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Julian Koster on being shy, returning to the public and his singing saws

The Music Tapes' "Majesty" 

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Sometimes, talking to Julian Koster, you get the impression that in another era he'd lead a Boo Radley-like existence, perhaps leaving his house but once a week to feed some birds at a neighboring park. He'd have named them all.

Blessed with abundant imagination and commensurately less social confidence, he comes across like someone who might break if you looked at him too hard. But that tender awkwardness is part of what makes his music so endearing. It sounds like it was forged in a strange distant room by a relative of Willy Wonka. Fittingly, "Majesty" opens to the buzz of singing saws like otherworldly kazoos, behaving as the shimmering-bead entryway to The Music Tape's cozy lair.

Koster sounds as though he's summered with Brian Wilson or Stuart Murdoch, such is the rush of shambling harmony-enriched twee that accompanies the saws. Noting the life that surrounds us, he hails the natural beauty connecting it to the majesty of unions built of "love and fear and trust." Voices multiply in ooh-ing background vocals as the song swells towards a close, a beatific Sgt. Pepper's smile on its lips that says, 'Despite the clouds and rain, I've not seen enough yet.' (As for what Koster's actually singing in that closing mumbled croon is more oblique than a Will Oldham interview.)

We caught up with Koster before a show in Boston.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Many of the songs on the new disc, Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornados, have been around for a while. Tell me about the genesis of "Majesty"?

JULIAN KOSTER: Part of the melody was something I came up with in high school, and then the rest came in more recent years. It was one of those little melodies that persists, and sometimes the rest of it doesn't come for years, or you don't know how it's supposed to come into the world.

What was the course of its recording life?

Well, it really happened in Athens. It mostly came to life in Atherns, but sort of finished itself in New York City. A big burst of it—the majority of it—was recorded all at once, but then there are other finishing touches that came much later.

You mentioned your "saw friends" earlier. It certainly sounds like a choir. Is that a multi-tracked saw or are they all the saws singing at once?

No, it's a choir of saws.

You got all of them going at once?

Yeah.

How long does it take to pull together a take like that?

[Small groan.] A long time.

I was struck by the line in "Majesty" about the majesty of "the love and the fear and the trust," and I was wondering how it might relate to your own sort of self-imposed exile the last nine years.

It's funny when stuff like that comes. I don't really know actually what it means, so in a way any interpretation would be right, and I would accept them. But for me it was just something that came out so it's hard for me to say.

Was there something that sparked the exile after 1999's 1st Imaginary Symphony For Nomad or do you enjoy just being by yourself?

It can just be scary to go out and interact, trying to really go out and interact with the big world, especially if you have some parts that can get scared. And if you indulge those parts, you end up staying in one place, which for me was being happy making music and recordings, but not necessarily dealing with what happens when you send it out into the world. And having circumstance sort created where I could kind of hide away in a funny way so it just kind of happened that way. I'm really glad that I got roused out of that.

I understand you did some caroling this winter, where instead of rock clubs, you played living rooms. After The Music Tapes' last incarnation, you'd sworn off touring. Did this re-engage you in the possibilities of the road?

Yeah, that was definitely part of it. It went wonderful. It was one of my favorite adventures ever. The experience for me and my friends went was so special and unique compared to any other trip I've been on. The part of people's lives, and their home and their world that we'd walk into, and the way we were welcomed in to all those worlds, was so unlike anything else I can think of. We'd go to a city, and we'd go to all these different neighborhoods and wander into all these different situations, like some sort of funny creature from mythology.

You didn't feel as much like a person as like Elijah, who drinks the lion at the satyrs or something or some kind of ghost because you'd wander in and people would be there and they'd be expecting you, but they wouldn't really know exactly ... You'd just kind of knock on the door and walk in.

It would always be a different situation: Holiday parties where they invited all their friends, families. It would be a grandma and a grand kid and a teenager. It would be a 14-year-old and his mom. It would be a bunch of college kids. It'd be people in their 40s. Every house was completely different. And when you go to a city normally, you get your feeling of a single experience, like your day in that city. Then the concert at night and the audience that night. You've got this one feeling for this day and that night and that place, but doing this in each neighborhood was so different. Each house was so different, and the feeling of each was so different. You left with this crazy richness of all these different impressions.

What happened to the film project you have with John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig and the Angry Inch?

It's this enormous creature, like this giant ocean liner that's dry-docked in a soundstage in Los Angeles somewhere. Someday we might just get some random phone call telling us they're pulling it out and sticking it in the water. Then there will be a kind of panic, and we'll figure out what's going on and how to make sure it won't sink and all that. It became this thing. It felt like it was much bigger than us and our ability to control it.

Even before it got made, and I guess this is still happening in Hollywood. I know nothing at all about Hollywood except what I experienced through this project. The thing about this film is the kind of film it ended up being on paper was this amazingly expensive thing to make because you know, we were just kind of making stuff up, and I knew nothing at all. I was just imagining stuff, I had no idea it would take $10 million to make the 4 seconds I imagined. It just didn't occur to me. So we ended up making this thin—I think they budgeted out at $30-40 million or something like that. It was this kind of thing where Hollywood was necessary. That got crazy.

We went out there and went to all these studios and met all these crazy studio head people. We kept hearing it was going to get made, and we'd get all excited and then it would fall through and all this stuff. In a way, I think it was kind of a blessing that didn't just happen the way that it did because it seems so much nicer to make things that you can make more with what you have to work with. Then if you want to, by the time you build the ocean liner, you've made all these nice ships out of wood yourself, that you can just say, "See this is basically what we're going to make. We're just going to make it a little bigger." That way you can actually be in control of what's being expressed rather than sort of feel like these crazy people they're indulging, and throwing these millions at, but they're not going to lose their millions, so they're going to make sure they get their millions back. So they're going to make sure they take part in all the creative decisions. And that was already happening on the script.

But I got to see all kinds of things I never got to see. I got to sit at a dinner table with Danny Devito. I had all these surreal experiences that are impossible to imagine. Like if I'm not mistaken, Brad Pitt's production company has the rights to the whole thing. It's just like the craziest. I never met him or anything, but if you can imagine how completely bizarre and silly it is, just to even know that somehow... It was like going to some strange amusement park or something.

How has the return to Athens played a role in things, and how are things going right now?

It's been very special to be around everybody. It's made it feel crazy that such a long period of time could've gone by where we weren't all together, especially because we give each other so much good, and so much good has come from everything that's happened in the last year. You just feel like it's going to keep coming. If everybody keeps following the same things... It ultimately requires a lot of bravery on everyone's part, because everyone has to ultimately confront what they're afraid of, whenever they try to do anything with their love.

How's the tour been?

It's been wonderful. It's been amazing traveling with Brian Dewan and Nina Grizol. We've covered so much ground in an incredibly quick amount of time. We've definitely had some really special nights together.

Anything special to characterize the show, or anything the audience should expect?

Flu-ish delirium.

You guys live right in the moment, don't you?

Exactly.

The Music Tapes plays Cat's Cradle Thursday, March 5, at 9 p.m. with Nana Grizol and Brian Dewan. Tickets are $10.

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