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Julian Koster Talks New Music Tapes Album and Carnivalesque Tour

Elephant 6 member sold his Neutral Milk Hotel banjo to fund the Traveling Imaginary

September 9, 2012 10:03 AM ET
Julian Koster, Robbie Cucchiaro, The Music Tapes, Neutral milk Hotel
Julian Koster and Robbie Cucchiaro of The Music Tapes.
Courtesy of Merge Records

For Julian Koster – Music Tapes leader, singing saw-playing catalyst of the Elephant 6 collective, Neutral Milk Hotel member – everything is "amazing and kind of terrible" these days. Koster recently returned from Athens, perennial home of the tightly-knit and long-running Elephant 6. There, he communed with the extended E6 family, rarely anything less than a joyous occasion, but also attended the funeral and memorial services for the Olivia Tremor Control's Bill Doss – Koster's very close friend and sometimes bandmate – who passed away suddenly on July 30th. Led by Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum, Koster and friends performed a tear-stained rendition of Doss's ebullient "Love Athena" during a public memorial at the 40 Watt Club.

But Koster has just released a new album (Mary's Voice, out September 4th via Merge), and is about to premiere a new serialized radio play for National Public Radio, and, moreover, stage the Traveling Imaginary – a circus-cum-rock tour – of his dreams. Non-traditional touring is nothing new to Koster, who has spent recent years playing hundreds of living room shows from Hollywood mansions to geodesic domes, performing Christmas carols, extended sets of lullabies, shaggy dog stories, and a three-saw arrangement of Gavin Bryars' avant-garde staple "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet." After years of fantasizing, the Traveling Imaginary is about to become very real – a mess of logistics and fire codes to sort through – and easily Koster's most ambitious project yet.

"It's a multi-year plan," he says, undaunted, during a recent afternoon of row boating in Central Park, deftly dodging families on the lake like a seasoned pro. "We'll be doing various incarnations, I hope, for a decade. In the first stage, we're trying to meet traditional-venue touring halfway." By "halfway," Koster means assembling his own circus tent within the confines of rock clubs in which to sing lullabies and play games. "We don't want to shoot Merge in the foot by constantly doing things at kids' houses," he says, prepared for the contingencies that will surely come with such an operation.

A native New Yorker, Koster is more familiar with the park than most. In recent years, he has used it as a staging ground for performances, with times and locations posted in oblique notes on his hand-drawn website. In one, he hid small sound-objects in the underbrush. He and Mangum watched from a hillside, unseen.

Since his first experiences touring with his late-Eighties band, Chocolate USA, Koster has done everything possible to avoid the beaten indie-pop trail. The first Music Tapes outing, titled the House Capsule Tour, was booked by his grandmother. "She really didn't know much about it, but she had some free time and was willing to help," he explains. "We just felt like we didn't fit in rock clubs. People don't go to rock clubs to absorbed, they go to movie theaters. We wanted to create situations where people could be really comfortable and absorbed as much as possible."

"When someone really doesn't know what to expect, there's this whole magic that's clearly possible, and it's really potent, so we're drawn to that a lot." In the future, he hopes to bring the Traveling Imaginary Circus to the point of "renting a space at a carnival, and just be one of the attractions there. It would just be us doing our thing, but the framework would be different."

Nearly every aspect of Koster's work seems designed to simultaneously short-circuit the expectations of a traditional career in music while presenting a wondrous alternative. The new Music Tapes album, Mary's Voice was recorded in a half-dozen locations on 1930s wire recorder, 1960s four-track, and laptop, including a session with Elephant 6 stalwart and Apples in Stereo leader Robert Schneider.

"When people talk about old recording techniques," Koster says, "I see people saying things like 'they're nostalgic for times they didn't live in,' and that may be a true phenomenon in the world, but it has nothing to do with the character of the instruments and the creations of various stages in human history. Everything has a character to me. It seems insane to be denied 90 percent of the colors in the universe because there are the 10 that everybody else is using right now." Other colors include the 7-Foot Tall Metronome (surely to be present inside the Traveling Imaginary), orchestral banjo, euphonium and other horns (played by longstanding Music Tapes collaborator Robbie Cucchiaro), Mangum himself (credited to "turntable manipulation" and "chair"), and field recordings of carousel calliopes and church bells, some from the small island off the Maine coast where Koster lived for two years.

Koster stops the rowboat under a favorite bridge, and remarks on the acoustics, suggesting that a recording of the shifting planks and lapping water accompany the posting of this article. After pulling ashore, he is headed elsewhere in Manhattan to begin making choices – who will fabricate the Traveling Imaginary tent? How will everything be transported? How to best allocate the funds from the Music Tapes' recent Kickstarter, which has more than doubled its $5,000 goal with two weeks to go? Koster is used to what he calls tour-planning "with three weeks and duct tape" and is more than ready.

He is also quietly shocked that the banjo he played on Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was able to net a $3,000 donation to his Kickstarter, which had passed its goal even before the banjo went. "We really easily forget that Aeroplane is like Thriller, this cultural phenomenon," he says. Indeed, it recently turned up at #4 in Pitchfork's People's List. Other prizes include lessons on Koster's giant metronome, phone concerts, hand drawn art by Koster and Mangum, and a half-dozen other wondrous rewards in the homemade style that Koster has made his stock-in-trade. But life is never less than wondrous for Koster, almost literally.

"I'd love to settle but I don't know how," he says. "I hope life brings it to me. Elephant 6 is a family – a close, loving family – so they're essential. But I feel like if I ever settle, it's going to be near an ocean. There's no ocean near Athens, but I'll be there anyway all the time. I can't really conceive of the Music Tapes making a record in one place. It might be really fun to rehearse and do some recording with a couple of mice onto a lathe, but even then the inspiration always leads you somewhere. You can never go 'this is the concept, and we're going to adhere to the concept' because every time you start doing something this little bird shows up and is like 'I am this fragile glowing magical thing' and you have to follow it." 

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