Before Superchunk hit the stage of Graffiti Showcase in February 1998, a rag-tag group of musicians came and went from the stage, all based around a guy strumming a big hollow-body guitar. The instrumentation included a singing saw, accordion, trumpet and occasionally a drum kit, which took the folky music in a more rock direction. This was Neutral Milk Hotel, which released its sophomore album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, that month on Merge, Superchunk's label.
Unlike the power-chord-heavy indie rock that made up the bulk of the label (which then included Pittsburgh's Karl Hendricks), Neutral Milk Hotel's music came from some other world where folk music and lo-fi experimentation combined with a warped lyrical perspective. The result was hard to pin down, but fascinating nonetheless. If the musical shift wasn't exactly felt that night at Graffiti, it was clear these guys were charting some new path without inhibition.
Aeroplane went on to become something of an underground classic, compounded by the fact that Jeff Mangum — Neutral Milk Hotel's guitar-playing frontman — dropped out of music for all intents and purposes following its release.
Fast-forward to October 2008. Brillobox hosted the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour, with members of bands on that label-slash-collective (Elf Power, Olivia Tremor Control) taking turns playing each other's songs. Some participants mentioned that Mangum expressed interest in joining the show somewhere along the way.
"There were some rumors that he had played a show the night before [Pittsburgh] but no one could confirm that at the time," says Brad Hlavach, who booked the show for Opus One Productions. "Shortly after everyone loaded in and did soundcheck, Jeff showed up in his car. It was very low-key. He just strolled on upstairs."
While legend might have turned Mangum into something of a fragile Syd Barrett-esque artist, Hlavach remembers Mangum as quiet and down-to-earth, practicing in the bathroom before the show. The next morning, the two talked about the reaction to the two songs Mangum performed. "He was floored by the response and was very humble," Hlavach says. "And he said, 'I think I might start doing this again.' I told him, 'People would love that. Honestly, Jeff. That atmosphere was great last night. And if that's any indication of what the response would be for you, that's what you should do.'"
While he has begun performing again, mystery still surrounds Mangum. He doesn't do interviews. Photography and recording devices are not permitted when he performs, not even by the press. (A dark, sideways video of the Brillobox show can be found on YouTube, however.) But a November 2011 NPR story on a Mangum solo performance indicates that he has become fully recharged, even engaging the audience and encouraging sing-alongs with Aeroplane songs like "The King of Carrot Flowers."
During a Baltimore performance, NPR reported an audience member called out, "We missed you." Mangum, perhaps not wanting to dwell on the past, replied, "Well, we're together now, right?" All things considered, it seemed to be the appropriate response.