Music Tapes
Know Surprises
by Kevin J. Elliott

Julian Koster may be one of the lesser-known card-carrying members of the Elephant Six Collective, but his watermark on the recordings that define the era and the wealth of psychedelia that sprung from Athens in the late ‘90s is immeasurable. The singing saw on the commune’s most reverberated statement, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In an Aeroplane Over the Sea, or the Moog-generated electronics that surround Olivia Tremor Control’s duo of documents have made him an essential component in this mythic saga of indie rock’s history.

As the Music Tapes, he has embraced the entire modus operandi of his friends and the extremities of the movement. The Music Tapes’ 1st Symphony for Nomad, Koster’s first release, was an E6 madcap exorcism that embraced all of the group’s idiosyncratic qualities: highly imaginative narratives, recordings on ultra-vintage equipment (wax cylinders and wire recorders), tape-loops, found-sounds and oblique packaging. Fitting then that his second Music Tapes full-length, Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes, presents both a yearning for those heady, magical times and a clean slate to begin anew a decade later. It’s an album that still channels the dusty antiquated instrumental curiosities that come with his various inventions, but those are sewn through a handful of wonderfully crafted fuzzy, folk pop songs.

Perhaps it was this earnest triumph that coaxed the rest of the E6 clan out of hibernation; coinciding with the release of Clouds and Tornadoes a small army of musicians from the collective’s rainbow of bands (Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, the Gerbils) have just embarked on the Elephant Six Holiday Surprise tour. As Koster explained, it’s more a celebration of glorious things to come rather than a time-warp through nostalgia. Off the record we spoke of those projects in the works, and by the sound of it, what’s to come will have any fan of these merrymakers giddy with anticipation.

Why has it taken so long for another Music Tapes album and why is now the right time to release it?

Julian Koster: A lot of it for me was because of withdrawal, especially from a lot of real world things. I kind of spent a lot of time inventing things in my own bedroom and within my own inner-consciousness. I was living in a number of different places, in the country in upstate New York, on an island in Maine, and then New York City. It’s hard for people to understand that the city is a terribly isolated place in many ways. I think I got a little overwhelmed and freaked out a bit, so it was much easier for me to just hideaway. It became really easy for me to not share any of my progression in any way, not share any of the ideas. What sort of happened was that everything just shifted. Something really organic happened. I got some really nice, really hard nudges from friends to go and create. It was like a bomb exploding, I just began making things again and bonding and creating with old friends.

For me, compared with your first record, this one seems a lot more personal and more song-based. Was it your intent to stray away from the sound collage this time and have something more prepared for audiences?

JK: I don’t tend to do things very consciously in terms of trying hard to plan them out intellectually. When I do things they tend to just come. A lot of the character and soul of this record had its inception even when 1st Imaginary Symphony was being finished. I knew a long time ago that this record was an entirely different world. Each song is a little world, but together there’s a familial feel to it, like they’re all brothers and sisters, whereas 1st Imaginary was like a ride at a carnival. You got on and it lets you off at the end. It was a very specific thing with a very specific purpose. This record, each song was kind of an individual living thing, which was from all these different people who got together and created something even bigger, if that makes sense.

One constant I’ve found is how you personify inanimate objects, either as characters in your songs or the contraptions that helped record the album. Do you prefer being isolated with your inventions when you record or collaborating with friends and other musicians?

JK: I find them both wonderful and both essential. It’s entirely important to be alone with the little things and the imaginary things. And sometimes that means being able to be complete alone. It’s not “alone” as an emotion, but the physical act of being alone with one’s self. But then there’s nothing more important and magical than to look over and see my friends creating this kind of radiant glow that happens when we make up this cacophony. I can’t imagine anything being any good without that.

Well I could sense, especially on the song “Majesty,” that you weren’t alone completely. It definitely feels like a song where everyone joined in to help you make something special.

JK: It’s really funny because when we made that song, that experience made me imagine that we were all riding on a crazy giant parade float. It felt like we were being slowly being dragged around this warehouse and all of our friends were there. If I had a million dollars I would concoct some wild filmic representation of that, but for now it’s just something that is stuck in my head.

The singing saws have also been a constant in your music, but now more than ever they seem to take prominence. Can you elaborate at all on how you started with the saws and how you learned to play them?

JK: When I was very little I had a dream, and forgive me if my memory is elusive, but a saw walked into my bedroom and sang for me that sound, but I don’t think I really understood what the sound was. But it was a wonderful dream, instead of being scary, which it should have been because when the saw came in it was standing erect and walking on its handle, on the little nubs. It was an incredibly comfortable thing. About a week or two later I was walking through Central Park with my father and I saw an elderly gentleman with a singing saw.

Now, this is how I remember it, in that order. Any logical person would say that I saw the man first and had the dream after, that it happened in the opposite order. But I remember having the dream first because I remember not understanding what was going on, and when I saw the old man playing I understood. Either way, it struck as the most magical, unreal, angelic, thing. There was nothing else real and physical in the world that was that unreal. It had a really deep impression on me.

Now you’re pretty proficient in playing them.

JK: Oh, I don’t do anything, I just encourage them. They sing by themselves.

Let’s get to the tour. Should audiences see the Elephant Six Holiday Surprise as nostalgia or is this a new beginning, considering you have a new album and rumor suggests that there’s more on the way?

JK: Audiences can hopefully see this as fun. What’s happened for us—at least for me—is that there’s no question that this is a new beginning in the craziest way. All we can really do is get excited. And this tour is really just a celebration for us. We just feel really lucky and happy that this is actually happening.

Of all the recordings that you’ve been a part of or played on then and now, besides your own records, is there an experience that you’ve enjoyed the most?

JK: You have to understand that for me it’s been pure magic since I was 12 with a tape machine and with my friends and the billions of wonderful times we’ve had putting songs onto tapes. Actually the whole thing has been a continual, impossibly wonderful thing that I’m extremely grateful for. I could never isolate one just because of the variety and the sheer number of hours. I guess right now I would choose the opportunity that we have now, it’s like an entirely new phase, and I’m even more excited about the recordings yet to come.