Julian Koster’s work tends to be fractal in nature. Each new piece, whatever it happens to be, appears to contain everything he made before it. This is true of many artists, of course, but Koster especially seems to approach his work like Russian nesting dolls, constructing each new thing precisely to envelop what came before it. Thus every new piece has the aura of a magnum opus, not merely the newest piece but the jewel of his career. At least until the next one arrives.
Koster’s new podcast, which debuted this week, fits this description. Those who have followed Koster’s work will see references throughout the first episode. Its very name—The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air—references an idea for a floating circus he’s been talking about for at least 20 years. The “Night Janitor” play he put on in New York last year has many of the same elements that appear in this episode (namely, a bumbling night shift janitor). There’s similarities to the Traveling Imaginary tour and his caroling tours, not to mention his Music Tapes albums and their shows. The common theme of imagination and absurdism as a defense mechanism is fully apparent through the Vaudevillian structure of the show, even when it gets kind of metafictional.
What has always stood out to me about Elephant 6 projects (and i’ll include this one under that umbrella just because Koster and Robbie Cucchiaro are involved) is their scale. They always feel handmade even when they’re sprawling, as though they cannot be corporatized and mass produced. Far from being a well-oiled machine, the collective operates like a delicate Rube-Goldberg made from chicken wire, old luggage and fifth-hand furniture, but the fragility is entirely the point. It sounds like it could come apart at any time, but so sharp is its authors’ focus, it rarely does. It is rickety and ramshackle by design, such that it can exist only at a human scale. Any larger and the imperfections loom too large, and where duct tape and chewed gum once held things together, cracks must be soldered, blemishes paved over, roughness sanded down and buffed, until the whole contraption is polished into something unrecognizable from the original. Simply, the Elephant 6 pathos must exist on a human scale if it is to exist at all.
The Orbiting Circus is slick by Elephant 6 standards.The production values are of broadcast quality. The cast features some big names. You can now make the argument that John Cameron Mitchell, Mandy Patinkin, Mary Elizabeth Ellis and Charlie Day are members of the Elephant 6 (I won’t, and partially because I want to finish this book sometime this century). While this podcast makes it all feel noticeably less intimate than Koster’s usual stuff, it feels no less mystical. It’s all over the place and at times difficult to follow, but it is also impossible to reverse engineer. It sounds the way seeing a magic trick leaves you wondering how it was done. And if you don’t believe in magic per se, it’s almost more compelling. Real magic requires a real magician. Magic tricks just require a trickster, and anyone can be a trickster.
I am very curious to see where this goes. Koster is a very nimble trickster.
In other news, Stereogum published a piece I wrote about the 20th anniversary of the Olivia Tremor Control’s Dusk at Cubist last month. You can read it here. I’m very pleased with how it came out. Even if the other 2,000 words I cleaved from it were pretty good too.
Twenty years ago this month, the Olivia Tremor Control released its debut record, a comically ambitious double album that meanders between airtight pop songs and experimental sound collages for nearly 75 minutes of psychedelic exploration. For a blog about an Elephant 6 book, I don’t write very much about the Elephant 6, but this seems like a worthwhile opportunity to talk about one of my favorite albums of all-time (especially since I won’t really be spoiling anything I’m saving for the book).
Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle sounds phenomenal today but even more so in the context of when it was created. The mid-’90s was a time period characterized (at least in indie music but certainly throughout mainstream culture in plenty of other places) by slacker disillusionment, Gen X jadedness, and reflexive irony and sarcasm, embodied by contemporary icons like Pavement, Radiohead, Nirvana, Beck and plenty of others. Earnestness and positivity were anathema at this time, a clear signal of squareness, but while Dusk is never cloyingly twee, its unapologetic whimsy and complete lack of self-consciousness helped swing the pendulum back to where authenticity has again become a key axis on which art in general is measured. The Olivias were unique among legitimate artists of the time for their radical sincerity.
Dusk at Cubist Castle is also a triumph of analog production. I can’t get too deep into explaining this without cannibalizing some of my favorite passages from the book, but suffice it to say that the Olivia Tremor Control (with plenty of help and guidance from producer Robert Schneider, who also plays on the record) did things on tape that musicians today can’t pull off with a digital setup. It’s important to note here that Dusk wasn’t just recorded on four- and eight-track recorders but mixed on tape, as well. It takes a truly remarkable amount of vision, patience and (when you’re dealing with a band as opposed to an individual artist) unity to pull off something like this.
Today, Neutral Milk Hotel is far and away the flagship band of the Elephant 6, with its magnum opus In the Aeroplane Over the Sea standing as the collective’s most enduring album. When the Olivia Tremor Control reunited most recently, in 2011, they were still playing rock clubs. When Neutral Milk Hotel reunited a couple years later, they were playing massive theaters with ten times the capacity. But in 1997, after both Neutral Milk and the Olivias had each released only their debut albums, most people in the know would have told you that the Olivia Tremor Control was far more likely to emerge as the Elephant 6’s iconic band.
Those people were wrong, but it could have easily gone differently. I go into greater detail about why in the book, but the story of the Olivia Tremor Control is definitely one of unfulfilled potential. It would not have taken more than a few changes of heart and a couple lucky bounces for the Olivias to be regarded in much different terms today.
Neutral Milk Hotel is the reason I got into the Elephant 6 in the first place, but the Olivia Tremor Control is the reason I wanted to write a book about it. Dusk is a record so sprawling and so layered that it sounds different every time you listen to it. It gives you the thrill of listening to it for the first time, every time, but with a guarantee it will be worth it, which no new record can ever offer. Twenty years after its release, Dusk is my favorite album to listen to through a nice pair of headphones. It’s probably the main reason I ever decided it was worth it to own a nice pair of headphones in the first place.
When I lived in DC, one of the very few things that kept me sane was the city’s sporadic record fairs. There was no set schedule for them, but they usually popped up two or three times a year, cramming a bunch of vendors and their wares into some mixed use structure (which I’ll note here were located in Maryland or Virginia more often than they were in the city itself, and then I promise not to bitch about how awful living in DC is again in this post).
I usually spent more money than I wanted to, but I also came home with an armful of obscurities I was eager to take home and spin. The fun of collecting records (for me, at least) comes from buying music without knowing what it sounds like, and the real thrill exists in the time between the purchase and when you finally drop the needle. It’s like when you’re a kid and your mom buys you a toy and won’t let you open it until your actual birthday, but you’re allowed to look at the box, imagining for yourself all the possibilities the toy might provide. Or when you buy a lottery ticket and spend the time until someone else’s numbers are called fantasizing about what you’ll do with the winnings. It’s a catalyst for imagination. It’s fun.
Most of the vendors at the fairs were there on behalf of actual record stores (mostly from the DC/Maryland/Virginia area) who simply shlepped whatever inventory they could fit in a van from their brick-and-mortar locations to the fair, but my favorite booth was usually a private seller. I don’t know whether this was his main vocation or just a side hustle, but he ran a business buying records and flipping them on eBay, and he showed up at events like these as well. The draw for me was the weirder corners of his inventory. While other sellers usually just had crates broken down into generic categories like “rock” and “jazz” (mostly containing records as bland as those categories would imply), this guy had an entire section just for avant-garde and experimental pieces, another for psychedelia, and so on, hitting all of my sweet spots. I probably spent more money at his booth than at all of the others combined over the years.
But while the stuff he was selling brought me in, his personality usually kept my visit brief. If you spend a lot of time in record stores, you’ve without a doubt encountered a person like this before, but similar sorts of folks exist in every subculture I can think of. If you name a band for this person, he can tell you every record in their catalog, the year each of them came out and on what label, who produced and performed on every one, and so on. It’s impressive until you realize that his encyclopedic knowledge is as sterile as a spreadsheet. It’s unclear to what extent he’s even listened to any of it. To him, music is simply a list of names and dates and facts and figures to be memorized. Ask him the blue book value of mint condition original pressing of Odessey and Oracle, and he’ll tell you without hesitation (or in my case, he told me without my asking), but try asking him what makes that album any good. He’ll stare at you blankly. He sucks.
This would sound like a straw man to me if I hadn’t met a number of folks just like this over the years. A disproportionate number of Elephant 6 fans even fall into this category, but they are not my target audience. There are certainly a whole lot of facts in there (plus no small amount of factoids), but that’s only a part of it, and they’re there to serve a larger goal. My goal is to allow readers to feel like they really know the people I’m writing about. I can pull up a Wikipedia entry on, say, Magic Johnson, and I can learn where and when he was born, his career average for assists per game, and that he played five games for a Swedish team in 1999. But regardless of whence I had gathered that information, even from Johnson himself, I would be an idiot to characterize knowing those facts as knowing him. Knowing someone requires a greater depth of understanding, and that’s what I’m hoping to convey with my book.
I don’t have a whole lot to report on the book stuff (the proposal is mostly written, but I’m waiting for a couple more eggs to hatch before shopping it around, since the hatching of those eggs will dramatically affect the book’s commercial viability and thus its appeal to a potential agent or publisher), so I thought I’d write a little about how I’m approaching this subject. As usual, I’m not going to give away any of the book’s actual content, but I think it might still be useful to broadly explain part of my philosophy.
One of the things I’d like to convey with this book is what makes the Elephant 6 important, which is a little different from what makes it interesting, unique or influential (and I hope to convey all of those things, too). I’d like to write about that importance, but I’d also like for the ideas that make Elephant 6 important to also be implicit in the work. That is, I want to both show and tell this significance.
Of all the things that make Elephant 6 important to me and thousands of other people, their approach toward art stands out. It’s one of the most consistent unifying elements from band to band and person to person, and in my opinion, it’s the key to understanding their entire worldview. Typically, most people view art as a type of thing. It can include paintings and music and film and whatever else, and no two people are likely to have the exact same definition, to the extent that nobody can really define it. It’s a “know it when you see it” sort of thing for most people, and even within a given form, sound minds can disagree. Art doesn’t have to be a painting, not all paintings qualify as art, and every single viewer will draw the Is and Isn’t lines a little differently. It gets tricky.
The key to understanding art, especially art created in the last hundred years, is context. The circumstances from which a work arises are as crucial to its meaning as the work itself. One of the most illustrative examples of this is Marcel Duchamp’s iconic 1917 work Fountain.
The origin of the piece is the subject of debate, but the basic idea is: there’s a urinal sitting in a museum. The fact that it’s in a gallery as opposed to a men’s room subjects it to a different approach from the viewer. In a different context, the viewer will inevitably regard it differently and draw from it a different meaning, in the same way that someone might stop and consider a painting in a gallery when he wouldn’t stop for a second look if the same painting were hanging in a hotel room. Since the very submission of Fountain, people have argued over whether or not the piece itself or even the gesture of putting it in a gallery is “art.” My suggestion is that the very premise of the question “Is it art?”—here and whenever it’s asked—misses the point entirely.
The piece itself undergoes no transformation whether it’s in a bathroom or an art gallery or anywhere else. Physically, neither does the viewer. What changes is the viewer’s framework for consuming the piece. The lesson I get from Fountain is that context is important, but the logical extension of this lesson is that you can view absolutely anything as art. A given thing—regardless of what it is, where it is, or who made it (if anybody!)—cannot rigidly be “art” (likewise for the inverse). It is a choice the viewer makes. On a case-by-case basis, the viewer decides to regard a thing as art or not, and she usually does so subconsciously based on cues she’s not even really thinking about.
But what if you lived your whole life like this? What if, instead of just viewing explicitly “artistic” works as art, you viewed everything through that lens? What if you looked for beauty and wisdom in not just paintings and music but also kitchen appliances, household chores, and conflicts with a neighbor?
This is, broadly, how the sharpest minds of the Elephant 6 seem to go about their days. In a time of great cynicism and negativity, it’s a radical decision to look at the world aesthetically and optimistically. To make music from non-musical objects, or to prefer the sounds and character of someone’s bedroom to a studio, or to conceptualize an entire album around the genocidal murder of a teenage girl. It’s obvious from their work that this is how the Elephant 6 operates, and it becomes even more apparent when you spend time with these people. This is how they see the world.
And this is how I am trying to tell their story, to find beauty not just in the things they made but in the lives they live. My book is a narrative work, not a critical one, so it’s not a matter of judging any of it. Nor is it a matter of burying anything negative and mentioning only the fun stuff. It just means that I’m viewing their community (and all of the things that emerged from it, including music but also pot lucks and Orange Twin and everything else) the same way I’d view something hanging in a gallery.
My quest to find an agent began in earnest this week. We can put this in the “indefinite timeline” section of my tasks.
The process is relatively simple. I write a one-page query letter that I send to agents, along with a book proposal that’ll probably be in the range of 20 to 30 pages. The query letter is basically a pitch for the prospective agent to read the proposal, and the proposal is a description of the project, background on me, a business case of some kind, and so on.
So my immediate tasks are to draft the letter and the proposal, compile a list of potential agents, and then start soliciting. The writing components are straightforward enough: I’ve applied to enough jobs to know my way around a cover letter, and there’s no part of the proposal that I haven’t been mulling for years (you could probably cobble together an effective one using only posts on this blog). There are also some great resources that provide listings of agents (and, mercifully, how to reach them), but that’s the part that’s going to take some work.
I need to be discreet about who I’m pitching to, and the pitches themselves need to be individualized to the extent that the recipients don’t think they’re just receiving a form letter. An agent wants to know that I’ve done some research and am reaching out to them specifically because of their interests and specialties, so each query letter needs to demonstrate that. So I can use the big databases to compile a short list of my own, and then winnow it down from there by investigating each agent. It’s nothing outside of my abilities, but it’s going to take some work.
This search is my main priority with regard to the book right now, but I’ve also got to keep working on the book itself, not to mention keep up the freelance hustle so I can sustain myself.
I’m all caught up on transcribing, but I’ve fallen a little behind on working that transcribed material into my draft. I’ve got 17 interviews to process, with a handful more on the horizon.
But that’ll all work itself out. It’s a very linear exercise. Ditto (mostly) for the new bits I need to write (a lot of which is just pulling from those aforementioned to-be-transcribed interviews). And even though I still have some additional interviews to do, I’m beginning my search for an agent this week.
I have no idea how that works, exactly, and I’m not really sure where to even start. But once I find the representation that suits me, I expect some sort of deadline won’t be far behind. I’ve put this off for a very long time, knowing how dependent my timeline is on other people’s availability and ability to follow through. But I feel like I’m far enough along now that I can conform to an external deadline. At this point, I probably can’t even schedule a large portion of the remaining interviews without such a deadline. Some folks are evasive when you tell them you can do the interview any time but a little more urgent about it when there’s a defined window of time.
When I moved down to Athens last fall, I had a plan in only the loosest sense of that word. Particularly in terms of how to fund this project, I had a two-pronged approach:
- Eh, Athens is cheap. I’ll live off my savings for a little while.
- Surely I can find some kind of part-time freelance work to keep me afloat.
The weird thing is: it looks like I was right on both counts. My relative frugality the past few years gave me a nice little nest egg I could live off while I had little to no income, and the income situation has changed for the better. I’ve been grading standardized tests the past few weeks, which ended yesterday (it was a temporary gig) but pays extremely well, and there should be another round available in a few weeks, which I plan to pursue. Beyond that, some freelance writing is bringing in a few bucks, I have a gig tutoring high school students in reading and writing, and I’m about to start a new job rewriting news articles for lower reading levels (namely elementary school students). I’ve got a few other irons in the fire as well.
Juggling all these jobs—most of which aren’t on a particularly set schedule—takes some nimbleness, but I would be grateful for the flexibility it affords me even if I weren’t counting on that flexibility for book stuff. I feel a sense of agency that I always anxiously lacked working desk jobs, and April will be the first month since I moved here that my income exceeds my expenses. At least in Athens, this is now a sustainable plan.
I don’t know how much longer I’ll be in Athens. It should be at least a couple months, but I’m probably not moving anywhere else until I can afford to. That will mean either a) finding full-time employment somewhere, b) my book becoming an instant bestseller and vaulting me to literary fame (lol), or c) building up a stable collection of freelance projects that would allow me to make ends meet in a pricier locale.
In the shorter term, though, it means my savings account will no longer be inversely proportional to the time I spend in Athens. It takes some pressure off. Perhaps you’re wondering, if you’re nearly seven years into this project while feeling pressured, how much longer is this going to take now? Good question! In absolute terms, I don’t know. I’m still relying on a few other folks to come through, and that’ll be on their terms. I do think that’s close. But I do know that the timeline is “whenever my manuscript is in a place I feel comfortable with,” as opposed to “whenever my savings evaporate completely.”