I still have the scar on my left butt cheek from the time Julian Koster strategically placed a pencil on my chair in fourth grade. Fifteen years later, the multi-instrumentalist from the Neutral Milk Hotel and the mastermind behind the cacophonic dreamscape of the Music Tapes is still apologetic. Which is only right.
“It was the meanest thing I ever did and I didn’t mean it to be,” he says. “It did not work out the way I planned at all. I just thought it would be funny. But you sat down just way too fast.”
Glad that’s settled. Now, underneath an apocalyptic patchwork of wool sweaters hanging from the ceiling of the Knitting Factory’s tiny, intensely red second-floor dressing room, Koster can peacefully sit and eat rice three hours before he takes the stage at the lower Manhattan club. The Music Tapes’ debut release, The 1st Imaginary Symphony for Nomad, is a lushly landscaped, non-linear soundtrack to a dream, a more innocent “Revolution 9” with lo-fi indie-pop songs tossed in the middle.
“They are more ‘places’ than recordings to me,” Koster says. “I wanted to replace the confines of the real world I was living in with the world I spent so much time imagining.”
He had me feeling the same way back in ’82, when we boxed outside Bowling Green Elementary School in Westbury. I can still remember the way my gums felt after they were shredded by my braces. Mysteriously, Koster disappeared off the face of the Island after eighth grade and landed in Tampa. His band Chocolate USA signed to Bar None Records right out of high school, and he skipped college and became part of the loose-knit Elephant Six Collective. He eventually landed in the indie-wonderland of Athens, Ga.
While playing with the Neutral Milk Hotel (whose In the Aeroplane Over the Sea nabbed number 88 in Spin‘s “90 Greatest Albums of the ’90s”), Koster was also recording stuff that would become the Music Tapes in his grandmother’s house in New Hyde Park. “She’s always been sort of my home base. Her house is magic,” he says. “She’s kind of a pack rat. She collects odd sorts of things. So we would beat on different things in all the different rooms in the house.”
With bowed saws, an 1895 Edison wax cylinder recorder, banjos, metronomes, vacuum cleaners, sousaphones and a horde of other noisemakers, Koster recorded the album over a four-year period, completing the majority of the project last summer, coating sounds atop one another without the use of sampling. “I’ve always been kind of obsessed with the character of sound,” he says, “layering things together. The reason why we don’t sample is there’s too much fun to be had. Why would you want to skip the fun?”
After a Neutral Milk tour finished up in England, Koster and Robbie Cucchiro, his Music Tapes’ buddy, dragged all the tapes and their hard drive to Abbey Road studios, where they put the album together. The order of the recording is how you hear it on the album. When the first song was finished, he would move to the second.
The result was a trippy confection that is somehow at its best when seen live. Tonight at the Knitting Factory, the band of four plays in front of a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall metronome and a giant contraption of two hands clapping. At the front of the stage is an old Zenith with the moving image of Static, the fifth member of the band created by Koster, a distorted happy face that adds to the mayhem of the show. Saws swirl and banjos hum.
If you write to “the Grandmother of the Music Tapes,” Koster’s grandmother Marie Caso, 76, in New Hyde Park (they include her address on the CD liner notes), you can request the band to play in your living room. “The teenagers seem to love them,” says Caso. “I kept getting these letters about it and up until a week ago I didn’t know what it was all about. The letters say ‘Yeah, come on over,’ They are willing to put him up and feed him.”
“It really is the best way to see us,” Koster explains of the living-room experiment, which he hopes to begin this fall. “We’ve gotten a pile right now. It will be great. Just some 15-year-old wrote some other day. He’s 15, his parents will be there. It will be OK.”
More ambitious are the plans for what Koster calls the Orbiting Human Circus, his idea for a traveling theme park. Pulling a worn sketchbook filled with drawings and instructions for his creation, Koster says, “It’s a traveling carnival circus that would have its home base as a seasonal theme park.” The attractions he aims to feature include “mechanized one-man-band machine racers”-10-foot-tall bicycles that visitors would ride around the park as they make “little farting noises and play music.” He’s also sketched out ideas for a 12-foot-tall George Washington vs. Ulysses S. Grant arm-wrestling challenge; the Cloud Catcher, “a moon walk where you have to catch clouds with this net and put them in a cloud receptacle”; and a Tug of Earth display highlighting a battle between the Minister of Longitude and the Magistrate of Latitude.
“We are going to try to put it fairly complete,” Koster says. “If not, we’ll do it on a smaller level. We’ll do what we have to.”
On stage, Koster lures the audience into his dream. He sings about TV sets taking over the mortals, the death of Superman, the death of parents and the ballads of sailors. As the circus is about to end, he grabs a snare drum and a bow and tells everyone to follow him.
There is no hesitation. People follow his lead out the door, sticking their hands into a shopping bag-held by a guy with a blue and green magic-marker-decorated face-and pulling out tin dinnerware, metal pipes of various sizes and New Year’s Eve noisemakers.
Out on the street, the kling-clang of metal on metal echoes off the sleeping buildings. As Koster’s surreal hundred-person parade turns a corner, the innocent earthlings winding down on Broadway ask what all the noise is about. When they get no answer, they join the procession and march with Koster’s circus into the night.