Major Organ and the Adding Machine Pt. II: The Music: Interview
Andrew Rieger: “I think the result was simultaneously really fun and bizarre, but also alienating”
PART II: THE MUSIC
The movie’s initial demise led to the advent of Major Organ and the Adding Machine, the album. We talked with Circulatory System frontman Will Cullen Hart, a contributor to the project, about his role and how everyone shaped the music and narrative in their own way. We also spoke with Andrew Rieger, frontman of Elf Power and the creator (and actor) of the character Francisco in Major Organ, about some of the intricacies of the music.
• WILL CULLEN HEART
Eric Harris referred to the recording of the music as being a case of “Pass The Tape.” Would you describe the recording the same way?
Yeah, I would say so. Anybody would throw in stuff. I was working on Black Foliage with the Olivia Tremor Control, and I was taking some stuff from that. At one point, I sent something to Julian [Koster], saying “Use this! I haven’t been able to do anything with it.” He would just do the coolest thing with it, and throw in some great lyrics with it, thus “Life Forms.”
How much did each person put into the songs?
Julian and Robbie [Cucchiaro] put a lot of time into it. Gwyn [Kennedy] and Eric also contributed. Jeff [Mangum] had some stuff to do with it other than singing by playing drums and other noises, stuff like that. I, of course, contributed “Life Forms” as well as “Singing, Laughing, Playing,” amongst other things.
How much time did all of you spend recording the songs for what eventually became this album?
Hours and hours. Hopefully, you can see how much we put into it. From my own personal experience, we were just going through hours and hours of work on Black Foliage, and the guys were like, “You got something we could use?” We did, and it seemed like it wasn’t going to be done next year or the year after that, so we were okay with it. Thus, they became Major Organ tracks.
At what point did you realize that there wasn’t going to be a movie, or at least what was originally conceived as the movie? What did you do upon that revelation?
I’ll be honest, that was more Billy [Doss] and the others’ idea. I wasn’t really involved in the movie that much. I mean, I wish I was more involved, but still. I loved the movie and how it all came about.
Were the tracks in the movie part of the initial recordings?
I’m not really sure. Julian kept a lot of stuff on his digital 8-track recorder, so there are a lot of bits there that I didn’t know about. Sometimes, there’d be a point where we’d all go to Andrew [Rieger]’s house and do some track, but we wouldn’t know if it was to be part of the album or just outtakes.
Besides the character creations, e.g. Madam Truffle and Francisco, there are little leitmotifs that you hear in different tracks. Was that a particular method of contribution or just something that came about naturally?
It was certainly an element to that for everyone. Consider Madam Truffle. I don’t think anyone could not see that as one of Kevin Barnes’ ideas. I’ll admit, I wasn’t around when that happened; I’m just pointing that out. I think stuff like that helped write the story, but it was being written for that very reason. It certainly helped define some of the parts that eventually got into the film.
You played several of the songs from the album during the Holiday Surprise Tour. Do you ever think we’ll ever see these performed live again? Could anyone else perform it?
Yeah, it’d be great to have them played again. And some of these songs could be covered. “Life Forms,” in particular. The lyrics in that song are so fucking great to sing. “Life form, got a message stuck in his head…” It’s great, and this generation, it’s the perfect message to describe them.
We have talked about doing another Holiday Surprise Tour. I don’t know if it’s going to work out this year. Maybe it’ll go under a different name. But if we can’t call in, say, Bill or Elf Power or The Apples in Stereo, it’ll be a much simpler affair.
You seem to take a certain pride in “Life Forms (Transmission Received).” What was the concept behind that?
As I said, Julian asked me for stuff, and I was working and trying to finish it myself, but it came to him incomplete. I told him as such. The melody and lyrics he came up with are just so cool. He is such a great writer. I could not have thought of the many different ways to sing it as he did, especially at the tempo. So I am really happy with what happened there. He spent a lot of time and made something great out of it. I’m grateful for my little part.
Could you ever go back to recording songs like that, with such a large amount of people involved in such a messy yet intricate way?
Yes, I’d love that. I would be all for that. I tell people all the time that we should be recording more. I’d be telling friends, “Well, you forgot about this song or that song,” from, say, even 15 years ago. I mean, with what Kevin and Robert’s been doing, or even what Jeff did, it’d be different. But still, I’d be all for that.
• ANDREW RIEGER
What was the story behind Francisco?
When the initial idea of this album was proposed, there was a vague storyline involving the character Madam Truffle, who had imprisoned a group of children, so I added to the plot by creating a character to liberate the children, Francisco, a well-intentioned bounty hunter/swashbuckler.
When the movie finally came to fruition, Francisco’s character changed a little bit. Was that your idea or Eric’s?
That was Eric’s idea. The major change was that in the movie the children were not imprisoned by Madam Truffle, but were working with her, so Francisco was on a passionate mission to save children who didn’t need saving, which added some comic relief at Francisco’s expense.
Besides Francisco, what other contributions did you make to the album?
I added some overdubs on various songs but “Francisco’s Victory” was my main contribution both musically and conceptually.
On the album, there are a lot of little leitmotifs throughout that kind of connect with the album. Was that a form of contribution, or was that something natural?
I think those recurring motifs and melodies were created and sequenced in an effort to add a sense of familiarity and cohesiveness to an otherwise very sprawling and diverse-sounding album. I think they were very effective in doing so.
Talking with Julian, tape splicing was a major factor in the development of the album. How do you feel about its use, and were there other engineering elements that figured into the album’s creation?
Around that time, a lot of us were pretty excited and enthralled with the recordings of avant-garde composers like Pierre Henry and Alain Savouret, and “Major Organ” attempted to use similar techniques applied between and on top of pop songs, and I think the result was simultaneously really fun and bizarre, but also alienating to a certain amount of pop music listeners who found such sounds too weird or grating.
The Holiday Surprise Tour two years ago brought about not only the first tour where Major Organ was played extensively, but also a medley of other Elephant 6 acts, such as Elf Power. How was that experience for you all?
It was a huge undertaking, and it was initially somewhat stressful as we didn’t know if we could pull it off. But I think it was a great success and a truly unique collaboration and synthesis of music, film, and ideas, and thankfully our fans tend to be open-minded enough to take such a ride with us. People really loved the shows, and we really loved doing it, making it worth the logistical nightmare of coordinating 15-20 people into making it happen.
Would you like to revisit Francisco and/or Major Organ someday?
There’s been talk of doing another Holiday Surprise Tour, and if and when that happens, I’m sure we’ll play some Major Organ songs live again.