MusicMusic Features

The Music Tapes Bring ‘The Orbiting Human Circus’ to Athens

Despite all the flak millennials catch for supposedly having short attention spans, this generation increasingly consumes information and entertainment in a committed, focused way. Podcasts have risen to the forefront of culture, offering immersive listening experiences on topics such as true crime, history, sports and comedy. From “This American Life” and “Fresh Air” to heavy hitters “Serial,” “S-Town” and “Stuff You Should Know,” this now-established platform enriches minds and commutes alike.  

For Elephant 6 mainstay Julian Koster, the podcast boom couldn’t have come at a more convenient time. Koster had been planning a series of projects for The Music Tapes, his group with Robbie Cucchiaro and Thomas Hughes, that revolved around the exploits of a fictional janitor of the Eiffel Tower. There was one big barrier in the way, though: He wasn’t quite sure if there was a format capable of fully conveying his stories.

For one, Koster loves performance; anyone who’s witnessed a Music Tapes production can attest to this. For those who haven’t, imagine a troupe traveling with a circus tent filled with carnival games—which they did for their Traveling Imaginary tour in 2012—and you’ll start to get the picture. Similarly, Koster is fascinated with the art of storytelling and recording, having made narrative records for years, in addition to contributing to a number of iconic albums from Athens and beyond.

However, those mediums alone couldn’t do the breadth of Koster’s narrative justice. He needed some sort of storytelling format that people could really get involved with—that could allow his magical fiction to unfold over time, but also keep listeners enthralled with every new installment. Frankly, he needed a podcast.

“I feel like I’m just just really, really lucky that the podcast thing happened, that podcast culture exploded the way that it did,” Koster says. “Really, we sort of thought there just wasn’t an audience for it, or a way to even make sense for us just to put it out as a record. So the thing that happened in podcast culture was so awesome, because suddenly there was a place for something like that to go… and an audience just waiting for it. It was kind of this really magical moment.”

So Koster created “The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air)” in collaboration with Night Vale Presents, the network responsible for popular fictional narrative podcast “Welcome to Night Vale.” The series features voice acting from Mandy Patinkin, Charlie Day, Tim Robbins and Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s John Cameron Mitchell, a group Koster recruited by happenstance and backstage at Music Tapes shows. The podcast ended up breaking into the iTunes top 10, and has been given the green light for a second season.

In “The Orbiting Human Circus,” the janitor, played by Koster, confronts surreal events and assorted characters night after night as he cleans the Eiffel Tower, inhabiting a world devoid of any discernible era. Its events could be taking place during any time period, past, present or future. Fittingly, its companion EP, which contains music featured in the podcast’s first season, was recorded on a multitude of apparatuses: a 1930s wire recorder, a 1940s Presto record lathe, a 1960s tape machine and a modern computer.

“That stuff is my passion. I love those machines,” Koster says of the equipment, recalling his purchase of the wire recorder while on tour in Montreal in the ’90s. “I took it home, and it was the most magical-sounding thing ever. It plays back at you, and it literally sounds like it’s 70 years old.”

This confluence of recording practices and sounds and playful experimentation with time heightens Koster’s charming innocence. “I feel like a superhero or something,” he says. “I feel like it’s my cape. I feel like I have this secret power to make things in the past.”

As Koster and company tour in support of the podcast, they seek to bring the same immersion and involvement required of podcast listeners to the venues they play. Interspersed with Music Tapes songs, the set revolves around Koster’s janitor, who is tasked with cleaning up each concert hall. He says each venue will appear nearly unrecognizable to the public. “You’re going to go into the 40 Watt,” he explains, “and it’s not going to look like the 40 Watt.”

There will be some instant gratification, too. “It’s kind of like you’re walking into a whole story, and there’s all kinds of fun and impossible events that happen—and it happens all over the 40 Watt,” says Koster.