So Jeff Mangum played a bunch of Neutral Milk Hotel songs in a Bushwick loft on Saturday night, for a crowd of around 75 people, you not among them. The show was partly set up by Ba Da Bing Records guru Ben Goldberg, who has a lot of explaining to do, so we thought we’d reach out and (politely!) inquire about his guest-list machinations, why he tried to keep everyone from documenting it (only a partial success), and how life-altering an experience it was, exactly. Here are his thoughts/apologies.
Why didn’t you invite me?
I thought you said you were doing something totally awesome Saturday night and to not interrupt??
So how’d you set this up? Did he reach out to you? Did you approach him? Was Absolute Secrecy a crucial component of the deal?
I know Jeff from back in the days when I worked at Merge Records, and we’ve become friends over the years. The secrecy of it was really only to make sure it was a fun and relaxing atmosphere, not to be exclusive in any way.
Did you really invite 75 or so people to this ahead of time? How on earth did you manage to keep it a secret?
I invited people 24-48 hours before it happened. We put it together really quickly and last-minute. Again, the invites weren’t in order to make this a VIP event or anything. In fact, I tried to get real fans gathered, not your typical Who’s Who list for an unannounced show. It was easy to keep it secret, as I asked everyone coming if they would prefer a congenial atmosphere or a clusterfuck.
What did you think of the show itself? Was it as unforgettable as everyone on Twitter is probably imagining it was?
How could anybody go to a show like that and say it wasn’t super rad, incredible, unique, life-changing, birth-creating, eschatology-in-practice, etc.? In actuality, it was just a great show. The music was wonderful — both Jeff and Forma, who opened. The performance of the music was skilled, and it carried true emotional resonance. I can’t say it was anything more than that, but who needs more than that? I don’t go to shows to be touched by God’s Hand, I go to get wrapped up in the music and be taken in, and that happened here — no more and no less. Occasionally, I intend to smell rotted animal flesh and get pigs’ blood thrown on me (e.g. Watain at Santos, last Thursday), but that’s rare. I think going to something like this and hoping the feeling will rival your wedding day is blunting the true nuanced beauty of the experience.
So how did he look? Disheveled? Reclusive? Messianic? Or like pretty much any white dude hanging out in Bushwick?
I think you sat next to him on the subway this morning on the way to work. There are no lights shining out from his aura. He looks friendly and unassuming.
Did you tear up during “Oh Comely”?
I did not. It was the first song he played, and I think everyone was getting into listening mode while he played it. Actually, he has other songs I’m more likely to tear up listening to, like “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
Did he, you know, “hang out” afterward? Have a beer, sign autographs, mingle? Or did he just step back into a blinding beam of light and disappear?
It was more like the Transporter in Star Trek. He got wobbly, froze in place, and faded to static. Luckily, he reappeared about three feet away, which was fortunate, since he had to take his guitars home.
Last time he performed in New York, the crowd was super-intense — open weeping and so forth. Was there a particular air of reverence and awe, or was it more like a standard dude-with-guitar situation than you might’ve guessed?
A lot less intense. I think there was a lot of build up last time, a tremendous amount of expectation and hope and belief that what was about to happen would be a life-altering experience. This was so last minute that there was less anticipation in the room. I had a similar reaction to when I was a kid and saw Fred Gwynne walking his dogs on the NYC streets . . . “Hey! That’s Fred Gwynne! Neato!” If Gwynne had been dressed up as Herman Munster, I might have gotten a bit teary, especially if he launched into “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
Will we be seeing a lot of photos/videos/bootleg MP3s emerge from this, or did you threaten to kill anyone who made any attempt to document it?
Ha . . . I just asked that nobody photograph or document it. I mean, there’s something going on in front of you RIGHT NOW. Why would you want to look at it at any point through an iPhone screen? Wouldn’t the memory of the actual event be more gratifying than a crappy video/audio recording? I’m finding more and more that this applies to events in life in general, you know?
How do you know him? Are you friends? Given the myth, Jeff Mangum just doesn’t seem like someone that you just *talk to.*
His myth and his reality are not one and the same. I remember talking to a friend who met Jandek at one of those shows he did a few years ago, and said he was a soft-spoken and amicable guy. Not to be categorical, but those qualities seem to fit a lot of talented people who consciously turn away from spotlights.
Seriously, are all your friends who didn’t get invites super pissed at you? How did you go about picking the guest list?
I tried not to think about it too much. I mean, there’s no way I would remember to invite everyone in so little time. How many times have you had parties and then slapped your forehead because you forgot someone? My main goal was to get a group of fans who would appreciate the show, a highly varied group of fans. I wouldn’t say it was a small melting pot of America, but perhaps it was a melting pot of Bushwick . . . minus Hasidim representation?
So, Neutral Milk Hotel comeback album on Ba Da Bing in 2011, right?
As likely as Palin in 2012.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 6, 2010