There are certain artists that influence your life and your writing and your style as a songwriter so much so that seeing them perform live seems like a dream that can never come true. This is especially the case when you are referring to Jeff Mangum, the extremely elusive genius behind Neutral Milk Hotel. During the past few years, he has played only a handful of shows in small venues that sell out quickly and don’t allow any photos or videos. Danny somehow got to see him a couple years ago in DC. In November I received the email that announced that Jeff would be playing the DuPont Theater in Wilmington and I couldn’t believe that he would be so close and I knew that I needed tickets. So. When they went on sale, I was in a parking lot in DC at my lunch break and somehow got through on my phone at 12:01pm to purchase 4 tickets via R5 Productions. It was exciting. It felt unreal.
I meant to write about this much earlier, but life. Anyway, I brought Erin, my brother Ben, and my cousin Kirk. There were many different types of people at the show. The DuPont Theater is beautiful. I have only ever been there before for theater productions though, not for a concert. The opening act, Tall Firs, was meh. Erin thinks that we could have done better, which could be true. They finished and the crew brought out a rack full of guitars and we waited for Jeff.
He walked on stage. The only girl I’ve ever loved was born with roses in her eyes / But then they buried her alive one evening 1945. This was happening live in front of me and it was something I never thought I would see and it was right there and it was amazing. Depressing tunes yelled beautifully into a crowd that mimicked horn parts and sang along to every single word. It was beautiful.
I only cover a few NMH songs, but I am always astounded by the stark simplicity of his writing and song structure. Jeff tells stories in a creative manner and weaves words together that you would never expect and somehow it all comes out sounding so…right. Even without the full orchestration and a backing band, Jeff was amazing just singing with one guitar. It’s all about the songs, not the production. Erin has recently gotten me into listening to Amanda Palmer a lot and her writing reminds me of Jeff as well. She says something in “Ukulele Anthem” (an awesome song) that really rings true to me in regards to writing folky-type music:
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“…and stop pretending art is hard
just limit yourself to three chords
and do not practice daily
you’ll minimize some stranger’s sadness
with a piece of wood and plastic”
When people ask, I say that I do not consider myself to be a musician. I enjoy playing music immensely, but I don’t know theory or techniques well like the people whom I consider to be proper musicians (like Erin and Em) do. For me, songwriting is my craft and I try to create stories and songs that are worth listening to. The chords that I play and what key I am in do not matter to me as much as getting into a listener’s head and communicating something with what I sing. Yeah. I’m not sure if I have explained this properly, but what I am trying to say is that I might never write something musically impressive, but I do hope that one day I can write songs like those on NMH records. Songs that are worth hearing and that people want to play along with and share with their friends and dream about seeing them performed live. That is all.
Two-Headed Boy, Part Two
Song Against Sex
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
The King of Carrot Flowers, Part One
The King of Carrot Flowers, Parts Two & Three
A Baby for Pree
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea