Indie Rock Legends Bring Psych-Pop Magic To The Rotunda
The last thing I expected was magic. Going into an Elephant Six show, it is common to hear experimental shredding, profound lyrics, and primal wailing. However, when Julian Koster and the Music Tapes took the stage at the Rotunda last night, something different happened.
Koster, a former member of Neutral Milk Hotel and contributor to other Elephant Six shows, approached the audience in such a thoughtful way, setting the tone for next half–hour or so. Playing a rustic, almost European mix of folk and experimental music, the Music Tapes captivated, unlike anything I’d ever seen. Koster supplemented these haunting tunes with bizarre tales from his youth, layering a certain childlike wonder upon the performance that amazed me. Couple this with the amazing showmanship of the band (plus their self–rigged 7–foot tall metronome) and you have the recipe for a hauntingly beautiful, though magical evening.
In contrast to the main act, the Olivia Tremor Control, the Music Tapes were low key and focused, playing with a certain melancholic, yet existentially pleased heart that OTC lacked. On the other hand, OTC, touring for the first time in years, definitely brought their A–game to the Rotunda. One of the giants of the indie scene, OTC played with a certain instinctual energy that really got segments of the crowd moving — unfortunately, others more awkward than myself stayed still during even the most raucous riffs. However, some of the unbridled, unadulterated noise that stood out through the second half of OTC’s set did begin to grate at times, not for want of musical expression.
As everything died down and people began leaving, I stuck around for a while, and I managed to catch Julian Koster for a quick interview before the bands finished packing and rolled out.
Street: What would you say your inspirations would be?
Julian Koster: Well, existence for sure. And I’m very fond of movies — I liked old movies. In a way, the answer I was going to give was that it’s like you have this space, this imaginary space that music has in your life, and it’s something close to prayer, something close to playing make–believe when you’re a little kid, and it holds that place in your life and your consciousness, and it’s an important place, and that’s the deepest inspiration I think.
Street: Do you have another quick, fun story from your childhood?
JK: Oh I have millions… let’s see. I grew up in New York, but most of them are very long, I tend to go on and they’re very long. There’ll be plenty to come.
Street: As the Music Tapes, you seemed to be both structured and chaotic at the same time interacting with the crowd and such, whereas in OTC you seem to be a force for chaos. Could you talk a little about that?
JK: Well, you know, that was a song on one of our records [either “Nimbus Strattus Cirrus” or “Mr. Longitude’s Lament”] so we certainly start with the existing music, but something like that we haven’t done that that much, that particular thing, but I will enjoy that the most when we do start improvising a lot. The more that you can improvise once something becomes established and comfortable, the more exciting it can be. I orchestrate a great deal, I’m very much into orchestration, but I think there’s something very much beautiful in that structure there’s either room for pure improvisation or the establishing of a bit of orchestration that came from improvisation and that just became what you do.
Street: Okay, and when you do orchestrate, when you’re actually composing, what is that like?
JK: I don’t write it down for one thing, but it really feels like it’s coming from someplace else, I tend to just relax into playing something, you know I start playing an instrument or I start singing or I start drumming, and I often get a really nice warm feeling from that, and just this feeling of things kind of opening up or shifting, and sometimes a melody comes, or an idea comes, and it sort of feels like it comes very pleasurably out of someplace else through you and into the room, and you feel just about as wonderful as a human can feel on earth. That’s what making things up feels like for me, I don’t really feel like I’m doing so much as like, you go somewhere and stuff starts happening.
Street: So when you come and do shows, it’s more of an experience for you? It’s more for the music than for the fame?
JK: Oh it’s nice, but you don’t control it. That’s up to the universe. To me it’s just like you get these little presents, like songs and things, they come to you and it feels like a gift and you feel love for it and things when it comes, and it feels like your job, because you have that love, is to try and manifest it and make it totally present and available for people, you know because that’s why those ideas came to you, it’s your job to make those ideas live and exist and to try and faithfully do that for people in space and time. So that’s what I try and do, try to be faithful to these things that come, these feelings. I just try and hope that it can be real and shared, and that’s an adventure.
Street: So you were also a former member of Neutral Milk Hotel… what was that like?
JK: It was lovely, you know, just lovely. I loved playing with Scott and Jeff and Jeremy and Laura when she played with us and Robbie when he played with us and Will Lestrick when he was a live, and it’s very much a part of us, the elbow in a body of what music has meant to us and our friends.
Street: Where do you think music is going evolution–wise?
JK: Louis Armstrong once said something very beautiful about experimental music, asking “what was more experimental than my La Vie En Rose?” You know, I think in a sense what he meant was that we don’t necessarily need to experiment, we just need to continually create because we are creative beings. But with absolute sincerity, and absolute belief, and absolute faith in the adventure of making something new exist, and I think that’s all that anyone who did something nice that was experimental was just trying to make something nice that could exist and change the world. Nothing could quite feel like that than something you haven’t heard before, and you just have to open up and experience it. So when people call us experimental pop or something, I take it as a complement, because if someone stops and opens their ears because they hear something different, then there’s a chance we might be able to take something new, which would be an honor.