Never in my life did I think I would ever see Neutral Milk Hotel live and in-person, let alone three times.
As a teen in the early 00s both Just Getting Into Music and Growing Up With The Internet, indie rock was the most urgent art to discover. The indie blogosphere was building up steam, names like Elliott Smith started encroaching on your curiosity and somehow this genre seemed to you, impressionable aimless teen, to be more powerful than anything in KROQ’s Sublime-and-Offspring playlist. So you were greeted with this whole online world of indie music, which included discourse and fandom and canon. Neutral Milk Hotel was the genre’s built-in legend. You came into the fold, you had to learn about them. After having created a truly mind-blowing classic in 1998, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, their second and last album, the group more or less retreated into private life and anonymity, avoiding the minor celebrity that could’ve been theirs.
For those of us there at the dawn of indie MP3 blogs, they were everyone’s north star. Everyone had their own favorites and their own tastes, sure, but Neutral Milk Hotel and lead singer Jeff Mangum were outside of the debate as established, long-gone myths. The snarky thing to do in comment threads was to refer to them ironically as “indie Jesus,” but they were more like indie JD Salinger. There would be no new music, no interviews in Pitchfork, no updated press photo since some autumnal photo from the late 90s. So when Mangum came back for a tour in 2012, followed by wider tour with the whole band, it was entirely unexpected.
I first saw these songs performed as a solo acoustic act with Mangum at the Orpheum. It was great; both the audience and the performer seemed shy, and he urged the crowd to drown him out with our sing-along. The second time was at Bonnaroo 2014, but I had gotten black out drunk and remembered only the last song. So when it was announced that this next lap around the country would be their last for the foreseeable future before returning to their mythic Odinsleep, I had to pony up one last time.
Seeing Mangum solo was great and intimate. Seeing a large band in tow reminded me that this is at its heart a rock band. It wasn’t punked up and it was still suited for Warner Grand Theatre’s seated, art deco atmosphere, but the full-band experience was still a different animal. Julian Koster, in particular, is brilliant and surprising on nearly every song. I never even realized that I was missing out on his work on the banjo, the bow-and-banjo, and even the singing saw. I swore that was some kind of theremin on the record.
It bothers me that I’ll never get to hear that version again.
The two things that translate on an exact 1:1 ratio from studio to live show are Jeff Mangum’s masterfully controlled vocals and Scott Spillane’s brass. Mangum can go loud and long with his notes and its power can’t be understated. But Spillane’s trumpets on Aeroplane are iconic. I compare the trumpets in every alternative song since to the ones on a song like “The Fool.” It seemed instructive, like this is the way trumpets and trombones and flugelhorns are supposed to be used.
Above all, Mangum’s writing is pristine, and the concert was a chance to revisit those words that have stuck with us for over a decade. “They’ll be placing fingers in the notches of your spine;” “Your father made fetuses with flesh-licking ladies;” “God is a place where some holy spectacle lies.” Even today, who can write like this? Who blends literary narrative with intimate confessional as well?
Playing in San Pedro was an unusual choice for an LA-area show. It made sense when Mangum dedicated an encore song to his musical hero, D.Boon, of The Minutemen, one of the most influential names to come out of San Pedro. He also dedicated a song to the people of Ireland.
The setlist was vast, including a six-song encore, and surprisingly heavy on selections from On Avery Island and their 2011 EP Ferris Wheel On Fire. The latter was the most valuable part of the show — everything from that EP played out heavier, harder and with more stirring instrumentation. The title track “Ferris Wheel On Fire” gets some shoegaze-esque distorted guitar rumble and an absolutely cathartic synthetic riff from Koster. It bothers me that I’ll never get to hear that version again.
But I guess there’s value in that too. The satiation remains out of reach, the mystery is refilled. The myth continues.