Puncture Magazine - Number 41

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 song—and 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 whole—a smart, speechlike device.

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 authentic—Mom 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 you.

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 Athens—Pylon, 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 mess—pretty 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 dogs—one 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 looks—except 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 bridges—word 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 brain.
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 music—that'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 great—those 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 heard.]
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.]

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