Neutral Milk Hotel isn't so much a band as a concept. The product
of the singularly imaginative mind locked inside Jeff Mangum's
head, it's been a band in the past and will be a band again, but
at the same time it can be just Jeff and a few friends or even
just Jeff and some odd bits of furniture with peculiar acoustic
properties. The peripatetic Mr. Mangum has rarely stayed still
long enough in the past three or four years to hold a stable line-up
together anyway, and talking to him I came to realise that it's
the extraordinary breadth of his experiences which are lending
such a melancholy and dream-like quality to his songwriting. If
great art is born of suffering then Neutral Milk Hotel is high
art indeed; and if it ain't, then it still makes for wonderful
|The first thing that strikes you about Neutral Milk Hotel is Jeff
Mangum's voice. It is gruff, melancholy and yet at once strident
and powerful; he can hold a note like nobody's business and, cleverly,
uses his voice as an instrument in itself and not simply as an
adjunct to the foreground instrumentation as most other artists
might. Songs like the deceptively dark jingle pop of 'Naomi' and,
especially, the faltering beauty of 'You've Passed' on Neutral
Milk Hotel's debut album 'On Avery Island' (Merge Records) could
indeed be easily likened to generic Jeff Kelly/Green Pajamas numbers,
heaven forbid such a thing should exist, with rolling bass lines,
innocently slip-shod percussion and skewed vocal/lyrical delivery
("the lady is dying / she bends back like a wave / as
her spirit is climbing through the hospital wall...").
|Jeff Mangum spent the early part of his 26 years in Louisiana. His earliest exposure to music was through listening to the radio~||"I have strong memories of being in the back of a big blue Pontiac being driven by my mother. We would go to the swimming pool every weekend, and on the way back Mom would smoke cigarettes and blast out '70s soft rock, whatever was on the radio at the time. Later I'd listen to the local college radio rock show when I was supposed to be doing my homework, I'd have a tape in my little stereo and would record what I heard. If I liked it I'd leave the tape rolling, and if I didn't I'd quickly rewind and try to catch the next song. This would be in the early 80s I guess so there'd be mostly punk rock and some experimental stuff happening. That's when I discovered the Minutemen, who are probably one of the few bands I still listen to from time to time. I really love Robert Wyatt as well - whatever point in my life I'm at I always seem to pick up a record he made twenty years beforehand and find it was the record I needed to pick up at that moment. And I love Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and Bulgarian music and early Thomas Edison recordings and some psychedelic stuff..."|
|Neutral Milk Hotel's music is full of such contradictions. Throughout 'On Avery Island' solemnly gentle melodies such as 'You've Passed' are followed breathlessly by altogether more sinister numbers such as 'Someone is Waiting', a song which is progressively deconstructed until at the end it becomes an atonal cacophony of beautifully distorted sound. Somehow, it fits. One moment you're being carried along by the rounded folk tones of a church pump organ, then immediately you're slapped in the face by a trombone; just as the lyrics start to make sense and you feel you've achieved a brief understanding or connection, Jeff comes up with something like 'Song Against Sex', as surreal an anti-drugs rant as they come. Following a brief discourse concerning a figure of Christ kissing fishes as they fly away from his fingers, going on to describe pretty men and burning girls hanging on meat hooks at a market stall, Jeff hits you with what appears to the core of the song:|
|"...all these drugs that I don't have the guts to take to soothe my mind / so I'm always sober, always aching, always heading towards mass suicide / don't take those pills your boyfriend gave you, you're too wonderful to die from anything that we could call loving / I'll sleep out in the gutter, you can sleep here on the floor / and when I wake up in the morning with a match that's mean and some gasoline / you won't see me any more"|
|and if you think that's heavy, try the ultimate melancholy of arguably the most disturbing Neutral Milk Hotel yet recorded, a number which perfectly illustrates the maxim that the sleep of reason breeds monsters. 'Three Peaches' runs roughly (yet sublimely) thus:||
So wake up / run your lips across your fingers / till
you find some scent of yourself that you can hold up high / to
remind yourself that you didn't die / on the day that was so crappy.
You're alive, and you're in the bathroom carving holiday designs
into yourself / hoping no-one would find you / but they found
you and they took you and you somehow survived / so wake up, and
if the holidays don't hollow out your eyes then press yourself
against whatever you find / to be beautiful / I'm so happy you
(and somehow Mangum makes the word "survived" drag out for thirty terrible seconds and even the phrase "I'm so happy" sound like a mourner beset by the death of a twin).
Jeff: "The album was recorded in Denver with Robert Schneider
from The Apples In Stereo. Robert's a friend I met in second grade,
we must have been about eight years old at the time. [Apart from
producing 'On Avery Island', Schneider is also credited with organs,
fuzz bass, xylophones and horn arrangements. Jeff in return plays
bass and sings backing vocals on the Apples in Stereo album, 'Fun
Trick Noisemaker' on Spinart Records]
"It was January in Denver, freezing cold and snowing all over.
I moved into a friend's house and was living in a closet and it
was cold, not only because of the weather but because it was a
haunted house. The closet I was living in was haunted. The person
that lived in the house kept having dreams of people having cocktail
parties in my closet, there would always be these really beautiful
women in really tacky fur coats drinking champagne and telling
my friend that we should get the fuck out of their party because
we were really pissing them off...
"So I lived in my closet and listened to a lot of John Coltrane
and waited about a month to start recording. Robert and I would
get stuck on something when we were recording and walk around
and grab our heads and get really frustrated, go outside and have
a cigarette and go to the store, and then we'd suddenly hit on
something and we'd jump up and down and hug each other. The whole
album just blurs in a beautiful way to me, like a dream, because
I guess my whole life the past three years has been geared towards
the end which is the album itself. It's sort of the culmination
of the whole experience."
Jeff Mangum's extended family of musical friendships actually
goes way beyond schoolfriend Robert Schneider, and it's this mutual
love and respect built up over a number of years which I suspect
lends such an intimacy and empathy to the music they all play
together. Will Cullen Hart of The Olivia Tremor Control was another
junior high school chum; Bill Doss (of the same band) they met
in high school and all of them grew up together in the same small
town in Louisiana.
Jeff: "Becoming aware of punk rock in 1983 was sort of a revelation.
Will Cullen and I started our own little punk band called Maggot,
which was me and Will on guitar - we'd both had guitars for Christmas
- plus a guy called Ty Storms on vocals. He's now a conservative
lawyer in New Orleans or something. So we were squawking on guitars
while Ty was singing about masturbation and how much he hated
his parents and running away from home and the kind of stuff you
sing about when you're 13 years old. We just set out to be the
most disgusting band that had ever existed. After that Will and
I were in the Cranberry Life Cycle, which was our little 4-track
pop thing we had going when we were about 19 I think - it was
basically just us trying to find our voice. We'd dropped out of
school and had moved into a little shack of a place with this
really obnoxious alcoholic slob who left smashed televisions and
garbage all over the house. We were desperate to be out on our
own so we moved in there and started recording, just putting sounds
together and seeing what happened. Then we formed a band called
The Synthetic Flying Machine - a lot of the songs we did in The
Synthetic Flying Machine The Olivia Tremor Control do now, although
when people say today 'I really loved that band Synthetic Flying
Machine...' it doesn't seem like it was a band as much as it was
an extension of myself - and playing with Will was as natural
as drinking water, y'know? Also, Bill would come by and play guitar
with us, he was living in Louisiana at the time. I guess we were
sort of Neutral Milk Hotel as far back as 1989, a little noise/fuzz
group, kind of a ramshackle attempt at being a band."
Aside from appearing on the new Olivia Tremor Control double album
Music From The Unrealized Film Script 'Dusk At Cubist Castle'
on which he plays some (out of tune) piano, melodica and slide
guitar, Jeff was officially a member of The Olivia Tremor Control
during the recording of their first EP, 'California Demise', which
was recorded while they were all living together for four months
or so in another run-down house in Athens, Georgia. This was shortly
after Jeff left Seattle and before he lived in a boiler room in
Denver, a story which I'll try to weave into this piece further
It was while living in Seattle that the first Neutral Milk Hotel single came about. 'Everything Is'/'Snow Song Part 1' on Cher Doll Records is one of the few really great singles released in recent years, a deceptively jolly pair of titles with a brooding, fuzzy guitar underscore through which Jeff's haunting (and haunted) vocals weave their way, leaving little scars behind them like a drunkard blundering through a cornfield.
Jeff: "That single was a Godsend because I was pretty much at the end
of my rope with just about everything in my life at that point.
I'd moved away from my home and all my friends for the first time
and I was very much alone and sad. I ended up sending a tape to
Nancy at Cher Doll Records and she saved me merely by saying she
wanted to do a single. I just sent her a tape of what I had around
at the time, some songs I'd recorded on a four-track, and she
chose 'Everything Is' and 'Snow Song Part 1'."
Another song which dates from Jeff's time in Seattle is 'Up And
Over We Go' on the 7" EP 'The Amazing Phantom Third Channel',
(also on Cher Doll Records). "A lot of us were really lost at
that point in our lives and we were all pretty scared. So I wrote
that song for everybody to sort of say, you know, everything's
going to be alright, don't be afraid. Most of my songs were recorded
for friends, a friend would be depressed or having a hard time
and I'd write a pop song for them to make them feel better.
"The song 'You've Passed' (on 'On Avery Island') was actually written for my grandmother who passed away right after we left Seattle. I happened to call my Mom while we were in Washington State and she told me that my grandmother had died, and I didn't even get to go to the funeral. So that song was written for her when I was living in a sort of boiler room connected to a friend's apartment in Denver. The room housed the boiler and all the pipes and stuff and when the maintenance people would come I'd have to run and hide my bedding and pretend I wasn't living in there. Actually, I wrote a lot of songs in there - I have nice memories of that little room. All of my songs are my life, y'know? I have a little dream world in my head and I just sing about it. I don't really understand it either, or understand it in a way that I could express verbally."
Two more 7" EP releases complete the smaller picture, 'Rubby
Bulbs' on the 'Those Pre-Phylloxera Years' compilation on Box
Dog Sound (Bill Doss of The Olivia Tremor Control helps out on
that one) and 'Invent Yourself A Shortcake' on the 'Champagne
Dancing Party' EP on Cher Doll which features Bill Doss and Will
Hart. There's one further 7" on Cher Doll featuring Neutral
Milk Hotel, a song entitled 'Bucket' which Jeff claims, "I'm not
very happy with because it was recorded in a studio and doesn't
sound like me, it's sort of... unfinished. I think everyone has
to record at least once outside of their typical environment and
realise you can't just walk in and expect things to turn out the
way you wanted."
|Given that Jeff's 'typical environment' appears to be a series of squats, cupboards and boiler houses, it's perhaps hard to imagine that a clinical studio environment wouldn't be a more comfortable place to work. I think I know what he means, though, and as I said earlier, apparent contradictions such as this abound on 'On Avery Island'. There are for example songs that sound identical but which somehow remain distinct and independent, like an artist working on the same portrait first in pastels and then in oils 'Baby for Pree' and 'Where You'll Find Me Now' are twins aside from being lyrically distinct and separated at birth by a distorted, Casio keyboard and tape loop instrumental stanza, the first of which was the last song written for the album (when the friend named in the title became pregnant) and the second being a lament to unrequited lust:|
|the scent of you sweating smells good to me / as long as we stay in our clothes / and out in the dark the world is still rolling / kids in their cars, cigarette smoking...,|
|closing with an altogether allegorical ice-cream van jingle that echoes lost childhood and innocence. A short trombone interlude from Rick Benjamin then leads to another surreal parable of love, an elegiac couplet entitled 'Garden Head'/'Leave Me Alone' which reads thus:||
...like a walk in the park / like a hole in your
head / like the feeling you get when you realise that you're dead
this time / we ride roller coasters into the ocean / we feel no
emotion / as we spiral down to the world... it gets hard to explain,
the garden head knows my name. Leave me alone / for you know that
this isn't the first time / in fact this is twice in a row / that
the angels have stepped in a landslide and filled up our garden
(consider that this is followed immediately by the deceptively gentle strummed guitar / pump organ refrain of the nightmarish 'Three Peaches' and you start to get some idea of the sheer force of poetry that underlies this album).
Jeff: "'Garden Head' was written right before the sun came up
one morning in Athens. I was sort of hallucinating because I hadn't
slept in a long time and I was dying to go to sleep but I kept
telling myself that I needed to finish this song first. Finally
I finished it and collapsed asleep with exhaustion. I woke up
next day, sang it again and there it was."
'On Avery Island' closes with a seemingly endless howling banshee
of atonal cacophonous sound, like a storm trapped in the belly
of a buffalo it rumbles around screaming to be allowed out where
a living nightmare can become daylight reality. Given that there's
a strong instrumental pulse running through this and indeed all
of his records, pulling in all manner of different strings, horns,
percussive effects and sounds, I asked Jeff whether he was he
a trained musician or purely an intuitive one?
"I play guitar, bass and drums and I play some keyboards. I just
hum a lot, I guess. I do do a lot of humming! There's some things
I really wish I knew, in some ways I wish I'd forsaken all else
as a kid and just learned every instrument I possibly could but
that's not very realistic, plus I would have missed out on everything
else that's happened to me. Banjo has given me some trouble, that's
sort of an awkward instrument, but altogether I consider myself
to be pretty primitive. In the live band at the moment, my friend
Julian plays banjo and he also plays accordion and the saw and
the Moog. Another friend, Scott, plays guitar and banjo and trumpet
and our drummer is Jeremy, who dropped out of school to be with
us. His parents aren't very pleased...
"I'd really like to settle down myself, because I haven't had
a home in a long time. I'd like to try and find a home and sit
there for a while and record, because I really miss those days
when I could just go to my room and make music. I still have the
opportunity to record and I still have the opportunity to write
songs but I kinda want to get to be old recording. I want to explore
all the things I can get down on tape and see what happens. I
like to work slow, to think about what I'm doing and feel what
I'm doing. I'm just making music and that's where it ends."
Written, produced and directed by Phil - May through to July,
1996. © Ptolemaic Terrascope, 1996.
This article is dedicated to Matt Hanks, without whom my life would be an Empty Milk Hotel. Thanks also to Windy for the phone calls.
Record labels credited in this article:
Merge Records: PO Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC 27514 USA
Cher Doll Records & Box Dog Sound: PO Box 9609, Seattle WA 98109 USA
Spinart Records: PO Box 1798, New York NY 10156 USA
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