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Making lemonade

May 25, 2010

Jeff Mangum is far from the only person I’m writing about, but he’s certainly among the biggest of names and, in what I’ve written so far, demands a lot of ink. At this stage, it is unclear whether he will talk to me on the record for this book, and as such I need to be prepared to write it without conducting an interview with him.

In general, this was the plan all along: it would be great if he’d talk to me, but I should write it under the impression that he won’t. Better to err on the side of pessimism. So far, that’s what I’ve done, and it has not been that difficult. At most of the key junctures of his part of the story, there were others present who can talk about the events firsthand, and I’ve found no shortage of people willing to talk about Mangum himself. Moreover, Mangum is just a part of the story. There are a lot of other people to write about, almost all of whom I have either already spoken to on the record or at least have a commitment to do so in the near future.

My worry at this point is that, while I can convey all the facts about Mangum without his on-the-record participation, it won’t be the same without direct quotes. This was one of the biggest flaws of the Aeroplane book: with people talking (and only praising and revering) Mangum and without any quotes from him, the book took on a funereal tone, as though Cooper was writing about a dead person. Though I obviously have great admiration for the people I’m writing about and especially for Jeff, I do not want to fall into the trap of lionizing or mythologizing them.

Fortunately, even if Mangum won’t talk to me on the record, he has still spoken to others. Though he’s always been a bit press-shy and hasn’t done any interviews in about a decade, he did do some back in ’90s. As I’ve been poring over the press clippings I got from Will Hart last week, I’ve come across numerous bits that I can work into the book somewhere. For example, here’s something Mangum said in a 1999 story for Magnet about the Olivia Tremor Control:

“I love the density of [Black Foliage]. I donated my sound library to Will for this record, so when I hear things like him playing the snare drum from when we were 14 years old and hear records skipping in my bedroom—or there’s a three-second snippet from the Synthetic Flying Machine, this band we had in 1991—it’s like a trip down memory lane.”

Obviously, an attribution like “Mangum said, in a 1999 Magnet piece” looks a bit different from “Mangum says,” but both go a long way toward establishing a more humanizing tone. Which is important when you’re writing about, you know, humans.

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