The Music Tapes: Interview
“There’s no one reality. I think that there are layers upon layers of realities, and that’s what we actually experience.”

Bill Doss passed at the end of July. How is everyone holding up? How are you holding up?

We miss him very much. Sometimes I catch myself pretending that he’s there in Athens. I know that the loss and the missing of him is just going to be present for everyone, I’m sure. There’s not really going to be anything to change that. But I know that it’s made very clear that, having him a part of our lives was a gift, and at the same time, I think he gave us a parting gift for our family, the Elephant 6 family. And at the same time, I think it was impossible for us to realize what a gift loving Bill and having him [be] a part of our lives was without also being shown just how much of a gift all of us being a part of each other’s lives is. It’s made our family even closer, were I to guess such a thing were possible.

You know, it’s funny, he always brought us together, and he was just delighted by everyone coming together and making something. He was really devoted [to] the process of making something. I don’t think he loved anything — except for Amy — more than traveling and playing music and being on some big musical endeavor with all of his friends. There’s a really a tremendous amount of love right now between everybody, and at the same time, I think because Bill loved the making of things and the playing of music so much that I also feel like that it may even embolden us a little bit or have emboldened us a little bit.

The radiant love and belief that he had in all of us making things together, it feels like when people pass away, they become a part of everyone who loved them. In a way, I think that you can sometimes feel a stronger, different kind of belief or love inside yourself that maybe is a part of that person or maybe is the legacy and gift to you. So, in a way, it’s very close and appreciative time for our family and friends. I will always miss him.

Moving on, one thing I’ve always admired about your work is the artwork that you put into it. The drawings, the figurines, the handmade letters, and other things. What inspires you in your art?

Well, first of all, thank you. To be honest, so much of the actual process of making things for me is unconscious. Like, I don’t know if I understand intellectually where any inspiration ever comes from. I think I’m just waiting around for something inspirational to visit me at any given moment or during the day, and if it does, I feel kind of delighted and warm and happy and try to follow it through. I very rarely know what I’m doing, and even if I figure out what I’m supposed to be doing with the inspiration, I just get all tripped up and confused.

I know so many visual artists, and I can’t even draw a straight line or a perfect circle. I also know all these people who have this sense of composition where they understand that if you put something over on the left corner, that it feels more right if there’s something in the right center or something like that. I am so clueless, it’s ridiculous. I just put stuff there until I get the right feeling.

One nice thing with carnivals is that you can bring your world into any situation, and once you set up your thing, it’s your world, no matter what’s going on around it. That’s a fun thought, because really, we can do it anywhere and in any situation.

On this record, it’s cool because Maggie Fost at Merge does all the design work, and is a wonderful and kind friend and champion of our desire to do the kinds of artwork we always desire to do. And Merge itself has always been so kind and so generous in being excited in making these things, even with our first album with them. So, she was really championing the idea of doing some really nice things that we hoped or dreamed to do. But there wasn’t much time, because we finished the record in such a flurry, and there was this release date of September.

So I just got on a bus to Toronto, and went and stayed there. For two days, basically, including one day where I woke up, I went to her house at 8 in the morning, and we didn’t stop except to eat until 1 in the morning or something like that. Oh, and there was that one break where we played wiffle ball with her little boy. He hit a crazy home run off me; it was like an upper-deck home run. But anyway, it was a real adventure, and Maggie was so cool, and it was very collaborative. It’s more like an adventure or walking out onto a stage. And that’s why I’m super-excited for the next record now, too, because I can’t wait to make another pop-up. It’s all so much fun to get to do, and I just hope we get to do more and more, because it’s really a delight to have that in your life.

It’s intersting you mention pop-up. Given your previous works with it, especially with the work you did for 1st Symphony for Nomad, you seem particularly fond of the art form. What draws you to it?

One big thing that is just striking to me about it is the three-dimensionality, and the fact that it becomes an object. I always felt like it was a good thing also to try and create something that… You’re always trying to welcome somebody into your world, or that’s the hope, at least. It’s like you want to invite someone into it in a way that makes them comfortable, and to help them understand where they’re going is a part of making them comfortable. Since we weren’t making songs for the dancefloor or songs that were going to work well at keg parties, then in a sense what we were doing was making things to be absorbed.

It felt right to have the artwork be something that was different and had a certain dimensionality to it.

I understand you are holding off on officially releasing The 2nd Imaginary Symphony for Cloudmaking for now because of everything that is happening at the moment, among other things. I’m just curious, do you have any ideas in terms of something to do in conjunction with the release?

I really want to perform it. I want to perform from start to finish. And Brian Dewan, the narrator, is totally on board with that. I know he has said many times that it’s something he’d like to do. I would love to just have all the orchestration and then all the foley stuff set up; it’d be fun to do that live. Then, maybe, it’d be even fun to just shoot some film, just a little bit of film for just certain parts of it and have a couple projectors screening it. But I would love to perform it at least a few times. Again, I don’t know exactly in what capacity, but it would be so much fun to do that. And it’s funny, because I believe Merge really loves it. It’s a very different thing — I[‘ve] never put out anything remotely like it before — but that’s more or less always the case with The Music Tapes anyway.

It’s funny, because I think there have been plans several times for it to come out, but for one reason or another, it’s just never actually happened. Like, there was a couple years where the idea was it would be a good Christmas record, but then we kept missing the deadline for Christmas, which is actually at the end of the summer. And then we’ll be like, “Oh well, then next year!” and then it’d be next year, and we missed the deadline again… A chipmunk just came almost all the way up to me without seeing me, and then just looked up at me and went “WHOOOOA” and turned around and ran.

I am so clueless, it’s ridiculous. I just put stuff there until I get the right feeling.

If it’s any comfort to you, there’s a cat that’s been meowing outside my door on occasion for the duration of this interview. I think it wants to play or something.

Seems nice. Yeah, I’m crazy about chipmunks… But anyway, there are lots of really neat ideas for ways to do it that I probably shouldn’t talk about because who knows if we’ll be able to do it? But Merge has been super-creative, and I hope that someday we’ll be able to do a nice proper release for it… And now there is a bee landing on me.

Something I’ve noted in your work is the constant reference to Nantasket Beach in Hull, Massachusetts: The song Nantasket on Purim’s Shadows (and the short serenade track before it), your successful efforts in renovating the Paragon Carousel, you wearing a Paragon Park shirt. It must mean a lot to you. What is the connection?

It’s a place I’ve lived, and it’s definitely a place I love. It’s one of the first places that I felt this kind of very deep feeling of home from the place itself. I had always traveled all over, waiting for a certain feeling, and then I did feel it there. It’s almost like falling in love with a person. I spend a lot of time there, and I feel like there are certain physical locations that can almost be entryways into vaster, infinite spaces, or other realities that you can interact from this reality, as people do when they make up stories or create songs or films. I do feel like that that’s one place that I would go to in my memory or my mind, I go to physically, and I see places that aren’t physically there from that viewpoint, from that perspective that that place affords.

And even in my love for that place, and when I am in that place, I am seeing things and feeling things that have more to do with what it was at another time, like the turn of the last century — things that are gone that were there. But there’s a niftiness about the place. You can see a long way down to the point of the peninsula and it’s often foggy, and you can see, feel, and believe in the presence of all kinds of things that feel very nice and very special too when you’re there. All of that is wrapped up together in why it keeps coming off. I’m definitely a person who wears the things that I love almost literally on my chest or on my sleeve. In a way, that’s my relationship with the place.

The carousel is a very special thing. I think we [Neutral Milk Hotel] get much too much credit for our contribution. I mean, it was drop in the bucket, what we were able to do. But I’m grateful we were able to do anything at all. But the person who does the practical running of the carousel is a pretty wonderful fellow. He’s been very kind to us for years, just in terms in running, hearing the band organ play, and showing me it, and letting me play along with it sometimes. It’s a really special thing. The carousel has been exactly as it’s been for generations, and it’s as much a miracle now as it was then, if not more… And I love the ocean. I have a deep love affair with the Atlantic Ocean. I love boating in the ocean. So all of those things are a part of it.

I can see where you get that sense of manifesting other realities from being somewhere. I always got that feeling when I was living in Chicago (I live in the Bay Area now). You were onto something when you mentioned that.

Actually, I feel like there isn’t one reality. There’s no “one reality.” I think that there are layers upon layers of realities, and that’s what we actually experience. Even the reality that we try to put our finger on as the common objective reality is only material to a very small percent. Most of it is not material. Most of it is not even singular. It really is just layers and layers of ideas and thoughts and feelings and understandings, which are unique and to themselves. I think we experience thousands and thousands of them every week. To me, that’s a much more accurate portrait of this existence we’re all feeling.

So, all of these vastnesses and all of these different realities become very special and very important. Especially if you are lucky enough to identify some that are very loving and very special and very meaningful for whatever reason. So I think it’s natural to really value them, and to seek them, or to even pursue them. Surely that’s what all kinds of people do in all walks of life, not to mention authors, artists, poets, and anybody else. We’re all doing that very actively and very powerfully.