An Interview with Julian Koster of The Music Tapes / Neutral Milk Hotel

We are and have always been, a kind of family‘ – Siobhán Kane spoke with Julian Koster ahead of The Music Tapes‘ gigs in Cork, Galway & Dublin this weekend.

There is a roaming nature to Julian Koster‘s creativity, and over the years it has danced around projects like the Elephant 6 collective, Miss America/Chocolate USA, Neutral Milk Hotel and The Music Tapes with a kind of tender grace; pausing for breath when it reaches true connection.

All of Koster’s work has been about this type of connection, a sense of invention, and belief in a kind of magic; it is there on his mastery of the Singing Saw, and other instruments such as the banjo, organ, and inventions like Static the Singing Television, and on records such as Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes (2008) which is a wistful, folk-influenced, understated gem.

His latest work with the Music Tapes is last year’s Mary’s Voice, which sees his expressive vocal folded into a soundscape that takes in pump organ and church bells (among other things), to create an otherworldly, yet strangely familiar experience. This is also the ethos behind the Travelling Imaginary project, which involved making a custom-built circus tent for concerts that would include games, magic and storytelling – a transporting experience, which has met with great acclaim.

In some ways, Koster is the “sleepless sailor” that is referenced in the song “What the Single Made the Needle Sing“; he has a restless, intuitive spirit, the kind that has always set him apart, and the kind that draws him back to an acute sense of kinship, which makes Neutral Milk Hotel’s reunion announcement unsurprising – since “we are and have always been, a kind of family”, as he tells Siobhán Kane.

How has the Travelling Imaginary Tour been going? What have some of the highlights been so far?
I’m afraid we couldn’t do the Travelling Imaginary in Ireland this tour – we couldn’t afford to bring the show over – but have hopes to bring the new version over in 2015, but it was amazing. We had such wonderful nights on that tour. It was so nice to be able to travel bringing something so immersive. The moment people walked through the door, every aspect of their experience was something that we prepared for them. So the night becomes an orchestrated set of feelings, each feeling builds on the next one. And for us, it was like travelling with our dream home, and getting to invite guests into our world. It was as comforting as an adventure gets.

The evolution of the project has been a really interesting one, you had a Kickstarter campaign to commission a custom-made circus tent and sound system, and the Live Arts Bard programme has been very helpful – you were able to use their Fisher Centre as a way to explore the project, and did a lot of work in a sense before the tent was even made. Was it heartening to get that kind of support before even taking the project out? How did it all come about?
The support for this dream from ordinary people has been amazing and humbling. It would’ve been impossible without the astonishing outpouring through Kickstarter – the show ended up costing much more than we imagined, to make. I will always remember the seemingly instant, spontaneous, generosity of all those people.

And then there were these little miracles: the great artist Paul Matisse lending us his studio out of the blue for a week to put together the tent for the first time. Mr Matisse is one of my favourite modern artists. He is grandson of Henri Matisse, and stepson of Duchamp, and as much as I love their work, I have never responded half as much to it, as I have to a couple of Paul Matisse’s works. He has made things that achieve, what is to me, the highest pinnacle of art. So, to be invited into his studio, and get to meet those pieces, along with our jolly team of collaborators, and spend a week working, was just amazing. And then, when we were desperate for a place to build the show itself, out of the blue and on incredibly short notice, the Bard Live Arts program stepped in and saved the day. The gave us the Fisher Centre and all of its resourses, and were so kind.

My favourite thing about the show itself was how it seemed to entertain people of all ages, from our 20-something and teen audience, to their parents, grandparents and little children. It was a great privillage to be able to entertain so many kinds of people all at once.

The project also consists of games, magic, storytelling – all within a giant circus tent – how did this idea come about?
I have always found games, stories, and unexplainable expiriences, as natural and exciting as dreaming up songs. We love the idea of making worlds for people to step into – presenting kind realities for play and amusement, or even just exploration. So we try to present as much of that as possible when we do a show.

This reminds me that as we get older, so many of us lose the sense of playfulness that is so natural to us as children; is this a way to remind us how the ability to “play” is as important as many other aspects of living?
I think play is a part of how we grow as living beings. Playing changes us. It is the part of the learning process that is lovingly using a given moment in the name of fun alone – you get the feeling the jazz man gets in playing his greatest solo, and in doing so, you achieve what generations have asked form drugs and all manner of things. Your consciousness expands. I believe this learning and growth continues as long as you are on this earth. It has to do with childhood, only in that it begins there – but it ought to go on and on.

The Music Tapes have always been about reclaiming that sense of play – it reminds me about some of the instruments you use – like the Singing Saw – how did your relationship with the Saw begin?
I saw an old man playing it when I was a little boy. I couldn’t believe it was real. It was like a magical illusion, and the sound was so beautiful. So quivering and human, and real, yet so absolutely angelic at the same time. I just had to learn how to do it.

How is Static at the moment? He is one of my favourite parts of The Music Tapes, and seems like an honorary member. How did he come about in the first instance?
Static is well, thank you, and here with us on this tour. When I was a kid I had a television in a room that was broken. It didn’t get a picture – only static, or sound – only a single tone. I used to listen to the tone until I could hear melodies in it. I became convinced that the television was singing to me, and it comforted me, and helped me sleep at night. That television is now part of the band. He sings for the audience.

How did your own relationship with music begin? Can you remember the first instrument you started out on, and how you perceived making and listening to music? It seems that your relationship is ever deeper with it, because you see it as something that has an almost spiritual content, that is as natural as the mountains and sea around us.
Thank you. I was born into a world where music was constantly being played, or playing. My father plays concert flamenco guitar, and played for hours and hours each day. Sometimes the gypsies would come visit us, and they would play and drink together. My mother was a modern dancer, and so there was also often electronic music she would listen to as part of a choreography. I remember them listening to The Beatles. So music was just a part of the world, something that was always there like the birds chirping. I think that music is a language that communicates a great deal that is too vast for almost any other language to communicate. It has a great deal to give.

I saw you last year in the Union Chapel with Jeff Mangum – you used the space so well, and it was a magical evening, how did that evening feel for you?
Thank you, that’s so kind! All of the things that we hope to share, come from fits of inspiration that are some of my favourite experiences in life. They are moments that come from a sort of solitude and end in a kind of warm feeling of absorption in everything – the whole of the world. So I always hope that something of that feeling, and the feeling of the magic of working and striving to make things together with people that you love, is available to the audience. That feeling is certainly what we would like to make manifest for everybody.

The announcement that Neutral Milk Hotel would be touring together again seemed as natural a step as taking a sip of water, because there is so much affection between you all, and a sense of childlike enthusiasm for music that is very moving. You must be excited to work together again, although you have constantly worked with each other over the years.
Well, we love each other. We are and have always been, a kind of family. Playing together has been, and is, a lot of fun. So we will have a lot of fun. I think it will also be fun for that particular grouping of us to do all of that travelling together again. It’s nice to see the world with your friends and play it music.

A sense of community seems very important to you. You have lived in so many places, gathering experiences and friends as you go, all part of a growing community of open-hearted people. Have you always been quite nomadic? Are you happy being inbetween places?
I have always been very nomadic, it’s true. That is why my friends, these connections, have always been so important to me, because they make a home. Something outside of time and space. I have to admit that right now I do have a strong yearning to have a house that’s my house. Still travel and go between places, but have a real home. But I don’t know where yet. It will have to be a place I love very, very much.

Where are you based now? I read recently that you were living “in farm country” on the Hudson River, that sounds like a lovely place.
Right now I am mostly in New York City, but we have been travelling so much and will continue to for more than a year, that I am mostly where I wake up!

You helped the Paragon Carousel stay open, which was really heartening, how did that come about? Was it when you lived in Nantasket? That seemed like a very special place to you.
The Carousel, and Nantasket are special places to me. I lived there some in the mid-noughties, and visit regularly. It’s not far from where my grandmother lives. Something about the place moves me. It’s a magical place of amusement and holiday, yet it’s also very working class and plain at the same time. It’s kind of simple and safe too. You can ice skate in a park in the middle of the night and the police won’t come. The Carousel is doing well. I think sometimes we get a little too much credit for that. We just saw a way maybe we could help a little. It’s a nice place to visit if you are ever in the US.

You also once lived on the island in Maine – how did that come about? You said that you weren’t really travelling around that time at all, instead you were spending time “being lost in your own world” – what was that time like?
The best part of that time, were these long days, which I just got to wander through, and really enjoy the feeling of time, of being alive in a beautiful place. I would wake up, drink coffee, usually write a little, then take a long walk around the island looking at the sea. There were very few people on the island, so there was a wonderful feeling of peace and solitude. I would go home and begin playing music. I’d usually record for a while, cook dinner, take another walk. There were deer on the island. That was where I learned that deer can swim in the ocean, and that lobsters live into their eighties.

It was very cheap on the island because nobody wanted to be there in the winter. It was a special time, but I should never have stopped touring, or been so far away from my Elephant 6 friends for so long.

It felt like Mary’s Voice was a long time in the making – it is a great record, and so layered and rich, did it take a long time to record and come together?
Thank you! For The Music Tapes, it came together quite quickly. The Music Tapes record-making process sometimes feels like sea change. It often happens very slowly, but with a great feeling of arrival when it’s done.

There seems to be an inherent optimism within your latest record, like being transported to a safe place – is that how it feels to you?
Aw, I’m so glad. Yes, that is how it feels to me. I mean to say, that’s what making music and stories and games feels like to me – being transported to a safe place. I am an optimist. This world deserves optimism.

You have evolved a wonderful Christmas carolling tradition with the Singing Saw – going around to people’s homes and other interesting places to bring the tradition to them – it would be lovely for you to do it in Ireland one day, since we have such a tradition of singing – what do you think?
You know, I would love that. I would love to do that on your side of the Atlantic. Hopefully someday we will! I am hoping we can be more constantly engaged in sharing the things we make, in Ireland, the UK, and Europe in the coming years.

What some of your highlights have been with the carolling over the last few years?
The highlights are all just people and their homes. We met so many kinds of people, were welcomed into so many kinds of homes. It’s just always a wonderful feeling.

What other projects you have got coming up?
The Orbiting Human Circus – the name we have always given to our group of collaborators that produces all of the things we make beyond music, has just become a very real organisation. We are working on a big new version of the Tent Show that will travel in 2015 as a theatrical installation. It will feel something like a carnival of our original games and attractions with a nightly show in the tent. We are beginning development on that now.

There is also a new body of songs that will accompany it, and take album form.

What you are watching, reading, and listening to? I know that Kurt Vonnegut is someone you have looked to since you were quite little, he has such humanity, and humour – something that you and your work also possess.
Oh, that is lovely and kind. I love the Russian writers. I love Pushkin’s prose stories. Chekhov’s short stories are my favourite thing. And I love Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, when he is just being a storyteller. I love Bruno Schulz. Theodor Dreiser, O. Henry, t he Marx Brothers. Ernst Lubitsch, and his film Ninotchka. Also, a wonderful film called Ruggles of Red Gap starring Charles Laughton; Employees’ Entrance, a pre- code film from the 30’s starring Warren William. The films of Terence Davies – one of our great living geniuses. A wonderful collection of R Stevie Moore songs called – Meet the R Stevie Moore. And always Billie Holiday, The Orioles, and Fred Astaire, especially doing Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and the Gershwins.

The Music Tapes play Cyprus Avenue in Cork on  Friday 12th July, The Roisin Dubh in Galway on Saturday July 13th and The Workman’s Club in Dublin on Sunday 14th July.

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