartwarming and creatively fertile reunion after a decade of false starts. He’d tell me that getting back with the band that started his career felt like “putting on a comfy shirt you’d forgotten about for a long time.” He also told me that the new recording sessions felt as natural as ever, and how they was sitting on about three hours of music waiting to be released. He seemed rejuvenated, motivated, animated, and for the first time in a while, right at home. This was the good, elegant sort of comeback, the kind of thing that’s almost impossible to be cynical about. Frankly, it’s difficult to come to terms with how quickly and tragically all that propulsion was dashed.
But I don’t want to think about that, perhaps because it can only be deconstructed into dark vibes, and Bill never seemed like the kind of guy who thrived on dark vibes. In fact, his entire existence and artistic legacy shines from a place of happy idealism and dreamy, unflappably positive momentum. Olivia Tremor Control is the story of two kids, Bill Doss and Will Hart, who wanted to make music their own way. Labels, tours, sales, and even actual, record-buying fans were all an afterthought. “We only ever wanted to make music we thought our friends would like.” It takes a very specific type of person to follow a muse like that with such dedicated purity, but Doss was that kind of person. It’s been almost two decades, but OTC’s albums continue to hang with an unkempt, inquisitive oddness—colorful, warped, wonderfully charming, and completely ambivalent to any trends or norms. There was this mystic, almost holy quality to Black Foliage when I discovered it in High School, like some distant, singular relic, following an alien blueprint, elementally different from anything else in the universe. Perhaps that’s what made them transcendent, what kept them in the front of peoples’ minds long after the actual band went dark. It’s one of those few records that compelled me to postulate its weirdness, I was stringing together patchy band biographies, paging through fan theories about its mythology and iconography, and reading about drugs I had never even heard of. It still beguiles me to this day. Through all the other landmarks of the ‘90s, nobody ever seems as centralized or as depoliticized as Olivia. They made powerful music without a powerful agenda—I don’t think I’ve heard anything since that was as honest in its weirdness.
I’ll always think about how Doss’ songwriting confused me and inspired me. He and his band represented the absolute best things about the American underground. Consciously or subconsciously, he showed us how wonderful things can come from everyday clichés like community, ambition, attuned ideology. The magic of the Olivia Tremor Control was fostered out of such ordinary means: how great art, regardless of obscurity, would prevail in the end. Personally, that truth was all I needed to go forth. Plenty of things will be said about Bill Doss in the next few days, but I think he’d mostly like to think about his optimism. From oddball auteur to elder statesman, it’s been the thing that’s always carried him. It’s what made him start a band, and what made him throw away ancient arguments for a redeeming reunion tour. We might never know how he died, but I’ll always remember the untapped, aggressive enthusiasm of his voice in what ended up to be his final months. His craft was a tireless, passionate enterprise. Regardless of what was going on with him personally or physically, Bill Doss was always about moving forward. You can’t underestimate the nobility of that.