Clubland: Musician Julian Koster comes to Flywheel in Easthampton
Julian Koster brings his fantastical show to the Flywheel in Easthampton Friday. Purchase photo reprints »
Childlike, big-hearted inventors seem to only exist in fictional stories or fantastical Hollywood films like “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” or Martin Scorsese’s beautiful “Hugo.”
But Julian Koster is a real-life creator of whimsical, heartfelt art, filling notebooks with scribbles and doodles of imaginative contraptions and games, then making those dreams come true.
The songwriter/multi-instrumentalist is a key cog in the wonderworks of the Elephant 6 family of musicians and bands, which includes the beloved and influential ’90s group Neutral Milk Hotel (Koster was a member).
His main instruments of choice are the singing saw and the banjo (often played with a bow instead of fingers or picks) and he’s made recordings on long-forgotten formats like the 1895 Edison wax cylinder. When he began traveling with his own band, The Music Tapes, he asked his grandmother to book their first tour (and she did).
Koster and The Music Tapes just released a new album, “Mary’s Voice,” and will return to Flywheel in Easthampton on Friday at 8 p.m.
The first time Koster brought his group to Flywheel, in 1999, it was like nothing this live music fan had ever seen or heard. Koster’s voice was unvarnished, wailing and rejoicing, giving his all, and his band (dressed in homemade Sgt. Pepper-ish clothes) played instruments like 7-foot-tall metronomes, giant wooden clapping hands and other hand-built art pieces, plus a wheezing electronic air organ and an accordion. There was no snare drum in the mini-orchestra — instead, Koster created a crunchy rhythmic sound by jumping up and down on a pallet covered with amplified chicken wire. Also in the band was a plugged-in TV with a smiling face painted on it, a happy screen of snowy static.
Looking back from over a decade later, that concert seems like a normal rock show compared to what Koster has done recently and what he has planned for this tour. His last couple jaunts around the country involved performing holiday carols or lullabies in fans’ homes, so he wanted to return the favor and invite people into a mobile version of his own private creative home: The Traveling Imaginary.
Koster’s original vision was to create a circus tent or carnival booth in his house, inside which he’d write songs, then take the tent on the road and invite audiences inside for music, games, films and stories. He built the prototype and created the songs as planned, but then realized that first tent “could not withstand the rigors of travel and time,” he said in an explanatory video.
He attempted to raise $5,000 online to pay for a new, improved tent, its transportation and the necessary sound system, and fans donated in droves — so far, more than triple that initial amount has been raised. He’s enlisted the help of historic tentmakers in England to make a sturdy one for the tour and future globetrotting.
Basically anytime Koster is involved in a show — like at the life-enhancing Elephant 6 Orchestra Holiday Surprise Tour that rolled through the Valley in early 2011 — a special night is guaranteed. He puts himself out there like few performers do, deeply wanting to connect, surprise and enchant. Prepare for that jaded armor to fall away.