Oct 10, 2016
Neutral Milk Hotel’s Julian Koster Brings Us Aboard a Fantastical New Podcast
Through the years, almost like clockwork, Julian Koster’s creations have provided warmth for crisp seasons. I first became familiar in December 2011, when Koster and his band The Music Tapes—featuring Ian Ludders, Robbee Cucchiaro, a fleet of oddball instruments (musical saws, superbone, xylophone, bowed banjo), a singing snowman, and a tape deck—squeezed into my bedroom as part of their semi-annual Caroling/Lullaby Tour. With his youthful charm and signature blue knit hat, the Tapes spun tales of fir trees learning to walk and belted standards of Gershwin and Armstrong. In November 2012 through early 2013, the Traveling Imaginary—a Kickstarter-funded tour in which the Tapes, along with a singing television and 7 ft. Tall Metronome—played in a circus tent and struck a new milestone in the band’s history. It was their first production under the Orbiting Human Circus banner. Later that year, they conducted a series of phone-based concerts, which have become an annual tradition.
Though Koster’s reunion with seminal indie-rockers Neutral Milk Hotel delayed OHC business, his next project would be yet another expansion. Last October, Night, Janitor, Carousel premiered at Hudson River Park, an interactive performance that culminated in audience members putting wishes in a fishbowl while aboard a lantern-lit carousel. Koster’s character in that show, the titular janitor that minds the carousel late at night, returns in the Orbiting Human Circus’ latest adventure: The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air, the first independently-produced podcast (or “audio show,” as they prefer) distributed by Night Vale Presents. You can hear the audio trailer for the weekly show, which begins October 12, here.
The trailer, presented by Welcome to Night Vale favorite Cecil Baldwin, boasts the Music Tapes hallmarks: the crackling phonographic textures, alien musical cues, the whimsical storytelling. Most importantly, it frees the imagination, creating exciting visuals in the listeners’ heads. “I’ve always loved creating audio pictures,” Koster tells me via phone. “You’re collaborating with [the audience], and what they see is especially beautiful because it’s unique; the images and lights and colors all come from them.”
The audio show takes place in the Eiffel Tower, where Julian the Janitor—“the person you identify with in this crazy situation”—dreams of cleaning up and bumbling onto a live variety show led by Mr. Cameron (John Cameron Mitchell) and Leticia (Susannah Flood). It’s lifted from comedian Jack Benny’s old shows: “There were all sorts of wonderful people on that show—Andy Griffith, Mel Blanc—who used to drop in, often spontaneously. I loved the idea that this janitor could dream of dropping in, he didn’t even want to be the star!”
The janitor also shares his history with the Narrator (Drew Callender), another invention of his head, and at one point the show breaks into a real—or is it?—interview called “Goldsby and Rue.” As Koster describes it, “You’re inside a reality, inside a reality, inside a reality; it’s like taking a warm bath. You kind of just let yourself go.” Per Music Tapes tradition, Koster never reveals what’s fact and fiction, which is precisely how he likes it.
Much of Koster’s output—and much of that with other members of the Athens, Georgia-based Elephant 6 Collective—has relied upon the audience’s imagination, whether on a record or a live show. He even recorded a story album narrated by multi-media artist Brian Dewan, The 2nd Imaginary Symphony for Cloudmaking, which tells the story of a young boy named Nigh stumbling upon a man with a very curious trade. Koster sees the “wonderfully intimate” podcast medium a perfect fit: “It’s almost like the 60s, or the punk rock explosion, or indie explosion, where you can almost do anything and people will be interested. I think people’s interests are broadening, people are curious and hungry. There’s such few rules, and that’s really special when that happens. In an audio show, there’s nothing to stage, and you can let it be whatever you want it to be. To let it grow and let it be its own creature.”
It began with a wink. Bob Boilen, host/creator of NPR’s All Songs Considered, attended one of the Caroling/Lullaby shows in 2011: “He came up to me afterwards and winked an said, ‘If you have any ideas for something, get in touch.’ I had no idea what that meant! I saw him again later, and he did the exact same thing. I was so confused.” But Koster began daydreaming, drawing from his own memories of his grandmother finding company in the glow in the television or the sounds of radio, which remain his biggest influences for the “dreamy abstract constellation” that would become Orbiting Human Circus of the Air: “Just making a nice warm glow that would be a part of that person’s life, that they could go to that hiding place.”
Though both Koster and Boilen were excited, the construction of it posed issues; All Songs Considered episodes are typically thirty minutes, broken up into five-minute segments. One of Koster’s segments would’ve taken up an entire episode. But as podcast culture was climbing, Koster was introduced to Welcome to Night Vale, a fake radio broadcast for a fictional town. It excited him because the typically NPR-influenced formatting of podcasting was broken up by fictional narrative. “I thought it was brilliant and hilarious and kindred to everything I love.”
After recruiting Cecil Baldwin, whom Koster considers “a fantastic trained actor who can do anything, not just ‘the guy from Night Vale,” series regular, Meg Bashwiner also joined, both of them playing a varied list of characters. Koster says he was “fated to work with them,” but the cast has grown to be even more eclectic, headed by longtime pal John Cameron Mitchell, creator of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Their bond has proven mutually beneficial; Koster filled bass duties on various Hedwig performances at the Jane Street Theatre, and Mitchell played the voice of “Smoke” on the Music Tapes’ first single. They even co-wrote an epic fantasy screenplay which intrigued Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B, but proved far too costly to materialize. Koster calls Mitchell “one of America’s greatest living actors.”
The star-studded cast also includes Tim Robbins (Koster considers him “his generation’s Jimmy Stewart” after seeing him in The Hudsucker Proxy), It’s Always Sunny’s Charlie Day and Mary Elizabeth Ellis, and Mandy Patinkin. All of their negotiations came after seeing Koster perform; after one gig, Robbins bragged that he can “juggle up to seven knives on the radio,” and Patinkin was tapped after a caroling call was made to his family: “After I was done, he asked if I wanted to hear a song, and he sang ‘Silent Night’ in Yiddish. It was gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous!” (A full list of cast and credits can be found at the OHC website.)
Koster asks me to emphasize his gratitude for these folks, who are working out of tremendous kindness and generosity, but what’s also worth noting are the Orbiting Human Circus’ crew working behind the scenes, namely co-director/developer Ellie Heyman and producer Christy Gressman. They both became involved in 2012; a fan of rich, complicated stories, Heyman says that his story of old European cities erupting from a performer’s mouth prompted her to say, “I will do anything with this man.” Though she is more accustomed to the theater, Heyman tells me the directional process was akin to filmmaking: “We would set shots up directionally, and the microphone would pick up things like people running away from something.” Gressman’s role started out as strictly doing artwork after recently graduating from Yale before applying her creative management skills. She tells me via email: “A great thing is that we all come from such diverse creative backgrounds, and we’ve been able to draw upon everyone’s unique strengths, experiences, and expertise.”
As is common with podcasts, the Orbiting Human Circus will tour in support (including a stop at The Bell House on November 18), but Koster assures me it will not be a scripted reading: “It’s something that wants to just be a live show in its own right. The story of this tour is that the janitor is actually cleaning your venue each time that night alone, and he’s imagining that he’s putting on this show for the imaginary audience, which is you. You’re walking into his world.” It will, of course, be about as elaborate as past Orbiting Human Circus shows, which are anything but the normal rock concert.
“I’ve always been square pegs trying to fit into round holes. What was natural for me to do was far away from what was going on, but that felt okay, because I grew up in what was a real underground music culture. It was hard to trying to do elaborate shows in a rock music situation with people who only know how to deal with guitar, bass, and drums. It’s incredibly challenging but in a broader sense you were okay if you were different, because people are willing to stand for those things.”
Lead image via Facebook
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