90s Indie Rock Bands: The Star who Up and Disappeared? Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum.

Neutral Milk Hotel and Elephant 6

Neutral Milk Hotel. Now that's a mouthful. How could a band with that name, well, make a name for themselves? The story of Neutral Milk Hotel is, perhaps, as strange and as memorable as their name. The moniker originally began when Jeff Mangum, who had throughout the early 1990s recording under the name "Milk", began the work on On Avery Island with his childhood friend and fellow Elephant 6 collaborator Robert Schneider. Schneider mainly filled out the sound with production and playing back up instruments.

On a side note, Elephant 6 was, and is, a collaborative of musicians and bands.  It originated with The Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, and Neutral Milk Hotel.  Both OTC and NMH have since broken up, but other groups continue to be productive till this day.  Perhaps the best well known of these at this point, besides the Apples in Stereo, is Elf Power.

The band of Neutral Milk Hotel really formed with Julian Kostner, Scott Spillane, and Jeremy Barnes joined Mangum to tour in support of On Avery Island, which came out on Merge Records in 1996. This was also the year I graduated from high school. I wouldn't hear Neutral Milk Hotel, or fall in love with them, for another three years.

Here's Jeff and the Boys.  Take a good look.  It might be the only one you ever get of this reclusive act.
Here's Jeff and the Boys. Take a good look. It might be the only one you ever get of this reclusive act. | Source
The picture may be fake, but the fact it was made shows the unique position Neutral Milk Hotel holds in the minds and hearts of their fans.
The picture may be fake, but the fact it was made shows the unique position Neutral Milk Hotel holds in the minds and hearts of their fans. | Source
Imagine walking upon this street corner, just innocently going about your day.
Imagine walking upon this street corner, just innocently going about your day. | Source

The Way We Were...

Writing about Neutral Milk Hotel now, in 2010, is not the easiest thing to do. I know in my own personal way, I am far removed from the 21 year old who first heard In the Aeroplane Over the Sea . I know that this experience, though it is personal to me, is also shared, is also social. What I mean to say is that we're all a long way from the days when Neutral Milk Hotel captured our hearts. Before Jeff Mangum went on to the rest of his life and the band faded from view, except that they wouldn't.

Neutral Milk Hotel released albums in 1996 and 1998.  I didn't discover them until spring of 1999.  In those days, to find good music, you got on chat rooms and listened to snobs insult each other for stupid reasons.  You asked about bands you liked, endured the insults, and waited for them to tell you those treasured names of other bands they equally disliked, but who reminded them of the silly band you liked.  To me, I loved those guys.  They introduced me to band after band.  Once I learned the name of some new underground delight, I'd run to my local record store.  I lived in Reno at the time, and there used to be a place called Tower Records in Reno, Nevada. 

I don't know which of the endless nights with the speakers up sitting in front of a computer screen talking about music with these guys that the name Neutral Milk Hotel came up, but I've often wondered about it, how exactly I decided the next album I would buy would be by this band with the funny name.  Neutral Milk Hotel turned out to be the Holy Grail of the quest I was on in that time of my life, and I can't but think they were that as well for a lot of other people.  How many times did we unwrap a new CD that we paid hard earned money for in hopes that this album would be the one that really blew us away?  I had a lot of contenders, but no album ever delivered on that idealized moment a music lover fantasizes about like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea .  Knowing what I know now about how long their legacy would last and how many other people love them, I've come to realize that they were the Holy Grail for generation of Indie Music lovers who fell in love with bands like Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Superchunk years earlier.  I am one of those Indie kids, informed by Pavement, and baptized in Neutral Milk Hotel.

Their significance to their fans cannot be understood without seeing the experience through this lens. 

Neutral Milk Hotel's first offering from 1996.
Neutral Milk Hotel's first offering from 1996. | Source
The Elephant 6 Recording Company was the hippest of the hip in the Mid/Late 1990s.  Neutral Milk Hotel was only one of a slew of bands E6 boasted.
The Elephant 6 Recording Company was the hippest of the hip in the Mid/Late 1990s. Neutral Milk Hotel was only one of a slew of bands E6 boasted. | Source

Listen to Neutral Milk Hotel on iPod!

On Avery Island

If you've never heard Neutral Milk Hotel before, then you aren't aware of the debate over Jeff Mangum's voice. I've heard many people say that they believe he cannot sing at all, but that he tries so hard he is endearing. I tend to disagree. I know that he might not be polished or trained, and I know that his Georgia twang can come through on the long notes, but his voice is one of my favorite things about the band. Honestly, I'd listen to Jeff sing anything.

The first album, On Avery Island , is an energetic collection of songs with complex and poetically dense lyrics in melodic lines over simple and classic chord progressions. It was dressed up and filled with all sorts of Beatles (White Album) inspired noises and meandered its way through songs that seemed to be connected and yet weren't. One of the things that was so distinctive about the album was the use of a heavily distorted bass guitar. This fuzzy bass lent itself to a name that seemed to stick as to the type of music Neutral Milk Hotel made, "Folk Fuzz".

Their sound, criticized for being simplistic in composition, was further accented by instrumentation on brass instruments like trumpet and trombone. This addition added a distinct flair to the sound that somehow clicked with the eloquent yet visceral lyrics, the distorted bass, and familiar chord progressions. On top of that, they added the singing saw (performed by Kostner) sparingly, which enhanced the magical quality of the sound. Something special was definitely happening. Not all songs incorporated this hybrid sound, and in fact, NMH's power is not dependent any synergistic effect but derives directly from the power of Jeff Mangum's performance. He is as mesmerizing by himself with an acoustic guitar as he is in front of the eclectic ensemble that is Neutral Milk Hotel.

The album has a few standouts. The first track, "Song Against Sex" is one of the most impressive and instantly appealing songs in all of NMH's short catalog. Perhaps the most endearing song, however, is Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone which is really a mixture of two songs. The way Jeff pleads when he sings "For you know this isn't the first time, in fact this is twice in a row", the universality of his plea transcends the poetic strength of other lines like, "I just want to dance in your tangles". You feel both connected in a real, here and now fashion and also taken to some fairytale place.

The music is definitely Indie Rock , and more so than the rest of Elephant 6 for the most part, but it is also something of a broken album. The songs feel half finished and rushed. Something about it feels as if it is heavy with regret for what it could have been. I don't know if this means that anything is wrong with the album. I don't know what it means, I just feel it in the music. Given Jeff has disappeared from the music scene for so long after only two albums probably colors my perspective.

Watch and Listen

The Cover of NMH's 1998 Classic, "In the Aeroplane over the Sea" which came out on Merge Records.
The Cover of NMH's 1998 Classic, "In the Aeroplane over the Sea" which came out on Merge Records. | Source
Artwork from "In the Aeroplane over the Sea".
Artwork from "In the Aeroplane over the Sea". | Source

In the Aeroplane over the Sea

When Neutral Milk Hotel got together for the second album, producer Robert Schneider turned down a little of the din of noise around Mangum and allowed his poetic talents to come to the forefront of the album. In fact, some of the strongest songs on the album are stark solos with Jeff alone with an acoustic guitar. These songs balance the dense and wonderful sound of the songs with the full band. Indeed, as much as Jeff and the band got better, Robert Schneider's production on the second album was vastly improved.

No discussion of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea can do justice to the sheer magnitude the album holds in the minds and hearts of those of us who love Neutral Milk Hotel. Jeff Mangum has always been his own man, with his own concerns. He says that he doesn't read much, but that when he ran across the Diary of Anne Frank, he was touched inside. In his own way, he became obsessed with Anne Frank and the album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea , documents this obsession with a girl who died fifty years before the album was made.

The songs mix lyrics about Jeff's personal life with unidentifiable characters as well as people from Anne's life. For example, in the song "Holland, 1945", Jeff sings, "The only girl I've ever loved was born with roses in her eyes, but then buried her alive one evening, 1945 with just a sister at her side and only weeks before the guns all came and rained on everyone." Other songs allude to her ghost in the modern day, while still other songs Jeff seems to be on a spiritual journey in his lyrics with Anne being more the impetus behind the song rather than the context of the lyrics. I know this is a concept album, but with all the examples of concept albums to date, I don't think it's fair to call it a concept album.

It's an album so full of emotion and hope that, even though it's concerned with and written from the muck and filth of life, it cannot help but inspire. It's an album from the gutter, the gutter in WWII battlefield and the gutter on the side of the highway in Jeff's own personal mythos. Ultimately, the catchiness of tracks like "Ghost", "Two Headed Boy", "Holland, 1945", and "The King of Carrot Flowers" keep the album feeling peppy and exciting, but there are dark reflective moments, where it feels Jeff is straining as he gropes for the beauty in the dark. These passages are so personal they are endearing beyond what my words express. Perhaps it is this personal aspect of the album that, as it turned out, was something Jeff couldn't do again. We'll never know.

The album flows from one track to the next, and as you hear Jeff belt "I love you Jesus Christ" over and over and over, I dare you to not smile. As the album leads on to its inevitable conclusion, the alternation of manic with mellow, of beautiful with painful, of modern with historical, of real with fantasy, becomes more than the some of its parts. You find yourself singing along with Jeff feeling the same desperate passion he feels. This is a rare gift in a performer, and for it, we, who discovered them when we were still young and they still existed, will always love them for it.

Perhaps the best way I can tell you what the album is, is to let it speak for itself. Here is a passage from the song, "Two Headed Boy" :

"Two Headed Boy, there's no reason to grieve. The world that you need is wrapped in gold and silver sleeves left beneath Christmas Trees in the snow. I will take you and leave you alone, watching spirals of white slowly float over your eyelids, and all that you did will wait until the point when you let go..."

It's indecipherable. Is he talking to himself? Is he talking to Anne Frank? Is he being obscene? Is he regretting? I think it's all of it. It's just all of it in a frustrated mess of emotion. This is the type of thing Neutral Milk Hotel will always be remembered for, even if they only made two albums.

The only real release since "In the Aeroplane over the Sea"  Jeff Mangum's "Live at Jittery Joe's" has several unreleased tracks performed in a record store.  It was released in August of 2001.
The only real release since "In the Aeroplane over the Sea" Jeff Mangum's "Live at Jittery Joe's" has several unreleased tracks performed in a record store. It was released in August of 2001. | Source

One More Video...

After In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

After the band stopped touring for In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, we hoped they would release another album.  Rumors came and went, but no album ever materialized.  Maybe Jeff had said all he had to say, and if so, thank you Jeff.  Who knows.  Certainly we will wonder.  It's not like Kurt Cobain or Elliot Smith where we know why no more songs will come.  Jeff Mangum just disappeared from sight and mind.  I know he did recording projects here and there in Eastern Europe and that he released a track in tribute here and there and that there was a reunion show one night, but the artistic presence was gone.

A gem to be discovered, however, is an album of a live solo show Jeff played at a record store.  It's got some great unreleased tracks, and enough of them to keep a serious fan satisfied for just a bit longer.  The years have been long since In the Aeroplane over the Sea, but the album remains a favorite and has sold over 300,000 copies now, a huge number for a little band from Athens Georgia (unless your name is R.E.M.). 

Other bands come and go, our attention moves on, so does our interests, but I would venture that I'm not alone in not forgetting the first time I heard NMH.  In fact, I liked them so much after the first 3 songs that I turned the album off and went to bed convinced I was just drunk and that if I listened to more, I'd just be disappointed in the morning.  I was wrong.  In the cold, sober light of morning Neutral Milk Hotel was just as good.

There were many other great Indie bands in the 1990s, but none of them captured the heart quite like NMH.  The lyrics of Jeff Mangum I have heard called the envy of Faulkner.  I doubt William Faulkner would be envious of anyone, but Mangum is a decent nomination.

Oh, comely...

What is your favorite Neutral Milk Hotel Album?

  • On Avery Island
  • In the Aeroplane over the Sea
  • Everything is (EP)
  • Holland 1945 (Single)
  • Live @ Jittery Joes - Jeff Mangum Solo
See results without voting

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5 comments

FreelancerA profile image

FreelancerA 4 years ago from Portland

Saw him about a week ago in Seattle, every song was NMH (pretty sure), even some long lost tracks like Engine. He's also playing Cochella 2012.


cdub77 profile image

cdub77 4 years ago from Portland Or Author

I was at the Portland show last Wednesday. Sounds like he did about the same set. Was great to see him finally after so many years!


vge-j profile image

vge-j 4 years ago from Denver, CO

Just saw Jeff Mangum at the Ogden theater, in Denver, where he lived and made both NMH's defining albums, I believe. Though I had my curmudgeonly moments of grumbling, "I paid to hear Jeff Mangum. . ." when the whole theater was singing every word, it was great to be in a group of people who love NMH and were willing to be in the moment and participate.


cdub77 profile image

cdub77 4 years ago from Portland Or Author

Seemed the show here that I caught, everyone was okay with everyone singing at the top of their lungs. At least where I was standing. :)


vge-j profile image

vge-j 4 years ago from Denver, CO

it was silent grumbling on my part, but didn't last long. :) can't wait to hear some new material. . .have you heard anything about him working on a new album?

Regarding why he hasn't put out any new work or performed for so long, what I've heard is that he has struggled with Depression and Anxiety, (Bipolar Disorder, maybe), for years. Mental illness can definitely make a person less prolific, but I doubt he has nothing more to say.

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