October 21, 2008

Neutral Milk Hotel’s Koster leads Elephant to Bottom Lounge

Julian Koster is no stranger to the alternative music scene. Since the mid ’90s he’s been playing with some of the most influential indie bands of the decade. Most notably, he contributed organ, singing saw, and banjo parts to Neutral Milk Hotel’s renowned album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. This August, his band, The Music Tapes, released their first album in nine years, Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes. Not satisfied with making just one album this year, Koster cut the Christmas-themed The Singing Saws at Christmastime, which offers an eerie and unique take on standard Christmas carols. To celebrate the release of these two albums, he teamed up with various member bands of the Elephant 6 Recording Company for “The Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour.” I talked to Koster about his upcoming tour, his new albums, and how his music has evolved.

Hayley Lamberson: So first off, you’ve known the members of The Music Tapes and The Elephant 6 Collective for quite some time. Is it easy to make and perform music with them?

Julian Koster: There’s an effortlessness to it. It’s really special. You know, some of the nicest times have been in rehearsal. We have a friend who lets us use her shop in Athens [GA], and we just play music all night. It was a really special time making a loud ruckus together. It was so nice. It flows together easily because we’ve known each other for such a long time.

HL: With this tour, because there are so many people and you guys are playing songs from so many different bands, how did you decide on a set list? Since there’s such a variety to choose from, does it change each night?

JK: There’s a flow that established itself, kind of. It’s really loosely structured, and it sort of dictates itself. There’s definitely a flow that gets established every night, but the songs do change. Certain songs we play every night because they’re really fun.

HL: So would you say it’s a pretty spontaneous show?

JK: It’s pretty crazy and chaotic. It’s nice that there’s some structure, though. There’s the freedom to do most anything, but there’s some structure since we’ve been doing it for a while. It kind of established itself as the tour went along.

HL: So was this kind of tour—a conglomeration of different acts—the initial intention?

JK: Oh sure, it’s sort of a celebration of people who love each other and the things that they make. We all just kind of love all of this stuff, and the fact that we have the opportunity to do it is great. It’s sort of a little celebration that’s touring around. We’ve been able to really share that with the people in the audience.

HL: You’re showing a short film at every concert called Major Organ and the Adding Machine. How would you describe it? What’s it about?

JK: It’s this lovely project that’s been going on for an awfully long time. It’s something that’s been very inspiring to the rest of us. Originally, we all made a record called Major Organ and the Adding Machine that was meant to be a soundtrack to a movie. We made it using postcards from a friend in Denver, creatively using them to make music. It’s a film that’s 12, 15 years in the making, and now it’s finally coming to fruition. For this tour, the movie is part of the inspiration. It captures the spirit of what we can do together. Seeing the film was like an explosion and a lot of the motivation for making this tour. The whole thing opens with this film, and in some ways, it’s the centerpiece of the show.

HL: One of the albums you made that just came out recently is The Singing Saws at Christmastime. What motivated you to make a Christmas album?

JK: First of all, I really wanted it to exist. I really live for Christmas. I have a collection of Christmas albums that I listen to all year. I really wanted to do that record. It’s really wonderful, the feeling you get with Christmas songs.

HL: How did you pick which Christmas songs to put on the album?

JK: It was awfully spontaneous. The recording hardware can be finicky. Something can sound great, but the recording won’t like it. Because of this, it sort of whittled itself down to what was on the album. I actually recorded quite a lot more than what was put on the album.

HL: I’ve read that you recorded these albums in your bedroom on antique hardware. Why this style of recording? What do you feel it brings to your music?

JK: I think recording machines have this sound of recording that makes you remember a certain time. If you listen to a record from the ’30s’, the recording has a specific glow—just the recording, not the music. That voice can make you feel so good and special. Recording can give you that feeling. It feels like the most natural thing in the world to love that and let that be a part of your music.

HL: Lastly, you’ve been making music for quite some time, since the ’90s with Neutral Milk Hotel. Through all these years, how do you feel your music has evolved?

JK: I think that it can get easier to articulate things in your imagination. The more time that you spend doing something, the more natural and second-nature it becomes, so many of the physical demands become easier. Things become more natural.

HL: So would you say it gets easier to sit down and physically make a song?

JK: Definitely, yeah. I mean, if you just have some crazy idea, it’s a lot easier to make them exist. When you’re a kid, you don’t have much control, but the longer you manage to stick around the better you can articulate things. It just gets easier to take this idea in your head and physically put it down and make it into a song.

The Elephant 6 Surprise Tour rolls into town on October 21 at the Bottom Lounge.