If the name Jeff Mangum means anything to you, it probably means a lot to you.
Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is arguably one of the most influential albums of 1996-2011. Last month Pitchfork readers named it the No. 4 most influential album in that time period. The album directly above it? Arcade Fire’s “Funeral.” Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler chose Merge Records for his band’s label because it released “Aeroplane.”
Bon Iver, The Decemberists, Beirut, Franz Ferdinand: They’ve all cited Neutral Milk Hotel as an influence. The band has had a level of influence similar to the ’60s act The Velvet Underground, not a lot of people bought their records, but a lot of the people who did started bands.
“If it wasn’t for Neutral Milk Hotel, there wouldn’t be a Poison Control Center,” said PCC guitarist Patrick Tape Fleming. So it’s fitting that Fleming’s band will open for Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Mangum on Saturday.
The easy comparison to make to “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” Both in terms of its influence, but also the reclusive nature of both Mangum and Salinger.
Bands often tour on albums for years, but by the end of 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel was seemingly done. Mangum stepped out of the spotlight, emerging rarely for one-off shows and to contribute to NMH bandmate Julian Koster’s “Major Organ and the Adding Machine” and The Apples in Stereo’s “New Magnetic Wonder.”
Koster, who played the singing saw on “Aeroplane” and whose band The Music Tapes will also open the show, said the influence the album would have wasn’t evident while they were making it.
“In terms of making ‘Aeroplane,’ of course it felt very special, because every record we ever made felt special,” Koster said. “But there was no sense that it would end up at No. 4 on Pitchfork’s readers poll. I don’t think Pitchfork even existed, and something like Rolling Stone was way out of our league. We were never thinking in those terms.”
Koster said no one in the band knew Neutral Milk Hotel was ending. He said the members were all busy with other Elephant 6 Collective projects. There was no definitive breaking point. Mangum got married, various members of the band moved and it didn’t dawn on Koster that an end had occurred until he looked back on things.
“I don’t understand what happened or how it happened. It was not so much us, but other forces, weird life forces,” Koster said.
In 2008 Mangum played a few songs during Elephant 6’s Holiday Surprise Tour, and the next year he recorded a song for a tribute album to his friend, Chris Knox. In 2010 he played two more live shows.
But it was in 2011 that Mangum returned to full-fledged touring. He started a new website, walkingwallofwords.com and released a box set of Neutral Milk Hotel albums. A short tour in the fall sold out quickly, including a Minneapolis concert where 2,000-plus seats were sold in half an hour .
And now he’s playing Ames. It’s the first time Mangum has played the state since a Neutral Milk Hotel show in Iowa City in 1998. Just a few years ago many questioned if Mangum would ever play again, and a show in Ames seemed an even more impossible pipe dream.
“It feels like a return to normalcy,” Koster said of seeing Mangum on stage again. “The period when we were separated, that’s the thing that feels unnatural and weird in retrospect.”
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Ames City Auditorium, 515 Clark Ave., Ames
If there were an indie rock Mount Rushmore, I would put Jeff Mangum’s face on the mountain. But everyone’s choices would be different. I asked for reader suggestions on Twitter and got a wide variety of selections. Here are a few. You can share yours with me @JoeLawler.
@jerwin: “Frank Black, Michael Stipe, Morrissey, Kurt Cobain.”
@NateLogsdon1: “Jeff Mangum, Daniel Johnston, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed. That’s my vision of indie I guess!”
@ambersue02: “@LadyGrouplove, Black Keys, Jack from@OurNameIsFun and Florence Welch and @gracepotter (because she came to DSM and is awesome)”
@MLHoman: “Stephen Malkmus, Black Francis, J. Mascis, Ian MacKaye.”
@beckymollenkamp: “Ben Gibbard, Frank Black, Nick Drake, Ani DiFranco.”
@mikejcorey: “You’ve probably never heard of them.”