Shortly after the 1998
release of Neutral Milk Hotel's second and most fully-formed album In an
Aeroplane over the Sea, bandleader
Jeff Mangum very nearly disappeared, breaking up his band and retreating from
public life. One fears that he fell into the psychosexual whirlpool described
by the album, which moves from child abuse to declarations of Christian faith,
from semen-stained mountaintops to blood-stained battlefields, all set to a
then-unique low-fi kitchen sink approach that saw a marching band (euphonium
and flugelhorn on the front line) smashing into a thrift store wall laden with
zanzithophones and broken Casios.
Regardless of what Mangum's
been up to during this past decade — and he's emerged at times, including
earlier this year, to play benefit shows or put out ethnographic sound collages
— he left a record that's grown in stature and estimation without his
presence. And most fans of the album have never had a chance to hear the band.
So along comes Shawn Fogel,
who usually performs as Golden Bloom. Fogel got a crazy idea when
contributing to the Beatles Complete on Ukulele project — which is what
it sounds like, an ambitious program to arrange every Beatles original for
"Having seen it work, I
wanted to do that on my own in a little different way," he told NUVO during a
recent phone interview. "I talked about it as half a joke..." It being the idea
of performing In an Aeroplane over the Sea on ukulele.
"I saw the ukulele as the
perfect vehicle for stripping it down. The ukulele is close enough to the
guitar; it's not like we're doing this whole album on Theremin and euphonium
and tuba." And not only that, but, "People are naturally drawn to the ukulele:
It's cute, it's tiny, it sounds nice." And it lends itself to singing along.
He and his cohorts (on
melodica, baritone uke and trumpet) premiered their live re-creation of In
an Aeroplane in May, performing as Neutral Uke Hotel. They then took the show on two two-week tours, the second of
which will stop by LUNA Music on Monday afternoon, for an in-store squeezed
between a Sunday night show in Madison, Wisc. and a Monday night stop in
Fogel first heard In an
Aeroplane about eight years ago, a
couple years after it had come out and the band had ceased to exist. "I was
even more into it because of the fact that I missed it. I thought now this is
it; it's an artifact of what once was." And others share his interest:
"Everyone seems to have it in common. Even if the music they like or they make
doesn't necessarily remind them of this album, it's still a common factor."
He notes that fans sing along
through the album's darkest parts, including the opening song, "The King of
Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1," which includes brutal lines sung in Mangum's almost
keening voice: "And your mom would stick a fork right into daddy's shoulder /
And dad would throw the garbage all across the floor."
"People still feel a
connection to the music even through the uncomfortable feeling it can create,"
Fogel explains. "It was a little disarming to have people belting out
everything. But people like dark, troubling music, and it doesn't necessarily
evoke those emotions."
Fogel and his bandmates, who have never met Mangum, aren't immune to the reclusive bandleader's mystique. And they've had fun with it. "The joke that we had to amuse ourselves during
this last tour is that we would put Jeff Mangum's name on our guest list, to
see if we could make whoever was working the door at the venue freak out a
little bit. And it worked once or twice! But the joke got old for us very
quickly, especially in New York, where people take things very seriously
While the Neutral Milk Hotel's fanbase has enthusiastically received the project, even the indie rock cognoscenti on Brooklyn Vegan gave Neutral Uke Hotel something of a pass. "If you read the comment section on any post [on Brooklyn Vegan],
it's so brutal — people just rip things to shreds in the most cynical
way...The best thing that happened to us was that the very same day, the press
release went out for Amanda Palmer's album that she put out of Radiohead covers
on ukulele. And that took some of the cynical hipster heat off of us, and they
totally just lashed into her. The comments that this was even worse than that
Neutral Milk Hotel ukulele thing just made me smile in a sad, twisted way."
And as Fogel puts it, this project
is for the fans, and for those devoted fans that will take off work to sing
along to an indie rock classic. "The haters they sit in front of their computer
and they hate online. But everyone who comes out has just been so exuberant and
happy to share this music with someone else."
A June 18 NXNE performance of "Holland, 1945" by Neutral Uke Hotel at the Painted Lady in Toronto.
"King of Carrot Flowers, Part 1" promotional video.