Under the banner of the Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air), Julian Koster has assembled an unprecedented mixed-medium project consisting of a beloved podcast and zany live show featuring Koster’s orchestral indie pop group The Music Tapes and narrated from the perspective of an imaginative janitor of the Eiffel Tower. A member of the ersatz Elephant Six collective, creator Koster has performed with Neutral Milk Hotel and Black Swan Network in addition to releasing music under his own name. Before his orbiting troupe touches down in Brooklyn Bazaar on June 4, AdHoc caught the multi-talented Koster for a glimpse into his giddy world.
AdHoc: We’re really excited for the show—it’s pretty unlike anything we’ve hosted before. Could you tell us a little about the story behind the podcast?
Julian Koster: Sure, in the podcast, a janitor of the Eiffel Tower is our hero—if you can use that word in relation to him. But you don’t need to know a thing about the podcast or ever have heard it to see the live show—it’s kind of a show in its own right, designed for someone who’s just walking in the door.
And in that show, the janitor is actually hired to clean that night’s venue, so the janitor’s been hired to clean the Brooklyn Bazaar, and he’s there alone, in the middle of the night, cleaning—or trying to clean—or cleaning badly. And he’s imagining the stage that’s there and [that] the lights are there, and he’s imagining putting on a show he’s done all his life since he was a kid. He’s imagining an audience, and that’s you. And so, when you walk in the door, you’re walking into the Brooklyn Bazaar all empty, being cleaned and worked on, and you’re in his imagination. So it’s almost sort of like walking into a circus in a janitor’s imagination in the middle of the night and none of it’s actually happening—but it is happening, all over the Brooklyn Bazaar.
Seeing as the main character show is a janitor at the Eiffel Tower, the premise sounds pretty goofy. What sort of themes were you working with or at least thinking about for this project?
It’s very much like life—a lot of what I’ve experienced as a human since I was born kind of forms the heart of it, just as it does for most human creations in the end. Just like life, I think there’s definitely a lot of joy in it. There’s also a lot of darkness, too—in the way that the sadness makes the funny stuff and the fun that much more intense, because it makes it real, which is really nice. It’s kind of all of those things.
It’s very much about the nature of realities, and the malleability of realities, both imagined and real—and of course, real human realities are all products of our imaginations, and even the objective ones that we all agree upon existed as imaginings first: someone imagined the car, the car existed, and then the car changed the world.
And so I think that we have extraordinary power in our imaginations—I think that the janitor has extraordinary power—he’s someone who has a chance to create a warm growing light for himself, and, as it turns out, for others. I think that nothing in the world could make him feel safer or happier or better than the understanding that his world is a warm, glowing place that people can find comfort or solace or amusement in. So it’s a nice ecosystem.
While you have generally worked in the purview of music, this project seems fairly philosophical and literary as well. What sorts of authors were you drawing from in devising this podcast?
I don’t get very intellectual with what I make. I don’t trust my intellect or my ability to analyze, so I just allow the things that come into my imagination to mature and spring out organically. I have a deep love for craft, but I don’t believe that craft is intellectual or conscious or analytical. I think that things that I find beautiful, in terms of art, grow like trees or anything else in nature. It wants to be born, it wants to be whole, and what you have to do is just sort of let it: feed it, nurture it, love it. Be a parent. But to be a parent is not to be a child’s author. And I think it’s that way with art.
You’ve played the singing saw in Neutral Milk Hotel and produced full-length records using that instrument. You’ve injected an element of play into some serious projects—something really at work in The Orbiting Human Circus. In what ways do ethics or politics figure into play for you and your art?
It’s funny, because I think it’s an incredibly serious business: imagining and play. We just lose sight of it. As children we understand it completely. But, the thing is that I feel strongly that there are two fronts in the world. One is certainly political, but I think that there’s another front that’s absolutely as essential, if not more. The way that kids play is through reality-forming. And, like I said earlier, objective reality is much more a product of our imagination—our individual imaginations—than anybody understands. But, that aside, you’re playing at realities, and I think that the front that’s so important for reality (that’s as important as the political front, which always leads to war, to battles, or to enmity) effects most major human change. It happens on the plane where we’re all just people together. The good times we can have together, that simple human universal stuff that we all share because we’re not “Team A” and “Team B”—that’s bull. And it’s from that plane that all good things happen. That’s how wars end, that’s how societies become better societies, that’s how people are helped, that’s how we help each other, save each other, care for each other.
And I think that that front is often ignored, especially when the going gets tough. And when the going gets tough, everything gets political, and suddenly Mussolini is this huge phenomenon in Italy, and all sorts of people are either for him or against him in such a way that only makes them want to punch their friends. I swear—that leads nowhere but to ultimate destruction. That ultimate destruction comes, and then guess what happens: people start loving each other again, and loving life, and caring about life. So I think that this stuff is just as important as—or more important than—war, more important than anger. Which isn’t to say that those things don’t have their place; I’m not speaking against those things. I want to be very clear: I just think that, if you’re going to go there, you must go to the other extreme of our humanity and of this beautiful universe, and you’ve got to be in communication with both if you want to do any good for anybody.
Could you speak on the differences between the podcast and the live performance?
They’re both distinct, incredibly wonderful mediums I’m so happy to be working in. Live, it’s something I’ve been doing pretty much since I was a teenager, pretty full on. And I just love it, the opportunity to create a special time, to create a special experience for people. I’ve always loved that people do that, and to be able carry that torch is an incredible honor. And you never stop learning, and you never stop discovering stuff that is possible to do. People are getting more and more adventurous, which is wonderful, because that’s always been the most exciting thing for me: to create an adventure. The whole thing becomes an adventure when you’re trying to make it articulate something that you care about. You’re always trying to find new ways to express things. So, live is incredible, and we definitely conceive this as both a live thing and a podcast. The live set is just as important as the podcast, and the podcast is just important as the live set: they exist concurrently.
And the podcast is incredible, too: it’s a new medium, so people are super open-minded and it’s incredibly intimate. It’s free, people can get it instantly, anyone who’s interested and curious is allowed to peep behind that curtain and see, and so they’re suddenly instantly there. And there are so few barriers between the creator and the audience in terms of pure creativity. I could be in my apartment and have some crazy idea, stay up all night doing it, and then press a button—and the next night, tens and tens and hundreds of thousands of people all over the world can be experiencing it. It’s just so direct and honest as a medium. I’m pretty excited about it. And you can do whatever you want; there are no rules. They’re being invented right now. That’s my kind of scene. I love it.
Both mediums are great. I think we spend a lot more time and put a lot more work into each moment [of the podcast] than is the tradition for that medium, because that medium was born from the live broadcast medium where you can’t do that. So, in a way, I’m still learning how to do it quickly and how to live making that kind of art. I tend to get overexcited about art and make something that the budget can’t support. That’s been a running theme in my life. So we’re learning the medium, but it’s cool because the medium’s a baby, it’s a child, and we’re all learning together. It’s a fun thing to be a part of.
The Orbiting Human Circus inhabits a pretty unique artistic spot. What kind of receptions did you envision receiving? Did they come true?
I really had no idea. I started making the thing—and it snowballed. When I started playing with the idea of the Orbiting Human Circus, I didn’t really know what a podcast was. And I never have any idea—you just can never tell once you put something out in the world. You just can never tell at all.
But there are things that delight me about it. The fact that people get all the jokes thrills me—the jokes are in this language that are so particular to my own experience, my life, and the things that I love, and realizing that there are sixteen year-olds in Macedonia who are laughing at those jokes is awesome. It’s like a gift from God that it’s translating. And I think it’s cool that the audience has been incredibly diverse. There are teenagers who are getting super into podcasts, there’s a super young audience, there’s a college-/post-college-aged audience that we’ve always kind of reached with music, and then it’s reaching older people as well.
One thing that makes me happy is that a kid will write to say, “yeah, I listened to it with my dad, and then he played it for my grandma—and she really likes it.” And that sort of stuff kills me. That’s the kind of art that’s worth aspiring to. If you can make something that can speak to anyone, or that there’s something there for everyone, that doesn’t exclude anyone. But for good stuff, the stuff that I love, I personally feel that I could take my favorite movie and play it for my grandma or a ten year old, and I could play it for them believing that they’ll smile and laugh, and I’m pretty sure they will. And I think, to me, that’s the height of art—what we should all aspire to.
When you have something new and different like that, you feels like you’re a boxer going out there and scrapping with the universe, like you’re fighting for survival, and every victory feels so special and sweet. And I think that our victories are humble and modest—but they feel kind of wonderful, because I really feel them.