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In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

I spent most of yesterday evening curled up with Kim Cooper’s manuscript, with the album unhealthily loud in my headphones. The manuscript needs just a tiny bit of tinkering, but it’s going to be such a good book. It’s warm, charming, and inspiring: a great oral history of a remarkable group of people. Here’s an extract…

As if afraid or unwilling to slow down, Jeff fueled his creativity with cigarettes and endless cups of coffee from the Dunkin’ Donuts down the street, staying awake until dawn working and reworking the songs that would end up on In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. When he did sleep, strange things happened. Jeff was subject to night terrors, waking dreams and sleepwalking, and occasionally he would bring his housemates along for the ride. Laura remembers one night when “He thought that all these monks were coming in the house, and there were buckets of water, and he was trying to move these buckets out of the way because the monks were gonna spill them all over the floor. He’s jumping around, telling me, ‘The monks are here! You gotta get out of the house!’ I was sound asleep and I woke up. ‘Get out the window!’ And I got out the window! And I’m standing outside in my underwear in suburbia. And then I realized, god, he’s just dreaming, I better get back in there.”

Jeff’s favorite place to sing was in the bathroom—fortunately, the house had two—and nearly everyone who visited has stories of hearing Jeff’s booming voice and amplified acoustic strum from behind the closed door. Fellow songwriters marveled that he rarely seemed to write lyrics down, instead working out songs by singing them again and again until the words fell into a repeatable pattern. Ben Crum, from the Athens band Great Lakes, quotes his friend Louis Schefano, who Jeff once told that he almost felt like he didn’t write the songs that ended up on Aeroplane at all, “but that he had just channeled them from somewhere.”

In addition to the (relatively) conventional songs he was writing, or channeling, Jeff devoted considerable time to making tape loops in emulation of musique concrete composers like Pierre Henry. Ultimately, he chose not to release these recordings, although some of these would be played on Jeff’s show on WFMU that aired in 2002.

As a songwriter, Bryan Poole was fascinated by Jeff’s creative process. “I could tell when he would be pacing around the room that those songs would be so personal. They came from a space inside of him that he wasn’t even sure where it was coming from. He says he has these pieces, these film strips. A lot of the time I think he pieces together these things in his head that he sees.” Sometimes the music from the next room sounded so magical, Bryan idly thought about putting in a tape and hitting “play”—but it would so clearly be a violation of Jeff’s trust that he never acted on the idea.

Bryan was also curious to hear what the genius next door was listening to. He discovered that Jeff had a great, eclectic record collection. Pierre Henry was a constant, and Jeff liked to play and sing along to Neil Young’s song “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” probably the only mainstream music Bryan ever heard from his room. He’d play weird old Folkways ethnographic records, free jazz on Impulse, electronic music. And everyone in Jeff’s circle seemed to adore the Minutemen, that jazzy San Pedro punk trio who were as close as brothers, with an intense connection that must have seemed familiar to the Elephant 6 collective.

Drawing on years of compositions that were never recorded, or had only appeared on small-run cassettes, Jeff often took pieces of old songs and integrated them into new ones. Laura Carter would spot bridges written when Jeff was fifteen making their way into songs destined for Aeroplane. Even though this was his second formal album, there was such a huge backlog of material that there was no question of a sophomore slump.

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