When last seen on stage in Chicago playing a full set, in 1998 at the late, great Lincoln Avenue club Lounge Ax, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum strummed his guitar so hard it appeared the strings and wood would shatter. He sang vivid stream-of-consciousness lyrics about surreal gardens, Anne Frank and God with eyes closed, as if reliving a religious experience. There was a ramshackle band behind him, and a rapt audience in front of him, but Mangum was so wrapped up in the music that he might as well have been the only person in the room.
Soon after Mangum would quietly withdraw from the music world. He had released two acclaimed Neutral Milk Hotel albums, “On Avery Island” (1996) and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (1998), and then … nothing. Until now, that is. Next week, Mangum will play two solo concerts at the Athenaeum Theatre as part of a small tour. Tickets for both shows – more than 1,900 in all – sold out in minutes. That’s an audience far bigger in size than the combined attendance at all of Neutral Milk Hotel’s previous Chicago appearances in the ‘90s.
Whether this marks the start of a full-blown musical comeback or is just a brief resurfacing isn’t clear. What’s undeniable is that Neutral Milk Hotel’s music has endured far beyond even Mangum’s expectations.
Mangum’s story starts in the small college town of Ruston, La., where he and three grade-school buddies started a record label they dubbed Elephant 6 in the early ‘90s and formed a trio of bands: Mangum’s Neutral Milk Hotel, Robert Schneider’s Apples in Stereo and Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart’s Olivia Tremor Control. All released remarkably vibrant albums that sounded nothing alike but shared certain characteristics. They all placed a premium on songwriting, ambitious if low-fi production, and the album as an art form – a sequence of songs that tells a larger story.
“It was kind of a society by invitation only,” Schneider once said of the collective, which soon inspired a raft of similarly inclined groups such as Elf Power, Beulah and Of Montreal. They recorded on four-track tape machines with a bevy of odd instruments and imaginations teeming with ideas inspired by the Beatles, Zombies and the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.” Mangum lived in a walk-in closet while recording “On Avery Island” with Schneider. The two jammed on toy organs, xylophones, guitars, drums, fuzz bass and bells, and then manipulated the sounds into collages as layered as Mangum’s kaleidoscopic lyrics. The album was inspired by an island off the Louisiana coast that Mangum used to visit.
"It made a huge impression on me as a kid, and I guess there's a spiritual aspect to the record because of it," Mangum told the Tribune at the time. "The album is a story but it doesn't have a beginning, a middle or an end. It's more like a little film in my head."
Mangum took that approach even further on “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” with songs delivered with evangelistic fervor over furious guitar strumming ornamented by flugelhorn, singing saws and shortwave radio transmissions.
Holed up together in their home studio in Denver, Schneider and Mangum tinkered round the clock until they had produced what would eventually become one of the most celebrated albums of the ‘90s.
“I’d wake him up every morning and say to him, ‘We’re making a classic album. Let’s get to work!’ ” Schneider once said.
"There is a whole aspect of freedom to recording at home that you don't get in a studio," Mangum said. "The possibilities are infinite and there is no reason not to explore them. So you wander into these dark areas, and there is a distinct possibility you could fall flat on your face, but that's the point: You don't have to worry about anything. You pick up your guitar and play something, then lay down a drum track, start overdubbing, slow up the tape, speed it up, play it backward, put on a trumpet. There are no limits."
But after touring behind “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” Mangum drifted away from public life. Schneider, his closest friend, was circumspect in interviews over the last decade about whether the world would ever hear from Neutral Milk Hotel again. But he firmly stated that Mangum wasn’t another rock casualty like Brian Wilson or Syd Barrett, artists who produced great work before suffering mental breakdowns.
“He never fell out of touch with reality. He’s more in touch with reality than most people,” Schneider said in 2007. “Barrett and Wilson had nervous breakdowns. Jeff has not had a nervous breakdown. He’s passionately on a quest of self-discovery … He wasn’t trying to be a rock star or make a living (from playing music). He was trying to find out about himself and about the universe. He’s a very sweet, gentle and extremely creative person. The content of his thoughts are the contents of most of our dreams.”
When asked if he thought Mangum would ever record again, Schneider was noncommittal: “He’s an artist and writer and he does many things. Music was just one of those things.”
But Mangum’s relationship with music was never a casual one. It may be the best way of understanding why he doesn’t feel the need to crank out an album every year on some artificial schedule or to meet the expectations of a fan base that has only grown larger and more passionate since his self-imposed hiatus began.
“We grew up together very sheltered," Mangum once told the Tribune of Elephant 6’s modest Louisiana origins. "There was no local club to play in or see bands. Music was this weird, otherworldly thing. It was almost magical -- and obviously it still is for us. I don't think we'll ever get old and jaded about it."
Neutral Milk Hotel: 7:30 p.m. Monday-Tuesday at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., $38 (sold out); Athenaeumtheatre.com.