Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Mike Gentry
For the last handful of years, The Music Tapes and Neutral Milk Hotel's Julian Koster has loaded himself into vehicles and set off on tours of merry caroling during the holiday times. He's made open calls to give fans reasons why The Music Tapes should play in their house, asking them for letters of explanation, sort of the way Kriss Kringle gets his letters, the proof he needs for his list of naughties and nices. Koster sorts through his mail and plans a tour around what he determines to be the best options, taking him to some of the smallest and oddest little spots on the map. He goes out barnstorming with his delicious-sounding singing saw, a banjo, a tuba and whatever other odds and ends instruments he can fit, spreading joy and cheer everywhere he and his band go.
Last year, it brought he and the trio to Iowa for the first time, to play in the basement of our ever-gracious Barnstormer hosts in Maquoketa, IA. They played in the Biehl's Halloween-decked basement, with requisite severed head fountain and punch bowl in the corner. We didn't see the fountain that evening, but we're betting that it was ringed in tinsel, the head was wearing a Santa's cap, cocked downward and the neck's nub was probably spewing eggnog. When you listen to Music Tapes records, you're always struck by the oddities. They stick out and they're prominent in the mix. They are the instruments that sit in the corners of studios, the novelty acts for most when they're goofing around, never considering that they could pull the sound off on tape. You're struck by that singing saw, cooing and humming at us like a heat wave disguised as a minty French kiss. It's that shimmying of wobbly notes, working on us like a snake charmer or a pole dancer works.
It would have been just the place that the Music Tapes would have felt at ease in, some place that's immediately right and wrong at the same time, a place where you're surrounded by all of the disjointed stimuli that your eyes and ears and mouth can handle. It's not strange at all how the non-holiday songs that the Music Tapes would play could sound like they share similar sentiments with those traditional holiday songs about gay, happy meetings when friends come to call during the happiest season of all. There's innocence. A question like, "Watch the sun hide all night/What's it scared of?" as Koster does at the beginning of the song, "The Minister of Longitude," from the band's 2008 album, "Music Tapes For Clouds And Tornadoes," couldn't come from any other place but that. It's a smart, but child-like question. Music Tapes songs are whimsical and make us feel like catching snowflakes on the tips of our tongues, as they're curlicuing their ways down to the rest of their fallen brethren - all while playing a kazoo or an accordion, of course. You wonder if Koster doesn't like these winter holiday tours a little bit because he's bound to see snow and he's bound to have the opportunity to roll around in it and make snow angels and snowmen. He's bound to have one of those night drives into a blinding snowfall, where the flakes are floating crazily and singularly down, coming right at you and pelting the windshield without any intended malice. It's one of those storms that can drive you somewhat crazy. You drive and you stare. You try to keep everything straight. It's one of those things that steers us toward unhinged and unclear thoughts - not to mention theremins and singing saws.
The Music Tapes Official Site