April 4, 2018

Athens Reflects on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, 20 Years Later

Editor's note: This week's Flagpole cover features an "Art Decko" panel by artist Ashley Anderson, inspired by Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which turns 20 this year. Below, several musicians reflect on how that album has shaped their lives.

When I listen in to the fuzz and tape saturation, I remember so vividly my curiosity about recording, and the deep love and creativity I shared with my best friends in my old Denver studio, Pet Sounds. When you listen to that record, you are hearing an absolutely romantic experience taking place for the kids making it. We just loved each other so much, and trusted, and dreamed, and worried and debated together every day. From the front, it was a condemned building, boarded up and covered in graffiti; you had to enter from the alley. Inside, it was my lo-fi punk-rock dream studio that The Apples in Stereo shared with Jim McIntyre—basically a bedroom studio that grew to fill a whole building, covered in giant Steve Keene murals. I remember the stream of visiting travelers who played, crashed and four-track recorded in every room, and outdoor cookouts with The Minders (we shared a dodgy, secluded rear parking lot with their duplex). It was pure friendship and maximum creative ambition. We wanted to make an album that sounded unlike anything ever made before, with deep feelings and an experimental aesthetic. Jeff [Mangum] had all these beautiful songs, and the band was so raw and frenzied and wild. As a producer and home recordist, I sincerely believed we could capture our love and joy and pain and honesty on magnetic tape in some sort of mystical/psychic way, and that other kids our age would feel that, and would understand us, and feel comforted. [Robert Schneider, producer]

The first time I heard Aeroplane, I was driving to Mitch Easter's studio in Kernersville, NC to mix Son Volt's Wide Swing Tremolo. A solo car trip is one of my favorite listening environments to dig into something new. It is just magical when the record turns out to be one as great as this one. It has always been a special one to me, truly deserving of the acclaim heaped upon it. [David Barbe]

The first time I experienced Aeroplane was with my dad in the car. When “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2–3” came on, I remember him looking at me and saying, “This is sacrilegious.” I don’t know/care if he meant it. I initially listened to it after that as an act of rebellion, but my ass was the first one in tears when I saw them at the Tabernacle when they started playing shows again. [Sebastian Marquez, Dead Neighbors]

Listening for the first time many moons ago, I felt an instant connection to something big right away. What exactly that something was, I really didn’t have the right words for at the time. I am not sure that I do now. With unusual sounds and characters that move on an otherworldly trip through a Narnia-like place, I can see why it quickly gained a cult following. There is a place during our personal growth from childhood to adulthood that people explore and try on different hats while looking for answers to who they are. I think it keys directly into that place. After I heard about the Anne Frank connection, I understood more. There are supposedly only so many root stories out there. I am sure a rescue fantasy is one of those. Haven’t we all thought about saving someone from a tragic fate who has a potential for unfulfilled and unrealized talents? Or thought about how history could be changed at certain points along the way where life paths diverge? I would like a crack at a journey through space and time myself. So, don’t try to break the spell by taking this record apart to see how it works. Just let the music wash over you until you get ripped out of your skin by Jeff Mangum loudly singing, “I love you Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, I love you, yes I do.” Then move on past and listen some more. [Vanessa Briscoe Hay, Pylon]

No other album has changed my life! It arrived in my life the year before leaving for college, and marked the clear delineation for me between by-the-numbers childhood and a blossoming adulthood that held music, loyalty to friends and DIY spirit as the highest marks of authenticity. The larger E6 movement taught me that waiting around is pointless when you have ideas and ambition: Grab those closest to you, in proximity or spirit, and get to it! Serendipitously, the first full-band Mothers performance was at Cloud Recordings Fest 2015, and there he was, Jeff Mangum himself, standing up front with his eyes closed, taking in the music and the atmosphere and generally scaring the pants off us, until we realized he's perhaps the kindest, most down-to-earth person to ever unwittingly hold that much influence. I still aspire to the creativity of NMH/E6, and count it as a real blessing the meaning it has brought to my life. I could go on forever about the production, arrangement, lyrics—my God. But what shines through most is the spirit. [Drew Kirby, Civils]

Once I was really able to listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, I was able to listen to music. All kinds of music. I became a musician when I was instructed by an album to explore concepts, to dismantle truths and to play around with two chords for eight minutes and 18 seconds. It only takes listening to the first track to be sucked into this album. Before this album, no one had posed questions and made statements about conflict and anxiety. I wanted to cry when I understood the lyric “each one a little more than he could dare to try.” Now, years later, I listen to this record and I feel an uplift. The uncomely among us can and do influence others to make better musical decisions, to live in a world that feels irreconcilable and to know that someone before us has felt something, anything at all, that may be more tantalizing and challenging than we could ever imagine. [Gresham Cash, Oak House]