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Have you seen Jeff Mangum? 

Neutral Milk Hotel's bandleader built a faith on the transcendent power of music. Then, when he needed it most, he gave up on it.

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Ruston is a sleepy burg of about 20,000 people, just off I-20 in the northern part of the state.

Twenty years ago, the city wasn't much different. Mangum was trying out for a junior high football squad. So was Will Hart. "Neither one of us found it very interesting," Hart says now. "We were the ones lagging behind." So they quit. Mangum had a drum kit, Hart a guitar.

Mangum, Hart and Mangum's grade-school friend Robert Schneider hooked up with Bill Doss, who was a few years older. Stuck in Ruston, the closest the four could get to any underground rock scene was Louisiana Tech's radio station, where they pushed to work when they were still in high school in the late-1980s.

"We were like, 'Look, we don't have that many friends ... Can we maybe come up here and do a show?'" Hart says.

The station opened up the underground rock scene to them. "We'd spend hours and hours just going through the records and pulling things out and going, 'God, this looks great! I want to hear this,'" Doss says. The four refined their tastes and discovered different musical directions. Hart rattles off the bands: the Zombies, Small Faces, Syd Barrett, Scratch Acid, Tall Dwarfs. Meanwhile, when bands came through Ruston, the four would put together opening acts with friends.

It was a classic creative pressure cooker. They did what groups of friends did in Athens in the early 1980s -- the same things that were happening in Minneapolis and Seattle.

Sealed off from commercial concerns, the teenagers were free to bounce sounds off one another's heads, support and shape the music their tiny community made. As far back as high school, they would spend nights making "records" for one another -- often just yelped onto hand-held cassette recorders. Onto each tape, they'd scrawl the phrase "Elephant 6."

"To me, it was a spirit thing, especially," Hart says of E6. "'Listen to the music inside yourself and don't give up.' It's real. A lot of people saw it as a logo or a catchphrase, and it was that, maybe. But it's more than that."

Much more, Mangum would explain in the Pitchfork interview. "When we started doing the Elephant 6 thing, we had a very utopian vision that we could overcome anything through music. The music wasn't just there for entertainment: We were trying to create some sort of change. We had a desire to transform our lives and the listeners' lives."

The four believed in Elephant 6 as an ethos, because even as they went separate directions -- Schneider to Denver, Mangum, Hart and Doss eventually to Athens -- they each formed bands and began making music. Doss and Hart formed Olivia Tremor Control with Mangum on drums. Mangum formed Neutral Milk Hotel, a name he created out of his old moniker, Milk Studios, with Hart and Doss rounding out the trio. Meanwhile, in Denver, Schneider formed Apples in Stereo and began putting out singles in 1993, through The Elephant 6 Recording Co.

And Mangum would soon leave Athens to join Schneider in Denver, camping out in a friend's walk-in closet near Schneider's home as the two recorded Neutral Milk's first album, 1996's On Avery Island.

It proved a record of pop promise, lyrics in streams of dark consciousness, Mangum's voice caught somewhere in the middle of the mix, jammed between fuzz bass and organs. A few critics caught on to it, most notably Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune who hailed Avery Island as one of the albums that made rock music matter in 1996.

Scott Spillane and I are sitting on the stoop of a house he's building for himself in Athens. Just yesterday, he'd cut open his right hand while he was building a shed in the front yard. Maybe that accounts for his dour mood, or maybe it's just the thousand mosquitoes, dive-bombing for blood and buzzing white noise around us.

Spillane is only 37, but his impossibly thick, gray beard -- red at the sideburns -- makes him look 20 years older. A Louisiana native himself, he first met Mangum in Ruston. They even played in a band together called Clay Bears. But it wasn't until their paths crossed in Austin, Texas, that Spillane became part of Neutral Milk's narrative.

At the time, Spillane worked the nightshift at a Gumby's Pizza and "sort of" lived in his van. "I was just getting by day to day," he says between chain-smoked Camels. "I didn't really think about it."

That changed one night in 1996, when Mangum came to tell him he was leaving for New York City to rehearse material for the Avery Island tour. He had already picked up multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster and drummer Barnes.

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