Julian Koster — member of Neutral Milk Hotel, The Music Tapes, and contributor to The Olivia Tremor Control and Elephant 6 reminds me a little at times of Ralphie from A Christmas Story (even though he’s exponentially sweeter, incapable of manipulation and clearly, neither tortured nor neurotic).

When he talks about his music, singing saw or favorite record, it’s as though he’s describing his Red Ryder BB Gun: His tone lifts an octave higher with surrendering, boyish glee, and words of worship, love and reverence issue forth from his lips, his heart — nay, his  soul — by way of an unfolding, ever-more engaging narrative that permits few reflective pauses or spaces in which to breathe. He seems suddenly heady, carried by a rushing torrent of conviction, and as the words spill from his mouth you instantly believe him and are convinced of their importance too, because surely, nothing he loves so much is just a simple ‘thing’ at all, but is his religion, and the blood that flows through his veins, and the very air that sustains him.

Ultimately, like a wonderstruck child, Julian Koster creates a fantastic, lovely reality that intrudes into ours in an unexpected, welcome way. From a house in upstate New York that “serves as home for now and is filled with a pile of The Music Tapes’ stuff,” he expounds on his affection for rare instruments, rarer records and his newest gem of a project, Mary’s Voice — an album which serves as a very real, sincere invitation to his world, his wide-open heart, and his boundless imagination.


So, not only do you play an incredibly long list of instruments, but it’s a long list of really obscure instruments. I have to ask,  what in the world is a Wandering Genie?
You know, you may or may not want to reveal the mystery because the mystery is so much fun and so important…but I’ll tell you and you can decide whether you want to print it (laughs).

Hmmm, okay.
It’s a kind of organ; I have no idea who made it. We don’t have it anymore and I don’t know what ever happened to it, but it was a really neat-sounding thing. It’s one of those things where there weren’t very many and not many people knew of them, so it tends to get the imagination stirring — and it’s a nice thing to get people’s imaginations involved.

Why is it you’re drawn to long forgotten or little-used instruments like the Wandering Genie and the Singing Saw and the like?
Hmm. Well, with the saw, the first time I laid eyes on it, I really thought it was some kind of magic trick and I didn’t believe that it was real. It’s always sort of felt that way to me. It feels like some other very lovely reality intruding into ours when it’s played. I’ve always been delighted by instruments and I think that when life brings you together with a new instrument and it crosses your path. there’s just this…delight and amazement. I guess I’ve never had a shyness about forging a relationship with a new instrument. My father was a virtuoso musician  and though I didn’t feel any pressure to become one too, or anything, I felt like, ‘Well, Dad’s a virtuoso so I can just go ahead and play these instruments too.’ I just felt like it was totally possible to pick up an instrument and immediately love with it and begin making songs with it. I’ve never felt the pressure of ‘Well, I’m not very good with it yet so no-one can hear me play it, I just think, ‘Wow, I love this and I want to hear this sound.’ (laughs)

What a wonderful thing to be exposed to playing instruments so young.
It’s a wonderful gift to get as a kid. Kids haven’t necessarily already established a ‘normal’ yet, so they don’t know that it’s not ‘normal’ to have that. All the grownups around me played music and so to me it was just a thing that human beings did. I realize now that it was a very special gift.

You’re of course making music news  headlines right now with your Kickstarter campaign, and what seems to have piqued the most interest is that you offered up your first banjo – the one that you played on Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over The Sea — as a backer’s reward. I assume someone like yourself with such a deep respect and love of instruments would become quite sentimentally attached to them…So was it a difficult decision to give it up?
Oh, yeah…But you know, I have an emotional attachment and sentiment tied to everything I’m surrounded by. The thing that makes up the sentiment and the attachment is the adventure that it was a part of,  but it’s making sure the adventure moves forward and is still a part of it in that way. I love that banjo and I went through lots of wonderful things with it, but if it can turn into a brand new ship for me and all of my friends to take a new voyage in, then that’s even better. The soul of that banjo lives on in the circus tent and the new adventures. Some person whom — amazingly — it must mean a great deal to, now has it in their life and they’ll have adventures with it they would’ve never had before.

You should consider writing a children’s book about the life of that banjo and all the many adventures it’s had and all the things it’s seen…

I have this strange habit of  always seeing things in terms of potential children’s book plot lines…I’m really not sure why.
That’s a good habit to have. (laughs)

So, if we can shift from your new adventures for a minute and talk about the past, I have to make mention that that banjo was played beautifully on one of my favorite albums, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Of course I’m not alone…it’s become  a thing of indie music legend. Why do you think so many people connected so strongly to it?
I would hope because it’s a very real, sincere and loving thing. It’s spirited and has its own soul. Things that tend to become very popular are often the things that are manufactured to be very popular in terms of mass culture…like all the songs that go on  Top 40 radio and whatnot. It’s rarer for things to become well known that aren’t manufactured for mass culture and were just created for their own sake. I mean, I hope that’s part of it, anyway. None of us have any clue how the album got that well known.  Something just being alive and sincere doesn’t necessarily mean it will reach as many people as that record’s reached —  if that was the case, there wouldn’t be boy bands and stuff. But we’re happy it happened; we see it as a little miracle or as a very, very kind twist of fate.

Neutral Milk Hotel is just one of the many musical projects you’ve been a part of but is it in any way more gratifying for you to know that something you’ve played a part in creating has reached a wide number of people?

Hmmm…There are these little, essential moments in your days and in your life where things come to you. You love music and love making it — and it’s probably some form of little prayer — and stories come and melodies come. As a writer, you probably know the feeling of something bursting through you; it’s one of the most extraordinary and wonderful feelings a human being gets to have. I feel like you become a mother or a midwife to these beautiful gifts that you’ve been impregnated with, and it’s your job to see them out into the world because they came to you and you loved them for a reason. In terms of the concept of a lot of people, anything we’ve done has reached what seems to me to be an incredible amount of people. The fact that people all over the world make these songs a part of their lives and share them with friends, bring them into their bedrooms, and go into them with their imaginations is extraordinary.

Our connection to music can be pretty random and inexplicable.
Music is just that way. I have a record that’s one of my favorite records of all time, and I don’t know if there’s anyone else in the world that plays it, but I love it. I see all the magic of the world through it and it puts me in a place where I’m able to interact all of the beauty that’s around me. It was made in the 1930’s and it’s essential to my existence every day — and I wasn’t even born by the time he died. Think about that! It wasn’t a hit record. It was just something I happened to find in the sleeve belonging to another record in a thrift store. A friend of mine told me this once: ‘Someone who hasn’t even been born yet is going to love your records.’ And that’s one of the nicest things any one’s ever said to me.

That’s a pretty amazing thought, actually…but now you have to tell me what the record is; I’m dying to know!
In a funny way it feels like I’m revealing something very intimate, I don’t know why…It’s a record by Ray Kinney and his Coral Islanders. He was born to an Irish father and a Hawaiian mother in Hawaii. He went off somewhere like Utah or something for college, and then started this kind of  contemporary ’30’s big band but with Hawaiian singing and arrangements from Hawaiian songs. It’s a mix of two of my favorite things because I love early Thirties orchestration very much and I love Hawaiian music very much, too. And there are these sisters — Mullen Sisters — that sang with him that had these unbelievable voices. And as only sisters can, they sang in these beautiful, tight harmonies. ..It’s incredible. I bought it in a Christmas Songs of the World album cover at the Goodwill and when I got it home, pulled out the record and saw it wasn’t Christmas Songs of the World, I was like ‘Oh, man!’ I was so frustrated because it looked like it was going to be so cool. But then I put it on — oh, and it’s super scratched up so there’s this layer of scratchy pops and crackles — and I was just, ’Oh…Oh, my god…’ (laughs). It’s gorgeous.

(laughs) That’s a great story…and I actually wanted to talk about storytelling with you, too. Can you tell me about some of the stories we’re going to hear on ‘Mary’s Voice‘?
Well, lets see…In a way its always tempting to let it tell its own stories first before I speak for it because it certainly has stories to tell. It’s the first part of a body of stories and music that is very meaningful for me and  I’m delighted to have it be this close to being out. I’m excited about the next part of it, which is essentially the next record. I can’t wait to get it finished, recorded and shared. We’re very, very excited right now.

So the second part is not yet recorded?
We’ve recorded some of it but there’s a lot yet to be done. In a weird way, it’s like we need to live a little bit of this adventure before I think we’ll be in the place to finish it. It’s almost like a bunch of buildings or structures where, architecturally, everything has a very organic, specific role in the structure of the thing. It’s also sort of an entrance…I feel like it behaves the way things behave when you’re first meeting them — and that’s a comment that will make more sense once you hear the second part.  But it’s very much a whole and it’s very much a part of a unified body of work; it arranges itself very nicely…and kindly. It’s like when you meet someone for the first time and you look into their eyes and if you connect with them you can have this really intense experience and you know they’re relating to you in a very special way that they won’t relate to you in 20 years time…to me, Mary’s Voice does that…but I don’t know if any  of that (laughs) makes all that much sense.

Well, you’re a wonderful, storyteller.
Well, thank you…

It’s obvious that you enjoy it and get lost in it…but with every record you make, do you ever wonder how many stories you have left to tell?
Well, the wonderful thing about stories is that you don’t have a reserve of them; they’re never just yours. They just come out of nowhere. They come out of my imagination but they’re written in everything… Most of them just pop into my head and come to me in little bits. I write them in my notebook and think, ‘Oh, I might start talking about that tonight,’ and then I start talking about it and a story starts coming out. Sometimes I just look at people, open my mouth and something spills out — and there’s the story. Often, because I’ve retold them so many times, they become this perfect little batch of words, shined and compressed down into special, little pearls.


Mary’s Voice, the first installment of a planned two-part album and the follow-up to 2008’s acclaimed Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes, will be released September 4th via Merge and, happily, can be streamed in full here. The Music Tapes plan to tour the world in support of the record in The Traveling Imaginary — a circus tent structure filled with interactive amusements. Help them fund this mobile, live-music venue by backing their Kickstarter campaign before September 11th.

To read more on The Traveling Imaginary and learn how it was conceived, read Julian Koster: ‘The Traveling Imaginary’ becomes reality.

pixel Julian Koster: Some other lovely reality intruding into ours