Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Mangum’

On Avery Island is the debut and penultimate studio album by American indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel. It was released on March 26th, 1996 by Merge Records. “On Avery Island”, is an inscrutable concept album, a chronicle of an insular world told in a remarkably universal language. A fuzzy masterpiece of experimental lo-fi recording, the album wraps its ragged pop songs in ribbons of loops, marching-band squawks, and Casio noodling; the opener, “Song Against Sex,” is as much a manifesto as a kickoff, a self-propelled marvel hopped up on rapid-fire wordplay and a stunningly ramshackle melody punctuated by bloated trombone moans. Throughout the record, Jeff Mangum’s wheels threaten to fly off at any time — his songs are cryptic and crazed, his ideas fast and furious, and together they force the home-recording concept out of the basement and into a brave new world.

Neutral Milk Hotel has its origins in the small town of Ruston, LA. Jeff Mangum has always been Neutral Milk Hotel’s central figure, and he’s used that moniker for everything from his own solo excursions to marching band-like musical happenings.

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In the aeroplane over the sea album cover copy.jpg

For the most part, the mythology around Neutral Milk Hotel has existed beyond their control. Their singer and leader, Jeff Mangum, is certainly a part-recluse, but beyond anything he’s simply a man who called it quits at the very moment his band saw their name in lights. By shunning interviews, he’s subsequently been billed as either a JD Salinger-like enigma or a modern-day Syd Barrett. These are two exaggerated interpretations, coined largely because the band, who split in 1999, have barely said a word since then.

The trouble is, they departed with a record that remains hard to explain. Unintentionally, they timed their disbandment with the rise of music-forum discussions,  Neutral Milk Hotel ended just when mythology became a crucial factor in propelling a band’s reputation, and in the absence of anything to diminish them, their reputation simply just grew and grew .

That’s not to say the 1998 album that made their name, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, isn’t a phenomenal record. Born from Mangum’s bizarre, brutally heartfelt interpretation of The Diary of Anne Frank, it shuns reality and historical interpretations for surrealist imagery, Bulgarian street music, drone sections and a lifetime’s supply of fuzz pedals.

The first release under the Neutral Milk Hotel moniker was the 1994 EP “Everything Is”, a short collection of tracks featuring Mangum. On the band’s full-length debut album “On Avery Island”, which followed shortly thereafter, Mangum was joined by childhood friend and frontman of the band Apples In Stereo Robert Schneider who contributed production and instrumentation. Upon the album’s release, the full band was formed and extensive touring began.

“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” went on to inform the following decade’s biggest alternative breakthroughs, from Arcade Fire’s rousing collective cries to Beirut’s well-travelled spirit. You can even hear the splintering emotion mirrored on Bon Iver’s cabin-feverish debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. And the record is so crammed full of the frontman’s subtle, autobiographical references, it’s still being decoded 18 years on. By disappearing, they allowed word of mouth to set the agenda and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” attained the status of being the one indie record you had to hear. Mangum’s unique lyricism, combined with his reclusion, only enhanced fever around the band.

By the time the wheels came off, Neutral Milk Hotel were already enjoying cult status. One of the reasons they split is that Mangum found it hard to deal with the attention he started to get. “Jeff’s a very private person,” Bill Doss, co-founder of the Olivia Tremor Control, told the Guardian, “and kids were freaking out over him. [They’d] be following him around, these little packs of kids staring at him. It weirded him out, and he just sorta backed off.”

Neutral Milk Hotel

The first NMH albun, On Avery Island, had sold 5,000 copies. The band’s early converts were on board for life, and shows soon had the status of being emotionally overwhelming, must-see experiences. But the group still enjoyed the freedom to write and record with little-to-no expectation, sharing communal spaces in Athens, Georgia; making music with zero regard for time of day or final product.

That goes some way to explaining Mangum’s sudden reluctance to pursue the project as soon as it took off. Involved in cassette culture and DIY collectives from an early age, music was a free-spirited outlet for him. Once he realised it was not what he had imagined it to be, he decided enough was enough., in a rare interview in 2002: “I went through a period, after Aeroplane, when a lot of the basic assumptions I held about reality started crumbling. I guess I had this idea that if we all created our dream we could live happily ever after. So when so many of our dreams had come true and yet I still saw that so many of my friends were in a lot of pain … I realised I can’t just sing my way out of all this suffering.” Given how many bands today tend to press on before fading out with a whimper, his decision to go out with a bang seems admirable.

NMH perform a reunion show at Fun Fun Fun festival, in Austin, Texas, 2014.

A reunion tour in 2013 did little to tarnish the Neutral Milk Hotel legacy. Proceeds went to a charity aimed at improving the lives of Mongolian children, and they weren’t billed beyond the hype in nostalgic festival headline slots. And by not caving in and releasing another record in conjunction with a tour, they helped keep things on their terms. Everyone’s accounts of the reunion shows are wildly different. Depending on who you ask, these comeback gigs were either religious experiences or bitter disappointments. But most crucially, Neutral Milk Hotel remained a source of personal investment. Every one of the band’s fans has their own epiphany, an individual account of the first time they were struck down by what they heard. By opening up these moments to a new generation, or simply those who missed the boat last time round, Mangum finally managed to hold the ropes of his band’s mythology.