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For a few precious months, Elephant 6 was the next big thing. Major labels began approaching both Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control, which Doss and Hart still captained.
"It was time for him to have photo shoots every week or get off the pot," Carter jokes. Mangum decided to stop.
After the final show in England, he shut down. Carter would go to work in the morning and come home and find Mangum just sitting around. She would ask him what he had done during the day, and he'd tell her "nothing." He meant it, literally nothing, not writing songs, not watching television, not talking on the phone, not playing video games. In 1999, he even turned down a slot opening for R.E.M. during the band's Atlanta dates.
Mangum became consumed with wingnut Art Bell's radio rants and the possibility of Y2K cataclysm. He argued vehemently against Carter even going out on New Year's Eve 1999. She still has bags of rice he was stockpiling on top of her refrigerator.
Carter believes it was a frightening time for him. Mangum spent days wearing the same shoddy house slippers, pacing back and forth between his home and a local Dunkin' Donuts.
When he would agree to be interviewed, which became more and more rare, he would make up whatever sounded the most fun when asked what he would be doing next.
"He didn't know," says Carter. Even when she's relating tough memories, she smiles perpetually and giggles out half her sentences, as if everything has achieved some ironic distance. "What is he going to say? 'Nothing. I'm going to shuffle back and forth between Dunkin' Donuts, scratching my ass and panicked'? You can't tell people that. Nobody wants to look like they're floundering and clueless about their future. It's a terribly scary place for him to be when he doesn't know when he'll get any inspiration again."
By August 2000, Mangum had split with Carter, and was unable or unwilling to write new music. He left America for the twice-a-decade Koprivshtitsa folk-music festival in Bulgaria, an event that Macha lead singer Josh McKay had touted to Mangum. The Bulgarian songs, which seem to come more from the nose and the throat than typical western styles, are a shared history and language of the Bulgarian people, who have been oppressed by a string of conquerors over the centuries. Though incomprehensible to those who don't speak Bulgarian, the music manages to convey a soulfulness that defies the language barrier. In many ways, the style evokes the penetrating quality of Mangum's own voice.
McKay and Mangum met at the festival to make field recordings of what they heard -- a gathering of thousands of Bulgarians from around the country to a small mountain town that had set up seven stages along a quarter-mile of the ridges surrounding it.
"It was intense," McKay says. "Because this isn't just like a flat surface where you can see each stage extending down the end of the range. It's up and down and sideways. He and I would literally pass each other in a sprint to get over to something we heard bouncing off the side of one hill over there, hence the tone of the recording that he put out, sort of this mad barrage of sound."
Mangum made a strangely hypnotic sonic document from his experiences there, which Carter put out through her label, Orange Twin Records.
But back from Bulgaria, he had a hard time finding a home. He kicked around Athens for a time and, according to Pitchfork, floated from project to project, constructing what he referred to in an e-mail message as "a simple life."
It may indeed be simple, but it's also been hard to trace. In trying to track him down through friends, I get the impression I've wandered into Wonkaville, only without the malice. One Mangum pal said he was in Nova Scotia, another said Arizona, still another said New York City.
"I was fairly convinced that he was taking a hot air balloon trip across the Atlantic Ocean, but I guess that's not the case either," Schneider says.
For a time, he did host a show for the non-commercial, freeform radio station WFMU in Jersey City, N.J. Under the name "Jefferson," he took a 3-6 a.m. shift and would literally play single keys of music for hours at a stretch.
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