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Have you seen Jeff Mangum?

Neutral Milk Hotel's bandleader built a faith on the transcendent power of music. Then, when he needed it most, he gave up on it.



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Meanwhile, Koster, who played banjo, accordion and the singing saw, Spillane, who played horns, and Barnes, on drums and organ, all rose to meet the vision of the record, Carter says.

"None of us were professional musicians on any level, except Jeremy [Barnes]," Carter notes. "Scotty [Spillane] learned to play the trumpet so fast and beautifully, with no teacher, no experience, no nothing, just because he ... understood the goal and everybody believed in it."

The players themselves sometimes have a difficult time explaining why In the Aeroplane retains its vitality, but there remains a unanimous appreciation for simply being part of it.

"I was thinking that I felt very lucky to be involved, and it was one of the things that I've done that justifies my existence," Spillane says.

"There's just such a crumbling, tragic element to Aeroplane," says Carter, who contributed on the record. "But ... the descriptions of tragedy are beautiful, and then it's like overcoming that."

It's not just overcoming. It's finding optimism within tragedy.

In "Oh Comely," the album's eighth track, Siamese twins are freezing to death in the woods. One calms the other with the knowledge that they will be warm again together in an animal's stomach: "Goldaline my dear, we will fold and freeze together, far away from here, there is sun and spring and green forever, but now we move to feel, for ourselves inside some stranger's stomach, place your body here, let your skin begin to blend itself with mine."

On the next track, "Ghost," Mangum sings: "And one day in [New York City] a girl fell from the sky, from the top of a burning apartment building 14 stories high, and when her spirit left her body how it split the sun, I know that she will live forever, all goes on and on and on" -- a theme that repeats itself.

Other lyrics hinted at what friends discreetly describe as Mangum's "chaotic" childhood: "Your mom would stick a fork right into Daddy's shoulder, and your dad would throw the garbage all across the floor. ... Your mom would sink until she was no longer speaking, and Dad would dream of all the different ways to die, each one a little more than he could dare to try."

"Sounds pretty bad on that record doesn't it?" says James Mangum, Jeff's dad and a retired economics professor. "His mother and I didn't get along, and we divorced when Jeff was 14. But the kids never got caught in between us as far as our fighting was concerned. They just always came No. 1, no matter how badly we fought. But some of [the album] was autobiographical. Some of it, I don't understand. He starts talking about it, well, 'I looked for a thousand ways to die' or something like that. I didn't know that he interpreted it that way. The way I interpreted the record, he was on my side, so to speak, but sympathetic."

The tour that followed the release of Aeroplane started out like many of the Avery Island dates. But as the album found its way into the hands of critics and fans, the crowds grew. After months of touring, Neutral Milk Hotel was filling venues as large as the Bowery Ballroom in New York City.

"People who were going through hard times were really drawn to the band in ways like, 'You're our savior!'" Carter says.

Life on the road became much easier and crowd reactions devotedly attentive. "I remember sitting in the van one time [in Chicago] and thinking, 'God, if you're going to take me, take me now, because that show put the cap on it,'" Spillane says.

When they co-headlined with Olivia Tremor Control, all the members of both bands would often wind up on stage for finales, ending shows in cacophonic glory.

"It was insane," Hart says of a show in Norway. "Shit was falling all over the place. It was just so much fun, and people were catching on to the interest."

Carter says Mangum had always imagined himself an underground icon, but the attention grew to be too much. He became sick of talking about himself, and being asked to interpret his cryptic lyrics. By the end of the tour, he was refusing to answer the phone. But despite his disdain for the star-making process, he was obsessed with his own press and what fanzines and websites were saying about him.

"He's as self-conscious about what anyone says about him as Madonna," Carter says. "He would obsessively surf the e-mail and follow every chat room, and when people would say stuff about him, it would really upset him. It was personal like, 'They're saying this, and it's not true!'"

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