Pitchfork is dedicating two days this week to the second and final record from the legendary Neutral Milk Hotel, the Athens, GA. based avant/folk/pop band led by the reclusive Jeff Mangum. The first part of this double feature is an amazing vintage interview with Magnum from 1997, just two weeks before the release of their seminal record In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The record placed at #2 on Stereo Sanctity's Top 25 Albums of the 1990s list, taking the #1 spot on my own personal list, where I described it thusly: "...if it isn't the most essential document in the history of recorded music, then it's certainly in the top 2 or 3."
No doubt I will stand by the statement until the day I die.
Of course, it is common knowledge by now that after the release of Aeroplane, Magnum fell of the face of the planet, never having released any other recorded music in the last 10 years, which makes some of his statements from this interview a little hard to bear. Here are a couple excerpts:
"Pitchfork: Do you edit yourself a lot, then?
JM: None of the editing happens on paper, it all goes on in my little computer-storage brain.
Pitchfork: How often do you write songs?
JM: All the time. There's at least four records' worth of stuff that's not out and may never come out ever-- just different things.
Pitchfork: That have been recorded?
JM: Not really. "
"Pitchfork: There's a real joy and wonder to your work. It has elements of the outlook of a six-year-old, the way a kid might look at a car going by and still be weirded out that such a thing even exists. This is distilled for me in the line off Aeroplane that goes "How strange it is to be anything at all." Is that your philosophy in a nutshell?
JM: It's been a really strange process, because I was a very religious person growing up. The church told me how things are and I took things in that way and it was all very simple. As I've gotten older, the more I don't understand, the more amazed I am. I usually wake up every morning completely freaked out that I'm in my body. Like usually whatever dream I'm having has something to do with being totally freaked out that I'm in my body and I usually wake up with a shock. And then I relax, forget about it and go and make a cup of coffee. And I wish I could say something about how I'm completely freaked out about even being here without sounding really silly.
It's also about all the crazy sleep-walking dreams that I have.
Pitchfork: You sleep-walk?
JM: Incredibly, yeah. I have like all kinds of crazy hallucinations and it's pretty strange.
Pitchfork: You mean when you're asleep...
JM: Well, I open my eyes and I see things. I've seen spirits moving through the walls. I've seen a vortex coming through the wall. I've seen amorphous little balls of light bouncing all around in the front yard through the window. I've seen giant bugs on the floor. I was in a hotel room in Amarillo, Texas, and all I remember is standing on the bed and seeing the whole wall in front of me filled with lights that were [makes popping sound] popping like popcorn out of the wall. Then I'll wake up and I go "Wow, I was standing on my bed and staring at this wall." "
[JM]: "I have pretty specific visions for the next two "pop" oriented albums, and then I'd like to just set up a little musical workshop somewhere and record whatever comes to mind. I'm also working on an organ-oriented album about a horse's life and his interaction with the other animals on the farm and in the end he gets sent to the glue factory and ascends to heaven. This particular one won't end up under the Neutral Milk Hotel name since it's a little ridiculous and some of it sounds like Smurf music."
Part II: Influence & Memories
Day two of Pitchfork's celebration of Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea rounds up a number of modern musicians to reminisce about the record, it's influence and it's lasting legacy. Mike McGonigal, who was the interviewer for the first feature, looks back on the instant affection fans had for not only the record, but Jeff Magnum as well. He also looks at just how original the music this band was making at a time when music as a whole was rather ho-hum:
"Aeroplane presented a new template for singer-songwriter music, one that allowed many disparate influences-- a change that has impacted singer-songwriters from the then-nascent "emo" musicians (including Bright Eyes) to Ben Chasny, whose Six Organs project was just getting underway. Neutral Milk Hotel's kitchen-sink approach fused elements from Eastern European choral music, some Canterbury prog, musique concrète, minimalist drone compositions, a little bit of free jazz, and Tropicália-- all this from twenty-somethings who grew up up in rural Southern communities, in a time before when it was a lot harder to find out about "out" musics."
And now for some choice excerpts from some of the artists:
Dan Snaith, Caribou
"I don't know what album is In the Aeroplane Over the Sea's successor. I don't think it exists yet-- and not for lack of people trying. Ten years on, maybe its singularity is its legacy."
Randy Randall, No Age
"In the Aeroplane Over the Sea holds the rare distinction of being one of the few perfectly crafted albums; on par with Loveless and Back in Black. Many a night have I put on this record and laid back and let it wash over me. The instruments are all so thoughtfully chosen and recorded in a way that compliments their natural timbre and distortion. The total fuzzed out blasting drums are an inspiration to both Dean and myself. This record also perfectly blends each song into the following track, making it impossible for me to hear only one song at a time without instantly being pulled in to the entire album. A true Masterpiece."
Kevin Barnes, Of Montreal
"I view [In the Aeroplane Over the Sea] as a high water mark in music. It's amazing that such a classic and important record could remain as somewhat underground as it has. In a way, it's great that it has, 'cause it has enabled everyone who has fallen under it's spell to feel a special, personal connection with it. The songs penetrate the fog of my mind in such an uncommon way. I have been moved to tears at NMH shows. I can't say that that has ever happened before or since. I found myself crying, uncontrollably, and I couldn't make sense of it. After thinking about it later, I decided that it must have just been my body reacting to this beautiful force that was wrapping itself all around and inside of me. It was the only way my poor little vessel could respond to this insane, but benevolent, energy that completely had it's way with me."
David Wingo, Ola Podrida
"Its beauty lies exactly in its ability to forego the conscious mind and work on the subconscious level to create its undeniable emotional pull, to the degree where it seems words are just constructs that can't begin to adequately describe the jolt the music had on you the first time you heard it. All I can really do, then, is attest to the concrete way that the record permanently altered what was my limited scope of what I thought songwriting could or should be."
Saturday Looks Good to Me
"Like a movie like The Holy Mountain, or Anne Carson's poetry, or any other work so personal and flawless one can only ever really look in on it and wonder, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has the rare distinction of existing only technically inside commerce, criticism and opinion. You can of course have an opinion about it, but it would be really hard to even approach the intentions that made it, let alone the constantly unraveling impact it has had and continues to have a decade later. I came to understand with the thousands of other people who have been changed by this music, that you could argue to finer points, but the core of what the record meant was perfect, pure and silently understood."
Read the entire feature