PART III: THE MYTHOS
The music and the movie, even when played together, ask more questions than they answer. Even live, Major Organ and the Adding Machine are hidden behind masks and secrets. We talked to Julian Koster (The Music Tapes, Neutral Milk Hotel), a key player who made a brief cameo as the Umbrella Man in the movie, about the mystery surrounding the project itself. While some things remain unanswered, the mythos behind Major Organ begins to emerge.
What triggered the music to be developed?
It kind of had its own delightful momentum and logic. As a project, it sort of happened all by itself. Mostly, it was recording. It started at our house: Me and Jeff [Mangum], Laura Carter, Robbie [Cucchiaro, of The Music Tapes], and I think Bryan Poole — B.P. Helium — was there at the time too. It was a tape-splice record, a lot of physical tape splicing, and it just created something that was a tremendous amount of fun. That was its entire purpose and means of existing.
How many people were involved, in total, with the project?
Oh god, millions. [laughs] Nobody touched a cent of the money that the record made. There were also a couple shows we did, and nobody touched that either, because we thought, why bother? It’s funny when I think about it: At the earliest point, one of the ideas was [that] we should rescue an elephant and have it live at Orange Twin [Conservation Community, in Athens], with the money we made. Well, at least, it was my idea, and I couldn’t convince the others to do it.
“You know, the first time I saw the movie… I was sincerely, deeply grateful when it ended, because I had been laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe, and the muscles in my cheeks [laughs], my cheeks felt insane because I had been smiling so much. I don’t know if I ever smiled that broadly or laughed that hard for such a sustained period of time.”
Considering that, there was a lot of mystery and secrecy involved in the project. Why the secrecy? Did it have something to do with the number of people involved?
That’s very perceptive of you, actually. It did have something to do with the way that it came together, because it was so alien and amusing. It basically made us all laugh as it was coming into being. It actually developed the way you hear it on the record, from the first song forward. It was on a single piece of tape. Almost all of side one was this huge, taped-together, spliced-up 8-track tape. So it was just so hilarious and funny and identity-less. It wasn’t any single band at all, and it wasn’t even a band at all either. It was just this creative thing. And it felt like, well, who’s in the band? In a funny way, nobody even knew what it was that we were making, or who was actually in it. Even when people collaborated, they did it in such a different way than they normally would, with different roles, that it suddenly just made sense, and it became a lot of fun.
When you guys realized there wasn’t going to be a movie, what did you guys do?
Honestly, we tend to blow with the prevailing winds, especially at that time in Athens. When things are going good here in Athens at any given time, there’s this creative chaos going on, and there’s just not a lot of resources, like control or extra money. So you think whatever you can make happen, you make happen, and you tend to work with what you got. That seems to make everything better, because whenever you’re given limitations, like oh, that can’t happen right now, but this can, and you weren’t thinking of this. Well, “this” can become ten times more exciting because someone has an amazing idea, and the next thing you know, boom! There you are, doing it. That’s how we all just took it. We wanted to make it exist, and we all enjoyed it. I personally didn’t even know it was going to come out. The idea of it coming out seemed really foreign. It never occurred to me, really.
Was there a general idea as to where you wanted to go with this project, at least musically?
None whatsoever. It just decided itself, and that was what was just so fun about it. So much of what we had done had very distinct roles that everyone played. There was a very distinct vision that was usually pretty clear. Once the project was established, we all felt what the project’s vision was. With this one, it was being dictated by what was coming out of the recording, by the crazy process of collaboration, and the idea of edits coming through the mouth [of] Major Organ. This outside entity can be taken as a literal truth or a metaphor, and neither one would actually be incorrect.
The artwork on the cover, and seen in some parts of the movie, is a flaming tuba being saluted. Why would anyone want to salute a flaming tuba?
Nobody would for any good reason, because that’s actually a euphonium. …I need a drum set for making jokes like that. [laughs]
“… with records and songs, the way they can be real, meaningful, and loving friends to people, and the roles that they can play in people’s lives can be so incomprehensible to a lot of folks who’ve never experienced it, or more likely have experienced it and then forgotten.”
Aww sorry, I thought that was a tuba for some reason!
It’s okay. I think the man to ask that question to is Terry Roulette, who painted the cover. But one thing that’s kind of interesting is, there weren’t any boys around, or rather there was only one boy around when he had to make the painting. So, two of the models are girls trying to look like boy scouts, which I found kind of funny.
A couple of tracks on the reissue are from the movie, such as “The Boy and The Girl” and “Francisco’s Fanfare.” What is the story behind those tracks?
I’m not so sure about those tracks. The thing is, the body of the work was such a sprawl. Side one was exactly as you hear it, and then side two was a sprawl that just kept building and building, like a small snowball rolling down the hill in Athens, and it just became all this stuff. Plus, I wasn’t even around for the finishing of the record in terms of it coming out as a release.
Despite the lack of a complete narrative, the flow of the album, especially the reissue, seems to be pretty consistent and smooth. Was that intentional?
I can’t say much about the reissue, but with the original record I can say this much: The one big thing about it that makes it special, even in today’s world, is that it’s a tape-spliced record. I think tape splicing has the most amazing character, a very special character. You can make something happen that’s really magical that just could never happen editing something on a computer, such as a transition or a straight cut.
There’s this kind of magical sense of event and relationship that happens when you physically splice tape. It feels right because you’re physically holding it in your hands. I think it’s sad in a weird way that the world is going to be treated so much less in the way of physical splicing anymore. But anyway, I think there are a few instances on that record that that’s showcased really nicely. I’m a big believer in real splices. They’re amazing.
I can understand. I’m an audio engineer myself, and I’ve always found tape splicing to be fascinating.
There’s a chance of an event, of something happening. In addition to the relationship of the two things, you feel like something’s really happening in this exciting way.
The album and movie both closed with “Life Forms (Transmission Received),” which Hart mentioned you did an incredible job building on his work. I’m particularly interested in that song: What were you trying to say?
I guess, for me, I don’t tend to make things up intellectually. They just come, and then I understand what they mean later from the brain. But for me, things just come from way deeper, either from the heart or the imagination.
In terms of what I did with that song, I think that my interpretation or my feeling at the time was just that, with records and songs, the way they can be real, meaningful, and loving friends to people, and the roles that they can play in people’s lives can be so incomprehensible to a lot of folks who’ve never experienced it, or more likely have experienced it and then forgotten. I guess that is, on an immediate level, what it was about. It seemed to radiate from that experience. Does that answer your question?
“The one big thing about it that makes it special, even in today’s world, is that it’s a tape-spliced record.”
Yeah, yeah it does. Now, when you played Major Organ songs on the Holiday Surprise Tour two years ago, you played with masks on. What was the need for that?
In a weird way, the secrecy and mystery in that was all in honor of the spirit of the project, which we all enjoyed. That’s why it existed: It was all something that we enjoyed. The motivation for putting it out was honestly just to share our enjoyment with whoever else might. Sure, it was sort of like trying to honor the spirit of this old friend of ours, and I like that. I think it’s really appropriate. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun playing in costume.
Who knows? Maybe there’ll be a Major Organ concert someday, and the whole thing will be in costumes. There’s something nice about nobody knowing for sure who’s onstage or who’s doing what. There’s just something really nice about the way you feel when you have a mask on. It’s such a rare experience; you really get to be something else. And that was kind of what Major Organ was like: It wasn’t really like us; it was almost like a big costume or something. So it just seems really appropriate and fun.
Speaking of the concept of having a Major Organ concert, will we ever see Major Organ again, live or a recording?
I would be slightly surprised if you didn’t see both of those things someday. However, you can never tell in life, that’s for sure. But I would be surprised if that didn’t happen, if only because it would be a tremendous amount of fun. Plus, all the people involved love each other very much and enjoy each other’s company very much and enjoy doing things together. It certainly could happen.
Earlier, you were mentioning how developing the album really captured the spirit of Athens at the time. Do you feel like the reissue has not only captured that, but also captured what being Athens and being in Elephant 6 at the time meant?
Sure. I’ve seen all the stuff [on the DVD]. Obviously I’ve seen the movie, which really captures the spirit of things. You know, the first time I saw the movie, I was really grateful when it ended. I was sincerely, deeply grateful when it ended, because I had been laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe, and the muscles in my cheeks [laughs], my cheeks felt insane because I had been smiling so much. I don’t know if I ever smiled that broadly or laughed that hard for such a sustained period of time [laughs].
I love all the stuff, the Elephant 6 at the Movies after that. I’m especially glad that clip of Major Organ live is on there with Jill Carnes singing. It’s a really wonderful memory and it definitely captures the spirit of that time a lot. To be honest, I’m in Athens right now, and things are kind of amazing. I’m grateful to say that I don’t have to even look to things like that to remind me. It’s just all here.