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.”
It’s easy to misinterpret Julian Koster, the main force of The Music Tapes and seminal figure of the Elephant 6 Recording Company. His gentle and quiet demeanor, vast imagination, Schultzean art, and whimsical approach to his music suggest a child-like sentiment and understanding of the world. While that notion may not be completely off, his manner belies a deeper complexity in understanding reality and shaping it to create a world that can be ours, as well as an emotional intensity that is as much whole as it is wholesome and a technical flexibility that few can even admit having. It is such humanity that has made fans everywhere of The Music Tapes, enough to fund his Kickstarter, the wonderful Traveling Imaginary tour, a couple times over its goal.
Before Labor Day weekend, I spoke to Julian over the phone about the Traveling Imaginary and the visions he hoped to attain with its funding success, which was already certain at that point. We also spoke at length about his new album, Mary’s Voice, as well as the Purim’s Shadows EP. Furthermore, we touched on the passing of close friend and E6 co-founder Bill Doss, his artwork, and his connection to a certain place.
Let’s start with Traveling Imaginary. As of this morning, you’ve made more than $13,000 in pledging, close to triple what you asked for. How are you feeling about this?
I think the most powerful feeling was just the kind of overwhelming realization that there are that many people out there that care that much. The first day was such a surprise. We had no idea what to expect, and I knew very little about Kickstarter before this. I’m not super up on a lot of the cultural things that are going on to do with the internet. But it was just amazing that all those people responded that way. It’s been wonderful. Yeah, I mean, emotionally, it’s been such an incredible feeling, because it feels like an outpouring of kindness and goodwill. Usually, a very humbling thing to be on the other end of.
You seem really surprised at how much support you got out of this endeavor.
Absolutely. We had no idea what to expect. It’s funny, I’ve always had these dreams, these things that I can imagine that are impossible, always. I have notebooks full of things that would literally cost millions of dollars to realize [laughter]. We’re used to trying to do whatever we can with sand and duct tape, basically — with whatever we have and can muster. Right now, we’re working on plans to do a lot of things that, thanks to this, would never have been possible, and we didn’t know what would be possible. And a lucky thing too, because of course the other thing that happens is that everything that I imagine always costs five times as much as I would have ever imagined, and taking five times as much time. So, it’s really been kind of wonderful and fortunate, because I think there’s an inkling chance that just wonderful things and adventures will come of it.
It’s a beautiful model. There’s now a way for people who feel lonely towards something to have a way to directly contribute to it existing or happening at all. It’s really special. People used to be kept very separate from the means that allowed things to happen in the first place, with music or with films or any endeavor.
I feel like it’s… using the metaphor for a place, you find yourself in a new place, and fall in love with that place, and then you set up there, and it becomes a part of your life, and you live there. But what you set up there also is yourself.
Just out of curiosity, where do you envision setting up in each area? Do you intend to put up the tent in small towns and/or suburbs, or set up shop in city parks?
Basically, it’s an idea that has several stages to it that intrinsically form the whole concept. What we wanted to be able to do is that we wanted to transform environments, and we wanted the power to automatically be able to go in and create our own environment.
What we were hoping for is something that would be completely adaptable. The first stage is actually something that I think we could set up in interiors, big interiors, because we’re looking at doing this in the fall and winter. We’re going to try and set up and do something like the original idea, which was setup in this big open space in the first floor of this house that I was staying in, in Maine. What we would do is set it up in the interiors of these venues so that everyone would stay warm and not freeze. But we want to keep expanding the tent and structures so that, when the summer comes, we can do things in fields or outdoors.
We also have this little fantasy of setting up and renting space in small carnivals when they set up outside of towns, so people can also attend the carnival. 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.
But in the first incarnation, what we wanted to try and do was to make use of some traditional means by which people toured, because with this, we can set up and make it completely our own. Some of the things that we do, like the lullaby tours and the caroling tours — which are some of our favorite things that we do — I think sometimes exclude people because it’s a lot harder to hear about it, and it’s a lot scarier to go to it. You have to have the bravery to go into some bizarre situation, some house, and it might feel nerve-wracking to find some address or two somewhere in your town and go there as a stranger and not know what is going to happen. So I think it’s exciting that we can do something like that, but have people come into a more familiar set of circumstances framing it.
You bring up a valid point, especially in lines in how you’ve approached your caroling tours (“We’ll be in this area on this day, contact us, and we’ll stop by, etc.”), which has a more limited range. I guess, from my understanding, you intend to turn this into a… I don’t want to say “institution,” but more like something that will last for the next few years. Is that the ultimate goal?
Yes, definitely. That’s what it is. It’s going to be a way for us to make things and share things. The things that go on inside of it will change every year, and it’ll continue to grow and evolve, and it’ll have lots of incarnations. But it’s definitely the beginning of — I think that’s a nice description, “institution.” It’s going to be like a ship or something. Something we can travel in and have adventures for a long, long time.
Just a quick follow-up to that: In addition to the Traveling Imaginary, are you considering doing your Christmas Caroling route this year?
We never know until it gets closer to the time, and this year, it’s trickier because I know that we’re going to be doing some of this stuff I believe into December for sure. I don’t know how far. Right now, it’s the mad flurry of activity trying to form some structure for the next several months for the Traveling Imaginary stuff. So, I do have some little inspirations for a couple of things that might be really different and fun in the caroling vein.
Unfortunately, I almost have to work chronologically. So many things that we’re hoping to see happen in the Traveling Imaginary are still in the range of “miracle”: Whether we can pull them off in time, whether we can afford them, and what people will let us do because it’s a completely new idea. Like when you go to people who run performance venues and say, “We’re gonna do something that’s never happened in your performance venue before, that’s completely different from anything. There’s no precedent. Isn’t that exciting?” And they go, “Uh, no, you can’t do that here, sorry.” [laughter]
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.
Well, not really, but when they don’t have a precedent, it’s just that they have to take a tremendous leap of faith and have to be comfortable. After you’ve done it once, it’s great. So we don’t know yet. But I hope we can do something. I also hope that this experience will provide a lot of the things that people love about the lullabies and carolings.
Let’s go a bit into Mary’s Voice. When Purim’s Shadows was released last year, I may have misread what was written on it, but I recall it being referenced as a prelude to this album. What was the general sentiment in creating both these albums, and what the general connection is?
I almost experience… There’s this big body of music and recordings and kind of narrative material — although sometimes it’s less of a story arc and more of just like stuff you could look at and describe, there might be a million stories in it — but basically, it’s like there’s this vast landscape that’s this body of stuff. And, um, Purim’s Shadows was drawn from that. It was a little bit of stuff almost out on the perimeter. And Mary’s Voice is more like the entrance and all of stuff surrounding the entrance. Almost as if it’s a place that you could wander in for a few days, and you start with the stuff that’s nearest to you, and Mary’s Voice is the actual entrance to the place. There’s more, which will be in… like, you go deeper, and that’ll be the next record. I think it’s a little bit further into that place.
But it’s very much a big place, a big landscape where this body of stuff takes place in, and that’s how I experience it. It’s not so much that I think there’s a conceptual theme and I’m trying to make stuff up to support that theme. It’s more just like all this stuff comes, and I’m just looking at it, and I just recognize that it’s a big hole.
Was the intent to create a sort of arcing theme about The Dark, as you refer to it, in both these albums? Or is it part of something larger that will represent you in the future? I understand you are playing a continuation of Kolyada from Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes …
I feel like it’s… using the metaphor for a place, you find yourself in a new place, and fall in love with that place, and then you set up there, and it becomes a part of your life, and you live there. But what you set up there also is yourself. You’re there, and your way of loving things and relating to things is there. So of course, it’s you in that place.
“Kolyada #3” in Mary’s Voice… It’s almost like Kolyadas are part of the circus tent that I pack up and bring with me wherever I go. But it feels very, very special and different and specific to that place. Just like an era in your life; it’s still you, and in a way it’s discovering more about yourself, because there’s another era in a different place and time where so much happened that was so different, and you felt and experienced so differently. But it was still you.
So, in a sense, it’s kind of like that. Most of the things that we make come from this place that I imagine you can describe as being this reality we draw from and interact with and manifest, or hope to manifest, to share. But there are definitely different eras and places in that world. Mary’s Voice, Purim’s Shadows, and the next album are all part of a bigger whole. The next album is not like it’s going be exactly like Mary’s Voice at all. It’s much further in and farther along in a lot of ways, as much as I understand it right now. But I think they belong to each other in some way. Not to mention the fact that there are melodies and themes that return and are developed, and are brought forward in different forms.
Your instrumentation has grown over the years. What is new in your repertoire that you are using for Mary’s Voice?
That’s an interesting question. I have to think…
Broadly, there’s always new stuff, because even if you’re playing the same machines, you learn how to use them differently over time. You get these wonderful gifts that come from loving something and interacting with it for a long time. Suddenly, you find something that you can do that you had no idea existed before.
There have been a few very special… things that have become a part of our world. [We’re] keeping a couple of them a surprise because we’re hoping to reveal one of them in the Traveling Imaginary, and that’ll be clearly present on the next record. But I don’t like to reveal it because I like the fact that it might be a surprise for people.
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.