Neutral Milk Hotel was an American indie rock band formed by singer, guitarist and songwriter Jeff Mangum in the early 1990s. Later members included Jeremy Barnes (drums), Scott Spillane (horns) and Julian Koster (banjo, bass guitar, musical saw, accordion, synthesizer). Additional contributors included Robert Schneider (producer, instrumentalist), Laura Carter (zanzithophone) and other members of the Elephant 6 Collective. The band was noted for its experimental sound, obscure 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 Schneider, who contributed production and instrumentation. Neutral Milk Hotel released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998, which became their most well-known and critically acclaimed album. Although the album did not meet commercial success at the time of release, it has gone on to sell over 100,000 copies and was selected as the fourth best album of the 1990s by Pitchfork. Despite growing popularity, the group disbanded in 1999 after Mangum became disenchanted with touring and the music press, later having a nervous breakdown.
Neutral Milk Hotel was a part of The Elephant 6 Recording Company, based in Athens, Georgia. The band was one of Elephant 6's three first projects, alongside The Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control.
Prior to recording for friends under the NMH moniker, Mangum recorded a few cassettes under the name Milk; the most well-known of these tapes was called Pygmie Barn in E Minor. These are the earliest known recordings that Mangum initiated and executed himself. There were only an estimated dozen or so copies ever made of this tape, none of which has been made public. It was revealed circa 2006 on the Elephant 6 online forums that another tape under said name, entitled Beauty, was released, along with several recordings under the name Rubby Bulbs (also a song dating from that era, perhaps the only Milk song to be played by Neutral Milk Hotel).
Neutral Milk Hotel began simply as a recording project for Mangum, in the early 1990s. He produced several demo cassettes, among them 1991's Invent Yourself a Shortcake, 1992's Beauty (not to be confused with the earlier cassette), and 1993's Hype City Soundtrack, along with two more from this period, seemingly unnamed. Although easily found on the Internet, these demos capture the project at a very embryonic stage: songs are played in between various sound collages and tape experiments, one of which consists only of a six minute conversation between Mangum and Hart. Another track, "Digestion Machine", features a varied collage of voices answering the question asked by Mangum, "What does the digestion machine mean to you?" The more accessible "Synthetic Flying Machine", also titled "Up and Over", later became "The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 3" on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
During this period, Mangum was wandering the country, staying in the closets of friends, and in a state of perpetual unemployment. It was in these circumstances that the band's first formal releases took shape. Strictly speaking, however, the 'band' usually consisted of Mangum and whoever else was present at the time. This is obvious on Neutral Milk Hotel's first release, a 7" record entitled Everything Is, recorded when Mangum was spending time in Seattle, Washington, released on Cher Doll Records in 1994.
On Avery Island
A full album, On Avery Island, followed, this time recorded mainly in Denver, Colorado, where Mangum was backed by Robert Schneider of The Apples in Stereo, Rick Benjamin of The Perry Weissman 3 and Lisa Janssen of Secret Square. It was released by Merge Records in 1996.
After the release of Avery Island, Neutral Milk Hotel became a fully-fledged band, as Julian Koster, Scott Spillane and Jeremy Barnes joined Mangum, the band now being based in New York. Soon after this, they moved to Athens, Georgia, where many of Mangum's friends had begun to settle, and the Elephant 6 recording company began to take shape. After this, the band went back to Denver, to record a proper follow up to On Avery Island.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
The band's second LP, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, released in 1998, is notable as a critically acclaimed work and a widely popular recording. It is a spiritually motivated work conceptually based on the beauty to be found in the horrific fate of Anne Frank. During live performances, including the one released under the title Live at Jittery Joe's, Mangum has described some of the songs off this album as based on urgent, recurring dreams he had of a Jewish family during World War II. The album was highly praised by critics for its wildly inventive instrumentation and Mangum's provocative and impassioned lyrics. Although it met with scant response from the general public when it was released, the recording has continued to gain momentum in indie music circles, selling well over 100,000 copies, according to Merge Records. However, the record (along with the year of constant touring that succeeded it) took its toll on Mangum. The band abruptly went on hiatus, turning down all requests for shows, including a support slot for R.E.M.
Before Neutral Milk Hotel began their indefinite hiatus, Mangum played live at a house show on December 5, 1998 in Athens on Chris Bilheimer's birthday. The bill was shared with Elf Power, and the audience was made up almost completely of friends and bandmates. Playing solo and acoustic, Mangum opened the set with what was to be the only post-Aeroplane composition to be performed in public, "Little Birds". He explained to the audience that the song is about a boy whose body becomes filled up with miniature birds that come out of the bathtub faucet and protect him from his murderous father (who has apparently already killed the main character's younger brother).
|“||Did you know the burning hell it took your baby brother?
Did you see how far he fell and how he made us suffer?
Another boy in town at night he took him for his lover
And deep in sin they held each other
So I took a hammer, nearly beat his little brains in
Knowing God in Heaven would have never could forgive him
Mangum finished the rest of the evening with most of the Aeroplane songs, encouraging the audience to sing along in substitute for the horn parts. For the last several songs, Scott Spillane took his trumpet in to an adjacent room and played his parts through the wall. A recording of the show circulated on the internet, but it has never been officially released, most likely due to the poor quality of the recording.
Mangum played another show on December 31, 1998, at which he performed the songs "Oh Sister", "Engine", and "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea", joined by Koster and Spillane.
Although some of the members are occasionally active with one another in other projects, it is unknown whether any more Neutral Milk Hotel albums will be released. When asked in an interview if he intends to write another album, Mangum said, "I don't know. It would be nice, but sometimes I kind of doubt it." There were plans to release a rarities album on Orange Twin Records; its cancellation was subsequently announced in 2005 on Orange Twin's website, which stated that Mangum decided against the project.
There has, however, been some activity since Aeroplane. First, Orange Twin re-released Everything Is, complete with extra bonus tracks, as well as Live at Jittery Joe's, a live recording by filmmaker Lance Bangs of a show Mangum played in a coffee house in Athens, Georgia in 1997. The Major Organ and the Adding Machine album, a rather secretive project released by Orange Twin in 2001 and consisting mainly of experimental musical collage, features Mangum, along with Julian Koster, of Montreal's Kevin Barnes, Elf Power's Andrew Reiger and the Olivia Tremor Control and Circulatory System's Will Cullen Hart and Eric Harris. There was also the release of Orange Twin Field Works: Volume I, Mangum's field recording of a Bulgarian folk festival, also on Orange Twin in 2001. He also played drums on the first Circulatory System album.
Since the breakup of Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeff Mangum has only played live proper again once, at the Kings Arms pub in Auckland, New Zealand, at the request of the Tall Dwarfs's Chris Knox. The band was billed as the World of Wild Beards Incorporated, although when he explained this bizarre name during the course of the show, Mangum gave a small speech about an obscure, seemingly fictional company of the early 20th century named "Walking Wall of Beards Incorporated". The show consisted of performances by Mangum, Laura Carter, and Chris Knox. Mangum played 13 songs, about half of them from Aeroplane, and covered Phil Spector's "I Love How You Love Me" and John Lennon's "Mother", with Chris Knox joining him on the latter. A recording of the show exists, but it has never been officially released.
Mangum has also made occasional appearances with Elf Power and The Instruments, and came onstage at the first of the Olivia Tremor Control's New York shows on their 2005 reunion tours, to sing briefly.
In 2005, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was re-released by Domino Records in the UK, in a sleeve featuring praise from, among others, Franz Ferdinand and Arcade Fire, bands influenced by NMH. Mangum has also done a few small art projects—following a charity auction on eBay of an acoustic guitar decorated by Mangum himself, more guitars hand-decorated by Mangum were sold via Orange Twin Records for $900 apiece. Also, a number of his original drawings, this time costing only $10 each, were sold via Neutral Milk Hotel's website.
In 2006, a message was posted on the Elephant 6 message board, purportedly from Mangum, suggesting that he would record and tour again, though it was unclear if it would be under the Neutral Milk Hotel moniker. It soon caused an enormous stir within the indie community, and news of the message appeared in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork Media, and Billboard. However, it was eventually discredited by Robert Schneider, of The Apples in Stereo, a close friend of Mangum's. The perpetrator of the hoax is still unknown.
In October 2008, Mangum made appearances during the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour. He played "Engine" (The "Holland, 1945" B-side) with Julian Koster at the Pittsburgh and Columbus shows. This was the first time since the World of Wild Beards Incorporated show that Mangum had played a Neutral Milk Hotel song in public.
Biography from Wikipedia