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Under the influence of Jeff Mangum

A look at the Neutral Milk Hotel leader's impact on local indie rock


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It may surprise those familiar with Jeff Mangum, but when Creative Loafing asked seven local musicians influenced in some way by the underground legend for their comments, only a few felt inclined to contribute. Mangum, who performs at the Neighborhood Theatre on Jan. 31, was the leader of Neutral Milk Hotel, a frenetic, psych-leaning folk outfit whose fleeting late-'90s run produced some of the most beloved indie rock ever recorded.

  • Corey Greenwell

The group's second and last LP, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, from 1998, is roundly considered one of the most important records of that decade. Its frantic pace and explosive emotionalism helped make such qualities acceptable within the sardonic indie realm, paving the way for the success stories of bands like Bright Eyes and Arcade Fire. Aeroplane's tangled, insular narrative, which uses Anne Frank as a sort of surrealist symbol for the short-lived ecstasy of youth, helped make the idea of the concept record relevant again. Its enduring success helped solidify the prestige of Durham's Merge Records, which put out the album and is now one of the strongest independent labels in the world. And yet, most of the musicians this paper reached out to rejected Mangum as a direct influence.

"It would be a better interview with someone else," said local singer and composer Bo White. "I appreciate his work in a few slight ways, but Mangum is not one of my regular go-tos."

This is the same Bo White who last year released Same Deal/New Patrones, a record which operates on a grand scale and would seem impossible if not for the trends set in motion by Neutral Milk and others. Admittedly, White includes a great deal of other influences in his sweeping tale centering on the singers of Mexican drug ballads known as narcocorridos.

Awash with horns, strings and various forms of percussion, Same Deal/New Patrones mixes strains of weirdo pop a la David Byrne with bursts of up-tempo folk and lush Latin orchestrations. But in the scope of its emotions and the fearlessness of its ambition, the album seems hopelessly indebted to Mangum. So, too, in its narratives, which find commonality between the seemingly antithetical existences of impoverished Latinos seeking a better life and the paranoid Americans who fear them. As a plot device, White's concept is almost as daring as Mangum's use of a young Jew in the Holocaust as a metaphor for youthful anxiety.

"To be honest, I had to Google Jeff Mangum to see who he was," admitted Andy Fenstermaker, better known by his folk-rocking stage handle, Andy the Doorbum. "After looking, I do know who Neutral Milk Hotel are, and I think they are quite good. I have only really heard them from friends and just the one record. While I do like it very much, they were not any significant source of influence for me, so I think I may be the wrong person to talk to."

While Fenstermaker's burly grumble may have little in common with Mangum's nasal bleats, and his off-kilter folk leans more toward Tom Waits' vaudeville inflections, Andy the Doorbum's songs overflow with cryptic symbols and unconventional instrumentation which recall Mangum's more famous odes.

Take "The Farm," a stunning ballad from the Doorbum's 2011 offering, The Man Killed The Bird, And With The Bird He Killed The Song, And With The Song, Himself. Powered by a driving acoustic strum, it moves forward with ragged momentum, Fenstermaker straining his voice as he tears into a dark family history, abetted by accordion and occasional clattering percussion.

It's a progression that's remarkably similar to that of "Two-Headed Boy," one of the more famous songs on Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Mangum thrashes his acoustic guitar, howling about a deformed boy who constructs a "radio for two" that allows him to communicate across time. And though that particular song doesn't mirror the accordion embellishments in "The Farm," nearly identical tactics are employed often on Aeroplane.

Judging on sound alone, it's easy to understand how someone might assume that Neutral Milk Hotel was a major influence on both Fenstermaker and White. How, then, did these two local artists, who claim to glean little from Mangum, end up making music that seems to lean so heavily on his legacy?

Another Charlotte musician offered a possible explanation. Dylan Gilbert is an energetic singer and songwriter whose early work lined up with Mangum's aesthetic. Gilbert's 2010 album Pangea, for instance, pushes forward with frenzied, fuzz-beguiled abandon, taking cues from Neutral Milk's oft-overlooked debut, On Avery Island.

By contrast, Gilbert's new band Hectorina seems like a complete rejection of those ideas. Invigorated by techniques borrowed from math rock and prog, Hectorina uses intricate rhythms, dizzying guitar solos and a wild range of vocal effects, a mix more reminiscent of the scattershot Mars Volta. But Gilbert insists Hectorina is more strongly influenced by Mangum than any of his previous work.

"I think attitude is probably the No. 1 influence for me," Gilbert says. "He seems to have this really fresh angle that's not rooted in trends or pop culture or any of that sort of stuff. That's one thing that always interested me with what's going on with him. It just seems like a lot of the stuff that Jeff Mangum puts out is unfiltered, stream-of-consciousness kind of art. And I've always strived to do something like that. I don't know if I've ever quite gotten there, but that's something I've always tried to work toward."

Looking at Magnum's importance to indie rock in this way, the overwhelming denial of his influence among local musicians who declined to discuss him could almost be seen as proof of his continued impact. Ever so often, pop music needs an artist to come along and break rules that are followed purely on the basis of maintaining traditions. Mangum was such a musician, and that a crowd of Charlotte artists are pursuing their own sounds without thinking about his canonical output is, in its own way, a tribute to his legacy.

Still, the idea that Mangum's attitude is the only thing about him that still has influence sells his contributions criminally short. Neutral Milk Hotel, particularly with Aeroplane, made such a profound impression on the way people think about music in the indie realm that it would seem tough not to be influenced by Mangum in some way.

Chris Rigo of Sugar Glyder, a hook-laden, synth-propelled pop band recently signed to the prominent boutique imprint ORG Music, supports this line of thinking, suggesting that while his band's music has little in common with Mangum's, it would be impossible to create without the foundation he helped lay.

"Bands like Neutral Milk paved the way for bands to be more emotive in their delivery," guitarist Rigo says. "I don't think we were directly influenced by Neutral Milk Hotel, but it's incredibly obvious that there were bands we listened to that were, in fact, directly influenced by them. We were just a little further down the pipeline."


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