Out of the Shadows

Jeff Mangum to play Phoenix Theater

When Jeff Mangum steps out on to the stage of the Phoenix Theater on April 9, it won’t just be another show for the history books. It’ll also be a minor miracle.

That’s because for years, Mangum, frontman and genius behind the universally revered band Neutral Milk Hotel, seemed to disappear almost entirely. He stopped making music. His label, Merge Records, dutifully denied requests for interviews. Rumors swirled of his alleged mental problems, his presumed agoraphobia, even his possible death.

Over this 10-year span, Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1997 masterpiece In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, at first a cult record, enjoyed exponentially increasing sales and turned into a signpost for a new generation. With the instrumentation of Love’s Forever Changes and the lyrical density of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and using the story of Anne Frank as a rough thematic guide, the album routinely shows up on top-selling vinyl lists, on “most influential albums of all time” lists, on “Best Albums of the 1990s” lists.

What did Mangum do to promote it upon its release? After a modest tour, Mangum, feeling the mounting pressure of fame, faded away. For a long time, all anyone knew was that he’d gone overseas and captured field recordings of native folk music in Bulgaria. It only added to the mystique.

Mangum’s is the type of story that Searching for Sugarman–style filmmakers salivate over, that rock journalists love, that fans frustratingly try to comprehend. Then, in 2008, it was almost as if the pressure of being a mythic reclusive became greater than the pressures of fame. Mangum started performing as a guest musician for other bands. Finally, at a show in Kentucky, he led the audience outside the venue, down the street to a nearby field and, with some former Neutral Milk Hotel members, played In the Aeroplane‘s “The Fool,” outside in the nighttime air. It was the first Neutral Milk Hotel performance in 10 years.

Over the next few years, Mangum popped up more often—at other bands’ shows, at benefits for sick friends and, most famously, at the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park. Slowly, he began touring, but remained wary of the attention. At a show in Oakland last year, he walked onto the stage and silently motioned for people to put down their cameras and phones; amazingly, they complied.

Three things can be expected of Mangum’s show in Petaluma. One, tickets will go quickly. Two, people will sing along, loudly. But mostly, Mangum will dazzle the faithful who spent 10 years believing.