No. 72: The Music Tapes At Athens Popfest, August 2008

Caution: nostalgia ahead!

In 1998, I moved to Athens, Ga., from Starkville, Miss., for a variety of reasons: I’d just gone through a bad breakup; my sister lived there; I was angling for a job with an Athens promotional company. A lifelong R.E.M. obsession didn’t hurt. Deep down, though, what really drew me there was a feeling that something was happening. I was a fan of the burgeoning Elephant 6 (and Kindercore) scenes from afar: Olivia Tremor Control’s Dusk at Cubist Castle and Neutral Milk Hotel’s On Avery Island were sources of endless fascination for me. I’d listen to those warped, bizarre recordings and just marvel at the fact that people near me, in the Southeastern United States of America no less, were making this kind of music.


When In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was released (along with Elf Power’s fuzzy When the Red King Comes), I realized I had to beat a hasty retreat out of Mississippi. Three months after my arrival, I was standing in the 40 Watt Club watching Neutral Milk Hotel tear through the final slot at Kindercore’s Popfest 1998, and I knew I’d made the right decision.

“The Television Tells Us”

Ten years later, I was standing there watching the Music Tapes tear through the final slot at HHBTM’s Athens Popfest 2008, and I felt the same amazement and wonder at the creative energy that this place produces. I’d played a rather raucous set earlier, and I was super-sweaty, and wearing a white tux, fake eyelashes, and makeup. My ex-wife was moving the next day, and Popfest became a convenient send-off for her. It was bittersweet, to be sure: our marriage didn’t work out, but our friendship survived.

“Song for Oceans Falling”

Julian Koster and Co. spun ramshackle, surrealist hymns onstage with seemingly every other Athens musician joining in. It felt more like a reunion than a farewell: friends were hugging and smiling and everybody was a little bit buzzed, and here was this guy leading an E6 omnibus band onstage surrounded by a giant clapping machine, a metronome, and a television that he talked to on occasion. Near the end of the set, Mike Turner from Happy Happy Birthday to Me walked up to me, reached in a bag, and shoved a kazoo in my hand.

It wasn’t just me; the entire audience was being kazooed. As the band wrapped up its final number, Koster commanded the crowd’s attention and instructed all of us to play a simple melody on our kazoos along with the trademark wobbly E6 horns and such. The 40 Watt filled with the hums of hundreds of kazoos, and the ensuing buzz wasn’t nearly as goofy as that sounds. And then the Music Tapes just marched right out of the 40 Watt, taking us in the kazooing audience with them. The kazooing parade followed Koster down the late-night streets, still that same melody. We even picked up some curious frat boys along the way.

“Kazoo Procession Finale”

After about five blocks we ended up in a field, where everyone sat in a circle as Julian conducted. After wrapping it up, Koster movingly dedicated the song to departed E6er Will Westbrook, and it was there, in that thick Georgia summer night, surrounded by these fearless musicians and wonderful friends, that I realized that this energy and music could only have happened here. It was a perfect, elegaic end to my first ten years in Athens.

80 ’08 (and Heartbreak)