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Julian Koster brings the Music Tapes to Soundlab

See Saw Music

The loose-fitting aggregation of bands known as the Elephant 6 Recording Company—named for their record label—produced some of the most eccentrically brilliant underground music of the 20th century’s final years. Among them, Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control combined classic pop with a sometimes surrealist worldview that has yet to be equaled—or expanded upon, since both groups have drifted apart.

Julian Koster

Julian Koster, a member of both acts, also has his own project, the Music Tapes, which takes things in an even more eccentric and challenging direction. An expert on the musical saw, banjo, and other not-necessarily-rock instruments, Koster sounded like a mutant hybrid of early American folk singers and a distant cousin to Daniel Johnston. The latter quality came from Koster’s high, sometimes whiney voice, while his antiquated recording techniques like wire cylinders accounted for the sound. His onstage bandmates included such devices as the Seven-Foot-Tall Metronome, which is just what it sounds like, and Static the Television.

Last fall saw the release of Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes, Koster’s first album in nine years. At the same time, he released an album of Christmas carols performed on singing saws. If both albums weren’t unique enough, Koster went on tour with what were surely two of the most unique packages of the year. First, he took part in the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise tour with members of Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, and the Gerbils. The tour package also includes a screening of Major Organ and the Adding Machine, the much-anticipated film about Elephant 6. Each member had a chance to play their songs with support from the others, often resulting in a cramped stage. The musicians were as surprised as their audience in Pittsburgh when Jeff Mangum, the reclusive frontman of Neutral Milk Hotel, arrived without announcement and joined the bill. He also appeared in New York and Chicago, and the latter performance was broadcast on National Public Radio.

After the Chicago performance, Koster, who organized the 13-date tour, told NPR that Elephant 6 was rejuvenated. “Somehow, everything’s happening for us now,” he said. “I don’t know why we were ever interrupted, and why all this is happening now. But we’re all just so happy. It just seems like a fact now. [Elephant 6] is back.”

To mark the holiday season and promote The Singing Saws at Christmastime, Koster’s other unorthodox traveling show offered fans a chance to hear the saws perform Christmas carols at their home last November and December. The only criterion was a written request from the homeowner, with priority going to written invitations over emailed requests.

Like the Christmas album, Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes includes a choir of singing saws that actually sound pretty, if a little eerie. Their wobbly sound evokes suspenseful scenes in vintage films. Koster’s voice is still an acquired taste but it gets stronger and more passionate as the album proceeds. The setting shifts between acoustic indie rock and songs that could have come from vintage 78s, but to Koster, there’s no difference between the two.

Koster plays on Saturday, February 28, at Soundlab with Nana Grizol and Brian Dewan. Show starts at 9pm. $10.

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