Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane over the Sea snuck up on me. The first time I listened to it, it was on in the background on a boombox while I was doing something else. When I listened to it in earnest, though, it hit me in a very intense way. What affected me was the obscure yet passionately sung lyrics and the odd yet organically integrated menagerie of instruments breathing life into Jeff Mangum's primarily acoustic guitar-driven songs. The combination casts an otherworldly light on the songs, the interior world of one's own personal landscape.
Indeed, Jeff Mangum confirms the personal nature of the songs he writes. "All the songs I write are really one story that evolves [from] personal experiences that I come across, experiences of my friends, and the dream-world that exists in my head. To me, there really is no line between where one song begins and the other ends."
That rather cinematic sense of movement, of linked if blurred episodes (think of Slacker, or Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise), might well be related to the fact that Mangum (who's currently based in Athens, Georgia) has seldom stayed in one place for more than a few months at a time since leaving his boyhood home of Ruston, Louisiana. "There's a certain discomfort I have in staying in one place for very long, and I think being able to travel makes each experience really new and fresh for me. I think there's a lot of unexpected things that you figure out about life and things you come across, and a certain state of confusion that you seem to stay in that certainly helps songwriting."
Confusion is, necessarily, openness to possibility, and it's that openness that inspired Mangum as a young songwriter. He began writing at the age of 14, strongly influenced by punk and free jazz. "I'm not too much into punk rock any more, but I'm into a lot of world music and a lot of folk music: Hungarian gypsy music, [Harry Smith's recently reissued] Smithsonian Folkways recordings, Dust Bowl ballads, Hasil Adkins, and Harry Partch. Currently I like Jim O'Rourke's Bad Timing, Robert Wyatt's Shleep - and I thought the last Built to Spill record was really great. I've always appreciated [that there] never seemed to be any limits to music for those people - they seemed to be so in love with music... They had the ability to sort of let yourself completely go and express what you're feeling and not really worry too much about self-editing." Partch, in particular, makes a lot of sense to me as an influence and inspiration: like Neutral Milk Hotel's records, Partch's are filled with odd minglings of sound, left-footed parade marches, and an off-center but strongly held sense of spirituality. Partch and Neutral Milk Hotel don't sound anything alike; it's more as if there's a sort of distant genetic relationship: two very different-looking people who upon examination turn out to share a certain cast of the eye.
For the new record, Mangum says, "I felt that I had to really challenge myself and come up with music that maybe I feel a little uncomfortable with when I'm writing it. And then I need to take a step back and decide is it something that could convey beauty or not." Mangum gives much credit for this to the rest of the band: "This record wouldn't be this record without the band. I think that's something that isn't stressed enough usually, because they've had a very huge influence on me. I think the extent of the credit I get for this is a little much. Scott [Spillane], the man who played the horns, has got a certain style that's all his own which has sort of grown through us playing together for a number of years. And then Jeremy [Barnes] the drummer is just amazing. Julian [Koster] always has something magic up his sleeve, things that make it really exciting. Recording with Robert [Schneider, of The Apples in stereo, who produced Aeroplane], having him being able to produce and have such a real feel for music is really important."
One of the most appealing aspects of Aeroplane is the nearly bewildering range of often unusual instruments that color Neutral Milk Hotel's songs: accordion, singing saw, banjo, uillean pipes, zanzithophone, and an array of marching band instruments complement the standard guitar, bass, and drums...which are themselves arranged strikingly: drums will suddenly show up in conjunction with heavily fuzzed bass (sometimes played with a bow), only to drop out and leave a solitary voice, acoustic guitar, or trombone. I asked Jeff Mangum about how the songs arrive at their recorded arrangements.
"Some of [the arranging] happens in my head, some of it on the road, and some of it in the studio. Because the band's personal lives are always in evolving states all the time - we'll be [together] in different places at different times, and then we'll be apart, and then we'll be on the road, then in the studio, then apart again - [that] makes each song a little different. Sometimes, [we'll record] a song that we've been playing for a while; [other times] we'll be hearing a song for the first time when we've woken up in the morning to go to the studio to record."
It's rare that a band is able to succeed at exploring in a realm of no-limits while still infusing its music with a rooted sense of emotion and personality. I think Mangum's love of folk music - real folk music, not the denatured, blandly earnest NPR variety, but the music of folks in all their quirkiness, oddity, orneriness, and uniqueness - shows through in this respect. Neutral Milk Hotel, even though they're clearly of this decade, unafraid of the contemporary recording studio (at least of your relatively low-tech recording studio), are arguably folk musicians: their music doesn't sound in the least as if it's trying very hard to conform to anyone's pet genre or radio format. That they do this without being aggressively elitist or obscurely intellectual is another point to the credit of Neutral Milk Hotel.