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This volume in the 33 1/3 series is the first book about Neutral Milk Hotel. It was published in November 2005. Author Kim Cooper says: The story of NMH revealed itself to be one of faith and love and trust, of a bunch of talented kids who believed in each other and made magical things happen. It's an inspiring tale, and I think one that has a lot to offer young people who want to be artists, but are unsure of how to go about it or how much to rely on their friends and collaborators. They could do much worse than to follow the Elephant 6 model.
The book includes recollections from Lance Bangs, Jeremy Barnes, Ross Beach, Chris Bilheimer, Laura Carter, Ben Crum, John Fernandes, Geoff George, Jamey Huggins, Julian Koster, Martyn Leaper, Bryan Poole, Robert Schneider, Scott Spillane, Jason Norvein Wachtelhausen and Briana Whyte. It is organized chronologically, geographically and thematically, with sections on Ruston, Louisiana (where the players first came together), Athens, Denver, the On Avery Island recording sessions, Queens (where the Jeff-Jeremy-Julian-Scott band manifested), the In The Aeroplane Over The Sea recording sessions, an analysis of each of the songs on Aeroplane, an account of the designing of Aeroplane's sleeve art, life on the road dealing with the band's increasingly popularity, and concluding with the aftermath of the 1998 world tour, how the band ceased to be, and Neutral Milk Hotel's continued influence. Read more.
About the series
33 1/3 is a series of short books about critically acclaimed and much-loved albums of the past 40 years. To find out about other titles, please visit the publisher's website or editor David Barker's personal blog.
About the author
Kim Cooper edits and publishes Scram, a journal of unpopular culture that celebrates neglected geniuses in every issue. She co-edited the anthologies Lost in the Grooves: Scram's Capricious Guide to the Music You Missed and Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth, which inspired the biennial Bubblegum Achievement Awards ceremonies and two documentaries. Online, she explores LA crime history at the 1947project. When she started researching Neutral Milk Hotel for this book, she hoped her illusions wouldn't be destroyed. Happily, she found that the people who made it are as extraordinary as their music.
by Kim Cooper
Alt.Culture.Guide, July 2006
In The Aeroplane Over The SeaWriter Kim Cooper, editor and publisher of the charming and informative pop culture zine Scram, has made a career out of championing the underrated and ill-fated musicians of days past. Both with her zine, and in wonderful books like Lost In The Grooves or Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Cooper evinces a great deal of affection for, and insight into, the music and musicians she writes about. Thus it should come as no surprise that Cooper has hooked up with Continuum to write one of the better books in the company's esteemed 33 1/3 series about one of the more obscure, yet deserving albums in rock & roll.
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea offers more than just Cooper's take on the landmark 1998 album by cult faves Neutral Milk Hotel. Cooper delves into the band's roots, setting up the relationships between all of the musicians that made up the Elephant 6 collective and bands like Apples In Stereo and the Olivia Tremor Control. She outlines the collaborative efforts of the players, the travels necessary to bring them all to certain points (and places) in time, and the work behind the loose-knit collective's various projects. Finally, she focuses in on Jeff Mangrum, the multi-talented musician and songwriter who is the spark behind Neutral Milk Hotel and the man mostly responsible for the short-lived band's two excellent albums.
With her easy-going narrative, Cooper achieves one of the hardest things to do when introducing readers to perfect strangers: she infuses each of the main players with a personality. When finishing In The Aeroplane Over The Sea -- a quick read at a too-short 104 pages, a hallmark of the 33 1/3 series -- the reader not only has a sense of who Jeff Mangrum and friends are, but also what they were trying to accomplish with their music. Although both the album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and its 1996 predecessor On Avery Island are dense, textured and maddeningly obtuse works, Cooper manages to shine a new light on both albums.
Although I must admit to no more than a passing familiarity with either Neutral Milk Hotel album, Cooper's book made me go out and buy both CDs, dammit! A perfect companion piece to the album that it dissects, Cooper's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea explains why the album's audience and importance grows with each passing year while doing a fine job of also relating the music's immense charm and...dare I say it...magic. Both the book and the album are highly recommended for anybody searching for meaningful music beyond this week's trends. (Rev. Keith A. Gordon)
Never News, July 24, 2006
While Colin Meloy's Let it Be was a intimate work (sort of an exploration of the album by way of personal memoir), Kim Cooper's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a more clinical, journalistic book. Which makes sense, because Cooper is a journalist type (she edits Scram) .
But the book isn't lacking certain personal moments—the whole thing is filled with intimate moments, based on both the very nature of the album and Neutral Milk Hotel's family (Elephant 6, if you're a layman).
The book explores the formation of the family, in part, from Ruston, Louisiana to the final homes of Denver, Colorado and Athens, Georgia. We're given a brief overview of Jeff Mangum's work pre-formation of the band we'd learn to know and love as Neutral Milk Hotel, from his sound-experiment tapes (under the same moniker) to his stints in other bands. She then gives us a point by point map of how Jeff gathered his players who would, ultimately, perform as both recording musicians and the touring band for both On Avery Island and Aeroplane.
The book is insightful, but never forcibly so; Cooper may lead us by the hand, but only so we can come to understand how the band, album, and music work, never so that she can show us why it does so.
We're given plenty of first-hand accounts on the rise and not fall, but end of NMH—right up to one of the big 'mysteries' of music; where Mangum went. The answer to that puzzle is surprisingly unsurprising; he simply stopped. Cooper gives us a comparison to Cobain's slow self-destruction, and how Jeff managed to avoid it.
Each song of the album is explored not as a critical consideration (which Cooper, sadly, does give us near the end) but as it was happening—how the songs were recorded (Oh, Comely, which has found its way into my head every day for the last three years, was recorded in one take, it would seem—when Mangum was doing a sound check, he played it perfectly straight through—the over dubs being added later—this story suddenly makes sense of the 'Holy Shit!' we hear at the end of the track).
On top of the deep examination of how things came to be, we get such an interesting history (which, I'll admit, I was craving) behind what (I'll dare say it) became the best album of the last sixteen years.
Each one of the entries of the 33 1/3 series that I read just excites me to read more; my first two (Let it Be and this one) were chosen because of the interest I had to either the writer (in Meloy's case) or the album (here). Given that they have such a mammoth release list now, I'm sure I'll find another such case (Harvest, for instance). But, even if that's not the case, the series warrants a full read; I yearn to just pick up each book (and corresponding album) in order and digest until my brain is muddied by all the full facts.
Portland Mercury, May 25, 2006
It all happened in a hot magmatic flash; Neutral Milk Hotel dropped Aeroplane on February 10, 1998, met the drooling rock media head on, and then vanished by the end of the year. Nowadays all that's left is two full-lengths, an EP, and news of singer Jeff Mangum hermiting off in a monastery (or doing field recordings of Bulgarian folk festivals.) Kim Cooper sums up the story in three quick pages, then starts back at the beginning, winding up to the birth of Aeroplane—a messy, alive-sounding, psychedelic "fuzz folk" record with clattering production, a brass section, and a beautiful, sad, surrealist narrative based around the life, death, and reincarnation of Anne Frank. Cooper sits back and lets the band members, fans, and other sideliners tell the story, and the result is more oral history than rock criticism. A damn fine read. ADAM GNADE
Harp, May 2006
The premise of Continuum Books’ 33 1/3 series is this: Esteemed music writers devote a good 100 or so chapbook-sized pages to albums of cultural and/or personal impact, exploring how they came to be and what they might mean.
In the case of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea—a cult album of mythic proportions—Scram editor Kim Cooper isn’t going to do all the hard work and tell you what it all means (drat!). In fact, only eight pages are devoted to dissecting the songs one by one. Cooper’s less interested in demystifying this very mystifying record, with its Anne Frank obsessions and ecstatic declaration of “I love you Jesus Christ!” than in presenting an oral history of its making, beginning with band members’ early days in Ruston, La., and the geographically diverse sprouting of what would become the Elephant 6 Collective.
The conversational tone of the book makes for a breezy, casual story, except we never hear from the person who fans want to hear from most: frontman Jeff Mangum. His is a grand absence, to be sure, but at least it preserves his status as an elusive figurehead. The closest you’ll get to understanding why he broke up NMH at the height of its popularity comes from girlfriend and band member Laura Carter. But just as Cooper wants you to listen to this album to find your own meaning in it, you’ll have to read this book to find out, what little you can, about the mystical proprietor of Neutral Milk Hotel. (Mia Quagliarello)
Given Neutral Milk Hotel's shifting lineup and frequent moves in the years before and during Aeroplane, Cooper commendably maps out their story within a spare hundred some pages.
by Anne K. Yoder
The fans of Neutral Milk Hotel are insatiably hungry. For more music, for unreleased demo tapes, for a reunion tour. And for the band's history. Their album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which has in recent years dominated the critics' lists of best albums from the end of the century, was released from seemingly out of nowhere, for most fans, in 1997. By the end of 1998, the band had broken up, long before the album had a chance to disseminate by word of mouth, and before its aural delights filled the ears of so many fans to whom this album means so much. The album barely had time to register before the band dispersed, and yet Aeroplane has only gained esteem in its brief life. Kim Cooper's new book on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the first to chronicle the album and the band's past, traces the band's development from central figure Jeff Mangum's childhood to its ultimate disintegration. It fills in the gaps, offering conversations with band members while tying together the sprawling story, and should take the edge off the appetites, at least for a while.
When Jeff Mangum left Neutral Milk Hotel and the public realm of music in 1998, his retreat spawned a fascination that's only grown since. Mangum was the creative force behind the band as the main songwriter, with fragments of songs circling his mind for years before he recorded them. Until now, the only way to piece together the band's story has been to sift through the fan sites, the message boards, and the smattering of interviews, profiles, and articles available online. Most were written while the band was still together, with a trickling stream of gems appearing afterward. Mangum's appearances post-Neutral Milk Hotel have been brief and scattered: a tenure of nine shows as a DJ on the New York freeform radio station WFMU, a lengthy interview on Pitchfork in 2002, and a disc of Bulgarian folk music recorded with Josh McKay and released by Orange Twin. Since then the well has been fairly dry.
To give you an idea of the excitement generated by Mangum, even in the briefest of appearances: At the Olivia Tremor Control show last summer at the Bowery Ballroom, when the crowd recognized the voice of Mangum, whose face was shadowed by a baseball cap as he descended to the stage from the wings, a heated cheer filled the club. And only hours after he joined the band for two songs, his appearance made online news headlines at Pitchfork, Spin, and Billboard. It's as if Mangum's spiritual presence in his music has heightened the awareness of his physical absence.
Perhaps that explains why Cooper's volume on the band and its music has sold faster than any of the other books in Continuum's 33 1/3 series. Released at the end of November, it has already entered its second printing, and has outsold books on both David Bowie's Low and Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. But unlike Low and Born in the U.S.A., albums that do not lack for documentation, and whose creators are still very much making music and performing in public, Aeroplane is virgin territory. Kim Cooper's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea pulls the band's itinerant history together, and in doing so delves deeply into Jeff Mangum's musical development. It recounts Mangum's childhood friendships with fellow Elephant 6 members in Ruston, Louisiana, including their high school days running the local college radio station, and follows Mangum and the band's frequent moves between Athens, Georgia, New York, and Denver.
Through careful documentation and many conversations with Mangum's band mates, Mangum's former girlfriend Laura Carter, and many other musicians in the Elephant 6 community, Cooper relays a tale of how their close-knit friendships provided the fertile soil of experimentation, stimulation, and trust from which Neutral Milk Hotel blossomed. Band member Julian Koster emphasizes that the community of friends provided a haven that made such an album possible: "I think what Elephant 6 meant for us is very simple: there's something pure and infinite in you and wants to come out of you, and can come out of no other person on the planet. That's what you've got to share, and that's as neat and as important as the fact that you're alive."
Although Mangum's voice is noticeably absent from the book, he is its guiding force. The band's name comes from one of the various home recording projects Mangum started in high school, and the band's first album, On Avery Island, is very much his. In fact, Robert Schneider is the only other musician from this album who also appears on Aeroplane (as both the producer and as a musician). The book emphasizes Schneider's role in Aeroplane's sound, as an influence that's often overlooked. According to Koster, Schneider's vision helped define the album: "the sound of the album was a marriage between Robert's recording aesthetic and the band's sound, because the four of us had grown one--a confoundingly distinct and powerful one that we all recognized."
Given Neutral Milk Hotel's shifting lineup and frequent moves in the years before and during Aeroplane, Cooper commendably maps out their story within a spare hundred some pages. When it comes to analysis, though, Cooper is admittedly standoffish, as she feared "sucking all the mystery out of the lyrics and spoiling their effects." The requisite run through of the track list is pithy, and Cooper is so aware of not imposing her interpretation on readers that she includes a disclaimer before she proceeds.
For the musician and the admirer alike, anecdotes and details of the band's adventures and recording habits are bountiful. Much of the flavor comes from the stories that only those involved with the project could tell, such as when Mangum moved into Koster's already crowded New York apartment: "there were tape loops strung all over the apartment, enormous tape loops strung all over the room. You'd come in and there'd be pencils and cups and the tape would be stringing along." Or then there's the retelling of the "Scott Spillane Pizza Hut Incident": horn-player Spillane once forgetfully left a backpack filled with the band's tour profits --totaling ten to twenty thousand dollars -- at a Pizza Hut they'd stopped at while on the road. The bag was recovered with the money inside, but it incited panic in the few hours it took to return to the restaurant. Like a family, they recall this mishap that ended well with amusement, and all grudges, if there were any, are seemingly forgotten.
This little book deftly pulls together the band's past, finally coloring in a much-deserved telling of Aeroplane's background story. A history of Jeff Mangum's musical development as much as it is a companion piece to the album, the book also sheds light on his desire to shun the spotlight. Mangum, according to Laura Carter, "wanted to drop out and be like Robert Wyatt--be a recluse and then come out with an album every ten years and shock everybody." For musicians who enveloped themselves in a cocoon of likeminded friends, who lived and played together and buffered each other from the "real world" pressures of making money and finding practical jobs, it's not surprising that Mangum would want to retain the elements that fostered his music in the first place.
LA Weekly, 3/22/06
BLAH BLAH BLAH
Local author Kim Cooper has written a book on the making of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, often considered the “masterpiece” of the Elephant 6 collective (see also Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control). Like the ’98 album, her book — part of the 33 1/3 series of pocket-size LP histories — is a sleeper, outselling the series’ Springsteen and Bowie books!
You edited the anthology Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth. What’s the E6-bubblegum connection?
COOPER: Bubblegum is a geeky, joyful, unselfconscious scene, and so is Elephant 6. None of the Neutral Milk Hotel players were at all cool, and they were flabbergasted when cool kids started turning up at their shows. (Which happened for the first time in L.A., actually.)
Get much fan mail? I’ve received lots of very sweet messages from people who were moved by the book. My favorites are the ones that say, “I was dreading this book, but I ended up loving it.”
Where does Aeroplane fit in the catalogue of Jesus-inspired freak-folk? In the annex where faith is more implied than slathered, and all people are welcome who have ears to hear.
Will you tour? Here’s a scoop: [I will be making] an Elephant 6 documentary, and plan to travel to many important places in the E6 mythos. I’ll set up readings in as many of those towns’ book or donut shops [as possible].
Final thoughts? This book surprised me by being not so much about a rock band but about friendship and love and faith and art. Cooper reads at Vroman’s in Pasadena, Saturday, 4 p.m., with Ben Sisario, author of a Pixies Doolittle tome. (Kate Sullivan)
L.A. ALTERNATIVE, 2/3/2006
Author Kim Cooper gives us the Neutral Milk Hotel we always knew existed, by Evan George
If you listen closely to your favorite albums, occasionally you can hear the swish of traffic in the back of the mix. Sometimes it’s a conversation during the session or a serendipitously missed note in a solo. These secret moments are narcotic to a fan, like a glimpse into the recording studio, a backstage pass. But often, without the aid of a biographer privy to the inner circle, these sounds go completely unnoticed.
Kim Cooper has given me one of these moments. In the closing seconds of the lonely, acoustic opus “Oh Comely,” as someone at the mixing board is fading out, you can hear the band Neutral Milk Hotel and friends burst into cheers as an exuberant member yelps, “Holy shit!” after a seamlessly moving one-take by front man Jeff Magnum. Expecting only a 15-second sound-check, the group was wowed when Magnum came forth with the entirety of the song, clocking in at more than eight minutes of tortured warble and beauty on the spot. When pointed out, a two-second snippet like this can enrich appreciation for an album as secretive as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
Hailing from Luston, Louisiana, Neutral Milk Hotel became an odd, outsider-rock sensation after the celebration of Aeroplane, their second full-length. Led by sole songwriter Magnum, they played low-fi, hi-ambience masterpieces with fuzzed out guitars, trumpet solos and poetry steeped in religious iconography and transformative magic that touched the spine of entranced listeners. After the accolades and impressive word-of-mouth publicity, Magnum chose to return to anonymity, retiring NMH for good. His last musical project involved traveling the Eastern Bloc, making field recordings of traditional Eastern European folk musicians for posterity’s sake.
Cooper’s 2005 book on NMH and Aeroplane (which shares a title with the album) is part of the 33 1/3 series that treats cult-classic albums like dissertation fodder, and hers does a particularly stellar job of demystifying—as much as possible—the destitute and devoted dudes behind Neutral Milk Hotel’s underground stardom.
As editor of Scram magazine and co-founder of the 1947 Project—a website devoted to the underbelly of L.A. history—Cooper levels her unflinching detective’s eye at the band. Through exhaustive interviews with the infamous recluses, she details everything from high school friendships to the humble beginnings of the preeminent ’90s indie label Elephant 6, and the touring that ultimately proved the last public appearance of the band. Unlike many of the other books in the celebrated series, her extensive analysis of the album’s origins and content is by no means the majority of the writing. Her strengths as a social historian lend this read a certain depth that most Spin writers could never muster. Somehow, she miraculously manages to do an album of this ilk—as resistant to the bitter end as it’s been to the spotlight—poetic justice.
On Wednesday, February 8th, Cooper will read selections from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea at Book Soup in West Hollywood.
L.A. Alternative: How’d you seize on Neutral Milk Hotel, a seemingly biography-averted band, to do this sort of book on, and how did the project come about?
Kim Cooper: Andrew Hultkrans, a contributor to David Smay’s and my anthology Lost in the Grooves, had written a 33 1/3 book about Love’s Forever Changes. The idea of the series was catnip for me, so I asked if he’d put me in touch with his editor, David Barker, which he did. David encouraged me to submit a wish list of albums I thought were worthy of a book, and I strung together a list of mainly psychedelic, folk and proto-punk disks… then at the last moment added two semi-recent albums, just so it wouldn’t seem like I was trapped in the past. One was Lolita Nation by Game Theory, the other In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Using some mysterious editorial voodoo, David determined that Aeroplane and I might be a match, and he asked me to expound on that choice in a formal pitch. As I wrote the pitch, I realized I was much more excited about writing about this placeholder album than any of the ones I thought were my favorites, but which had already been subject to extensive analysis by dozens of other writers. I mean, really, what was I thinking, wanting to write about Astral Weeks in the wake of Lester Bangs?!
LAA: What was the interaction with 33 1/3 people like? Your book seems to read differently than many of the more analysis-driven ones. Was that a choice of yours, to not follow the standard format?
KC: Every (reasonably disciplined) writer should have an editor like David Barker. He didn’t inhibit or direct me in the slightest way, but made it clear that he wanted me to write the book I needed to write. I never did take him up on his offer to bounce partly written chapters off him—I’m private when I work. But he was always there with an open ear when I had a question, and made a few smart suggestions about tweaking the final manuscript, all of which I followed.
I didn’t know what form this book would take until I talked with the people who lived the album. Over the course of the interviews, it became clear that the story of Aeroplane was one of friendship and community, and that the voices of the players and their friends and their fans had to be integral to the book. Once these voices were slotted in, the story told itself.
LAA: In the book, you describe the supernatural reaction of fans to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. What was your first relationship with the band and that album, as a listener?
KC: I remember being very moved by the album. It’s easy to remember this feeling, because it has never left me. But I didn’t realize how much depth it had, or what a cool world it reflected, until doing this research. I liked NMH from the first album, but never made the effort to see them live—which, of course, I feel pretty foolish about now.
LAA: Is their a cult around Jeff Magnum that seems over-blown, or do you think more people should be exposed to this kind of album?
KC: I think Aeroplane deserves all the accolades it gets. If my book adds one idea to the common currency about the album, I hope it’s that this lovely piece of work is not something that can be purely credited to Jeff Mangum. The songs are his, but the production and arrangements, which have such power, are collaborations.
LAA: You play detective in some ways for the 1947 Project. How would you go about tracking him down if you were going to?
KC: Well, I did track him down, before starting work on the book. I would have been uncomfortable poking around in the life of such a private person without first explaining my intentions and ideally receiving his blessing. And actually, it wasn’t too difficult: a few emails and calls to friends and associates, and he agreed to talk to me. It would have been a little trickier had he not wanted to be found!
LAA: Was this your first stint in music journalism and how did you find the experience?
KC: This was my first solo book, but I’ve been editing Scram, a journal of unpopular culture, since 1992, and co-edited two pop anthologies, Lost in the Grooves: Scram’s Capricious Guide to the Music You Missed and Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth.
While the skills I’ve honed interviewing folks like Emitt Rhodes, Linda Perhacs, P.F. Sloan, Colin Blunstone, Vashti Bunyan, Devendra Banhart, etc., came into play, writing a book that tells the full story of a band is a very different process than writing a magazine feature. It was challenging, scary and inspiring, and a lot of work.
By the way, I’m working on a feature for the next Scram comprised of some of the interview material that didn’t make it into the Neutral Milk Hotel book.
LAA: Were you surprised with how much people involved, friends and band members, were willing to open up about it?
KC: Happily so, because until I spoke with Jeff, and he presumably determined I was not a stalker or a jerk, I wasn’t really connecting with many people from his circle. But once we spoke that changed, and everyone was extremely generous and open.
LAA: What do you think is the attraction to the ‘behind the music’ aspect of this kind of writing?
KC: If you mean the attraction to dirt, gossip is at the heart of human relationships. Only sociopaths are disinterested in the complex and scandalous actions of others. But personally, I’d rather wallow in the dirt of the long-dead—like James Boswell’s London Journal—and maintain a bit of mystery around living artists whose work I love.
LARGEHEARTED BOY, 1/31/2006
Of all the books in Continuum's 33 1/3 series on seminal albums, I have enjoyed In the Aeroplane Over the Sea the most. Kim Cooper not only details the recording of one of my favorite albums, but she also captures the formation of the Elephant6 collective that created (and influenced) so much of the music I love. (click to read Kim's playlist of songs to accompany her book)
One anecdote collected in Kim Cooper’s wonderful In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Continuum Books), the story of the making of Neutral Milk Hotel’s groundbreaking album of the same name, perfectly exemplifies the type of commitment that the band instilled in its fans. During a 1998 tour stop in Chattanooga, Tenn., a girl drove from Arkansas to give bandleader Jeff Magnum her grandmother’s rosary. She talked with Jeff for a few minutes and then started the long journey home—without even seeing the show. Even today—nearly 10 years after the record was released—people are still raving about this particular NMH record. Check out any of the numerous message boards devoted to the band (or the comments on Amazon.com) for evidence of this loyalty. People are rabidly fanatical about this band.
In many ways, it is this utter dedication to music that makes up the core of Cooper’s fascinating look at Magnum and his band mates. For while Cooper collects the musings of all NMH members, this is truly the story of the mystery of Jeff Magnum: how he wrote a collection of songs that touched so many so deeply, and how he walked away from it all after the release of Aeroplane. The fanaticism displayed by NMH fans, as Cooper shows, was more than matched by the fanaticism that Magnum brought to his music. Here was a man completely devoted to his craft, to the point that it seemingly cost him both his physical and mental health.
Much of Magnum’s devotion to music appears to be a result of his struggles with religion, and Cooper notes how religious questions seemingly played a vital role in both the songwriter’s rise and fall. Cooper, for example, notes that Magnum’s childhood experiences at a religious camp played a major role in his emotional and artistic development (Magnum would later startle indie kids by singing, “I love you Jesus Christ/Jesus Christ I love you, yes I do” on the track “The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three” from NMH’s seminal album). Cooper also pays close attention to Magnum’s obsession with Anne Frank, whose presence haunts many of Aeroplane’s songs. To Magnum, the story of Frank, and the Holocaust that took her life, undoubtedly shook his belief in a benevolent God. It is therefore not surprising that Magnum could not find the motivation to record another album after Aeroplane.
Sadly, we never learn exactly what motivated Magnum, as his voice is remarkably absent from this work. Yet this book, along with recent albums by such bands as the Decemberists, the Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade (all of whom clearly draw from the sounds of NMH), reminds us that his band continues to be relevant in the 21st century. And perhaps we haven’t heard the last from Magnum. Laura Carter, who played in NMH as well as Elf Power, has said that she believes Jeff’s plan was to “be a recluse and then come out with an album in 10 years and shock everybody.” Aeroplane came out in February 1998. That gives you a little more than two years, Jeff. (Michael Carriere)
FLAGPOLE (ATHENS), 1/18/2006
Ghost, Ghost: A New Book Examines Neutral Milk Hotel's Landmark Sophomore Album, interview by Chris Hassiotis
Mapping the intricacies of any album's creation can be like signing up for a class in headaches. This is particularly true when the album being examined is Neutral Milk Hotel's 1997 release In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; the band's second album was cultivated in the heart of the loose Elephant 6 collective, whose members swapped instruments, stages and rooms, and whose personal lives overlapped just as much.
In her new book In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Continuum), Los Angeles-based writer Kim Cooper, editor of the long-running Scram!, unravels the rumors and demystifies much of the legend that has wound itself around songwriter Jeff Mangum since the Athens band's 1998 breakup. In speaking with the band's core - Mangum, Julian Koster, Jeremy Barnes and Scott Spillane - as well as others involved in its production, Cooper effectively reminds readers that Neutral Milk Hotel was a band of real people - dear friends - playing instruments, but reinforces the idea that Aeroplane and its songs are a unique document of a time, place and creative community. "The songs are beautiful and fascinating, the playing unpredictable and soulful, the production sympathetic and effective," Cooper writes. She spent a good amount of research time in Athens (even crashing at the house of Happy Happy Birthday to Me Records), and allows those involved to step to the forefront of their own story - save for Mangum, who declined to be officially interviewed.
After only six weeks, the book has gone back to press for a second printing. David Barker, editor of the series which focuses on individual albums, says, "It's fantastic to see Kim's book off to such a great start, and outselling our books about Springsteen and Bowie. The story is clearly resonating with a lot of fans."
Flagpole recently spoke with Cooper from her home in Los Angeles.
Flagpole: Let's start at the beginning. How did you come to write a book about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea?
Kim Cooper: I was doing a book called Lost in the Grooves, an anthology of people celebrating great "lost records," and when I asked for bios from all of our contributors, [music writer] Andrew Hultkrans told me about a book he was doing for 33 1/3, and I got excited and wanted to read it. He put me in touch with his editor because I wanted to pitch some stuff.
David Barker at Continuum said, "Send me your wish list," and I put together what you would expect from someone who's mainly written about bubblegum, psychedelia and weird thriftstore records. It was very much a '60s, early '70s list. And then kind of as an afterthought, and to escape being pigeonholed, I put on a couple of new things: Lolita Nation by Game Theory and Aeroplane, which were the two more recent records that I thought deserved a book that I felt passionately about. David wrote back and said, "Hey, these are a bunch of great records, and I think Aeroplane might be the most interesting for us."
Flagpole: How long did the entire process take?
Kim Cooper: I think a couple of years. It took a while to really open up the lines of communication with everyone involved in the group, and I didn't really know what it was going to be until I talked to everybody, and then it all kind of fell into place.
Flagpole: You never formally interviewed Jeff Mangum, and he's never directly quoted in the book, but his presence is felt throughout. Was that a compromise you had to accept, or something you were open to from the beginning?
Kim Cooper: I had a nice conversation with him before I did anything else, and let him know where I was coming from as a writer and let him know that I had no intention of exploiting his story or his friends' lives and that I would be happy to talk with him if he wanted to go on the record, but that he didn't have to. I think we both went back and forth on whether to do it, and we emailed a lot about it.
I can certainly see that having him in the book as just another member of Neutral Milk Hotel would be a big challenge, because everything he says comes under such incredible scrutiny and just raises different issues. I didn't want to him to be a ghost in the book, though, but I like how things turned out.
Flagpole: Do you think the way it turned out will just feed into the hermit-madman mythology building around him?
Kim Cooper: Yeah. But at the same time, his friends really know him well. As with any popular rock musician, the people in the inner circle and the people in the outer circle, their perceptions of any musician, Jeff in this case, may be more real than what the person is experiencing or more revealing that what they have to say about themselves.
Flagpole: In the book's introduction, you write "Neutral Milk Hotel first impressed (On Avery Island, their 1995 debut full-length), then astonished (1997's In The Aeroplane Over the Sea)" Was that your initial reaction to the album?
Kim Cooper: I don't think I recognized it as being a total classic right away, but I thought it was really, really powerful, and it got to me immediately. And I was just happy they had a new album out. I didn't really know that much about them. Never saw them live, unfortunately.
Flagpole: A number of fans seem to have a rabidly personal relationship with the album. That's an important part of the album's legacy, and you discuss that well. However, one of the few people not directly involved with the band you interviewed was Jason Wachtelhausen. Did you consider talking to other fans?
Kim Cooper: I put out a call to people who'd written things on message boards and some other people. I found Jason because I was trying to find out about the Dog Museum. Laura remembered it as a group of people in Victorian clothes who followed them around the country, but when I asked Jason about it, he was like, "Uh, no."
It seemed like there was an interesting community that had sprung up around their live shows. And then people like Briana [Whyte, who's quoted in the book] wrote a really beautiful post about the music that obviously resonated with others.
Flagpole: Did delving this deep into the specifics of the album's creation change your opinion of it in any way?
Kim Cooper: It's funny, because the record doesn't sound any different at all to me. You know how those annotated books, like The Annotated Alice [in Wonderland] or The Wizard of Oz, where after you've read it, you can't help but think about the footnotes, somehow the record seems to stand apart. I know much more about it, but it hasn't lost anything.
Flagpole: One thing that hasn't been explored as in depth anywhere else is how big of a contribution Robert Schneider had in the album's production.
Kim Cooper: Oh, my god! Robert is so, so important. He was a really good friend to Jeff.
Flagpole: An appealing factor of the book, and something you're particularly able to convey, is the open-ended sense of collaboration between musicians, not just in Athens, but at that time in Athens and with that group of people.
Kim Cooper: There was a really nice openness. Nobody in my interviews felt like they had to be the star of the book, and it seemed like when the album was being made was a really special time. You're lucky to live in a town with so many people like that.
Virtually unknown to the mainstream, Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is by far an all-time favorite album for critics and indie music lovers alike. And this crowd are all no doubt drawing a big smile and jumping with joy that Kim Cooper (Scram magazine editor and publisher and co-author of Lost In the Grooves: Scram's Capricious Guide To The Music You Missed) has written about this epic album for Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series--a collection of pocket-sized all-out tributes to favorite rock and roll albums.
Since Aeroplane was released in 1998, the album still steadily sells purely on word of mouth. Popular culture magazines never understood the genius of singer/songwriter Jeff Magnum's bizarre yet powerful lyrics, or his heartfelt, if off-key delivery. But fans read the lyrics from and listen to Aeroplane as if they're receiving the gospel. Jamey Huggins (Of the band, Montreal) describes in the book's introduction that Aeroplane is like listening to a religious man speaking his bit of the liturgy. He admits, "I've cried while listening to the album."
Fans have many different interpretations and analyses of the lyrics of this album. A reoccurring motif is Anne Frank and the Holocaust. Magnum was heavily influenced by Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl while writing this album, carrying her diary around with him even after he finished.
Author Kim Cooper does a marvelous job offering interpretations of the lyrics without opinionated views. She says, Consider the following as a series of cover versions, a layering of possible and partial interpretations that are needed to be transparent. One of Kim Cooper's best and most intellectual interpretations was referred to the closing line in the album's sixth track, "Holland 1945."
And it's so sad to see the world agree / That they'd rather see their faces fill with flies / All when I'd want to keep white roses in their eyes
Kim Cooper points out, for example, a WWII reference about the "White Roses," a group of martyrs in Nazi Germany that used to write negative letters about the Nazi party to German citizens.
The book starts with Jeff's childhood and his relationship with the rest of the band members (also people from the Elephant 6 collective). Then, like a biography, the book follows the lives of the band members until the actual recording and writing process of the album. Aeroplane closes with what has happened with the band since this monumental recording and what became of Jeff Magnum. (Since this album's release, he has only played one post-Aeroplane song).
Kim Cooper did an excellent job proficiently analyzing one of the most misunderstood albums of our time. Not overlooking a single aspect of the album, there is even a chapter on the artwork. The interview tidbits and short stories from the band are quite interesting and flow well with the rest of the book. Fans of the album will adore this book, and is a great reminder of one of the best albums ever made. (Michael Mofsen)
FROM HERE TO OBSCURITY, 12/30/05
What a beautiful dream
That could flash on the screen
In a blink of an eye and be gone from me
Soft and sweet
Let me hold it close and keep it here with me
If you're like me, you love Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea with a passion that few other albums achieve, and you have been looking forward to the 33 1/3 book for as long as you've known about it. Well, ok, there's probably only 1000 or so people in the country who fall into that category, but MAN, what a great album and what a great book about it.
Kim Cooper (the editrix of Lost In The Grooves, Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, and Scram Magazine) gets to the heart of the story about this album. As NMH fans know, Jeff Mangum produced only one prior NMH album, On Avery Island (released in 1996), which was pretty much created without a band, then brought in a group that became the NMH that we all knew and loved. NMH put out the amazing In The Aeroplane Over The Sea in 1998, went on a short tour to support the album, then more or less disappeared. I remember when they came to Chapel Hill on that tour, but I didn't go see them because I thought I'd have plenty of options to see them again. I was wrong.
Cooper spent some time with Jeff Mangum while researching the book, and it shows, despite his unwillingness to be directly quoted, in her insight into his elusive genius. She also spoke with the other major members and friends of the band, who provided her with the in-stories that show exactly how this band bottled the lightning in 1998. Cooper's depth of research and sympathy for her subject are wonderful to read.
I pitched Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out The Lights to 33 1/3, and I can say with confidence that this is exactly the sort of book I'd attempt to write about that album if the editors give me the go-ahead. Some of the other 33 1/3 books have been too much about the ego of the author; Cooper disappears into her narrative, and her book is infinitely better for it. (Hayden Childs)
The popularity of Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea never really registered with me until recently. I had assumed it was an album that a lot of people had heard, but the latter-day cult phenomenon surrounding it had eluded me. This book, 29th in Continuum's 33 1/3 series which examines "critically acclaimed and much-loved albums" (think liner notes expanded over a hundred pages), informed me that 50,000 copies of this record have been copped over the last two years - over a third of the album's total sales. Considering Aeroplane was released in 1998, the figure is a little staggering. If Aeroplane isn't seen by everyone as a classic, it seems that the more time passes, the more it will be cemented as such: unpretentious, complicated, postmodern without the sag of postmodernism, it's certainly a word-of-mouth success whose momentum only seems to be growing.
Kim Cooper edits Scram magazine and co-edited a couple of books you might have heard of. And given the dearth of reliable information on the band and the album, she deserves major credit for constructing an oral history this detailed. Her information and quotes come from almost all of the people involved, with the exception of Jeff Mangum himself, who predictably declined to be interviewed (but gave his blessing). And so the most valuable thing about the book is that it cleans and polishes the murky circumstances that hang around Aeroplane. The so-called myth machine of Neutral Milk Hotel is enormous; that Cooper's book is able to clear a little of the smoke around the character of Jeff Mangum, the making of the album, and years of message board speculation is extremely welcome. And it's a good story: full of endearing and eccentric musicians you can't help but admire, Cooper's prose seems to fall with a miraculous ease over their words and personalities.
The book is slim little volume, short and steadily paced: it begins with Jeff and company in elementary school, moves into the formation of the Elephant 6 Collective, then breaks into a gallop when In the Aeroplane Over the Sea begins to form into something palpable. The richest chapter describes the recording sessions for Aeroplane: producer Robert Schneider's detailed explanation of the hows and whys of the recording sessions illuminate not only how an album gets made, but the deeper nature of the recording, the somewhat magical way a constantly changing group of songs by a motley crew of musicians got channeled into an album. And luckily, the griefs that might be raised about the book are few: some might find Cooper's song-by-song analysis a little indulgent, if forgivable, and it certainly doesn't offer anything solid about Jeff Mangum's reasons for dropping out of sight. In fact, because he doesn't offer any words toward it, Mangum is drawn as a mysterious character: built out of his actions and the words of his friends, the introverted and emotional bandleader behind it all is a little sketchy. It's too bad he can't be delineated more than he is, but after all, the book isn't a biography, and Mangum's reclusiveness is part of the allure (make sure to check out the bit about the obsessive fans).
These are just minor quibbles, in other words, and Kim Cooper's book gets an "A" for doing exactly what it sets out to do. If you're a fan, this is essential reading; if you're a little curious and you find ten bucks in your pocket, this is an illuminating little volume. And if you're not convinced by Aeroplane, and you feel like Jeff Mangum's music sounds like an off-key dude singing nonsense, this might help you understand why it's so beloved. (Jon Cameron)
This review is also posted on the Modern Pea Pod.
EAST BAY EXPRESS, 12/14/05
The Aeroplane Flies High
The devout, ever-multiplying cult of Neutral Milk Hotel should perhaps prepare for a second coming.
By Rob Harvilla
The most influential indie-rock record of the past decade reverently declares I love you Jesus Christ, features the songs "Two-Headed Boy" (parts one and two) and "The King of Carrot Flowers" (part one, then parts two and three combined), uses semen as a lyrical motif, crushes heavily on Anne Frank, lists a zanzithophone player in its liner notes, and whips up an unholy racket like several punk rockers and a Bulgarian wedding band trapped in an elevator together, desperately screaming for help. Stranger things will never happen.
Fortunately, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a carefully guarded secret upon its release in 1998, has been happening ever since. The record's vibrant, chaotic Salvation Army Marching Band sound and surrealist wordplay has inspired current big-shots from the Decemberists to the Arcade Fire to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Mysterious NMH mastermind Jeff Mangum -- who all but disappeared shortly after Aeroplane's release -- became a full-fledged reclusive genius deity, a beloved Salinger for the Pitchfork set. Pitchfork itself, meanwhile, recently deep-sixed the tepid Aeroplane review the online rock-crit site had originally run and replaced it with a fawning, triumphant 10.0 coronation.
Seven years later, the record's influence and capacity to fascinate have swelled to gargantuan proportions. Now, Los Angeles-based writer and critic Kim Cooper -- a devout lover of bubblegum pop and so-called "unpopular culture" via her zine Scram -- has taken the first real crack at unraveling Aeroplane's mystique, penning a tome for Continuum Books' immensely popular 331/3 series. Each selection is a pocket-sized hundred-or-so-pager devoted to the genesis, construction, and aftermath of one record, and although the series has enjoyed success with paeans to classics like the Smiths' Meat Is Murder and Prince's Sign 'O' the Times, Cooper's Aeroplane volume might be its biggest hit yet.
The record's ongoing critical revisionism has helped, of course, but Kim insists that word of mouth has slowly turned Neutral Milk Hotel from near-unknown to near-mythic. "I think it's just based on how many people love it," she explains. "People get very evangelical about this album. A record review can't do that. Who really cares if the record's got a 10.0, compared to sitting down with a friend who plays a song for you and it blows your mind?"
Kim's book is a fairly straightforward rise-and-fall narrative, beginning with a gang of Louisiana college radio rats who migrate on a whim to Athens, Georgia, while slowly coalescing into the Elephant 6 collective, a loose-knit crew of psychedelic-pop artistes who've found success with bands like Olivia Tremor Control and Of Montreal, but undoubtedly peaked with Neutral Milk Hotel. In-depth interviews with friends and collaborators -- including pop aficionado Robert Schneider, who produced Aeroplane at Pet Sounds, his Denver studio -- fill it out, but the famously distant Mangum transcends and haunts it all. He doesn't talk to Kim on the record -- "He didn't immediately say no, and ultimately he didn't say yes," she explains -- but you get just enough of a sense of the guy, from his affinity for rehearsing in the bathroom to his night terrors to his apparent obsession with Anne Frank's harrowing WWII artifact, The Diary of a Young Girl.
Aeroplane perfected a psychotic carnival sound (from expertly fuzzed-out barnburners like "Holland 1945" to sweet, cryptic ballads like the title track), but Mangum's surrealist lyrics still dominate, filled with lovesick two-headed freaks floating in jars, semen-stained mountaintops, and flaming pianos, apartment buildings, and human heads. Cryptic Anne Frank references abound, but on the chilling "Oh Comely" -- a showcase for Mangum's mournfully strummed acoustic guitar and braying, famously polarizing voice -- he careens though verses of fantastically twisted imagery before settling on the shockingly direct:
And I know they buried her body with others
Her sister and mother and five hundred families
And will she remember me fifty years later
I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine
The Jeff/Anne love affair is a strange and sometimes uncomfortable pairing. "Picture the Franks in their Dutch hidey-hole, 1944," Cooper writes. "Picture the Elephant 6 gang fifty years later, rock 'n' roll and road trips and DIY. Incongruous worlds, but the sets collide, and somehow fit perfectly together." Maybe not perfectly -- though plenty of critics hate E6 and Neutral Milk in particular, it's doubtful they've ever seriously considered genocide.
Over the phone, Kim explains it a bit more convincingly. "I think it was a personal connection with her as a writer and as a person, this really lovely adolescent who was just kind of flowering and becoming an adult and an intellectual, and it was all just wiped away by forces so much more powerful than her," she explains. "Some people think that he was in love with her."
Does she think so? "I think he loved her the way that you love anyone whose story really touches you. You want the best for them, and you can't help them, and that's where you get I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine."
At first it's off-putting that Kim largely avoids probing the meaning or backstory behind Aeroplane's beguiling lyrics -- she tacked on a track-by-track analysis at her editor's request -- but ultimately it makes sense to leave all that to your own inclination and imagination. Mangum's seclusion is also a fuzzy affair, but though his refusal to record, perform, or submit to interviews shortly after the album's release was partly due to private, personal issues, Kim's book heavily implies that much of it was showbiz, borne of Mangum's desire to go out with a bang, slowly work his devotees into a deifying lather, and then descend from the mountain years later with a spectacular follow-up. Urban legend insists he's gone completely bonkers, but the facts suggest he knows exactly what he's doing -- in her text, Kim makes the point of noting that Mangum is alive, lucid, and sane.
"If you listen to the music, it's obvious that there's a lot of thought that goes into everything," Cooper says. "It's not very random. ... There's a certain elegance to just walking away and leaving this kind of resounding note in the air."
And lo, just as Kim's book comes out, new Neutral Milk Hotel demos surface online, capping a year that also saw Mangum show up onstage with old E6 buddies such as the Circulatory System and Olivia Tremor Control. The Aeroplane revival has reached critical mass, and the Great Comeback may in fact be upon us.
"That's certainly what [paramour and, coincidentally, zanzithophonist] Laura Carter thought he was doing," Kim concludes. "That he was echoing artists from the past he liked who disappear for periods, and then come back when nobody's expecting something, and really blowing people's minds. I hope he does." Whether you know it or not, so do you.
By Brian Heater
In the final chapter of Kim Cooper’s meditation on Neutral Milk Hotel’s album In the Aeroplane over the Sea (Continuum Press, 104 pages, $9.95), the author tells of visibly fatigued frontman Jeff Mangum getting up in front of a crowd, apologizing for the “sick parts” and introducing a new composition, then launching in to what, to date, is the only post-Aeroplane song he’s performed in public, ending with the couplet “Knowing God in Heaven never could forgive him / So I took a hammer and nearly beat his brains.” The words, coupled with Mangum’s physical state and his subsequent retreat from the public eye may not help in a defense of Mangum’s much-debated sanity. They are, though, the stuff of rock legend, and Aeroplane is lousy with the stuff. Issued in 1998, its cult following has grown ever since. Neutral Milk Hotel’s sophomore record means an awful lot of things to an awful lot of people. This may not be Let it Be, but it certainly warrants the in-depth treatment that is the 33 1/3 series’ forte.
The book’s opening chapters relate the history of the Elephant 6 Collective, beginning with Mangum’s humble beginnings in the tiny college town of Ruston, La., as told through interviews with fellow Collective members including The Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider and Scott Spillane of The Gerbils and NMH. (Noticeably absent are any quotes from the notoriously reclusive Mangum.) While the back story is thin, Cooper works with what she has, telling some nice stories about musicians sharing boom box recordings.
A later chapter finds Cooper analyzing the record track-by-track, offering some compelling readings of the album’s often impenetrable imagery. The book concludes with an account of Mangum’s suspected psychosis, using quotes from his close friend (and longtime Elf Power bandmember) Laura Carter to refute them. When it’s all over, there seem to be more unanswered questions than we started with. Still, the ride is certainly worth the price of admission.
REAL DETROIT WEEKLY 12/7/05
By Keith N. Dusenberry
Up and Over: Neutral Milk Hotel
In 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel released their second and final album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It is among the best records ever made: a twisted, surreal world of fuzzy acoustic guitars, horn parts in turns blaring and mournful, unusual background instruments and the wavering but sure voice of bandleader Jeff Mangum. The album’s lyrical topics range from Siamese twin sisters to cannibalism and religion … with a deep, recurring focus on Anne Frank.
For a small community of obsessive fans, these aren’t songs, they’re hymns. Jeff Mangum’s near-total disappearance from public life shortly after Aeroplane’s release only fuels the fires of their intrigue. Much of the Neutral Milk story has been pieced together over the years, but never as comprehensively as in Kim Cooper’s Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea.
The latest release in Continiuum Publishing’s 33 1/3 series, Cooper’s slim, pithy book traces the band members’ younger years before settling into an exploration of Neutral Milk's development within the circle of Athens, Georgia musicians (including Elf Power, Apples In Stereo and The Gerbils) collectively known as Elephant 6. Through extensive interviews and thoughtful research, Cooper details Neutral Milk’s evolution from Jeff’s solo bedroom project to the bands’ group incarnation, Aeroplane’s recording and the band’s dissolution at Jeff’s behest.
The book’s greatest strength comes from Cooper’s ability to avoid mythologizing while remaining sympathetic to the band’s highly protective fans. “I was very hesitant to seem like a peeping Tom and to seem like I was exploiting them,” Cooper says. “I feel like what there is to be said about [Neutral Milk] is that this doesn’t have to be unique. They have so many fans — so many people love this record — and I wish that every one of them who comes to this book will come away from reading it thinking, ‘This is not something special that only rock and roll stars can have — this kind of connection with my friends, this kind of creative garden where we can all work together and help each other be what we were meant to be. It’s not only possible — it’s essential.’”
Despite what fans fond of the outsized Neutral Milk legend want to believe, Cooper — who spoke with Jeff a number of times regarding the book and got his blessing, though he declined to be interviewed on the record — says the band’s normalness is part of the appeal: “They’re so ordinary. They’re not like these bigger than life people … that’s what’s so cool. It’s not like they went away into some little secret room and they came out with something brilliant and then showed it to the world. It’s more like they were able to make music and beautiful art surrounded by noise and chaos and people poking their heads in the door and seeing what they were doing. There was no privacy and there was no expectation of, ‘Quiet please, genius at work.’”
Ordinary or not, the question that looms large in Neutral Milk fans’ minds remains: Will Jeff Mangum ever again release music to the public? Cooper doesn’t know for sure, but says, “I got a sense that he’s still a very intellectually lively and creative person.” | RDW
Email a two-headed boy: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amazon.com reader reviews
Five Stars - Surprising answers to FAQ's, January 27, 2006
Reviewer: Scott Bresinger
The story of the creation of Neutral Milk Hotel's masterpiece "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea" is interesting in itself--especially if you're a music lit junkie--but just as interesting (and mysterious) is what came after. After the album's release in February '98 and the subsequent tour to promote it, NMH mastermind Jeff Mangum has recorded precisely...nothing. He just disappeared from the music map even quicker than he appeared. This has of course led to all sorts of wild speculation--chief among them that Mangum has gone insane Syd Barrett-style and is incapable of resuming his career. Writer Kim Cooper's history of the Neutral Milk Hotel enigma answers that particular FAQ and many others as well, but be warned--the answers are more surprising, and surprisingly mundane, than you can imagine.
Since this book is part of Continuum's 33 1/3 series--short books about the making of famous or influential popular music albums--the scope is limited somewhat. In this case, Mangum is the main "character," although many of the people who know or worked with him are interviewed. Interentingly enough, Mangum himself declined to be interviewed directly, but we are told he supports the book nonetheless. Those hoping to see the complete lyrics for "Aeroplane" will also be disappointed, but there is at least one web site that has them (thank you Google!). Despite these seeming shortcomings, the narrative told here is clear, precise and illuminating. In one chapter, Cooper speculates about what the lyrics might mean, which the reader can choose to ignore, although for me it clarified some areas that I found problematic.
For instance, while I'm a huge, even obsessive, fan of the album, the first time I heard it I got a bit worried by the beginning of "The King of Carrot Flowers Part II & III," where Mangum sings "I love you Jesus Christ..." Now, as a proud and unrepentent atheist, this is bound to be a problem for me. Cooper acknowledges that this "is the spot where aggressively non-Christian listeners have to make a conscious decision to stay with the music." Before this book, I'd have to basically ignore that part to fully enjoy the album. Cooper makes clear, however, that whatever Mangum's beliefs are, and no matter how earnest and sincere (and they are), Mangum's approach to Christ is very different than the fundementalist lunatics who are currently ruining this country for everyone else. In fact, in his embrace of a wide array of music, thought and philosophy, Mangum is something like a Christian Buddhist, if that makes any sense. Of course, if you expect it to make sense, then this definitely isn't the album for you, and Cooper's book won't help you any. For fans and fence-sitters alike, this book is essential reading, however.
Now, about Mangum's vanishing act. In the final chapter, Cooper delves into what caused it and even raises the possibility (however remote at this point) of his return. The short version is that Mangum just felt like doing something different, and just decided not to "ride the circus wheel," as one lyric goes. While this thought has occured to many different musical geniuses, like Kurt Cobain, Mangum's exit is definitely more peaceful, and not as final. The example of Soft Machine founder Robert Wyatt is mentioned; during his mid-70's peak, he disappeared for several years, only to return more prolific than ever. I guess you could also throw in Patti Smith, who at one point left her solo career behind to become a full time desperate housewife. Whether Mangum will choose to follow suit (except for the housewife part, of course) is anyone's guess, including Cooper, but the very mention of that in this book is tantalizing. In the meantime, fans can satisfy themselves with this short but fascinating book, and as always with the small but brilliant body of work that Mangum has provided.
Five Stars - An incredible book, December 7, 2005
Reviewer: Chris Molnar (Grand Rapids, MI)
Let me first say this: I am incredibly biased. ITAOTS is one of my all-time favorite albums, and I have many memories inextricably tied to it. I would argue, however, that appreciation of the album is not even a prerequisite to enjoy the book. Kim Cooper has compiled a beautiful account of a group of friends who, through good fortune, a wealth of talent, and most of all an undying belief in the power of music, created one of the most powerful records ever set to tape.
Obsessively detailing recording techniques, the origins of the songs, and the background of all involved, Cooper interviews all principles (except for elusive singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum, though I maintain that this only adds to the power of the book), creating a complete and fascinating story. She has a novelist's eye for the necessary detail and for plot development, and we become incredibly attached to the hugely intelligent and friendly Elephant 6 clique that helped the album to fruition.
This book is obviously a must-read for all interested in the Elephant 6 Collective or Neutral Milk Hotel, but at the same time it is too good to remain within those crowds. That would be like preaching to the choir. We have here an inspirational document of the continuing power of music, something that should be on required reading lists in every music program in every school. This here is proof that all outcasts and misfits who have found solace in the healing properties of music can succeed beyond their wildest dreams.
Jeff Mangum may or may not produce an album again, but ITAOTS is good enough for now. This book is not only a worthy tribute, but an accomplishment in and of itself. Congratulations, Ms. Cooper, you have written a masterpiece.
Five Stars - Fantastic Overview of a Legendary Band, December 2, 2005
Reviewer: J. Kuykendall (Madison, WI USA)
I dreaded this book so much. I assumed it would be another convoluted attempt to interpret Netural Milk Hotel's surrealistic lyrics and connect them into a narrative that exists only in one person's imagination, offering no insight into the band itself, not to mention its ringleader and savant singer/songwriter, Jeff Mangum--the sort of thing that generally keeps me away from Neutral Milk Hotel messageboards and fellow fans. But Kim Cooper devotes only one very brief chapter to that hopeless task, and spends the rest of the book chronicling the history of the creative musical collective that surrounds Neutral Milk, "Elephant 6," and showing how Mangum was always at the center, until, after his sophomore album's unexpected success, he suddenly retreated from the spotlight, which caused some to unfairly (and inaccurately) label him the indie rock equivalent of the mentally ill Syd Barrett.
Cooper interviews Robert Schneider (Apples in Stereo), Bryan Poole (Elf Power), Ben Crum (Great Lakes), and Laura Carter, Scott Spillane, and Julian Koster (all of NMH), as well as others connected to Elephant 6, for a pretty complete history that follows this constructed family of musicians from Ruston, Louisiana to Athens, Georgia, with stops in Denver and New York City. (Jeff Mangum declined to be interviewed, which gives the narrative the odd feeling that its central character is deceased.) There are some vivid and funny anecdotes about life lived in uncomfortably close communal quarters with little food and money, with Mangum sleeping in a haunted closet (which informed the song "Ghost"), or working out songs in the bathroom, of life on the road, and Spillane almost losing thousands of dollars in tour money at a Pizza Hut.
I've been an Elephant 6 fan for a long time, hung out at concerts, obsessively collected limited edition vinyl singles, et cetera., so I devoured this all in a sitting, but I was surprised to find how deeply moved I was. I felt stunned. Kind of like listening to a Neutral Milk Hotel album.
Five Stars - A definite must-have for the E6 junkie., December 2, 2005
Reviewer: R. Settle
It's great to see Elephant Six being represented in this consistently insightful series of books.
Cooper reveals so much about Jeff Mangum's early life as an artist and music lover that will satisfy even the most obsessive NMH fans. There is also a slew of never before seen photos. You can't love Neutral Milk Hotel and not read this.
The European readings were both really lovely events, attended by some very sweet and cool folks. And the venues were special spots to discover, En Marge in Paris for its great selection of comics, zines, Costes CDs and artwork for sale, Pogo in London for tasty vegan fare, comfy couches, zine library, activist flyers and free internet.
Thanks to everyone who read and attended, organizers Jean-Pierre, Jean-Emmanuel, Camille & Nhatt, Sarah & Fiona from Continuum, and especially to Richard for technical support, photography, and letting me slate readings into our honeymoon. Whatta peach he is...
1 November 2006 (Day of the dead)
Public reading from: Kim Cooper (from L.A.) reading extracts from her work on Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Under the Sea (collection 33 1/3) - in English with French text available
Pierre Mikaïloff (from Paris) reading from "Some Clichés" (l'Harmattan) - in French
Miles Marshall Lewis reading from his work on Sly and the Family Stone's
"There's a Riot Going On" (collection 33 1/3) - in English
Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe reading extracts from the "Lost in the Grooves" anthology on Jeanette, Polnareff, Michel Magne and Brigitte Fontaine - in French
Plus musical selections in indie pop, soul/funk and the unclassifiable from
DJ Bertrand Burgalat (Tricatel)
DJ Dorian Gray
DJ Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe
librairie | galerie | musiques |
92, rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud |
75011 PARIS | M° Parmentier | Couronnes |
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I read on my editor David Barker's 33 1/3 blog this morning that the Neutral Milk Hotel book is the fastest pony in the paddock. One doesn't like to brag about book sales, but you gotta understand, all my previous publications have been so proudly under the radar that it's just a hoot to see something I've written be so popular. But there are plenty of great books on that list--collect 'em all!
Not too much movement on the chart over the last couple of months - most of the books are still selling, but at a very similar rate. Notable exceptions being the Forever Changes book in the UK, on the back of Arthur Lee's sad death, the DJ Shadow book, those on the Pixies and Beastie Boys, and of course the Neutral Milk Hotel book, which keeps going, week after week.
(Note to self: no more books about bands with "Stone" in their name...)
1. The Smiths
2. The Kinks
3. Pink Floyd
4. Joy Division
5. Neutral Milk Hotel
6. Velvet Underground
7. The Beatles
10. Neil Young
11. Rolling Stones
12. Dusty Springfield
13. Beach Boys
14. DJ Shadow
15. Jimi Hendrix
16. The Band
17. The Replacements
18. Led Zeppelin
19. David Bowie
20. Jeff Buckley
22. Beastie Boys
23. The Ramones
26. Bruce Springsteen
27. Elvis Costello
29. James Brown
30. Jethro Tull
31. Sly and the Family Stone
32. The MC5
33. The Stone Roses
E6townhall members discuss the book here. You can weigh in, too.
Neutral Milk Hotel on the map.
7/27: Continuum reports that copy #5000 of my Aeroplane book sold yesterday, and that it is currently the 6th best-selling title in the series. Not bad catchup work for the 29th to be released! The third printing should be in stores soon.
7/15: On Stella's show on KXLU last night, Russ Forster called in and we announced our plans to collaborate on an Elephant 6 documentary. The film will be made in a highly unusual fashion inspired by E6 itself. Stay tuned for much more info soon.
6/12: 33 1/3 series editor David Barker posts an updated sales chart on his blog today, and the Neutral Milk Hotel book has eased its way into the top 10, comfortably nestled between Love and Neil Young.
3/27: Tune in to WNYC's "Soundcheck" program (11am-noon Pacific, 2-3pm Eastern) for discussion about NMH and the Aeroplane book featuring author Kim and producer Robert Schneider.
3/25: Kim reads and signs at Vroman's in Pasadena, CA, 4pm with special guest Ben Sisario, reading from his new 33 1/3 Pixies book.
3/24: A short interview with music editor Kate Sullivan in the L.A. Weekly includes a big scoop. It's archived on our reviews page.
2/11: The Book Soup reading was a great success. Click here to see photos, hear a podcast, and learn how to contribute to the dialogue with a podcast of your own.
2/8: Kim reads and signs at Book Soup in Los Angeles, at 7pm.
2/5: In the LA Alternative, Evan George opines: "Somehow, [Kim] miraculously manages to do an album of this ilk—as resistant to the bitter end as it’s been to the spotlight—poetic justice."
1/31: Kim contributes a mixtape for her NMH book to Largehearted Boy, who says "Of all the books in [the] 33 1/3 series... I have enjoyed In the Aeroplane Over the Sea the most." And Michael Carriere calls the book "fascinating."
1/24: Nighttimes says "fans of the album will adore this book... excellent."
1/20: I spoke with Chris Hassiotis of the Athens Flagpole about the writing process and the positive side of Jeff not being interviewed.
1/7: The first printing of the book is nearly sold out, so if you want a first edition copy, pick it up quick!
12/30: Hayden Childs says "Some of the other 33 1/3 books have been too much about the ego of the author; Cooper disappears into her narrative, and her book is infinitely better for it."
12/20: The first eBay auction of a numbered, limited edition copy of the book ended at just over $100, and went to a nice young man who is surprising his wife for Xmas. Book #28/30 has just been listed on eBay, with the opening bid the cover price of $9.95.
12/14: Rob Harvilla reviews the book in the East Bay Express, suggesting "although the [33 1/3] series has enjoyed success with paeans to classics like the Smiths' Meat Is Murder and Prince's Sign 'O' the Times, Cooper's Aeroplane volume might be its biggest hit yet." And Brian Heater weighs in in the New York Press.
12/8: There is a limited, signed edition of 30 copies of the book, 25 of which are reserved for the members of the band and others who helped with the project. #30 is now up for bid on eBay, in a 7 day auction starting today.
12/7: My interview with Keith N. Dusenberry appeared today, illustrated with one of the rare photos from the book. He says: "Much of the Neutral Milk story has been pieced together over the years, but never as comprehensively... The book’s greatest strength comes from Cooper’s ability to avoid mythologizing while remaining sympathetic to the band’s highly protective fans."
12/1: I did my first interview about the book today, with the very thoughtful Keith N. Dusenberry at Real Detroit Weekly. It was cool to talk with someone who had read the book so carefully, and I'm looking forward to reading his story, which should appear on 12/7.
11/21: Visit the World of Neutral Milk Hotel interactive map for a sneak peak at the book contents, and a chance to comment or add your own locations to the psychic map of the band's existence.
11/11: On my editor David Barker's blog, he's previewing two of the original photos included in the book. Individual advance orders on the book are the best in the series thusfar--nearly 1000 people have pre-ordered Aeroplane from Amazon.com and the Continuum website.