BY JONATHAN VALANIA Julian Koster was more or less was the one-man Salvation Army Band within Neutral Milk Hotel who made those proverbial ‘bare ruined choirs’ sing and gave NMH that Barton Fink feeling. In the wake of NMH’s long, never-explained self-exile, Koster has focused on The Music Tapes, wherein he creates whimsical, antediluvian hallucinatory circus music out of singing saws, rusty banjos, wrinkled horns and calliope-like keyboards with a revolving cast characters who, like Koster, look like they live underwater. This past fall Koster took to Kickstarter and raised $17,000 to fulfill his lifelong dream of commissioning a custom-made circus tent and sound system that can be taken from town to town and set up inside of rock clubs or as a standalone venue in the middle of a field. Big donors were rewarded with things like a phone call from Julian on their birthday or a Music Tapes ‘telephone concert’ for an audience of one. In advance of their sold out show at First Unitarian tonight (tickets are still available for a just-added second show that night) we got Mr. Koster on the horn. Discussed: How to make a saw sing, whatever happened to Elephant 6, whatever happened to Bill Doss from Olivia Tremor Control, whatever happened to Neutral Milk Hotel and will there ever be another Neutral Milk Hotel album.
PHAWKER: What is the secret to playing the singing saw?
JULIAN KOSTER: There isn’t one, that’s just the thing. With the singing saw you kind of just have to love it, you kind of have to find its magic. It is just a matter of taking some time which is no problem at all because you are doing something that’s magic to you.
JULIAN KOSTER: Kind of, I’m a very nomadic person and we are traveling so much to create the things we’re creating and the music we are performing, so to be honest, I am kind of all over the map right now.
PHAWKER: What has become of the Elephant 6 house in Athens or is that no longer the focal point of Elephant 6?
JULIAN KOSTER: Well, you know, the truth is there has never just been one Elephant 6 house, there’s always been several and there still are several. Definitely in Athens, but also the truth is that, you know, Elephant 6 and all the connections and friendships and collaborations predated all of us living in Athens at once. We lived in Athens several times and a lot of us met in Athens but then, you know, we were not in Athens for years and then we lived in different parts of the country and then we all moved to Athens for a couple of years, then we all got spread apart again, so it’s never been a geographic thing but even during the period of time that everyone was in Athens at once, we were all touring constantly so I think it is more about the bond than geography.
PHAWKER: I was very sad to hear that Bill Doss of Olivia Tremor Control passed away suddenly. What happened?
JULIAN KOSTER: We don’t know. We really don’t. It’s really hard to figure out what happened physically, I don’t believe the coroner came back with anything conclusive and nobody really knows actually. It’s just, yeah, one of those things…I mean, he was having some sort of weird physical things, some weird physical experiences leading up to it that may suggest to some people that it may have been a stroke but no one really knows.
JULIAN KOSTER: I’m not even sure that we could explain to ourselves, to the people involved, I think that as a group of people, all of us at that time were definitely a little bit overwhelmed by the attention that Elephant 6 was getting and not really knowing what to do about it. I think we didn’t have a clear career-ish path for ourselves, we weren’t trying to do things necessarily with the idea of continuing to get bigger and continuing to be big successes in the model that had been laid out before us, in fact, we were afraid of that model because we kind of felt like most of our favorite bands or a lot of our favorite things stopped being very good and inspiring and magical after they became very successful. So preserving that is the first order of business and creating an environment where that can grow and be strong is the most important thing and maybe we didn’t know how to do that at that time and the demands from the outside were very strong and…but now is a very different time so I think it’s possible, I think we all know what we’re doing now in terms of the world, which is pretty exciting.
PHAWKER: Will Neutral Milk Hotel ever reunite and make a new album and tour and all that kind of thing?
JULIAN KOSTER: You know… anything can happen.
PHAWKER: Is there an announcement you want to give us the exclusive on?
JULIAN KOSTER: [laughs] Let’s leave it at anything can happen. Please don’t write anything that says more than that either. I’m just trying to be honest but I don’t want to create some sort of crazy storm on the Internet that will freak people out.
PHAWKER: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea has become like The Catcher in the Rye of indie rock.
JULIAN KOSTER: It’s an interesting phenomena, it certainly is an interesting phenomena.
PHAWKER: And Jeff Magnum has kind of become the J.D. Salinger of indie rock.
JULIAN KOSTER: He is definitely not a recluse, that is a slight misunderstanding. I just don’t think he wanted to be a regular rock star. I don’t know if any of us wanted that. So, you know, he is something other than that which in the context of rock music doesn’t make it very unusual but in a lot of ways it is something many, many people would feel if they were in the same position, especially people who love what they’re doing and love their lives and want to have it be full of things that they love and not be overwhelmed so that they feel that they can do things well and take care of the people they love and take care of the things that they love, it’s all pretty simple, really.