As far as the musical figures of the last quarter century go, few are more fascinating than Neutral Milk Hotel singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum. His second album, 1998's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is one of the era's most feted releases, a beautiful surreal lo-fi paean to loneliness, longing, and hope, after which he walked away from the spotlight for 14 years. Now, he's back.
Mangum's lifelong friend and collaborator Robert Schneider understands the fascination that many still have, though it's different for him because around Athens, Ga., he sees Mangum all the time. "He's not socially reclusive," Schneider says. "He goes to shows. He goes to parties. We're hanging out. We're making music. He's playing on other people's records."
Yet for years it seemed as if Mangum had turned his back on the industry. From all reports he continues to write music, and performs as a sideman at friends' shows. Yet Aeroplane was Mangum's last release until 2012's career-spanning box set. It features Neutral Milk Hotel's two full-lengths, a couple 7"s and a pair of EPs. As for the EPs, Schneider cryptically notes that "there's a lot of purposeful ambiguity about when that was recorded," a statement that gives rise to the possibility that Mangum has been recording new songs.
Over the last few years, Mangum's dipped his toes in the touring water, playing some Neutral Milk songs with friends on a 2008 holiday tour. That was followed by a half-dozen more performances the last couple years (including Coachella). Finally, last March he curated and performed at one of All Tomorrow's Parties' annual concert series. Now Mangum's doing his first national tour in 14 years.
"He probably wasn't meaning to drop out, but then suddenly all that stress is gone and you can still make music like you did before in your bedroom," suggests Schneider. "The ship steering gets taken away from you the more you become popular and the more mainstream attention you get. This was the Kurt Cobain syndrome.
"Jeff really felt that pinch, felt the ship steering being taken away. Also I think it was the cheesiness, the slickness, and the posturing of [mainstream culture]," he continues. "Coming close to that was for him distasteful. There was a fear of compromising or being compromised."
Part of that goes back to how Mangum and Schneider began making music and developed an idiosyncratic vision with their Ruston, La., schoolmates Will Hart and Bill Doss. They recorded on boomboxes and rented 4-tracks from the time they were in middle school. Though Ruston's home to Louisiana Tech, there was little to do there beyond listen to the college radio station and make music in the basement. Together they formed the Elephant 6 label/music collective.
"Elephant 6 was an explosion of psychedelic spaghetti flying out of the speakers — confetti, bright colors, op art, psychedelica and surrealism," he says. "By the time we graduated high school we had a whole music history of albums and stuff behind us."
They drew on punk's DIY aesthetic, showing how a beautiful song can become stranger and more magical draped in lo-fi hum and tape hiss.
"We were looking for the high ambition, the absolute top level of songwriting and the absolute bottom level of musicianship and sound quality," Schneider says. "We wanted to make the most beautiful songs, the most beautiful production, and the biggest ball of noise you ever heard. We wanted to blow it out of both sides — the pop ceiling and the underground floor."
They attracted kindred spirits drawn to their love of lo-fi, '60s pop/rock, folk-psych, and shambling, spirited music. Elephant 6 would endure for a decade and feature such acts as Schneider's Apples in Stereo, Doss and Hart's Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, Beulah, the Music Tapes, and Of Montreal before dissolving in the early 2000s.
While all those acts enjoyed varying levels of underground popularity and modest mainstream penetration, nobody released anything quite as galvanizing as Mangum's Aeroplane. Schneider produced and played on it, like most of Mangum's catalog. Critically adored for its tender beauty, Aeroplane sputters with noise and surreal lyrics, all of which is made more powerful by Mangum's all-in croon.
"He has great ears and he's a phenomenal singer, and these are things that he really feels with all of his heart. You feel it when you hear it. When he's singing, when he's playing, he's all there, and he's amazing at it," Schneider says. "He's totally in command of the music he makes."
Schneider knew they were onto something special during the Aeroplane sessions and greeted Mangum each morning, "Wake up my friend, we're going to make a classic album." Blending Mangum's desire for something spare, delicate, and noisy with Schneider's love of orchestral elements, they forged something so vibrant and unique that it spread like an underground wildfire, topping critics lists and spooking Mangum.
"Jeff tends to be a more introspective, sort of tender, moody kind of person. And there's a lot wrapped up in how you respond to success. How do you respond to other people's perceptions of you? Do you care? How are you going to react to that," Schneider asks.
In the end, it's possible that Mangum's music-industry sabbatical took on a life of its own without his trying.
"Some people are just seekers. They're looking for some piece of something or dream that they're following. Jeff is somebody like that. I think he's looking for peace, goodness, creativity, purity, and I would say I'm on a similar quest," Schneider says. "But my quest takes the tone of an adventure. I would say Jeff's has more of a feeling of a Rilke poem. It's more a feeling of introspection, looking for freedom and following images from dreams."