Do you believe in magic?

by Ryan Snyder


Packed inside the Music Tapes’ van and trailer alongside the near-ultimate realization of his circus-cum-indie rock wonder The Traveling Imaginary, Julian Koster says, will be the logistical wisdom of centuries of traveling circus performers. For more than a decade, the Neutral Milk Hotel coarchitect and gear man for the Elephant 6 collective has envisioned his solo psych-pop project existing as something grander, more affecting than a simple music performance. Piece by piece, its shows have evolved from a set of fantastical songs fomented by storytelling breaks and mixed curio into something more dreamlike and playful. Over time he recruited such marvels as a 7-foot metronome and a grinning Philco Predicta named Static, anthropomorphized by their importance toward Koster’s delicate concept. But he wasn’t finished. After raising more than $17,000 in 2012 to commission its most vital components, The Traveling Imaginary is finally ready for its first big adventure, one that will make its debut at Krankies in Winston-Salem next Wednesday, Jan. 23.

To hear Koster talk about this iteration of The Traveling Imaginary, there’s both finality and possibility inherent. In essence, it’s not simply a new chapter of the Music Tapes being written, but rather a book being opened. If selling the banjo he played on Neutral Milk Hotel’s seminal In the Aeroplane Over the Sea to finance it weren’t vanguard to the project’s importance, he also makes no hesitation in calling its debut next week the high-water mark of his performing career.

“It’s a dream that’s existed for about as long as the Music Tapes has. We’ve always had a passion and fascination for trying to create realities that someone could explore or wander into and lose themselves in,” Koster said in a recent phone interview. “We wanted to create a new experience, one that is very much a fishbowl for the things that we love most about creating songs and stories, and about what we love most about the world. It’s the beginning of a big adventure that I think is going to stretch out for a lot of years and is going to have a lot of different incarnations.”

The Music Tapes most recent album, the sweet and woozy Mary’s Voice, will provide the performances’ centerpiece, but Koster promises that it will go not only deeper into his discography, but also into what the songs themselves allude. The big reveal of The Traveling Imaginary is a venue-within-a-venue, a large circus tent that Koster commissioned following a successful Kickstarter to be set up inside of performance spaces, a sort of corporeal embodiment of the Koster’s outer psyche. The bigger reveal, of which the only details describe a “beautiful, extraordinary and rare mechanical instrument,” will only come at its Krankies debut.

“It’s not something found in the London Philharmonic, you can bet your bottom dollar on that,” Koster said. “I would go if it was, even if it meant going all the way to England.”

Also joining Koster on this tour of music, games and stories, which will transform from a small-scale theater of dreams into a larger stage production when he joins Neutral Milk Hotel founder Jeff Mangum as a supporting act, are Robbie Cucchiaro, M Coast’s Andy Sailboat, Andrew Lauer, the metronome, Static, the Clapping Hand Machine, the Orbiting Human Circus — something that has existed in concept for as long as the Music Tapes — and a pair of crewmen for the non-musical portions. If it sounds like a lot, it absolutely is. It’s a tremendous undertaking to set up and tear down, which is why Koster invokes the collective wisdom of his circus-performing Romanian ancestors to make that idea itself a part of the show’s magic.

“We’ve learned you have to bring the thing that packs into a tiny little suitcase, and when you unpack it, suddenly it’s five feet tall. It’s a microcosm for what we’re having to do because it’s all gotta fit in a van and a trailer,” Koster said. “But what we’ve created is something that you could not possibly believe fits in a van and a trailer.”

The show itself is designed to accommodate only about 100 people; any more and its personal nature begins to erode. It’s a show that offers possibilities limited only to its participants imaginations, augmented by its shared participation aspects, fueled by mystery and the unknown, but also Koster’s own collective experiences and friendships.

“We want this to be one of the accumulated experiences that you share with people, so when you have adventures together they’re just that much richer and more resonant. That’s a very real thing. Musicians feel that all the time,” Koster said. “This might be the world’s least lucrative tour, but hopefully it’s also the world’s most satisfying tour.”

The Music Tapes will present The Traveling Imaginary at Krankies on Wednesday, Jan. 23.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan