The last time I saw Julian Koster, the main man behind The Music Tapes, we were sitting in a field in Cambridge, MA near Harvard with a circle of other people. He told us about how the animated feature film he planned to make with DreamWorks about a story he wrote called “Second Imaginary Symphony for Cloudmaking” got derailed. He also mentioned that the special and extremely personal tours that he does around the U.S. can take three different forms. The third form that he mentioned, he talked about wistfully, explaining in his slow, little boy voice that it was like a traveling carnival, complete with amusements and games. It sounded like something that could never happen. However, it seems that it is actually happening this fall in support of his new record, Mary’s Voice, and it’s called “The Traveling Imaginary.”
The first kind of tour he mentioned was one that he had been doing nearly every year for a while, which was Christmas caroling in people’s living rooms at the end of December. The second kind was what we were up to that night. It was called “Lullabies at Bedsides.” He had gone around a few cities in the U.S. and wanted to play people lullabies just as they were going to sleep. He didn’t even care if he played for just one sleepy spectator. However, it wasn’t just banjo and saw tunes, it was much more storytelling with talking watering cans, light up snowmen, and dangerous, blindfolded, knife throwing. The reason why we had ended up in a field was because on the second night of the lullabies, we played a game called “St. Nikoli’s Wonder Wishing Game of Candles,” a magical thing sort of like freeze tag that really defies explanation.
Julian has always brought his imaginative talents to his live shows. From everything to bizarre opening acts to film screenings to featuring contraptions he had built like “Static, The Singing Television,” and a 7-foot-tall metronome. It’s something that reflects equally well in his records. His first, 1st Imaginary Symphony for Nomad, can be a scary and fun experimental mess to get lost in, full of sailors lost at sea, aliens, and a bullet speeding toward an imaginary superhero. His second record was released nine years later, For Clouds and Tornadoes. Although it was critically lauded, the record always felt a bit overlooked and forgotten for how amazing it was. It was a really well-balanced tour of Koster’s imagination in the seat of a fluffy cloud, braving storms. It reflected his love of Christmas really well, featuring songs about reindeer, Santa, ice palaces, and old Ukranian Christmas carols (played on the singing saw, of course).
Mary’s Voice returns with part three of one of those carols on the ninth track, “Kolyada #3.” When my friends and I were sitting on my bed with our eyes closed after the lullabies, Koster told us a story similar to something someone in his family used to tell him to help him not be afraid of the dark. It made the dark a person, your friend, someone who was as scared as you were and just wanted to spend time with you. Mary’s Voice seems like it picks up a bit of this story in songs like the opener, “The Dark Is Singing Songs (Sleepy Time Down South).” It’s an appropriate concept for the record, because it features more of Koster’s dark tunes–slow, sleepy, mournful–and has some spots that could even be considered Koster’s own brand of noise music. It even features two tracks of silence in the middle as an intermission. The funny, strangely appropriate Music Tapes style thing about it is that “Intermission, Part 1” and “Intermission, Part 2” are both just silence, for some magical reason that probably makes perfect sense to Koster. The record is even a bit of a pop-up-book.
In support of the record, Koster made a Kickstarter page to raise money to try and pull off “The Traveling Imaginary.” The band received an overwhelming response and raised almost three times the goal. Some of the plans of the tour include bringing an authentic circus tent made by historic tentmakers in England, playing music, games, films, and of course telling stories. In the Kickstarter video, Koster explained that he has been writing and recording songs from Mary’s Voice in a prototype circus in his house with the intention of transporting it on tour. He said that every penny above their goal would go towars bringing his newest fantastical Music Tapes imaginations to life. At time this article is post on THE BOMBER JACKET, there will still be seven days left to donate. There are a ton of goodies available for various levels of donation, drawings, songs, and even a birthday song sung to you over the phone. The craziest one by far was the elephant banjo that Koster used on the Neutral Milk Hotel album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and up until 2009. This gift, unfortunately, has already been claimed.
The best thing about all of Koster’s and The Music Tapes’ endeavors is that they seem to be trying to bring us all back into a world that we’ve forgotten about, a world that gets lost in the day to day. As Koster says:
I love sentimental melodies that you can hum with feeling. People warn against sentimentalizing or mythologizing the past. It’s any failure to mythologize the present that I think we have to be afraid of. This is a miracle. You are a miracle. Our lives are magic, and our times all the more so. Music proves it.
It’s great to see such overwhelming support for someone who might be the most unique performer of our time.