Back from the island

Julian Koster’s devotion to the singing saw borders on the religious. “The first time I heard it I thought it was magic in every way, like a magician’s magic. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so taken with the sound of a musical instrument, and I love musical instruments a whole lot. I was just in love,” Koster tells Xpress.

Learning to get along in the world: Koster made his musical mark with his haunting singing-saw sounds on Neutral Milk Hotel’s landmark album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Then he disappeared for nine years.

Koster’s name may not summon immediate recognition. But those familiar with mid-90’s indie rock have likely heard him and his lovely singing saw. As one of the core members of Athens, Ga.‘s Elephant 6 collective, he played with such fabled bands as Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel—a principal member of that band when it recorded the now-classic In The Aeroplane Over the Sea.

Koster’s first release under the moniker The Music Tapes, 1999’s First Imaginary Symphony for Nomad, was more controlled chaos than a coherent collection of songs. Using found recordings, tape loops, a bevy of assorted instruments and a few antique recording devices (including an RCA ribbon microphone and a 19th century Edison wax cylinder) he created a whimsical jumble of sound collages.

What it lacked in accessibility, it made up for in creative energy and the promise of a distinct new musical iconoclast seeking a true voice. Koster then dropped off the musical radar for nine years.

“The process of sharing (the work) and engaging in the outside world, the real world, had started feeling like a really big deal,” Koster says as explanation.

After a series of moves (Athens to upstate New York to rural Massachusetts to Maine), Koster isolated himself. “I had been living on this island in Maine. The lifestyle there was very detached from most of humanity,” he says. “At the time even going to the supermarket, which involved having to take a ferry to the mainland from the island, felt like a big deal.”

He was writing and recording and building imaginary band mates like the 6-foot metronome he named “Static the TV”. He was working inside himself. And sending the new Music Tapes endeavor to Merge Records had become a scary prospect.

“The impulse or the ability to put it in the mail kind of felt like jumping into the ocean. Like that moment before jumping in when you know you’re going to feel cold, but also that it’s going to be incredibly fun and you’re just kind of terrified,” he says.

Koster’s close friends gave him the final push, he relates. “They were like, ‘Put the damn thing in the mail, now. It. Is. Done.’”

What Koster put in the mail that day was released last August as Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes. The album retains elements of its predecessor: the antique equipment, the varied instrumentation; but it also employs a more traditional song structure. That’s not to say Clouds and Tornadoes doesn’t exist in its own world. Much of the time Koster is backed by little more that the banjo and the singing saw—object of his devotion, and an instrument at which he’s become quite proficient.

In December he released The Singing Saw at Christmastime. That collection of Christmas standards, as played by a chorus of saws, was Koster’s first album his own name.

Another result of The Music Tapes’ re-emergence was a reunion performance featuring various members of Elephant 6 who hadn’t played music together in years.

“All these things have been coming about as a consequence (of the album) that I don’t think I was expecting at all,” Koster says. “It’s spawned all these other activities and adventures. I shouldn’t say never, but I don’t think I’m going to go back to the way I’d been relating to the outside world. I’ve learned an awful lot from all this and it’s changed me.”

Dave Cole can be reached at Richard.david.cole@gmail.com.

who: The Music Tapes
what: Underground rock featuring singing saw, banjo
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, March 6 ($8. www.thegreyeagle.com)

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