When you sing "I love you Jesus Christ" rather
than "I love you Peggy Sue," people might think of you completely
differently, because of that line..."
For a lot of these songs I was able to lock myself in a room and allow my mind to let out what it wanted
without worrying too much about what others would think. A song about God was inevitable, because of my
upbringing and the intense experiences I had, growing up, going to these crazy church camps where
everything was very open. We talked about sexuality freely, we talked about...
How old were you?
From eleven to seventeen.
Where were the camps?
In central Louisiana, out in the boonies.
Was it a hippie kind of Christianity?
It wasn't really hippie. it was just weird. You could spill your guts all over the place. People were leaping and
freaking out. It wasn't so much a God trip as an emotional trip. Even if you were an atheist, if your parents
shipped you down there, you could talk about it. You could talk openly about your atheist beliefs and there
would be debates; and being atheist was as beautiful as anything else.
A few weeks ago in Athens, we played a show with Vic Chesnutt. He sat on the stage and played for 30 minutes,
singing songs about how action and reaction are the closest things to truth in the universe, how he's had
out-of-body experiences but they weren't supernatural. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard. My
love for Christ has more to do with what Christ said and believed in. Then the Church put this fucked-up bullshit
around it and made it this at-times really evil thing. If you attach man to anything, he's gonna fuck it up somehow.
You think that's too cynical?
No, we all fuck up. My church is my records.
Right. With Aeroplane, I feel it's spiritualbut not religious.
On your first disc, you thanked your hometown
of Ruston, Louisiana.
It was a way of thanking the whole town, and the community there, but also it's where I grew up, so there
were a lot of intense experiences there.
You don't particularly have a Southern accent.
In school I was surrounded by racist, sexist jocks. From an early age, my friends and I all felt we didn't
belong there. We all kind of saved ourselves from that place. The little world we had was there was
beautiful. But when we saw some guy going "Hey may-an whah don' we lahk git drunk and lahk fuck that
whore over thair mahn," we wanted to be as different as possible. When I was young I must have made
a conscious effort to stop talking that way, 'cause that's how those motherfuckers I hate talk. My lack of
accent stems from that early rebellion.
The Elephant 6 people carry on from there. We sort of record for each other and write songs for each other.
Anytime I'm in here recording, if I'm going places I don't understand, I'll know my friend Will's gonna listen to
it. I give him a tape and he'll really dig it. So that gives me a certain gratification, to put something on tape, walk
down the street and hand it to him.
Which bands is Will in?
[laughs] Will Westbrook, he's in the Gerbils, and he also does a solo thing called Wet Host. He's a sax player.
There's about 25 people who live here now, who all came here from Ruston. We gravitate towards each other.
We've always played together, our whole lives. But we're not a closed club or something. There are people
showing up all the time and they go, "Well, I sort of bow this thing and it makes a squeaky sound!" Then we
go "Waaa! Cool, man! Come squeak on this thing over here!" If anyone wants to play, they just have to show up
and want to play.
The curious thing about In the Aeroplane over the Sea is that it's a more folky, guitar/vocals-centered effort
than On Avery Island, while it's the first records Mangum's done with a fixed lineup. NMH used to be Jeff and
whatever friends were around at the moment. He's ping-ponged across North America under the moniker. But this
group came together roughly two years ago, not long after the release of Avery. Julian Koster was a catalyst;
he was the first E6'er to release records on an established labeldoing two albums as leader of Chocolate
USA in the early 90's for Bar/None. Not long after that group ceased to exist, he arranged for NMH to stay in the
basement of his grandmother's apartment on Long Island, in New York. Imaginative horn player/arranger Scott
Spillane (also in the Gerbils, who make slightly skewed popcloser to the Apples in Stereo, exceptional and
distinct, sloppy but greatlike the better by Fly Ashtray or Uncle Wiggily but maybe even more obscure at
this point; their record Are You Sleepy is due on Hidden Agenda) had been working in a pizza joint in Austin
and living in a van. At Julian's urging, Scott got on a Greyhound in Austin and rode all the way to Long Island. He
credits Julian's vivacious personality as the reason he joined. Scott is not as introspective as Jeff; he's more of
a relaxed groover.
Jeff had been in a bad funk before all this, not knowing if he really wanted to tour after the release of On Avery
Island. Julian made Jeff get on a train to Chicago to visit a drummer called Jeremy Barnes (never got the names
of his other bands). According to Jeremy, Jeff only played half of one song with him the whole time he was there,
'cause he was so freaked at how expensive the studio time was, and was happy enough with the way they sounded
together. Nevertheless he asked Jeremy to drop out of school and meet the group in Long Island in three months.
To the chagrin of his folks, Jeremy agreed, because he "loved Avery so much." He's been in the bans ever
Jeremy is quick to point out he's not a Ruston guy: "Oh no no no, God no." He'd been in a free jazz band in Chicago
who'd played with Chocolate USA, and dug them. He stayed in touch with Julian, hoping to work with him in the future.
The newly assembled Neutral Milk Hotel group stayed in the New York area for several months, playing
a lot of shows (including a celebrated turn at the Terrastock festival) and touring as well. They now all live
in Athens, where Will Hart from Olivia Tremor Control landed and settled seven years ago.
While we're in Athens we meet the extended family of Elephant Six people. They all seem very busy
amusing themselves: making art, making sound, talking about art and music, telling stories, smiling,
listening to each other's new mixes. I feel like I'm in a bohemian coffee commercialI don't meet a
single jerk. Everyone's music is at the very least pretty good.
I know we were only there two days, but someone could at least have been rude... Then I wouldn't have
felt these twinges of envy and awe, and this article might have more of an edge to it.
It seems like sort of a commune you have
here in Athens, one that works. And you've talked about getting
land building your own dwellings out in the woods, and all living
Yes. Pete from Olivia Tremor Control is really into geodesic domes, and Scott and Laura have ideas about how
to maintain a community... giant water-wheels that would create electricity, things like that.
What makes Athens so great?
'Cause everybody's here!
I'm not like these other people who like it so muchnot that I dislike it. See, I've never been particularly
comfortable anywhere I've lived. And Athens is a nice, easy town to live in.
"In Athens, everyone's always doing something. I come home from practice and Pete's playing something
really interesting on the piano. i go up to my room and in the room next to me Will's recording some sort of a dream
drone or a bizarre tape loop. Then I go by Julian's and he's recording some amazing saw harmony.
"It's really inspiring. In Chicago, that sort of thing was happening, toobut so spread out it could never have
the same impact for me."
You can tell Neutral Milk Hotel are a band now, even though this "band" record is actually more folk-oriented,
driven by Jeff's reedy choirboy voicemore in control than on the debutand the crisp clear power of
his acoustic guitar. Still, every accent, every note the band and friends make seems essential, and Aeroplane
is a more cohesive record by far. On the next record I imagine there'll be still more room for the rest of the band
to stretch out. I could certainly hear more instrumentals like Spillane's "The Fool," which sounds like Sweet Emma
leading the Ohio State pickup ensemble through a turgid, mournful Eastern European folk song. But this record
is stuffed with so much sound it's hard to ask for more: fuzzed-out bass, trombones, bells, something called
a zanzithophone, flugelhorn, sax, a saw played perfectly in tune, a shortwave radio, tape hiss, white noise, everything.
Both Avery and Aeroplane were recorded in Denver with Robert Schneider, the head of Apples in Stereo and
the E6 patriarch.
Tell me about the recording sessions.
The energy and live Robert puts into th recordings, how personally he takes it, and that there's always enough time to do
exactly what you want to do, it is so amazing to work with him. I know he understands me. It's like sitting at home
recordingbut with a person who pushes you to new places Robert lets you find the very best, most
interesting sounds, like, inside yourself.
Do the songs change as you take them to Julian,
Scott and Jeremy?
The recording process is sort of a spontaneous thing...
Do Neutral Milk Hotel practice?
No, we don't really practice, we're not a practice-space band... A lot of the saw parts, for instance, Julian develops on
tour. He'll make them up at night while we're on the road; eventually he'll have something he's happy with. The horn
arrangements are done the same way.
So the song components get ironed out in playing
Sort of. But there are very primitive things that flourish when we record. Julian will go, "Oh you know I play saw
on this song," and I'll go "Oh well Christ, we've been sitting here wondering what the magic key to this song was,
and you've been playing saw on this song the whole time." Then he'll take what he was doing live and expand it from
one saw part that was very simple, to sitting in the bathroom playing it for three hours until it's a three-part harmony
saw part that sort of sounds like Hawaiian singing or little angelic voices.
You use heavy distortion... it could just
as easily have sounded clean...
All the recording sound is intentional. There's a certain way we've gotten used to things sounding, after
recording on a four-track for years. There are certain sounds we love to hear. All the heavy distortion stuff is
intentional. When we did On Avery Island and this record, we did the best-sounding record we could
possibly make. We used as much old-timey equipment on Aeroplane as we could. I have a very limited
knowledge of recording, but the miracle of being able to capture sounds on magnetic tapeof electricity and
these little magnetic particlesis amazing to me. You know?