For decades, Julian Koster has cultivated a menagerie of towering metronomes, choirs of musical saws, and wonders previously seen only in dreams. Told through song and story under the moniker Music Tapes, Koster, a native New Yorker, has shared this whimsical eccentricity with the help of fellow members of the indie music collective Elephant 6. He's best known for his contributions to seminal indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel, but Music Tapes exhibits Koster at his most creative and charismatic. Animated and nimble, he has taken to performing in fans' homes (as part of several holiday "caroling" tours) and, most recently, in a Kickstarter-funded circus tent.
Music Tapes will now return to New York for a special engagement: an immersive theatrical experience... aboard the Hudson River Park carousel. Titled "Night, Janitor, Carousel," the show debuts the latest manifestations of Koster's vision. The show, which is part of En Garde Arts’ BOSSS (Big Outdoor Site-Specific Stuff) is free and has limited seating. More information can be found here. Note: the dates have been changed due to weather. The shows will now be the weekend of October 23rd.
The carousel is a recurring motif in your art. What value does it hold for you? Did "Night, Janitor, Carousel" exist before the Hudson River Park carousel came into play? Yeah, it kind of just happened accidentally, and we rewrote it for the carousel, of course, but it’s been super fun to do and it’s happened really all by itself, like it wants to happen. I just think carousels are beautiful, simple machines that people make to give others a very simple experience of something magical. It’s a machine that creates an experience that transforms into an environment. It leaves all this space for you. You’re in motion, you’re spinning, you’re in this thing that somebody made to give you a nice feeling, you know? And we all are doing it together and it’s real. It’s like when human invention was a lot more naive and exciting and bursting forth in these ways that were a little different from the way human ingenuity can go now. It’s nice because it’s new, so it doesn’t have a turn of the century feeling that, say, the Philadelphia Toboggan Company carousels do, but it has its own charm, and it’s really great when people build stuff like this.
There’s an intimacy there that is crucial to the Music Tapes experience. You just recently ended a very long tour with Neutral Milk Hotel. Those shows took place in larger spaces. Did you crave the intimacy during that time? I love opera houses and I think it’s incredibly fun to get in front of thousands and thousands of people, because a very different thing can happen. But I could never just do that, or even most of the time, because of the things that you can create like ‘Night, Janitor, Carousel,’ being in something with somebody, inviting them inside and being all a part of it together. I mean, there’s so many incredibly special, adventurous things that can happen when people share music or art that way. There’s such a beautiful, amazing tradition of it, this funny, glowing tradition that’s been passed down since all of mankind has been around. I do think that once it gets to a certain size, it becomes something else entirely.
At the end of last year, you performed a series of caroling performances via telephone. I’ve always wanted to do that before, and we have; when we first did it was in the mid-aughts. But I really just love being able to create an auditory reality, and it’s fun to be able to do it for somebody in the moment. You’re sharing it together, but you’re creating a world for them, for their imagination. They’re seeing everything in their imagination, so they can see all these surreal, impossible things and just convey that they’re happening for them. That’s their reality. It’s like a movie, or better yet a novel, but you’re doing it for somebody in real time. And they’re responding, which for show people… I mean, it’s really nice to have a real audience in front of you, because then you’re both giving something to each other. You’re always renewed by it, rather than exhausted by it. It will extend to the upcoming Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) podcast, and I’m not sure how much we should talk about it, but it will include characters from this show.
What was your creative process for Music Tapes-related business while on tour? We were working on this show, but there’s a whole body of stuff, like the podcast, that was being worked on since Neutral Milk Hotel began the reunion tour. There’s three different plays that feature the same group of characters in the same world. Being on tour, there’s a lot of time, like, you wake up in the city where you’ll play and then have a few hours, and so I’d do a lot of writing or recording or editing, which is fun, because then you can be creative all day, and finally walking on stage is the best part of the day, by far. It’s amazing traveling and being in different places, but it was really nice to have things to work on all day. And then you just walk on stage and it feels wonderful.
What is it about a janitor that fascinates you so? Gosh…well, a funny part of the character was that he was forced to clean a lot as a kid, and he hated it. He ran away, and had all this knowledge and skill to clean and not much else, and he ended up being a janitor because he could get a job with this craft, but he hates it. But in a weird way, he can’t get away from the thing that was foisted upon him as a kid, and though he ran away, he still couldn’t get away from it. Now he’s confronted with it, and he has to learn to be it. He doesn’t get off that easy, and he has to learn to find his way through it and conquer it, and that’s a lot like life.
His loneliness is navigating him, and I feel like that navigation is just what that character is. In a lot of ways, I feel like it’s like a drag queen or something in a funny way. It’s a character, but it’s another part of you. It wasn’t so much I was deciding from the outside; it was more, “Who is this person?” His qualities just scream that he’s a janitor at night and he’s cleaning stuff alone. But only a little of it is in this particular play, and there’s a lot of it to go around.
Tell us a little bit about this team from Bard, who compose the production team for the Orbiting Human Circus. They’re such a huge element that hasn’t really been exposed. The funny thing is to talk about loneliness, and the character has this loneliness, but truly I’ve been blessed with incredible people. Obviously, Robbie [Cucchiaro] and Thomas [Hughes] and all the other members of the Music Tapes. Robbie’s always been making objects and breathing life into that whole world. Thomas, instead of just playing instruments, has been doing string orchestration for this show. It’s all been spreading out and widening, and then you got all these other people whose background is theatre, and that’s exciting for me because that’s this other grand artistic tradition that I think is amazing, and we’ve always wanted to create this story and something for people to come inside of. Ellie [Heyman] is an amazing director, Christy [Gressman] has been a great producer… there’s all these moving parts in something like this. There’s no way that any of my friends, or anything that I’ve been a part of creatively, could have made anything like what we’re making now.
During the Neutral Milk Hotel shows, Jeff Mangum made a point to remind audience members to put away their phones. Is it important that people remain in the moment? Your hope is to make something where people don’t even think of getting out their phones. I don’t think that’s easy. I saw that when the Pope came by, I know that people waited all those hours to see the Pope took out their phones, and those are the people who love him! I don’t think you need to say “don’t take out your phone,” but you can clearly be offering something that may make someone all by themselves not want to. I remember when [Elephant 6 Recording Company] started doing shows again after I was living in a bunch of different places for a number of years. At one of the first shows, I thought everybody had somebody else on the phone that couldn’t be there, that they were listening to the concert, because we did this parade through the crowd, and everyone had their phones up, and I thought, “Oh, that’s cool! They all had friends that couldn’t make it and they want to be here.”
A lot of culture, especially in indie music, seems contingent on nostalgia. Does that have any importance for you? I’m glad to hear it, first of all. I’m fairly isolated, so I tend to miss out on a lot of cultural trends, truth be told. But I think that nostalgia is greatly misunderstood, and we need a new word because it’s been given a false definition. Sentimentality and nostalgia… it’s like…actually, it’s more just like a very real, functional, necessary relationship to the world, to love specialness, to recognizing what’s happened, and what’s been, and what’s happening, and actually being able to live it, to have it, and to be with it. Without that feeling...I mean, if there’s a singularity to be scared of, it’s not that the robots are going to be smarter than us, but us turning ourselves into robots. But we won’t.
Your music has been very analog, often using early 1900s instrumentation and recording equipment. There have been a lot of games and objects to create a specific experience with performances. Does that become more important to you as the rest of the world skews more digitally? The most important thing about hands-on, I guess, is the care. One nice thing about physical objects is that they respond to that care. You polish a piece of wood and it gets shiny, whereas things in the digital plane are just operating on a different logic. In a lot of ways, most of the things we do could never happen without the digital technologies. You can use them in billions of ways. I’ve always seen them as partners, or helpers, to the physical stuff, because a little bit of magic can help. It’s so fragile and full of faults and needs, and so the digital can swoop in and be a weird miracle maker, and when it’s in a physical or analogue plane it becomes really surreal, which I love.
Do you ever worry about whether the physicality will be less important to people? I don’t feel it’ll become less important to anyone. I mean, we’re physical. We have more to do with the physical than we’ll ever have to do with the digital, or, frankly, than just the purely rational. In a lot of ways, well... we keep swinging back. When I was a kid and we had our first chance to make a record, that was right when they said vinyl was dead. We had one of the first albums that our company put out without vinyl, and I was very young, but I feel like I’d been waiting my whole life to put out an LP, and they outlawed them, right when I was ready to finally make one! And now look at it! People longed for it, they missed it, and maybe they needed to have it taken away in order to see what it is, and say, “Oh my god, that’s what that really is and that’s what it means to me.” I think the same thing is going to happen with film, and projection. It’s already happening with books—those kindle things are selling way less and people are buying books more and more. People love the real world.
Max Kyburz also writes for Tiny Mix Tapes (under the pen name 80s Tom Hanks) and Brooklyn Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn.