Neutral Milk Hotel
|Origin||Ruston, Louisiana, U.S.|
Neutral Milk Hotel was an American rock band formed in Ruston, Louisiana, by musician Jeff Mangum. The band's music featured a deliberately low-quality sound, influenced by indie rock and psychedelic folk. Mangum was the band's lyricist, and wrote surreal and opaque songs that covered a wide range of topics, including love, spirituality, nostalgia, sex, and loneliness. He and the other band members played a variety of instruments, including nontraditional rock instruments like the singing saw, zanzithophone, and uilleann pipes.
Neutral Milk Hotel began as one of Mangum's home recording projects, and in 1994, he released the song "Everything Is" on Cher Doll Records. The single's exposure convinced him to record more music under this name, and in 1996, he worked with childhood friend Robert Schneider to record the album On Avery Island. The album received modest reviews, and sold around 5,000 copies. After the release of On Avery Island, Mangum recruited musicians Julian Koster, Jeremy Barnes, and Scott Spillane. Neutral Milk Hotel's second album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, was released in 1998, and received mostly positive but not laudatory reviews.
While on tour, the band's newfound stardom through the Internet had a negative effect on Mangum, and his mental health began to deteriorate. He did not want to continue touring, and Neutral Milk Hotel went on hiatus shortly after. During the hiatus, Neutral Milk Hotel gained a cult following, and the critical standing of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea rose tremendously. Several music outlets such as Pitchfork and Blender called In the Aeroplane Over the Sea a landmark album for indie rock, and one of the greatest albums of the 1990s. Many indie rock groups such as Arcade Fire and The Decemberists were influenced by Neutral Milk Hotel's eclectic music and earnest lyrics. Neutral Milk Hotel reunited in 2013, and underwent a reunion tour before another hiatus in 2015.
Neutral Milk Hotel was formed in Ruston, Louisiana in the late 1980s, as one of the many home recording projects of musician Jeff Mangum. The project was initially called Milk, and Mangum made the recordings while in high school. Early Milk recordings such as Invent Yourself a Shortcake and Beauty were circulated between Mangum and his friends Robert Schneider, Bill Doss, and Will Cullen Hart. The constant stream of cassette tapes from the four friends would eventually lead to the formation of a musical collective known as Elephant 6. They were not interested in trying to promote their music to record labels, and instead made the recordings for each other. When Mangum learned of another band called Milk, he changed the name of the project to Neutral Milk Hotel.
After graduating from high school, Mangum briefly attended Louisiana Tech University, but dropped out. He became a vagabond, and lived in cities such as Athens, Denver, Los Angeles, and Seattle. While living in Seattle, Mangum released the single "Everything Is" on Cher Doll Records, under the Neutral Milk Hotel name. The single's exposure convinced Mangum to record more music under this name. He met up with Rustonian musician Ross Beach, and the duo played for a nearly empty show in New Orleans. In this early version of Neutral Milk Hotel, Mangum sang and played the drums, while Beach played the guitar.
At the time, Mangum was also a touring member for the Apples in Stereo, a band that Schneider formed while living in Denver. The members of the Apples in Stereo wanted to sign with SpinART Records, and met with their legal representative, Brian McPherson, in Los Angeles. McPherson was drawn to Mangum, who was wearing a Shrimper Records T-shirt. After learning that Mangum wrote "Everything Is", a song that McPherson had previously listened to and enjoyed, the two worked out a legal agreement for McPherson to become Neutral Milk Hotel's representative. McPherson sent copies of "Everything Is" and another song "Ruby-Bulbs" to Merge Records founders Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan. The two liked the music, and added Neutral Milk Hotel to their roster.[a]
On Avery Island
Mangum moved to Denver to record the first Neutral Milk Hotel album, On Avery Island. Schneider served as the producer, and the recording sessions lasted from February to May 1995. Although Schneider was interested in an expansive Beatlesque production, he aligned with Mangum's preference for a lo-fi sound, admitting that "at first it was frustrating, but I came to enjoy it. That's how I learned to produce, doing that record, because I totally had to let go of what I thought it should be like." Mangum wanted to record the music on a 4-track machine, so Schneider used a 4-track reel-to-reel machine.
On Avery Island was released in the United States on March 26, 1996, by Merge Records, and in the United Kingdom on September 30, 1996, by Fire Records. It sold around 5,000 copies, which Merge considered a success. On Avery Island received positive reviews from critics, who characterised the music as lo-fi pop. Kurt Wolff of the Houston Chronicle described listening to the music as "a trippy experience," and ultimately called the album "a fresh, exciting standout." The British publication NME wrote: "Neutral Milk Hotel can convert miserable-as-sin introspection into folky mantras that bore into your skull like a well-aimed power drill." On Avery Island was ranked at number thirty-five on the The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll for 1996.
Expansion to a quartet
After the release of On Avery Island, Mangum sought other musicians to tour with. While living in Ruston, Mangum befriended New York musician Julian Koster. They exchanged demo tapes, and Koster joined Neutral Milk Hotel as the bassist. Around this time Koster received a letter from Chicago drummer Jeremy Barnes, who wrote how he felt he was being led down a different life than he was supposed to live. The letter resonated with Koster and Mangum, and they traveled to Chicago to meet him. After a short audition, the two asked Barnes to drop out of DePaul University and join the band, to which he agreed. The final band member came when Mangum was traveling to New York City to live with Koster. While on a stop in Austin, Mangum met former Rustonian musician Scott Spillane, who was working at a pizza shop. Mangum helped make pizzas during the late-night "drunk rush", after which he convinced Spillane to join the band.
The band members moved to New York City, and lived and rehearsed in a house owned by Koster's grandmother. Koster encouraged the band members to play instruments outside their comfort zones. For example, drummer Barnes learned to play the accordion, and Spillane learned how to play the horn parts from On Avery Island, practicing on a two-valve horn for hours every day. On July 1, 1996, Neutral Milk Hotel began a national tour, during which the band members learned to play as a unit. The On Avery Island tour generated enough money for the band members to afford to move to Athens, where a large group of Elephant 6 musicians were living. By the spring of 1997, Mangum had written and demoed nearly every song for a second album. He shared the demos with his bandmates before they moved to Denver to record the album.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Neutral Milk Hotel's second album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, was produced by Schneider, and was recorded from July to September 1997. Schneider worked with Mangum to improve upon the lo-fi sound of On Avery Island, in particular with new recording techniques. Mangum liked having a layer of distortion over the music, but Schneider could not afford standard effects equipment such as Big Muffs or distortion pedals. Instead, Schneider used heavy compression and placed a Bellari RP-220 tube mic pre-amp close to Mangum's guitar. Schneider then ran the sound through a mixing console, and maxed out the sound on a cassette tape. This process was done for nearly every instrument used on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Schneider claimed that the nonlinearities of microphone distortion gave the album its unique "warm" quality.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was released on February 10, 1998. Merge pressed 5,500 CD and 1,600 vinyl copies, and expected sales to be similar to On Avery Island. These initial projections were correct, as the album sold moderately well for the first few months. Critical responses to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea were mostly positive, but not laudatory. Rob Brunner of Entertainment Weekly praised the unique instrumentation and "bouncy pop melodies", but described some of the acoustic songs as "lifeless acoustic warblers." Pitchfork's M. Christian McDermott also commended the music, which he called a blend of "Sgt. Pepper with early 90s lo-fi" that he found "as catchy as it is frightening." A more negative review came from Ben Ratliff of Rolling Stone, who felt the heavy layer of distortion masked the absence of decent melodies. CMJ New Music Monthly ranked In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as the number one album of 1998, and it placed fifteenth in the Pazz & Jop poll for 1998.
To promote the album, Neutral Milk Hotel embarked on a tour of North America and Europe. Musicians John Fernandes and Will Westbrook were brought on as touring members, and were taught how to play the horn parts with Spillane. While on tour, Neutral Milk Hotel gained a reputation for chaotic and physically demanding concerts. Great Lakes member Ben Crum recalled: "It was definitely dangerous. There often seemed to be a very real chance that someone, probably Julian, would get hurt. Jeff was always doing things like picking him up and throwing him into the drums." This caused some audience members to become scared of the band members. The band members would often ask some audience members if they could spend the night at their house without knowing the homeowner was in fact terrified of them.
Hiatus, and the cult following
Some journalists have noted the release of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea coincided with the rise of the Internet. The album, and by extension Neutral Milk Hotel, became common fixtures on online message boards, and early music websites like Pitchfork gave the band an increased level of promotion. Their newfound high-profile had a negative effect on Mangum. He became tired of touring and having to constantly explain his lyrics to fans, and his mental health began to deteriorate. Mangum came to the conclusion that he could not continue performing, and instead wanted to disappear from the public eye. Instead of telling the other band members of his decision, he simply avoided the topic of new music altogether. This led to the unofficial breakup of Neutral Milk Hotel shortly after the tour.
During the hiatus, Mangum occasionally worked on some projects, but nothing was widely publicized. When asked about a third Neutral Milk Hotel album in a 2002 interview, Mangum said: "I don't know. It would be nice, but sometimes I kind of doubt it." While Neutral Milk Hotel did not officially break up, during this time the other band members worked on music with other Elephant 6 bands such as the Music Tapes, the Gerbils, and A Hawk and a Hacksaw.
Fans of Neutral Milk Hotel were not told why the band went on hiatus. Some were angry, and accused Mangum of being selfish, while others perpetuated hoaxes around what may have happened. The large response helped Neutral Milk Hotel and, in particular, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea gain a cult following and converted Mangum into an almost mythological character. In 2003, Creative Loafing writer Kevin Griffis dedicated an entire cover story to trying to track down Mangum for personal closure. The search ended when Mangum sent him an email that read: "I'm not an idea. I am a person, who obviously wants to be left alone." Journalist Mark Richardson attempted to explain In the Aeroplane Over the Sea's rise in popularity: "Because [Mangum] was inaccessible, there was no outlet for connection other than the record itself and other fans who shared a passion. By doing nothing, Neutral Milk Hotel developed a cult."
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea's critical standing rose tremendously in the years after its release, which journalist Luke Winkie attributes to the cult following. Domino Recording Company released a reissue in 2005, which was awarded a perfect 10/10 score by Mark Richardson of Pitchfork. Richardson wrote: "It's a record of images, associations, and threads; no single word describes it so well as the beautiful and overused kaleidoscope." Other music outlets such as AllMusic and the Encyclopedia of Popular Music also gave the album perfect scores. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea's sales figures increased during the 2000s, with an estimated 140,000 copies sold by 2005. Fans of the album became incredibly passionate, recording covers for YouTube, writing poetry, and forming tribute bands. Polygon writer Garrett Martin said: "The fanbase might be relatively small, but it's fervent."
Mangum resurfaced in 2010 with a few solo shows, before embarking on full solo tours in 2011 and 2012. During this time, Mangum curated a box set of Neutral Milk Hotel material, which included an extended play of unreleased songs titled Ferris Wheel on Fire. As Mangum was active again within the music industry, rumors began spreading among fans and music outlets of a potential Neutral Milk Hotel reunion.
On April 29, 2013, Neutral Milk Hotel officially announced a reunion tour with all four members of the band. In an interview with Orlando Weekly, Schneider said: "[The hiatus] certainly wasn't purposeful, and I'm not sure [Mangum] even realized he was being a recluse until it was overwhelmingly the case that everyone was talking about it. I've known for seven years that he was going to start touring. I didn't know if he was going to actually start doing it, but I knew in my heart that he was working toward it." Neutral Milk Hotel toured from 2013 to 2015. In a 2014 post on the Neutral Milk Hotel website, the band members wrote how their 2015 tour would be their last tour for the "foreseeable future", and that they were going to take an extended hiatus. The post stated: "Dear friends we love you but it's time to say goodbye for the never ending now."
Neutral Milk Hotel was known for its experimental sound, which has been described as a mixture of indie rock and psychedelic folk, with deliberately low-quality production. Critics have also noted many other musical influences, including Eastern European choral music, Canterbury Sound, circus music, marching band music, musique concrète, drone music, free jazz, and Tropicália. Neutral Milk Hotel songs typically involved simple chord progressions that Mangum would strum on an acoustic guitar. As the song progressed, more instruments could be introduced. The members of Neutral Milk Hotel played a wide range of instruments; on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea for example, conventional instruments like drums and distorted guitars were paired with unique instruments like the singing saw, zanzithophone, and uilleann pipes.
Neutral Milk Hotel's early music was rough, and featured a considerable amount of distortion. Mark Richardson of Pitchfork believes Mangum's early songwriting was undeveloped, and described "Ruby Bulbs" as "raw and noisy and shouty and reflects Mangum's interest in aggro punk, an influence that didn't otherwise surface on his records." On Avery Island represented a move toward greater musical cohesion, and more experimentation. Critic Sasha Geffen said: "The album veers wildly between the accessible and the inscrutable ... the abrupt transitions between perfect pop melodies and gaseous balls of noise lend the album a certain wildfire charm." The most experimental song on the album is the final track "Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey's Eye," a thirteen minute drone track influenced by gamelan and noise music.
Many critics believe In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is Neutral Milk Hotel's best and most fully developed release. By this point, Neutral Milk Hotel had four members as opposed to just Mangum, which allowed for a more complex and organic sound. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea emphasizes structure and texture, and tracks seamlessly segue into one another. The musical tempo sometimes abruptly shifts from track to track. Rolling Stone notes the range of musical styles present on the album, such as funeral marches and punk rock. Critic Chris DeVille offers similar commentary, writing: "On the musical axis, Neutral Milk Hotel veered from piercingly intimate psychedelic campfire sing-alongs to full-band segments that barreled ahead with haphazard grace."
Mangum was the primary lyricist for Neutral Milk Hotel. His lyrics were surreal and opaque, and often featured a stream of consciousness style of songwriting. The lyrics would often include references to seemingly unrelated subject matter. Biographer Kim Cooper cites the song "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt.1" as an example of this style of songwriting. While the lyrics are about childhood fantasies, there are references to sexual awakenings, domestic violence, religious fanaticism, tarot card readings, and possible incest. Critic Jim DeRogatis described Mangum's lyricism as "Dr. Seuss illustrating William S. Burroughs, or perhaps Sigmund Freud collaborating on lyrics with Syd Barrett."
According to Mangum, many of his lyrics stem from his subconscious. "Some of it I don't understand, I don't know what it is, but it sounds real nice." Another source of inspiration were the visions, lucid dreams, and night terrors Mangum would have. Mangum would sometimes have full conversations between himself and Schneider while sleepwalking. After coming up with an idea for a song, Mangum would start writing "word bridges," which are small connecting ideas that would bridge the seemingly unrelated lyrics. Mangum cites the song "Two-Headed Boy" as an example, as each verse was written separately from each other over a long period of time, and he used the "word bridges" to connect the verses.
Neutral Milk Hotel songs explored many lyrical themes, including love, spirituality, nostalgia, sex, and loneliness. DeRogatis described Mangum's lyrics as a depiction of id, a personality component related to intrinsic desires. Mangum's lyrics can also be seen as a reaction to events that have happened in his life. For example, "Song Against Sex" was written as a reaction to the use of sex as a source of power in a relationship. A central lyrical topic in In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the life of Anne Frank, a teenage girl who died in a Nazi concentration camp. Tracks such as "Holland, 1945" and "Ghost" incorporate elements of Anne Frank's life into the lyrics. As a result, some listeners have labeled In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as a concept album. Frank's importance to the lyrics is a subject of debate however. Some critics argue she is merely an inspiration for some of the tracks, as opposed to an important character within a narrative arc.
Neutral Milk Hotel's live performances often featured the four main band members and several other musicians. For example, the reunion tour featured backing musicians Laura Carter, Jeremy Thal, and Mangum's wife Astra Taylor. Almost every musician on stage would play multiple instruments, and switch instruments between songs. Neutral Milk Hotel shows typically lasted between forty-five to ninety minutes. The equipment used onstage was cheap and of poor quality, although for the reunion tour more expensive equipment was used.
Early Neutral Milk Hotel shows were chaotic and disorganized. Butterglory toured with Neutral Milk Hotel in 1996, and member Matt Suggs recalled: "Mangum & Co were confused and disorganized and lovable." In these early performances, band members would wrestle and tickle each other on stage. During the In the Aeroplane Over the Sea tour, the audio technicians for most venues were confused and did not know what to expect. As a result, Carter took on the unusual role of "mix-board translator". According to Carter: "It was more like talking them through what was about to happen, because so much was happening onstage that without someone helping, it was a wail or squeal and the soundman would look at twenty instruments onstage and not know what to dive for."
When Neutral Milk Hotel disbanded in 1998, the subsequent cult following propelled the band into a new level of stardom, which led many fans and journalists to call Neutral Milk Hotel an important indie rock band. Mangum in particular is often the center of attention, as his reclusive nature drew comparisons to author J. D. Salinger. McPherson said "When [Mangum] sneezes it's on the front page of Pitchfork."
Much of Neutral Milk Hotel's legacy is derived from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which reached sales of roughly 400,000 by 2013. Music outlets such as Pitchfork and Blender have ranked it as one of the greatest indie rock albums of all time, as well as one of the best albums of the 1990s. Richardson noted that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has become ingrained in indie rock canon, and consistently attracts new listeners. Chris Morgan of Uproxx wrote: "In short, people share a very deep passion for Neutral Milk Hotel's highly lauded sophomore album ... Lots of albums are loved, but few seem to impact people so much, and so singularly." Morgan notes that due to the immense popularity of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, On Avery Island is sometimes forgotten about. "On Avery Island just sort of exists" said Morgan.
Neutral Milk Hotel has influenced many indie rock bands. According to Miles Raymer of Esquire, the band's cacophonous sound and earnest lyrics were in direct contrast to the underground music scene in the 1990s. While many groups focused on the theme of detached irony, Neutral Milk Hotel's abrasive and overtly emotional lyrics struck a chord with social outcasts. Groups influenced by Neutral Milk Hotel include Arcade Fire and The Decemberists, both of whom create psychedelic-folk inspired music with non-traditional instruments. Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler said that Neutral Milk Hotel's association with Merge Records was a contributing factor to their signing with Merge Records. Neutral Milk Hotel also influenced bands like Beirut, Bright Eyes, AJJ, Bomb the Music Industry!, The Lumineers, Okkervil River, and Pwr Bttm, as well as artists like Jeff Rosenstock, Melanie Martinez, and Amanda Palmer.
- Jeff Mangum – guitars, lead vocals, keyboards, bass guitar (studio only), drums (early) (1989–1999, 2013–2015)
- Julian Koster – bass guitar, accordion, musical saw, bowed banjo, keyboards, organ (1996–1999, 2013–2015)
- Scott Spillane – trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, euphonium, guitar, horn arrangements (1996–1999, 2013–2015)
- Jeremy Barnes – drums, piano, organ (1996–1998, 2013–2015)
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