Is it the music or the mystique that has kept fans obsessed with the elusive Neutral Milk Hotel all these years? 

The Curious Case of Jeff Mangum

The Curious Case of Jeff Mangum

In 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel released their second (and to date, their last) LP, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea — an intimate and existential collection of lo-fi psychedelic-folk ballads and anthems howling with horns, organs, singing saw and instruments with names like "zanzithophone" and "Uilleann pipes." Shortly thereafter, notoriously spotlight-shunning frontman and central member Jeff Mangum — sort of the J.D. Salinger of the indie-rock world — put the band on hiatus, where they remained for 15 years.

Over the course of those 15 years, Aeroplane swelled past the point of cult phenomenon to become a genuinely impactful record and an entry point for burgeoning audiophiles looking to experiment with indie rock. The record has earned icon status, and if you need proof of that, Google "Neutral Milk Hotel tattoo." Or just ask Doyle Davis.

"In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the Dark Side of the Moon of indie rock," says Davis, co-owner of flagship local record shop Grimey's and its books-and-records annex Grimey's Too. "And I'm referring to its constant sales year after year, no matter what other trends are coming and going. It just never stops. It's always in our best-sellers of the year vinyl chart, pretty much every year we've been in business."

According to a master-release document recently posted on Facebook by NMH's label — heralded North Carolina indie Merge Records — the album was originally expected to sell about 5,500 copies on CD and 1,600 on vinyl. Since its release, Aeroplane has sold nearly 400,000 copies (that's according to recent Nielsen Soundscan numbers), with half of those sales having taken place over the past decade — a decade that, as we all know, saw a drastic decrease in physical-album sales.

So what makes Aeroplane such an important touchstone for so many people? What keeps people buying it, and how have Neutral Milk Hotel tickets sold out — far in advance, in most cases — in market after market now that the original NMH lineup is touring for the first time since 1998?

Part of the answer is, of course, mystique. When Mangum retreated from public eye after a Neutral Milk Hotel performance on Jan. 31, 1998, at Athens, Ga.'s 40 Watt, he earned cult status. "And inside the myth machine, an alternate version of Jeff Mangum was constructed and given breath," writes Kim Cooper in her installment on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea for the 33 1/3 book series. "This Bizarro World Jeff was a crazy recluse, a Syd Barrett for the late '90s. Fans who had found themselves deeply moved by Neutral Milk Hotel music felt personally betrayed by Jeff's refusal to do the obvious and follow In the Aeroplane Over the Sea with another album, another tour, another round of conversations with the press."

Fans tracked Mangum's movements as if he were Sasquatch. When R.E.M. offered Neutral Milk Hotel an opening slot on their tour in 1999, he declined. In 2001, Mangum released Orange Twin Field Works: Volume I, a collection of folk music he field-recorded (he didn't play himself) at a Bulgarian music festival. He granted an interview to Pitchfork in 2002 in which he stated that he "kind of doubted" there would ever be another NMH release. Later that year he hosted nine episodes of a show under the name "Jefferson" for free-form New Jersey radio station WFMU — he played tape loops, sound collages and other recordings. He popped up on releases by his friends and fellow members of the Athens-based indie-music collective Elephant 6. But for years, a simple message remained on Neutral Milk Hotel's official website: "Jeff has been working on a collection of short stories. He also just joined the circus and wants to make a movie about snails." Some fans took the statement more seriously than others.

Mangum's mystique was secured. His very image was as romantic as Aeroplane itself — that collection of songs inspired largely in part by Anne Frank and full of deeply poetic imagery. And slowly but surely, he began to creep back into the limelight — a benefit compilation album here, a Brooklyn loft show there, and then performances for Occupy Wall Street protesters and more, all building to a 2013 announcement that he and his fellow bandmates would return for a proper tour.

Of course, neither Mangum nor his bandmates are granting interviews. They aren't even providing press tickets or permitting photography at any of the shows on the tour — a tour that sells itself out and neither needs nor desires any attention from press is as much a dream come true for publicists as it is a bugbear for us journalists. But a look at recent set lists reveals that most nights, NMH is playing all but one song from Aeroplane, plus several tunes from their debut LP On Avery Island and some deeper cuts. No new material; just the songs that these fans fell in love with more than a decade-and-a-half ago.

And that's just it. The mystique wouldn't be what it is without the music, and the music wouldn't be what it is without this mysterious figure at the center of it. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a record that is as beguiling and otherworldly as the story behind it — a perfect recipe for the Dark Side of the Moon of indie rock.

Email Music@nashvillescene.com.

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