'98's Best: Neutral Milk Hotel Back In Business With New LP

Singer Jeff Mangum explores surreal musical landscape via his fuzz-folk sound.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at

1998's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Wednesday, Feb. 4.]

To get inside the elusive mind of Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum, one

must walk a slippery slope.

It's a path that leads to many strange musical landscapes that have yet

to be fully explored.

His band's debut album, 1996's On Avery Island, made many a

critic's "Best Music You'll Probably Never Hear List." And though it did little

in getting Neutral Milk Hotel's sound into the public consciousness, it

established the band as one to watch out for.

If 1998 is to be Mangum's year, at last, then his upcoming album, In

The Aeroplane Over The Sea (Merge Records), is the vehicle he has chosen to transport himself and his band to the next level.

Mangum's craft is not a clean, simple listen, however. Neutral Milk

Hotel -- composed of Mangum on guitar, vocals, organ, bowed fuzz bass,

tapes and shortwave radio; Julian Koster on saw, accordion and banjo; Scott

Spillane on horns and guitar; and drummer Jeremy Barnes -- is one moment

a fuzz-folk ensemble and the next a mournful marching-band, with a low-fi,

abrasive aesthetic throughout.

This contradiction and the need to rouse curiosity through seemingly

meaningless words are born of an artist who is both reserved and

powerfully prolific.

Calling from his home in Athens, Ga., Mangum comes off as painfully shy

and soft-spoken, at first offering little more than a couple words in

response to questions. Understandable in that the 27-year-old has been speaking through his songs, recorded on jimmy-rigged four- and eight-track recorders, for more than 15 years. In that time, he has amassed more than 500 cassettes of personal, poetic songs.

But eventually, he starts to warm, and though he speaks in a scattershot,

stream-of-consciousness manner, he becomes more lucid with each topic.

"Recording Avery Island was a learning experience for me. For years

I'd had all this music, and not knowing what to do with it, and then having

to create one album and figure out what this one album's going to sound

like," he said. "The songs come out of my subconscious. Some of it I don't

understand, I don't know what it is, but it sounds real nice. Sometimes

listening to it is almost like listening to another band."

Then there are his lyrics, strangely abstract words that -- like the band's name --

seem randomly thrown together, such as: "Two-headed boy there is no reason to grieve/ the world that you need is wrapped in gold silver sleeves/ left

beneath Christmas trees in the snow," from

HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Neutral_Milk_Hotel/Two_Headed_Boy.ram">"Two-Headed Boy" (RealAudio excerpt).

But what these words mean to Mangum is unimportant, he said.

"I don't have any concern about whether people understand my lyrics like

I do," he continued. "As long as they react. If they think it's really

negative, I need to step in, because I don't want to be negative."

If anyone knows about Mangum's lyrics, it's his boyhood friend, confidante

and Aeroplane and Avery producer Robert Schneider, who

also plays in the pop-rock act the Apples In Stereo. While most sixth-grade

kids talked sports over the phone, going over the day's box scores, Schneider

and Mangum would read each other the lyrics they'd written in their small

hometown in rural Louisiana.

In fact, Schneider might have helped push Mangum to start recording his

strangely melodic brand of music.

"Someone had given me a shitty four-track recorder that I didn't want, so I

gave it to Jeff," Schneider said. "Suddenly he began making these beautiful,

twisted recordings a la Sonic Youth and early Pavement."

When asked about his musical influences, Mangum hedges before citing

Pink Floyd-founder and fantastical lyricist, Syd Barrett, as well as many

forms of world music, country and jazz. "I've been reading Zen and Albert

Einstein lately, and I think the Zen stuff will come out in the music," Mangum

said. "But I'm not claiming to know what Zen is. Aeroplane is an

attempt to make a lot of what is perceived to be negative and turn it into

something positive without ignoring the ugly shit."

Through transcendent lyrics such as "Your mom would sink until she was

no longer speaking/ and dad would dream of all the different ways to die/ each

one a little more than he could dare to try" from

HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Neutral_Milk_Hotel/The_King_Of_Carrot_Flowers.ram">"The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One" (RealAudio excerpt), Mangum succeeds in painting a poignant yet morbid picture of childhood.

In other instances, he manages to bring darkness into a

lollipop-wholesome scenario.

This talent for bringing to light what is not immediately evident can be

found consistently throughout his craft. From the album's opener, "The

King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One," to its closer, "Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two," Mangum takes listeners on a journey into his bizarre, "Alice In Wonderland"-like world of strange sounds such as a singing saw, white noise and wandering genie, all played by Koster.

"Jeff's always been kinda shy," Schneider said, laughing. "He lives his

life in a poetic way, and his vision is very lyrical. There's something

beautiful, grand and timeless about his lyrics. At the same time, they're twisted

and wicked, but earnest all the while." [Thurs., Feb. 5,

1998, 9 a.m. PST]