Neutral Milk Hotel began in the early 90's as a 4 track cassette project by Jeff Mangum. Since then, he's released a couple of albums on Merge records (On Avery Island, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea) and assembled a "band" to take the show on the road. We interviewed Jeff after a Neutral Milk Hotel show at the Portland rock dive, Satyricon. Despite having been booted from the stage after a scant forty minutes due to club scheduling problems, Jeff was still up for talking Tape Op trash. After assuring us we weren't bugging him, we got underway with a few questions.
Have you had a long day, Jeff?
Long day... Don't sweat it, you're not pestering me. I really like your zine a lot.
Thank you. Well, these are the questions I was thinking of. Your first single was the Cher Doll Records one, is that right?
I really like That. I heard That whenever it came out, someone sent it to me to review. And I was thinking that you're, even still, oriented towards recording being really separate from live. So I wanted to head in that direction with questions, as far as your band being a band. Like on the new record, how many of the people who played with you tonight appeared on that record?
All of them. Jeremy plays drums on the album, Scott plays all the horns, Julian plays accordion and saw, and Lauren plays the silver saxophone and the xitherphone.
So you headed up to Robert's [Schneider of the Apples In Stereo] house in Denver to do the recording?
Yeah. The whole band approaches recording in a very...recording is such a magical thing, it's fun to see the songs grow and take shape as you're working on them and not get too caught up in trying to worry about exactly how they are live. The whole fun in recording is finding the little magic keys to the songs.
Were you playing stuff off the new album live before you went to the studio?
We played 'Ghost' a couple times, and that was it. Cuz we got the band together up in New York City after ...Avery Island [NMH's first full length] came out, and then we toured for a while. Then Jeremy went to Chicago, Scott went to Austin, Julian stayed in Long Island to start his album on his own, in his grandmother's basement. I went to Athens and started working on some of the songs for the next record. And then Jeremy flew down to Athens for five days and that's where we worked up 'Ghost,' in the garage, and then he went home. The other songs we did after he got back from Chicago, we worked on them right before we went to make the record and then we worked on some of the stuff in the studio.
Just worked it up a little bit and then recorded it?
What did you record on this time, did you use the eight track?
Yeah, eight track.
You did the first one on a four track, right?
Fostex four track, reel-to-reel.
Damn. Didn't he have the eight track at that point, when you were out there for Avery Island?
Yeah, we couldn't afford the tape.
That's a wild reason. An extra eighty bucks or something.
Well, Robert's been eating rice and beans for both records. We basically ended up living off a credit card for half the album. And plus I was only used to cassette four track at that time, so it was a step for me into something still comfort- able.
And they can sound great. Has it been nice working with eight?
Yeah it's great.
How'd you hook up with Robert in the first place?
I met Robert in third grade, in Louisiana. Will from Olivia Tremor Control [Tape Op #17] I met in seventh grade, and he moved away when he was eighteen. See, we were always trying to get out of Louisiana, we always knew it was a place to leave. We were always surprised at how many people who lived there didn't have the same idea that we did. So he ended up moving to the Virgin Islands, think- ing he was going to sit on the beach and drink martinis and write Hawaiian music. And he ended up homeless on the beach, broke. His plane ticket was round-trip, so he went back to Miami and called our friend Lisa in Athens, who went and picked him up. So one of our friends had actually broken free of Ruston so we all flooded to Athens immediately. I ended up moving, though I've moved back to Athens three times, this is my third move back.
Where did you move between?
Denver, Seattle, and New York City....