No stranger to music criticism, Kim Cooper has been the reigning editrix of Scram Magazine for the past 14 years and has also co-edited a book of overlooked albums, entitled Lost in the Grooves. A self-proclaimed “sixties and bubblegum” gal, Cooper admits that she was an unlikely candidate to pen the tale behind In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Not identifying as an indie rocker allowed her to cast a wider net when delving into the band’s history, and she emerged not just another critic preaching to the choir. Instead she turns out a story that charts the strength of friendships, a way of life through music, and the forces which culminated in Aeroplane. She admits she felt like Neutral Milk Hotel’s Boswell while writing the definitive book, the first to be published about the band. Kim Cooper spoke to PopMatters about the musical friendships that gave rise to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Jeff Mangum’s reluctance to publicly speak about the band, and the difficulties of portraying people and music with words.
More than just chronicling In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, your book attempts to document the formation and gestation of Neutral Milk Hotel, and to show the relationships and circumstances that made it possible for Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel to create the album. What was it that made you decide to tackle the album from this perspective?
Realizing as I talked to people that everybody felt like they had contributed to it. The first interview we did was with Robert Schneider, and he blew my mind cause I suddenly realized—oh my God, this is the fifth Neutral Milk Hotel member. I mean he called himself that. He’s this wonderful blend of, he’s incredibly confident but he’s also self-effacing so he doesn’t come off as arrogant, it just seems very sincere, and he made that first album, it was pretty much, he was the filter who helped Jeff bring to life what was inside of him. And by the time the band showed up the second time around to do Aeroplane, the whole dynamic had changed. And it wasn’t just the two of them working as they had their whole lives, just trying to refine their personalities and their art, there were suddenly three new people along for the ride, just trying to understand where Robert fit in. And that just kind of highlighted that the relationships were—understanding the relationships was essential to understanding the albums and figuring out what role everybody played and how they helped each other do their best.
The book really focuses on the relationships between the musicians and the musical community that Neutral Milk Hotel was a part of and how they relocated and at each place they brought people together. And so from talking to the members of Elephant 6 and Neutral Milk Hotel, what’s your take on the relationship between the communities they generated and the genesis of the album?
I don’t think the album would’ve existed if the community hadn’t been so strong. I think Jeff could’ve written those songs without having the band, and I think he could’ve gone to Robert and he could’ve recorded that album, but it wouldn’t have sounded anything like it sounds. Cause you’ve got this almost free jazz drummer, you have this self—well, not exactly self-taught—you know I don’t want to say that Scott Spillane is not a trained horn player, he is, but that’s not what his training is on, the things he played on on the album, you know he’s more of a high school marching band guy, but he’s got the willingness to go down into the basement and come up with these amazing arrangements with Robert that just sound so timeless and lost and Julian with the saw and the lute, and you know it’s just every single person brought to it this kind of vibrant dreamlike beauty ... You know, there are people who love On Avery Island more.
I don’t know if I’ve met many, though.
I’ve looked around on the message boards though. I think it’s a bit perverse to do that, I mean they’re both great records, but Aeroplane is just so stunning. And it reminds me a bit of Forever Changes by Love, where they’re beautiful songs but the orchestration is so incredible that somehow they’re more powerful.
In the book, you make a conscious effort to steer clear of overanalyzing the album and its music and meanings. What was your vision of what you did and didn’t want the book to be?
I didn’t want it to be an autopsy. I didn’t want anybody to feel like having read what some critic know-it-all had to say about the meaning of the songs, that they would never be able to listen to the record again without thinking of some cockamamie theory. I mean, I have an academic background, I have an M.A. in art history, I certainly know how to take things apart and be a good little postmodernist. But I don’t think art needs that. I’m much more interested in how this thing came into existence and the influence that it had, rather than shining a light on every little nook and cranny of the creation itself. Because I think that to every person who listens to it, it has its own meaning. And if it doesn’t—what’s the point, you aren’t going to read a book about it, and if it does, I think it would take some value away. I think you can tell some people things that they don’t know about the record that will increase its interest for them, without spoiling it.
It almost seems like Jeff Mangum’s reluctance to talk about it steers away from overanalysis, in a sense.
I think his writing is very much automatic writing, like spiritual writing. From the descriptions of how he wrote songs, just repeating phrases over and over again and banging on the guitar and looping, you know I think he wrote it in a semi-hypnotic state and he knows where some imagery came from, but I think other things just come out of the sound or out some sort of connection with the vast, creative universe. You know, how can you dissect it? You can’t. I think if he, as a songwriter, started doing that he would probably be worried that he would lose the ability to tap in.
It seems that so many of the people who were in the band and associated with the band are forthcoming about their involvement and are willing, and even enthusiastic to talk to you about the experience—everyone except for Jeff Mangum, whose absence is somewhat palpable, as he is the central figure in the band and behind the music. Why do you think he mostly refuses to speak about Neutral Milk Hotel and his music in general?
I think there’s a lot of factors. I don’t speak for him, but I think all that Laura Carter said about him as a rock-and-roll myth as someone who disappears and comes back and blows peoples’ minds is interesting. And I think it was a difficult time for him when the band broke up, and that was before he really had a chance to process the album and the way people reacted to it. I think that as a person it’s probably a difficult thing to try to wrap your mind around, and people have been inappropriate in approaching him before. I mean I think he’s a person who’s drawn a little wall around himself, for whatever reason. He’s not a recluse. He goes out to shows, he’s been performing lately.
Did you try to contact Jeff Mangum?
Yeah, I spoke to him. We had an off-the-record conversation and we would e-mail back and forth. I think that’s what opened the door for me to talk to everyone else is was that I talked to him first. And then his friends, I suspect, talked to him, because people were very nice and very welcoming.
When I said his absence is palpable it isn’t so much that you can feel it in the book per se. It isn’t like a vacancy that isn’t filled, it’s just that while the book is essentially about Jeff Mangum, his point of view is noticeably absent.
In him not being interviewed he becomes the center of the book, but he would be anyway. It’s a little strange and of course we’d all be interested in what he remembered because he was as much a part of it as anyone else. But it is so charged and people are so fascinated with him, it’s kind of impossible for him to just give a normal interview. You know, he kind of becomes bigger than it is no matter what he or I try to do about it. On one level I was glad he didn’t talk to me on the record. I mean I think we were both struggling with it and how to handle it. It would’ve been a much harder book to write, I think, if I had had his voice, just because I would’ve been very conscious of every word. You know Julian is so powerful in the book, he’s such a compelling speaker on the power of music to change lives. We went over his copy together and there were things that he wasn’t comfortable with. I mean he was very aware of how people would react to what he was saying, and I think Jeff even more so.
When you first heard the album, did it have an overpowering effect on you?
Yeah, since 1993, I’ve basically been sent hundreds of records a month. And it’s very, very rare that something gets to me like that. I don’t like much indie-type rock. And you know, I just felt like it was very haunting, very powerful, and weird and unpredictable and I could listen to it over and over again. I mean I’ve loved it since it came out. I don’t listen to it a lot, probably since it’s like taking a punch to the gut every time. But it’s beautiful. It’s one of my favorites.
I think that you don’t write about indie music a lot gives you a more interesting perspective than if you did.
I hope so. I hope I can put it in context. Not within its immediate context, but within a broader one. Because when I was thinking of what to write about, I wasn’t thinking about other bands as much as I was thinking about surrealists and early nineteenth-century fantastical illustration, and fairy tales. I mean I didn’t feel like this was as much a rock ‘n’ roll story as much as it was just the history of the fantastic in literature and art. And I could’ve gone in that direction, but it probably would’ve been too academic. Like I had all these fairy tales analyses I was trying to hash together about children lost in the woods and siblings.
So what’s the feeling that you get from talking to the people who’re involved with the album, does anyone still harbor hopes that Neutral Milk Hotel will reunite, or are they hopeful that Jeff Mangum will start recording new songs again?
Everybody says it could happen. They’re like, “Oh, it might happen, it might not.” I don’t think any door is shut. But it’s not like it’s going to happen. And have you ever tried to get a really shy cat to come out and let you pet it? And you kind of have to look away and pretend you’re not interested? I think it’s a little like that. Like OK, don’t get too excited when Jeff gets up and sings or you aren’t going to see him for a while. It’d be great, but at the same time, if they made a big deal about it and played a festival it would be such a big deal.
Right, it would be.
And I hope it doesn’t take the fun away.
I get a sense from reading the book that everything kind of just comes together for the band because it does and it isn’t as though there’s so much forethought—there is with the music to some extent—but somehow things just magically come together.
Yeah, and there’s just a lot of trust—[they’re able to say] OK, well it’s good work, let’s make it happen—and learning as they go. And you know, I didn’t go into what Laura does now, but you know she’s involved in this kind of off-the-grid-community out on the edge of Athens where they took over the old Girl Scout camp and they’re building houses and kind of communal living and cooking quarters. I think that’s just an extension of what the band was like. It’s a kind of way of using a little bit from everybody in order to have something better than any individuals could have by themselves.
In the book you compare and contrast Jeff Mangum to Kurt Cobain, in the sense that Kurt Cobain didn’t know that he could just step down when Nirvana became too big of a band for him to really handle it, when it became more than what he wanted.
You know, it’s an enormous amount of pressure. I mean I don’t know why they toured so relentlessly, I don’t know if Merge set that up or if it was the band really wanting to do it. But it obviously was very physically hard on Jeff. Because he was super sick when he got home. And I think that’s the biggest influence on all of this was that he was just too sick. And that’s the main reason, you can’t do anything when you’re that ill. He’s gone on the record as saying that he had both hepatitis and mono at the same time. Can you imagine? I mean, are you going to consider your career, or are you just going to crash? I mean I’ve had mono, that’s bad enough. So you know, then it’s a couple years later, he was better, he looks back, and it’s like, what the hell happened? . . . Life moves on.