The Music Tapes
w/ Jeff Mangum (of Neutral Milk Hotel). Tue., Feb. 19, 7 p.m. The Great Hall in Union Station, 1 Union Place, Hartford. (860) 325-2687, manicproductions.org. $35-$35.
If you're a twenty- or thirty-something-year-old who lives in Connecticut and reads this newspaper, there's a high probability that you've got a CD copy of Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea tucked into a side pouch on your car door that never leaves the vehicle and has been there as long as you can remember. It probably gets played on road trips, when you're taking a promising date out on the town or when you're enjoying a drizzly day and you've got nowhere in particular to be. You've probably put songs from it onto a mixtape for someone special. Jeff Mangum wrote and sang all those songs, and he'll sing many of them for you again Tuesday night (rescheduled by Nemo) at the Great Hall in Union Station. It will be grand. But Julian Koster will be there too.
Koster was also a member of Neutral Milk Hotel, playing the bass, the banjo and the singing saw that helped to give the record such an otherworldly sound. Julian's own project, the Music Tapes, will be opening the show, and anyone who saw the show with the identical bill at the Shubert in New Haven a year ago knows that this is not an opening act to be missed.
Thanks to props like the 7-foot-tall metronome and Static the television, it's sort of like a whimsical indie rock Pee-wee's Playhouse-type experience, part concert, part performance art, but with incredible, haunting and delicate songs. And, of course, the singing saw.
Late last year, Koster debuted the Traveling Imaginary, an intimate circus tent filled with multimedia entertainment that gets set up inside a club creating a full-immersion environment for all attendees. The Space in Hamden hosted the second-ever Traveling Imaginary show, and Koster has fond memories of the experience.
"What was wonderful about the Hamden show, was... the first night in Massachusetts was just so overwhelming, getting it all set up and everything," he says. "We were literally working as hard as we humanly possibly could from the moment we woke up. It was really hard to experience anything that was going on. It was purely overwhelming, like working on a ship during a storm or something. The next night in Connecticut we were able to relax a little bit more and really enjoy the feeling of what was happening. The whole space and the whole night had this wonderful feeling that was really meaningful for us because we were stretched to the complete limit in every way. It was incredibly comforting for us."
Since the tent takes a good seven hours to set up, it won't be used on the Hartford show (since it's an opening slot), but Koster enjoys stages of all shapes, sizes and personalities and he'll adapt accordingly.
"It'll be a stage show," he says. "To be honest, we haven't really figured out what the heck we're going to do for those shows, but I love the big stages. We really have fun with those kind of shows on those kinds of stages. We love them both equally."
At the aforementioned Shubert show, Koster closed his set with a song called "Takeshi and Elijah" that hadn't yet been released on an album. I had the melody stuck in my head for months until the song finally was released on the album Mary's Voice in September. It's something special.
Koster filled me in on the song's creation, hinting at his perception of music and the world in general along the way.
"I wrote it when I was living in a town in Maine. I was literally alone a lot in this really amazing kind of beautiful spot by the ocean. And I had the original tent set up [that inspired the Traveling Imaginary] and was living in this house that had a big open space downstairs. I was renting the top upstairs part for so little, because it's a place people come in the summer but no one really goes there much in the winter, so there are all these houses you can rent for really cheap."
The song that was created was timeless, yet paradoxically forever linked to a very specific time.
"I was having these really long days where I was just interacting with the place and the feeling of time and the tent and just recording and writing," he says. "It was really snowy. I always feel like songs are almost like ghosts or something. It's like places or times are haunted by songs and you just kind of pick them up like a radio antenna or something, more than write them. They just come and visit you. It was a very, very warm presence, having that song come and visit, and the little bits of melody and the words. It was a really pleasurable and rich feeling. I just remember sitting in the tent and little bits of it would come, and the tent was really beautiful, and I could see the ocean outside, down the hill, and snowflakes and time just felt like it was really stretching out in this way that I really love when it does. Obviously when I looked at the words there's a lot in them about many different things, but that's what that song basically is for me and what it feels like for me, rationally. It's just like that presence, that warmth and that time, and whatever came to visit me then that manifests whenever I get to sing that song."