||No other band put songs together like Neutral Milk Hotel.
Their marching-band-from-slumberland sound captivated hearers of their joyful 1996 debut On Avery Island.
Let's begin where NMH are most discernibly different: with their words, forged by Jeff Mangum, who also does
the initial songwriting. It's hard to imagine anyone else singing lyrics like these ("Two-headed boy, she is all you
could need/She will feed you tomatoes and radio wires"), at least not convincingly. One set of imaginistic
word-clusters connects to another, leaving the listener pondering the songand the new album, In
the Aeroplane over the Sea.
The short, folky, plaintive "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One" opens the album with Mangum's multi-tracked
voice sweetly nasal-singing "When you were young you were the king of carrot flowers/And how you built a tower
tumbling though the trees/In holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet." Jeff uses phrases like "and how you,"
"as we would," or "and thisis the room" to link scenes and images together, making them wholea smart,
Mangum's magic realism is striking, too, not just in the convulsive beauty of its juxtapositions, but in the
way it so imagistically conjures a scene. Real-life details makes the scene authenticMom and Dad weren't
just fighting, "she would stick a fork right into Daddy's shoulder." If you ever listen to music for any of teh emotionally
cathartic or romantic reasons that are curiously out of style these days, Mangum's songs are likely to resonate for
Early one morning, my wife, Paige La Grone, and I drive the five hours to Athens. Nowadays, a decade and
a half after the initial music-community hype about the place has died down, it seems genuinely groovy and
fun again. Before Austin or Seattle, after all, there was AthensPylon, the B-52s, Love Tractor, REM...
And today, once more, it is a booming music town.
Mangum lives in a house with busy, arty roommates
who include his old friend Julian Koster (besides playing in NMH, he also has a solo project the Music Tapes,
whose new, pop-up packaged single is a collectible; and he contributes to the Black Swan Orchestra
a sort of ambient/found-sound outfit featuring members of the off-kilter psych-pop act Olivia Tremor Control)
and Jeff's girlfriend Laura Carter (she sings and plays keyboards in the big-soundinig yet frisky Elf Power whose
album When the Red King Comes is out now on Arena Rock; she's also in dadaist performance group
Dixie Blood Mustache, for whom she plays a discontinued-model sax-synthesizer that sounds curiously warped.)
Their house is a sloppy, brilliant messpretty much what I'd imagined.
||CDs and melodicas are
strewn about. I spot bizarre genre-hopping '70s Brazilian act Os Mutantes; jazz bassist
and bandleader Charlie Haden; and musique concrete composer Pierre Henri. By the fridge there's a stack of gig
flyers in psychedelic watercolors.
Old keyboards and reel-to-reel machines clutter the house. The walls are covered in artwork by friends and
residents. A door is postered with photocopied images from turn-of-the-century editions of The New York
Times, and in a corner there's a beautiful old organ a friend of Jeff's bought for 15 bucks and gave to him.
Next to the organ there's a physics book by Einstein, and another by John Cage on nothing. Part of the hallway
is lined with tinfoil; big and elaborate puppet props from an Elf Power shown are strewn about the living room.
There are clothes in the corners, and a stack of vinyl records by Moondog, Minutemen, and Monk, among others.
As she's showing us around, Laura gives a sneak preview of a string instrument she's making out of a gourd
as a present for Jeff.
And there are two dogsone looks almost like a big greyhound, the other's the ultimate Muppet mutt.
The mutt, which looks way more like a stuffed animal than any living creature I've seen, was rescued from an
animal-testing laboratory. The dogs are happy. They have a yard out back, but they clearly want to with Laura and
Jeff and their visitors.
Jeff Mangum smiles easily. Nevertheless, he's a bit shy, or guarded, at first. When he finally loosens up, the
words trip over themselves, syllables smashing into one another as they scramble to get out. Jeff is a real good
listener, too, and a pretty good storyteller. He's describing a cult headquarters in Georgia where some UFO
conspiracy-theorists are building pyramids. He and his pals went there to take photos...
Mangum mostly looks like he
spends his time hunched over a guitar or keyboard or mixing console. His mid-length, swept-back, doesn't look
like it's been washed today but it still looks good... his pants have holes, but who cares? He has the authentic
look of cool the look a serious artist or heavy-duty absent-minded scientist has, and he seems to be one
of those people who lives healthy and looks good without trying. You can tell he doesn't think about the way he
looksexcept when he's going home to see his folks. Speaking of a trip there with Laura, he mutters, "I
should try and find some clothes that don't have holes in them."
Mangum is charismatic in a low-key way, and clearly no egomaniac. While he doesn't seem oblivious to
his talent, or embarrassed by it, he does downplay it (typical line: "I just write pop songs, you know?") while
enthusing about others' work. (In this he reminds me of the genuinely humble Jim O'Rourke, the experimental
Chicago guitarist/producer/engineer who's fairly recently discovered the the delights of pop-based sound.)
Jeff and i settle down to talk in the living room, focusing first on the songwriting process.
Are you conducting experiments on how many
words can be said in one breath, in one song?
Ha ha. The songs sort of come out spontaneously; it'll take me a while to figure out what exactly is happening
lyrically, what kind of story I'm telling. Then I start building little bridgesword bridges tp make
everything go from one point to the next, till it reaches the end. A stream of words keeps coming out like little
blobs, in some sort of order. Like "Two-Headed Boy," each section sort of came out at a different time, so many
I've forgotten most of them by now. None of the editing happens on paper: it goes on in my little computer-storage
How often do you write songs?
All the time. There's at least four records' worth of stuff that's not out and may never come out ever...
Is it because they aren't fit in with concepts
of On Avery Island and Aeroplane? Because your records
are concept records...
No. They're stories. But I guess a story is a concept, huh?
When you're walking around doing whatever,
do you have melodies happening in your head?
All the time. My songs pretty much revolve in my brain most of the time. It's usually whatever's coming next. Right now
I have a lot of Hawaiian music in my head.
Are you on a slack-key kick?
It's not real Hawaiian musicthat's the closest thing to what it is that I can call it. For some reason I hear a
ukelele in my head lately... It's like everything I've done, just intuition.
I know you're into French musique concrete
composers like Ferrari and Henri, and I guess that's part of why
NMH sounds so greatthose dissonant touches in the background.
The mixture of ethnic- influenced droning sound, carnival music,
and total noise that you put in these pop songs seasons them and
makes them instantly recognizable as Neutral Milk Hotel... But why
don't you make out-and-out experimental stuff yourself, too?
Oh, I do. I do music like that. [Jeff later shows me boxes full of tapes of his experimental music that hardly anyone's
But with songwriting there's a place I've reached where I'm comfortable expressing openly. [Mangum
made songs for 10 years before unleashing them on the public; since he's only been making experimental music
for three and a half years, we might have to wait a while to hear it.]