Neutral Milk Hotel
Neutral Milk Hotel
Neutral Milk Hotel performing in 2014
|Origin||Ruston, Louisiana, U.S.|
Neutral Milk Hotel was an American indie rock band formed in Ruston, Louisiana by singer, guitarist, and songwriter Jeff Mangum in the late 1980s. A part of the Elephant 6 Recording Company, the band was one of its three first projects, alongside The Apples in Stereo and The Olivia Tremor Control. The band is noted for its experimental sound, abstract lyrics, and eclectic instrumentation. The first release under the Neutral Milk Hotel moniker was the 1994 EP Everything Is, a short collection of tracks featuring Mangum. On the band's full-length debut album On Avery Island, which followed shortly thereafter, Mangum was joined by childhood friend and Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider, who contributed production and instrumentation. Upon the album's release, the full band was formed and extensive touring began.
Neutral Milk Hotel released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998, which became their best-known and most critically acclaimed album. Although the album did not meet commercial success at the time of release, it has gone on to sell over 300,000 copies and received critical acclaim from several publications, including Pitchfork Media, Magnet Magazine, AllMusic, and The Pazz & Jop poll. Despite growing popularity, the group disbanded in 1999 after Mangum became disenchanted with touring and the music press, later having a nervous breakdown. On April 29, 2013, the band announced a reunion tour for the fall of 2013 with the lineup that played on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea via their record label's website. After that, they continued to play concerts sporadically until going on indefinite hiatus in mid-2015.
Neutral Milk Hotel began in Ruston, Louisiana in the early 1990s, 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 the Elephant 6 music collective. 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 released "Everything Is", a song that McPherson loved, the two worked out a legal agreement for McPherson to become Neutral Milk Hotel's legal 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 on March 26, 1996, by Merge Records. It sold around 5,000 copies, which Merge considered a commercial success. On Avery Island received positive reviews from critics. Kurt Wolff of the Houston Chronicle described the music as "a trippy experience, at times downright crowded with noise," and ultimately wrote "the result is an album of luscious (and lustrous) pop music that's a fresh, exciting standout in the wide sea of lo-fi pop bands." The British publication NME called Neutral Milk Hotel a "Yankified lo-fi pop" band, and 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 Pazz & Jop poll for 1996.
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 their 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 to afford the band members 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. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea received positive reviews from critics. 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. Ironically enough, 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, 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 had not officially broke up, the other band members worked on music with other Elephant 6 bands in the interim, 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, 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. Mark Richardson of Pitchfork awarded the 2005 reissue a perfect 10/10 score, and 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 a tribute band. 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 is known for its experimental sound, which has been described as a mixture of indie rock and psychedelic folk, with lo-fi 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 revolve simple chord progressions that Mangum strums on an acoustic guitar. As the song progresses, more instruments may be introduced. The members of Neutral Milk Hotel play a wide range of instruments; on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea for example, conventional instruments like drums and distorted guitars are 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 album. 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 shift from track to track. Critic Chris DeVille wrote: "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 ... everyone bashing away with such rudimental force that the songs seemed ready to topple over at any moment."
Mangum is the primary lyricist for Neutral Milk Hotel. His lyrics are surreal and opaque, and often feature a stream of consciousness style of songwriting. The lyrics will 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 are the visions, lucid dreams, and night terrors Mangum would have. Mangum would sometimes have full converstations with himself and Schneider while sleepwalking. After coming up with an idea for a song, Mangum would starting 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 explore 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. Richardson says the imagery presented in In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is written with childlike wonder, in which mundane interactions are illustrated as fantastical moments.
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 broken, 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."
Neutral Milk Hotel's sound has influenced numerous acts, including Kesha, Bright Eyes, Melanie Martinez, mewithoutYou, Beirut, Pwr Bttm, and The Decemberists. Their songs have been covered by a number of artists, including Matt Pond PA, Eisley ("In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"), The Mountain Goats, The Dresden Dolls ("Two-Headed Boy"), Kevin Devine ("Holland, 1945", "Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two"), The Flowers of Hell ("Avery Island" / "April 1st"), Andrew Jackson Jihad (Two-Headed Boy), and Phoebe Bridgers ("Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2").
- 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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