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Julian Koster, who plays the Vera Project tonight

Once the bassist, banjoist and saw player for Neutral Milk Hotel, Elephant Six musician Julian Koster also

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SW Interview: Julian Koster of The Music Tapes Tonight At Vera

julianmusictapes.jpg
Julian Koster, who plays the Vera Project tonight

Once the bassist, banjoist and saw player for Neutral Milk Hotel, Elephant Six musician Julian Koster also records under the moniker Music Tapes. Thing is, last year's Merge release, Music Tapes For Clouds And Tornadoes, was his first officially-released recording in nine years (well, that and The Singing Saw At Christmastime, an album that accompanied his recent saw-caroling tour). But his music, which sounds kind of like an unearthly, experimental jug band on a klezmer kick (you can stream the entire record on Merge's site), is merely the axis around which Julian Koster's whimsical live shows spin.

Koster tours with mechanical performers lovingly manufactured by himself and his friends in Athens, GA (where he currently resides), including a Seven Foot Tall metronome and Static, the singing television. Last Christmas, Julian Koster toured the Midwest, traveling from house to house playing carols on his saw. But in a Christmas interview with NPR last year, he flummoxed his interviewer by refusing to acknowledge that his human muscle power is the sole force behind the saws' unearthly sound; his belief is that he simply coaxes his large collection of saws, who all have names and personalities, to sing for him.

While certain cynics might find his personification of his mechanical bandmates and strong feelings on the subject of singing saws may seem like adopted eccentricities, they're not. Julian Koster is the genuine article, the kind of rare artist who strives to inspire a sense of unadulterated childlike joy in his audiences. And in the past year, he's been focused on creating a festive, holiday-like atmopshere at his shows. Whether that simply means playing onstage with his latest mechanical performers-- the newest one, the Orbiting Human Tapdancing Machine, was designed by Julian and his grandfather, and is designed to both tap dance and kick a drum in time to music-- or creating a traveling imaginary circus for his next tour, Julian Koster knows how to charm his audiences.

We spoke last week about his projects old and new, the chances of another (West Coast) Elephant Six tour, and the chances of another nine-year wait for the next Music Tapes record. He tours with Nana Grizol and Brian Dewan. Dewan, a spoken word artist, provided words to much of Koster's unreleased recording Second Imaginary Symphony For Cloudmaking, though he's better known for illustrating Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.

So what's going on with the Orbiting Human Tapdancing Machine? Is it finished yet?

It is not. It's the most complicated thing we've ever attempted. It's very ambitious and part of its original design came from this period of time I spent with my grandpa and I'm trying to kind of be...I want to be true to some of the things that we came up with, rather than just trying to bend to whatever is possible, you know, at the moment, the way that you might otherwise. It's taking a while, but I'm hoping that it'll be able to go out into the world soon. It's also rather costly. Our hope is that maybe by the fall it'll be able to start actually being on recordings and performing and stuff.

When did you first start building instruments? Have you always been one of those people who likes to construct things?

The funny thing is that I am personally very untalented at practical things like building skills and stuff-- woodworking and shop type things. Now I wish that I had taken shop in school. The other funny thing is that in my life the person that knew the most about these sorts of things is my stepfather, and he and I had this horrible, horrible relationship, and so I kind of associated those skills with evil in my childhood.

The way the metronome happened, which was kind of the most miraculous thing of all these projects in my life, was just that I'd drawn a picture of it in a notebook--just drawn a picture and written, '7 foot tall metronome'-- and sort of described what it did. We were at a dinner in Athens, a bunch of our friends were together having food, and a friend of mine just looked over my shoulder and I happened to be writing something on that page and he just said, "What's that?" And I told him what it was, and a couple of my other friends gathered around and they started talking about how it could be done.

The next thing you knew, a few days later we were in my friend's painting studio with a bunch of wood and just starting, and then other friends would come by with little suggestions about the mechanism. One friend who knew trigonometry--he still remembered trigonometry!--helped figure out how to make the dome at the top. Everybody sort of contributed these little bits and it took on this wonderful momentum because it was this fun project happening at this studio and everyone would stop to see how it was going. Within a month, that thing existed in real life. That singular event taught me more about what's possible in this world than almost anything I'd experienced up to that point.

Which of your mechanical creations is coming with you on this trip?

Static's on this trip, and the Seven Foot Tall metronome's on this trip. It seems like now different of the mechanical band members, and our mechanical friends come on different trips because it seems like we're doing lots of different sorts of trips now, like the caroling trip. And there's this thing I want to do in a tent sometime next year so we'll bring different friends out then.

I think the metronome's really good for these kinds of trips because he's such a big fellow, so when you're on these bigger stages in front of bigger rooms, he's got a really commanding presence for that sort of stuff.

Wait, back up-- what thing do you want to do in a tent?

It's going to be called the Traveling Imaginary, and it's gonna be something for a really small group of people at a time. I'm sort of hoping we can go to different cities and stay for a week and do it every night, or at least for a few days, and keep it to very small groups of people at a time because the tent's only 30 feet long. It's meant to be srot of like an imaginary holiday gathering, and there'd be games, and music, and a projector, and little movies, and all these kinds of different activities and things that would be a part of it. Most of it would take place in a tent and some of it would take place outside if it's warm enough and there's fields and things. It could also be set up in warehouses, or art galleries.

You also did the caroling tour, which was centered around a holiday, too. How did that go?

Oh, it was amazing. It was really amazing. I had no idea--I had all these things I'd imagined it might be like, but I really didn't, other than my little daydreams and imaginings that it came from, I didn't have any specific expectations for what the actual physical experience would be like. It was even kind of more wonderful an experience than what I'd been imagining because there were all these things abut it that I hadn't guessed. Going into these funny little holiday gatherings...they were literally holiday gatherings. People would either invite their friends, or sometimes It'd be families, or sometimes it'd be these big groups of people who didn't know each other at all who had just gotten together through the Internet. But it wasn't evident to us. We thought they all belonged to each other, that these were all these groups of friends, that it was a party that someone had put together. We didn't realize until afterwards that they were all strangers to each other.

The feeling of each house that we went into was so different. The feeling that you got for a neighborhood or an area, and then the house, and then the feeling of the people in the house, and the experience of doing it was completely different from house to house every night. It was like a quilt, a patchwork quilt! There were all these kinds of experiences that all got sewn together or strung together. For us--for me--it was so much fun and it was so delightful.

Would you do it again?

Oh, heavens yes. I think it's gonna become a tradition. I'd like to do that every year. I don't think it has to be at Christmastime though. For me, the Christmas aspect of it was lovely and really appropriate, but the funny thing about it is is that when I first had the idea it was simply the idea of touring that way, caroling! And it would be a caroling tour, but I just thought a holiday, to me, is something that doesn't necessarily need to belong to any dates or any specific, you know, anything. It's all ghost stuff. It's all invisible stuff. So I'd like to do it every year at some point, definitely.

Your first couple of recordings told a narrative story-- is there a narrative in Music Tapes For Clouds and Tornadoes?

This record is a different creature in a lot of ways from a lot of the things that I've made because it's to me, it's more like a landscape. The other records were kind of like places to me, too, to be honest, but this one felt more like a landscape where one song was a hill, one was a tree, one was a cow...so all of the things belong to each other in that sense. They were all familial and stuff, but the thing as a whole doesn't tell a narrative story. But then each song sort of seems to tell its own story more. And that's what it felt like it was as a record when it was forming. I kind of said, 'Oh, that's what you are' and in a funny way it was quite unlike the other things that the Music Tapes had done, and that felt kind of fun and exciting to me.

I was sort of curious because it had that little snippet of you and your grandpa toward the end, so I was wondering if there was something going on that I was missing.

It is invisibly, just not logically. It definitely is, you know, in the imaginary stuff. It's just not intellectually this time. Whereas the First Imaginary Symphony really is, very much a story and of course the Cloudmaking record. I don't know if you've come across that. It doesn't really officially exist yet. [interviewer's note: the Second Imaginary Symphony For Cloudmaking was the follow-up to the First Imaginary Symphony for Nomad, but it has not been officially released by Merge and only exists on CD-R. Therefore, it is currently very difficult to procure.]

I've been trying to get my hands on a copy, but no luck yet.

Hopefully Merge will fix that soon. I think they're gonna put it out this year.

You use lots of different kinds of vintage recording equipment to create your records' distinct sound; what gadgets did you use to record Clouds and Tornadoes?

Well, let me see...we used an Ampax 351. Ampax is the early series of the first tape machines in America, and we used the electronics from it. Almost everything on the record was recorded through those electronics. They're some of the wonderful electronics ever, with tubes and things, so we used that a lot.

My favorite microphone, and the microphone that's predominantly recorded almost everything else on the record, is an RCA VX44 ribbon mike, which is a '30s mike, but it's also one of the greatest mikes ever by any standpoint, even from a scientific high fidelity standpoint. It's an extraordinary microphone.

We used a Webster Chicago wire recorder, which is from the '30s, and that machine's really magnificent. It records on wire, which was the first magnetic medium we were using before tape came to America, which was after WWII. Actually the Nazis came up with that one. They figured that one out, tape. But wire is beautiful. It's really interesting because it's this really thin wire. It's not much thicker than human hair. And it's really beautiful silver wire and um, it is actually a relatively noiseless recording medium. And so much so that not on this record, but on the First Imaginary Symphony, there were a couple of instances where I used it and I actually added some of the noise from a wax cylinder because it was just too darn clean. It was too hi-fi.

Yeah, hi-fi isn't really your thing, is it?

I go for hi-fi up to 66, 67. I like that idea of high fidelity a lot. I just think it kinda got off course after that. Sonically it doesn't interest me as much anymore.

I do like computers, too, because they make a lot of things possible that would never have been possible before and would never be possible. You can freeze the character of something, so you can take something recorded on a wire recorder, then you can record something on a wax cylinder to what you recorded on the wire recorder, then you can record something on a late '60s four track and then you can finish it all up and put a xylophone that you record digitally that's just three dimensional, hanging out in the air far in front of everything else and you kind of create this picture that could never be if it weren't for computers. So I am fond of them also. I just would never want to record a song all on a computer unless for some reason that song begged just that, you know?

I've talked to plenty of artists who loathe computers.

There's a lot that's horrible about them, and destructive. With everything, in a funny way, it's more the relationship that everyone and everything forms with the thing, than the thing itself.

So are you planning on making another album anytime soon?

We're going home and making a record from here, a new Music Tapes record. We're hoping to finish it by June. That's our goal. We have all these wonderful machines we're really excited to use. We have this Ampax four track from '66 that's just wonderful and so we're going to use that a lot. There's all this momentum and energy right now and so we're excited to kind of turn that into a recording.

Okay, now I have a selfish question. Will there be another Elephant Six tour anytime soon? Perhaps one that comes out to the West Coast?

We had limitations only because there are so many of us and everybody had other things happening at the same time. We were totally bound by the holes in everybody's schedule. And that was the only reason it didn't go out West. There was this period of just under three weeks when nobody had anything happening, so we had to get in as much as possible. We also had no idea what it would be like, and I think the promoters and everybody who made it happen physically on that end had no idea what to expect either. And we didn't even know exactly what we were going to give them.

The important thing is when we got home, the phrase 'best tour ever' was said by so many of us, just in terms of the fun that we had. It was the most fun tour we'd ever been on and everyone wanted to know when we were gonna do it again, and couldn't wait to do it again.

 
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