Julian Koster crowds Willy Wonka's turf with his Traveling Imaginary Tuesday at the Howlin' Wolf.
[If you want to enjoy The Music Tapes' Traveling Imaginary in the manner Julian Koster thinks ideal, stop reading now. Finish this story Wednesday morning. "The more of a sense of surprise, the more you can allow someone to walk in and have an incredible experience of not knowing what to expect, the more it will become possible for them to have a really extraordinary experience," he says. For the rest of you, read on.]
Normally, I'd be suspicious of someone like Julian Koster. I'd take a line like "I'm fascinated by certain things I imagine that could be realities, or might be realities in the future, or ought to be a reality" to be a put-on or a faux-naïve pose, particularly with a hint of Emo Philips in his voice. But if it's an act, it's one he has mastered to such an extent that he can maintain it from album to album and interview to interview. Koster played bass, banjo and saw on Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and he carried those talents and his distinctive sensibility to his own projects: The Singing Saw at Christmas Time, and The Music Tapes, which comes to New Orleans Tuesday night in support of last year's album, Mary's Voice.
Mary's Voice has a sense of innocence and wonder that consistently runs through Koster's work. He sings with fragile beauty one moment, then hollers the next as if a pure heart and positive spirit are nature's own Auto-Tune. Spooky, woozy organs and tones from uncertain origins bring to mind a vaguely remembered yesteryear, an aesthetic shaped by listening to vinyl albums found in thrift stores. "Bowing a banjo, which is one of my favorite things, sounds like strings on an old record," he says. To help create a live experience in line with the his music, The Music Tapes will perform at The Howlin' Wolf as part of "The Traveling Imaginary," a project funded through Kickstarter. The interior of the club will be transformed into a carnival with games and a tent, where the band will perform, tell stories, and play eccentric instruments of their own creation. Static the Singing Television may sound like a character from Pee-Wee's Playhouse, but there's no subversive undercurrent running through The Music Tapes, just a sense of wonder.
"My imagination screws everything up and turns it into something else," Koster says by phone. He's taking a break from preparing for a show in Phoenix. Between band and crew, six people set up and tear down The Traveling Imaginary, an activity that ideally takes three days - one to load in and set up, one to play, one to tear down. Then it's off to the next town. Sometimes they have to compress the schedule and set up and play on the same day, but they've become good at it, moving with hive-mind collaboration at times. Sounds like the carnival life, I suggest.
"The carnival life we'd imagine," Koster corrects. "It's kind of a miraculous way of life."
Koster does his best to stay connected to a world of imagination. He buys kids books and albums in thrift stores if they have good covers because he likes to imagine what they would be like far more than he wants to hear or read what's actually there. That sense of play is something he hopes to encourage in others. When he talks about being fascinated by the way we "form and experience realities," he's perfectly, pleasantly serious. "Play and fun and amusement are such a special part of the world, and it's the perfect way to use those parts of yourself," he says. "I hope we can create different realities that people can experience."
The songs on Mary's Voice follow the intuitive logic that explanation would suggest, one that can be haunting one moment, joyous the other. His Traveling Imaginary is no reaction to the punk, pierced rock 'n' roll sideshows with their emphasis on the gothic and gruesome. "My instincts run in the opposite direction," Koster says. "I forgot that all that stuff is even happening."
If pressed, he can point to less ephemeral influences: Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, Marlene Dietrich, Billie Holiday ("But we couldn't make music like that. We come from some other planet"). The thrift store is strong in him, so Goodwill purchases of albums of pipe organ, calliope and Hawaiian music figure large for him, both sonically and spiritually. He loves the way sounds meld together in older albums, but more than that, he loves the impact they have on the space around him. "I put them on and they transform my environment to become a receptacle for something far more vast spatially in terms of feelings," he says. "I'm probably unconsciously trying to make records like that.
"Music is an incredible language, and like all languages, you're compelled to say something, which means you're compelled to try to express a set of feelings and emotions. Music is a more intimate language because it's less cognitive and it's less analytical, so it can express things more broadly."
My Spilt Milk and WTUL present The Music Tapes at The Howlin' Wolf at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are on sale now.