Thursday, August 22, 2013

I Love This Freakin' Band: Neutral Milk Hotel

"When You Were Young, You Were The King Of Carrot Flowers...."

In 1997, I had gone to a show at a local club, and was talking to friends outside, not wanting to go back home. A friend who was working with me on a local paper said at one point, “Have you heard of Neutral Milk Hotel? I was going to give this CD to a friend of mine, but he didn’t show up, so you can go ahead and have it.” I had heard about the band, which at the time was getting lots of press for their then-new album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. I took the album home, and it proceeded to sit on my desk for about a month.

One afternoon, I decided to put the CD on while working at the computer. I pressed play, and soon forgot about typing. From the start, I knew that there was something different about this record. With the insistent strum of Jeff Mangum’s acoustic guitar, which leads you through the album’s alternate universe. Aeroplane, was everything, all at once, a multi-colored kaleidescope of emotions, statements, ruminations and dervishes, spinning headlong into an tumbling vortex of sound. It was reaching for the sky, and floating amongst the joy and sadness that it had found. I began to stare at my computer, as though a visual equivalent might emerge from the screen. 

Soon after Jeff's guitar strum, came his voice. That voice, which sounds as though it has seen all, and is still taking it all in. When you were young, he begins, you were the King Of Carrot Flowers, and how you built a tower to the sea. The song continues with images of dysfunctional parents, shifting places, and finding love with another. As the first song ends, the instruments continue on, and Mangum suddenly shouts, "Jesus Christ, I love you." Then, the next song begins to ascend to the heavens, building and building until you fall and shake with the roller coaster you are now on, and don't want to let go of.

From there, the record is awash in emotions. Up and over we go, through the waves and undertow of life and death, re-birth, and whatever is beyond us. Songs evoke the imagery of a war-torn Europe in World War II, without calling out any specific names, places and faces. Of wishing of having some sort of time machine, of saving her sisters and mothers, and five hundred families. She is gone now, and now she is a little boy in Spain, playing pianos filled with flames, as we see the world not agree to choose roses over flies. Of people that die, and split the sun when the souls left their bodies, watching the morning paper go into a hole where no one can escape. As Mangum finishes the last song, and returns to the acoustic strum of a lone guitar, you feel as though you have lived the entire album, and want to revisit it, again and again.

"And our ashes will fly, in the aeroplane over the sea...."

The story of Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel goes back far before Aeroplane. Mangum had gone to high school with a group of friends that were as fascinated with psychedelic Rock and Roll, and music as discovery, as he was. Out of these friendships began the Elephant 6 Collective, and record label. One of those friends was Robert Schneider, who became a producer, and leader of the band Apples In Stereo. Two others were Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, who later moved to Athens, GA to form Olivia Tremor Control. Mangum would also later move to Athens, and begin releasing demo tapes under the Neutral Milk Hotel banner. Merge Records would eventually release the band's 1995 album, On Avery Island, which began to build some interest in the band. 

Mangum had also found a like-minded collective of musicians. Julian Koster on guitar, musical saw and other instruments. Scott Spillane, who played trumpet, and other instruments, and Jeremy Barnes, who drumming sounded like eight arms playing together on once. After Avery Island's release, Mangum began to read the diaries of Holocaust victim Anne Frank, and began to have vivid dreams of those frightening days. He also fell in love with a local musician, both of which fed the writing of his next album, which came to be called In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. 

The question is often asked, "What is it that helps to create a masterpiece?" The things that help any work of art coalesce into something that many acknowledge, separately or together, and say, "This speaks to me." The question should rather be, "Why does it not happen more often?" The things and places that navigate bringing together the right people, in the right place, and at the right time, can only happen for a limited window of time. If one is lucky to document that momentary strike of lightning. And too often, that spark is gone, never to be repeated in the same fashion. 

By the end of 1998, Mangum was at the end of that spark. His new songs would be not be received in the way that Aeroplane had been, and he knew it. Rather than push forth, he just stopped. Much like the character at the end of Aeroplane, he stepped away from the microphone, and closed the door. In the intervening years, the mythology of the band, the album, and Jeff, only grew. As a photographer, I was lucky to work with many of the folks associated with the Elephant 6 collective. I did photos for Scott Spillane's band, the Gerbils, and got to meet Jeremy Barnes when he toured as a drummer with the English band Broadcast. In early 2013, I finally got to photograph Julian Koster, and his band, the Music Tapes. 

In 2011, Jeff Mangum began performing solo shows around the United States. He played small venues, and would lot allow any media at all into the shows. For a long time, I thought that my chance would not come. Suddenly, in January of 2013, Mangum booked a show at a venue in Charlotte. Again, no media was supposed to be allowed. But I had been waiting. Waiting on my miracles. I would not wait any longer. I had begun the journey with this record many years ago, and I had come to see where this holy spectacle lied. I positioned myself in the balcony where the least number of people, and Jeff's security would not see me. It was also winter, which made it easy to hide my camera and lenses underneath my coat. I took photos when the moments were right, and I sang incessantly with the sellout crowd. As the show ended, I walked outside. I smiled as I stopped to photograph the venue's marquee. I didn't need to do anything else that day. The journey, or at least this one, had come to an end. I smiled, and walked away.  

"But don't hate her, when she gets up to leave....."

It's two weeks after the Jeff Mangum show, and I'm walking past the theater that Jeff had played. There's a group of musicians out in front of the coffee shop that faces the theater, and they are belting out a scruffy version of "King Of Carrot Flowers". I know the harmony part to this song like I know the buttons on my camera, and I immediately joined in. In moments like this, I realize that my experience with the Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Aeroplane record, is a shared experience. Like finding others in the wilderness that speak your language, and have shared in that special process of discovery. And it will not die. It will go, beyond the aeroplane over the sea, where we all hope that, as artists, one's work will somewhere go. Beyond us, beyond our hands, into a different place of breathing, and understanding. Where the work stands alone, and the questions of creation are left to the ages.

For many years, it has been a game among many fans. What would you say to Jeff Mangum, if you had the chance? Does anything need to be said? What do you say to someone who created something that has stayed with you for fifteen years? That affected the way that many of us think about the possibilities of song, and sounds. That many of us have obsessed on, and will continue to do so? With all of the words in our mouths, what do you say?

Thank you, Jeff. Thank you, NMH. 
-Daniel Coston
August 22, 2013

This article quotes heavily from the lyrics of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.

Since I began writing this piece, Neutral Milk Hotel have announced a large-scale reunion tour. Let the dreams begin again, anew. 

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