Julian Koster is best known for his work with the Elephant Six Recording Company as a member of Neutral Milk Hotel and the frontman of the Music Tapes. He and the Music Tapes will bring his latest experiment, “The Traveling Imaginary,” to the Duke Coffeehouse this Tuesday at 8 p.m. The group will pitch a circus tent inside of the Coffeehouse, within which they will host a night of music and entertainment. Recess writers Adrienne Harreveld and Lauren Feilich chatted with Koster about his unique stage antics, creative approach and future plans.
Recess: Just for people who don’t know about the tour or what’s going on, can you just describe what your vision for this tour is?
Julian Koster: Sure, it’s kind of a realization of a lifelong dream and fascination for the Music Tapes, which is to be able to create both a place to welcome people into and a unique experience that’s new for them to have. We’ve always been completely delighted with the idea of offering a kind of amusement that feels like you’re stepping into a whole world that’s fun and adventurous and different from anything you’ve experienced before. It has sincere, inviting, warm and very fun elements. And so we’ve constructed this tent that the whole show takes place in, especially for that experience. And games, all the games—we always work in making up games and stories, as well as music.
R: Why is the title “The Traveling Imaginary?”
JK: That’s just what it was called when it came to me. Generally speaking, things come to me. When I’m dreaming stuff up, it’s not so much that I’m going through a rational process of deciding things, it’s just, “pop, there it comes” and it’s like I’m a little kid, I’m just delighted to see what came out of nowhere. And I don’t necessarily personally believe that the things that people create come from them anyway. I feel like it’s all written in the universe, written in everything, and it’s not like one person is some great creator as much as it is that anyone is excited or inspired and loves something about the world very much. If they keep their eyes open, things will come to them.
R: That’s really cool. Is that sort of how you come to make music?
JK: Yes! I love melodies, I love the feeling of singing, I love the feeling of playing music, I love the feeling of stories, making up stories, ‘cause then you just start living them, they just start coming to you and then you just get lost in them and, you know, those are just some of my favorite things about being a human being on planet Earth.
R: I know that once you kind of conceived the idea of “The Traveling Imaginary” you all started a Kickstarter to get the funding. How does it feel to see that you exceeded your goal by so much?
JK: Oh, it was pretty mind-boggling. It happened within a few hours and I really had no idea. It was so much for me to conceive that there were people out there who would suddenly get some sort of notification, or would hear on the internet, and out of nowhere spontaneously and instantaneously take money that is a part of eating and living and surviving and put it toward something so selflessly. It is an amazing and humbling thing to realize, that those people were there and they would act so quickly, and it was just delightful, and incredibly heartening, of course.
R: I know as part of your Kickstarter, as part of the campaign, you sold the banjo that you used while performing In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. How did that feel? Did it feel like you were moving on to a new chapter? What was the motivation for selling the banjo?
JK: I mean, that was just my banjo that I used for everything for about ten years. Actually, the banjo started kind of dying as an instrument. In 2000, there was a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion. It was the last show of that trip, and I was pretty sure it would be the last show that banjo ever played. I was doing this thing where I hung a cymbal from the ceiling of this huge venue and I was holding a megaphone and hitting the cymbal with a pole at certain points during the song, and I missed, so I grabbed the banjo and I just threw it like a spear at the cymbal, and it went flying off into the wings of the stage and I was like, “Well, it’s going to be in pieces, and that’s the end of that banjo.” It felt like a fitting end. And I went backstage and it was perfectly intact. So it worked for a few more years but it didn’t function much as a banjo anymore. I just felt like, I love that banjo, but the reason that I love that banjo is because of the adventures. If I could turn that banjo into a little piece of adventure, really just a drop in the bucket of the Kickstarter, but it was a nice drop, and I just thought, “Cool! It’s all about the adventures.” So it was sort of nothing, in a way. It was nothing because the thing I’m sentimental about is adventures, and making things exist, so if the banjo had meaning, it was only because it was a part of this process, but this process is what gives it meaning.
R: I read online that with the extra money you were planning on buying this extraordinary instrument, and you were leaving it as a surprise. Have you revealed what that instrument is or will we have to wait for the show to find out what it is?
JK: We have not revealed what it is. We’re kind of on the multi-year plan now. We have so much stuff in the works, it’s unbelievable, but it’s not gonna happen until 2014. We’re going to do a much bigger version of this event and some of the things, like that thing, for instance, may or may not be in field for this trip, but there’s all kinds of things that are going to be in field for this trip, and so there are surprises galore now, and there’s gonna be surprises galore for the next two years. It’s going to be a very exciting adventure for us. There’s a lot in the works. I might have to go, we’re pitching a tent right now and I’m sort of an important worker.
R: That’s totally understandable. Thanks so much for talking to us. We’ll see you on the 29 at the Duke Coffeehouse!
JK: That sounds great! I’ll see you guys there. Thanks a lot.