Dear Isaac Brock,

If memory serves, I believe my first listen of your music was the album This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About. I quickly backtracked and listened to anything else I could find. The ambiguity of your lyrics and dabs into harmony and discord simultaneously spun my head. I was mostly focused on hip-hop at the time, but when I heard the opening track, “Dramamine,” I was hooked. The guitar, percussion, bass, words—delivery of all was incredibly haunting, yet delightful. “We kiss on the mouth, but still cough down our sleeves.” I remember feeling the need to share the music with anyone who would give me the time of day, or night. The best thing about it being that no one could quickly categorize the style. The normal response was, “What kind of music is this supposed to be?” The construct and content of “Custom Concern” is a perfect example of comfortable melancholy. “The Fruit That Ate Itself.” “Bad breath talking about fresh rain…Are you going to get sick worrying about your health?” It’s the visual of so many lyrics that pop up like an ouroboros that keeps me, to this day, looking for your next utterance. “Talking Shit About A Pretty Sunset.” I don’t even listen to that anymore because my friends and I played it to death. However, it is wonderful, and exists because you put it out there. Thank you!

Continue to The Lonesome Crowded West. That album caught everyone worth speaking to that I knew at the time. Sometimes a person can portray the consciousness of a massive group of people, be it niche or not, surprisingly swiftly; congratulations. I don’t much care about intent or directive when it comes to artistic output, to me it’s all excrement; in that it is our digestive bi-product of the elements we are exposed to. “Absence versus thin air.” That sounds very disheartening, absurdist, etc. But lovely in the fashion of the music that surrounds it. “Convenient Parking” still sounds relevant. I can remember reading things about convenience, rather than necessity, being the mother of invention around this time (1997). Anytime anyone hears that someone else feels the same way, timely, and coming out of speakers – gold. Sifted through the music stream and found you. Forever grateful. Looked further into K Records and Up Records at the same time thanks to your work. Built To Spill, 764-HERO, etc. I probably never would have ventured.

To The Moon & Antarctica. I received this on cassette before it was properly released, and can’t believe that it didn’t break from being passed around like a two nickel lover. Blank cassette with some random labels and stickers on it, handwriting from a good friend, icing on a cake. I didn’t even need to see album art for this. I felt like someone had just given me the best present in the entirety of the planet. Upon listening, holy expletive words. I still love this. Some people, of course, think this is where the band took a negative, commercial approach. Watching people eat cake is hard when you’re starving, I’ll say that.

Obviously your band has grown and developed a larger audience. Rightfully, in my opinion, or IMHO. I still hear “Well, it took a lot of work to be the ass that I am…” and get shivers of comradery. Change personnel all you want; love will always be with you, Eric and Jeremiah!

Dan

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

The Fruit That Ate Itself

Talking Shit About A Pretty Sunset

Dark Center of the Universe

Dear Jeff Mangum,

It was Seattle 1999. Many days of rain and clouds led me back to the video store down the street from my house (they still existed then!). My love for film led me to bump into a fellow film and music obsessive who at first I called “video store boy.” As video store boy and I also both frequented a place called Cranium—a coffee house, another Seattle survival tool—we discussed films and then started to swap mixed tapes (yes these still existed then too!).

Geeking out over lattes and comic books and old-school toys at Cranium, I was handed the first mixed tape, and heard your song with Neutral Milk Hotel, “Oh Comely” off your album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. When you sing, “Thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums / The music and medicine you needed for comforting” it speaks to me of the time I saw you play live.

Fast forward to 2013—where my family and I lived and still live in Oakland, CA—when after a long hiatus (I thought I would never get to see you play) you announced the tour and your reunion with Neutral Milk Hotel and I saw you sing your heart out at the Fox Theatre. The words of “Oh Comely” literally came alive for me as the theatre was transformed into a psychedelic-indie-folk-punk church with everyone singing, crying and laughing in utter joy.

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It is so cliché, yet it was one of the most musically spiritual moments of my life. I felt I somehow knew everyone in the audience and I knew you too. To hear your raw, shaky, soulful, authentic voice filled with melancholy, hope and wisdom in real-time instead of on our record player at home or in the dark, damp basements of Seattle was a dream come true and a checked off box on my bucket list. Thank you Jeff for following your creative darkness as well as your creative bliss to flourish back in Ruston, Louisiana.

Backtrack again to the late 90’s in Seattle, as I struggled to get through school and find my place 3,000 miles away from my family in the never ending grey skies, your music was a golden thread to validation for being outside the box, for being able to see the deep, dark beauty of the world and for it to be okay.

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After playing your music on long road trips with my husband, he also became a convert. When I had the flu and gave his best friend my ticket to see you in Neutral Milk Hotel instead of solo, I knew he would represent my devoted love at your concert. My husband and his friend still talk about the amazing synergy of the horns (bagpipes too), the vocals, the audience love, the “thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums” to this day. They were so grateful for the introduction to your music.

I still am holding out to see you in Neutral Milk Hotel as part two of my bucket list. Please, please come back to the Fox Theatre in Oakland. I feel you may have gone back into your bear cave which I understand of course. How else could your brilliant lyrics be written? As in “Someone Is Waiting” on the album On Avery Island; “Someone is waiting to swallow all the halos out of you / As your face blows / Through my windows / Sending pieces flying all around the moon / And I love you / And I want to / Shoot all the superheroes from your skies / Watch them bleeding / From your ceiling / As their empty anger falls out from their eyes / All alone….” I know you need to continue to create yet I beg you don’t stay in your cave too long. Please don’t sequester your magic alone anymore, share it with the world and know you are loved.

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You’ve even touched the heart of my five year old son Kirin. He heard “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One” come on today and he jumped up, left his Legos (what!?) and began to dance. After twirling and spinning and making up cool dance moves, we had a beautiful mother-son dance inspired by you. My nine month old Saoirse claps and smiles with her two teeth which is her way of saying “Keep on keepin’ on.” And as they say out here in Oaklandia, “You are my spirit animal Jeff Mangum!”

Your obsessed fan and admirer forever,
Heather

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Someone Is Waiting

Tip 1) Listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea from start to finish as it is a reflection on the Diary of Anne Frank. The album tells a haunting and creative story that is illuminated listening from the beginning to end.

Tip 2) Neutral Milk Hotel Pandora station is really enjoyable as you will deliciously swim in the sounds of Elliott Smith, Jose Gonzales, The Shins, Violent Femmes and so forth…

 

Dear Ben Folds,

There was a time—months—where I couldn’t get through The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner without crying. As a junior in college, there were several things I couldn’t get through without crying back then (the angst of puberty hit me very late—I needed your “punk rock for sissies” very much in 1999), but nothing really got me going like that album. I’d put it on in my bedroom while I attempted to write a paper, but the by time “Mess” was transitioning to “Magic,” I’d have my head down on my desk, sobbing quietly so my roommate wouldn’t hear me. You sounded so sad—my friends and I would say to each other, “Ben’s not okay,” our eyes bright with worry. You were simply “Ben” to us by then; we had all dispensed with formalities.

It feels like you’ve always been there as the background soundtrack to my everything, but there is a very bright line between Before Ben Folds (BBF; 1978–1996) and After Ben Folds (ABF; 1997–?). The first of your songs I ever heard was, like a lot of people, “Brick,” which was released right around my 19th birthday, and I have to be honest: I didn’t love it. A freshman in college, but not yet quite given over to the indie rock nerd I would become, I listened to the hard rock station in Pittsburgh almost exclusively and groaned every time your sad, slow song came on. Was it about abortion? Maybe? Did it matter? I didn’t know. Over Thanksgiving break, I went back to work at the flower shop where I spent most of high school working, and the most unlikely person answered those questions for me. My boss’ boyfriend Jim, a big lovable guy who listened almost exclusively to classic rock, defended “Brick” to me when it came on the radio. Fifteen years older than me, maybe the lyrics hit him in a place I couldn’t yet fathom. Or maybe he just had better taste. Whatever it was, Jim made me take a better listen to you. Thanks, Jim.

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I don’t remember when I bought my first Ben Folds Five album, and I can’t remember if I bought Ben Folds Five or Whatever and Ever Amen first, but it doesn’t really matter because I fell in love with you head over piano-rock heels. By summer 1998, I was watching you at the Y100 FEZ-tival in Camden, NJ, completely mesmerized as you slammed your piano/drum stool, against the front of your piano, hitting the keys so hard at the end of “Jackson Cannery” that all 10 years of piano lessons in me winced. You were an animal that warm Sunday afternoon in June. I loved it.

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I fell for you all over again when you released Rockin’ the Suburbs. Oh, I mourned hard when I heard that Ben Folds Five had broken up. But then! Then there was this gift of your solo album and suddenly it was all going to be okay. I think I listened most obsessively to this one; to me, it represents growing up in so many ways. I had just graduated from college and was working at my first of many dead-end jobs, living with the man who would become my husband. Rockin’ the Suburbs was released on September 11, 2001—do you ever think about that? At first I had to make myself listen to the CD, pull myself away from the news and conspiracy theories on the internet, but it became a balm of sorts to me during that time, those first notes of “Annie Waits” ringing out and lifting me out of whatever funk I found myself in. You sounded so much happier on this album; I was happy for you. It seemed like you were maybe finally settled, wife and kids. I felt myself sliding into that stage of life as well. Four years later, my husband and I had our first dance at our wedding to “The Luckiest.” We sang “Still Fighting It” as a lullaby to both our sons when they were babies.

As with all love stories, there are ups and there are downs—I don’t have to tell you that, do I? Has anyone ever taken you to task over “Bad Idea?” It’s the only song of yours I refuse to listen to and won’t let my kids hear. The R-word, man. Why? I get that it was 1996 and things were different, but even when I first heard the song during that wretched movie it was in I cringed. Now, as a parent of a kid with special needs, I just can’t even, you know? I once interviewed Adam Horovitz when he and Amery Smith were touring as BS 2000 and asked him what he thought about all the misogynistic lyrics the Beastie Boys wrote. It wasn’t a terribly original question, but he still answered it passionately, saying he was embarrassed by his younger self and regretted those songs and that they would never perform them live again. I don’t think you perform “Bad Idea” anymore but have you ever been asked about it? What would you say?

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Ben, I feel like you and I have grown up together, despite you being 12 years my senior. I haven’t even gotten to your other solo albums or the recently reunited Ben Folds Five record (record! Good work, you!), or So There (I’m getting into it…slowly) or your TV appearances (bad fan; I haven’t really watched much). Your music has matured as you’ve gotten older—the last time I saw you play it was in front of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (it certainly made me feel mature watching that performance), and I recently watched an interview with you on CBS’ Sunday Morning (because I’m at a stage in my life where I religiously watch CBS’ Sunday Morning)—but it always manages to weave itself into my life in ways the girl who hated “Brick” could never have imagined. Thanks for being with me all these years.

With love,
Jenn

P.S. I once watched a karaoke DJ in the Denver, Colorado suburbs absolutely and un-ironically kill it on “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” You know that growly part at the end? He was the embodiment of it. I think you would have loved the whole thing.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

Underground

Mess

Still Fighting It