The fans of Neutral Milk Hotel are insatiably hungry. For more music, for unreleased demo tapes, for a reunion tour. And for the band’s history. Their album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which has in recent years dominated the critics’ lists of best albums from the end of the century, was released from seemingly out of nowhere, for most fans, in 1997. By the end of 1998, the band had broken up, long before the album had a chance to disseminate by word of mouth, and before its aural delights filled the ears of so many fans to whom this album means so much. The album barely had time to register before the band dispersed, and yet Aeroplane has only gained esteem in its brief life. Kim Cooper’s new book on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the first to chronicle the album and the band’s past, traces the band’s development from central figure Jeff Mangum’s childhood to its ultimate disintegration. It fills in the gaps, offering conversations with band members while tying together the sprawling story, and should take the edge off the appetites, at least for a while.
When Jeff Mangum left Neutral Milk Hotel and the public realm of music in 1998, his retreat spawned a fascination that’s only grown since. Mangum was the creative force behind the band as the main songwriter, with fragments of songs circling his mind for years before he recorded them. Until now, the only way to piece together the band’s story has been to sift through the fan sites, the message boards, and the smattering of interviews, profiles, and articles available online. Most were written while the band was still together, with a trickling stream of gems appearing afterward. Mangum’s appearances post-Neutral Milk Hotel have been brief and scattered: a tenure of nine shows as a DJ on the New York freeform radio station WFMU, a lengthy interview on Pitchfork in 2002, and a disc of Bulgarian folk music recorded with Josh McKay and released by Orange Twin. Since then the well has been fairly dry.
To give you an idea of the excitement generated by Mangum, even in the briefest of appearances: At the Olivia Tremor Control show last summer at the Bowery Ballroom, when the crowd recognized the voice of Mangum, whose face was shadowed by a baseball cap as he descended to the stage from the wings, a heated cheer filled the club. And only hours after he joined the band for two songs, his appearance made online news headlines at Pitchfork, Spin, and Billboard. It’s as if Mangum’s spiritual presence in his music has heightened the awareness of his physical absence.
Perhaps that explains why Cooper’s volume on the band and its music has sold faster than any of the other books in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series. Released at the end of November, it has already entered its second printing, and has outsold books on both David Bowie’s Low and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. But unlike Low and Born in the U.S.A., albums that do not lack for documentation, and whose creators are still very much making music and performing in public, Aeroplane is virgin territory. Kim Cooper’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea pulls the band’s itinerant history together, and in doing so delves deeply into Jeff Mangum’s musical development. It recounts Mangum’s childhood friendships with fellow Elephant 6 members in Ruston, Louisiana, including their high school days running the local college radio station, and follows Mangum and the band’s frequent moves between Athens, Georgia, New York, and Denver.
Through careful documentation and many conversations with Mangum’s band mates, Mangum’s former girlfriend Laura Carter, and many other musicians in the Elephant 6 community, Cooper relays a tale of how their close-knit friendships provided the fertile soil of experimentation, stimulation, and trust from which Neutral Milk Hotel blossomed. Band member Julian Koster emphasizes that the community of friends provided a haven that made such an album possible: “I think what Elephant 6 meant for us is very simple: there’s something pure and infinite in you and wants to come out of you, and can come out of no other person on the planet. That’s what you’ve got to share, and that’s as neat and as important as the fact that you’re alive.”
Although Mangum’s voice is noticeably absent from the book, he is its guiding force. The band’s name comes from one of the various home recording projects Mangum started in high school, and the band’s first album, On Avery Island, is very much his. In fact, Robert Schneider is the only other musician from this album who also appears on Aeroplane (as both the producer and as a musician). The book emphasizes Schneider’s role in Aeroplane‘s sound, as an influence that’s often overlooked. According to Koster, Schneider’s vision helped define the album: “the sound of the album was a marriage between Robert’s recording aesthetic and the band’s sound, because the four of us had grown one—a confoundingly distinct and powerful one that we all recognized.”
Given Neutral Milk Hotel’s shifting lineup and frequent moves in the years before and during Aeroplane, Cooper commendably maps out their story within a spare hundred some pages. When it comes to analysis, though, Cooper is admittedly standoffish, as she feared “sucking all the mystery out of the lyrics and spoiling their effects.” The requisite run through of the track list is pithy, and Cooper is so aware of not imposing her interpretation on readers that she includes a disclaimer before she proceeds.
For the musician and the admirer alike, anecdotes and details of the band’s adventures and recording habits are bountiful. Much of the flavor comes from the stories that only those involved with the project could tell, such as when Mangum moved into Koster’s already crowded New York apartment: “there were tape loops strung all over the apartment, enormous tape loops strung all over the room. You’d come in and there’d be pencils and cups and the tape would be stringing along.” Or then there’s the retelling of the “Scott Spillane Pizza Hut Incident”: horn-player Spillane once forgetfully left a backpack filled with the band’s tour profits—totaling ten to twenty thousand dollars—at a Pizza Hut they’d stopped at while on the road. The bag was recovered with the money inside, but it incited panic in the few hours it took to return to the restaurant. Like a family, they recall this mishap that ended well with amusement, and all grudges, if there were any, are seemingly forgotten.
This little book deftly pulls together the band’s past, finally coloring in a much-deserved telling of Aeroplane‘s background story. A history of Jeff Mangum’s musical development as much as it is a companion piece to the album, the book also sheds light on his desire to shun the spotlight. Mangum, according to Laura Carter, “wanted to drop out and be like Robert Wyatt—be a recluse and then come out with an album every ten years and shock everybody.” For musicians who enveloped themselves in a cocoon of likeminded friends, who lived and played together and buffered each other from the “real world” pressures of making money and finding practical jobs, it’s not surprising that Mangum would want to retain the elements that fostered his music in the first place.