There is a period in every person’s life where they look for an open door. It feels like a time of uncertainty, lack of direction, possibly failure, but most of the time we need that indecision to help us see possibility. For most people – I think, based on simple human observation – that period is in the year or two after college, where it stops being fine to be studying a thing and starts being a demand to really be a thing. Sometimes it comes sooner, sometimes more than once.
I was that blank slate of uncertainty in 1999, when I moved sight unseen to New York in order to attend a college that was well known for a strong writing program and a complete lack of core requirements. Without friends, family, money, or a remote working knowledge of the city I now lived in, I had to figure out who I was going to be.
The basis for my transformation turned out to be a series of mix tapes shipped across the country in rapid succession by my best friend. We had discovered separate veins of indie rock simultaneously and hurried to catch up with it all. It was only a month or two into my New York existence that some songs arrived to help figure out what sort of person I wanted to be. Okkervil River, “The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion.” The Spinanes, “Den Trawler.” Sleater-Kinney, “Burn, Don’t Freeze!” And a smattering of songs from two closely related artists that I would instantly become obsessed with, Neutral Milk Hotel and the Olivia Tremor Control.
For weeks, I listened to my new favorite Olivia Tremor Control song, “I Have Been Floated”, on repeat. It was 1999, which meant that rewinding the tape and hitting play was as good as “repeat” would get until I could eventually afford the CD. It was a song that I felt comfortable wanting to live inside, and I let it take root inside of me, remembering that as a child I had done similar things with ridiculous classic rock songs and grown up to do so with any radio hit that struck a chord.
What made the Olivia Tremor Control different, though, was that the songs were more complicated than anything I’d latched onto previously. For the first time, I needed headphones; I had solid excuses to be alone. I found, even as I started to make friends and carve a teeny, tiny niche into the city, that when the Olivia Tremor Control played the Knitting Factory that year, I didn’t go because I couldn’t find anyone who knew who they were to go with me. In this way, the big city started to feel smaller. There were things that I could still call my own. There were also new layers to discover on each track, new tidbits to hook my mind into to keep myself from remembering that I was in something of a wayward state.
There were more fans than just me, of course, many more, just as there were many musical minds behind the Olivia Tremor Control and the bands that surrounded them. New York started to unfold with time and with it, a sense of solidarity in finding pockets of people who liked the same bands I did, or the same philosophers, or the same places. I grew up in the requisite ways over the next four years, and music stopped being merely a means of recreation and became my means of living. It was only a few years later that I found myself having regular phone conversations with one of the Olivia Tremor Control’s main songwriters, Bill Doss, as we prepared to put out a record by his latest side project. We finalized artwork, corrected liner note changes, coordinated the release of the videos he’d created for each song on the record. Later, he’d call with questions about tour merch and royalty statements.
It was one of the first times I’d ever dealt directly with someone I admired musically, and while it didn’t take long for that sense of newness to fade, I felt grateful to be a part of something. I still listened to the Olivia Tremor Control on my headphones as as I traveled through the city, and one line always stuck on me and hung heavy. “Don’t you ever change your mind on me,”was the directive, and something about it made me try to be a better person as I quit my academic career, plunged myself into music, and fell out of my lost period and into a life.
It is always incredibly difficult to talk about what a band or an artist means to you without sounding pretentious or sentimental, but it’s equally impossible not to talk about it. Bill Doss’s death last week stopped many of us in our tracks, made us cry, and made us remember how we got here in the first place. His music was the kind of music that connected people, and his personality made him easy to work with and to be around. I didn’t know when I discovered his band or when I met him how rare those two factors would be in my life, and I didn’t know exactly how changed I’d be by the people I met because I knew his work. It is relatively insane to say that you don’t know who you’d be without a song or a band, but it is sometimes true. Thanks, Bill, for helping to get me through the right door.