Jeff Mangum: Myth, mystery and enduring songs

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Neutral Milk Hotel

Neutral Milk Hotel, featuring (L to R) Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, Jeff Mangum and Jeremy Barnes. (Will Westbrook / January 30, 2014)

After a decade-plus hiatus that turned him into indie-rock's version of the prodigal son, Jeff Mangum is back, this time with a reunited version of his '90s band, Neutral Milk Hotel, for two sold out concerts next week at the Riviera.

Two years ago, Mangum played a well-received solo tour, the first time he performed an entire set of Neutral Milk Hotel songs in Chicago since 1998. In the time away, his two Neutral Milk Hotel albums, "On Avery Island" (1996) and "In the Aeroplane over the Sea" (1998), have only gained in stature and influence. They were once cult items that have since become regarded as touchstones for the next generation of earnest indie bands.

Just where Mangum went and what he did in the interim remains something of a mystery. Mangum himself has ignored countless interview requests, though he did respond to a few shouted queries from the audience during the first of his two shows at the Athenaeum Theatre in 2012 about where he'd been all these years. "Living with the love of my life," Mangum responded.

Mangum's childhood friend and frequent musical collaborator Robert Schneider of Apples in Stereo once described his hiatus this way: "He never fell out of touch with reality. He's more in touch with reality than most people. … 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."

In the early '90s, Mangum wasn't a myth, but a small-town kid looking for an outlet to express himself. He fell in with a handful of young music fanatics in Ruston, La., dedicated to combining the ambition and melodic flair of beloved albums such as the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" and the Zombies' "Odessey and Oracle" with punk-rock immediacy and cheap recording gear.

Though the stripped back "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" is widely regarded as Mangum's best album, I slightly prefer "On Avery Island," with its more ambitious production and surreal imagery. Soon after its release, Mangum provided a few insights into his upbringing in Ruston with Schneider and the members of Olivia Tremor Control – the core of what became known as the Elephant 6 recording collective.

Here are a few excerpts from that 1997 interview with Mangum:

On growing up in Louisiana: "We grew up together very sheltered. I decided at 10 I wanted to be in a band, everyone else wanted to play football. Robert (Schneider) had a tape he passed around junior high school; he was the only person I knew who could play guitar solos. We would get together, push 'record' on a jam box and make up pop songs with anything we had available. Sometimes we'd just rattle tin cans and sing harmonies. Robert was into psychedelia, I was into the Minutemen. Together we discovered 'Kraut rock' ('70s German art rock) and the darker side of psychedelia. A kid from New Orleans introduced us to his record collection. We were listening to John Cage when we were 10 years old. 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."

On his ambitions for a music career: "I went to Louisiana Tech, which is just down the road from where we lived. It was an easy college to get into. We spent most of our time there listening to records. We were desperate to get out of town and see the rest of the world. I went to Athens (Ga.) and stayed with Will (Cullen Hart) from the Olivias (Olivia Tremor Control), then to Denver to record the ('On Avery Island') album with Robert. I lived in his (6-by-6-foot walk-in) closet. Every morning, Robert would be rarin' to go. 'Let's go, we're making a masterpiece!'"

On the Elephant 6 recording aesthetic: "There is a whole aspect of freedom to recording at home that you don't get in a studio. 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."

On the island off the Louisiana coast that inspired his first album: "There's a giant Buddha encased in glass in the middle of the island. It made a huge impression on me as a kid, and I guess there's a spiritual aspect to the record because of it. 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."

On his hopes for Neutral Milk Hotel's legacy: "There's a reason why people listen to music. There's a reason why if you're bored you just may take $12 and spend it on a record. I do that a lot. I bring a record home and it connects with me like nothing else. In my ideal situation, somebody will do that with my record."

Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays on WBEZ (FM-91.5).

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Feb. 7

Where: Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine Ave.

Tickets: $36; jamusa.com

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