"The Earth looks better from a star, that's right above from where you are."
— Neutral Milk Hotel, "Holland, 1945"
Neutral Milk Hotel are a highly influential indie rock band that consisted of Jeff Mangum (vocals, guitar), Scot Spillane (horns), Jeremy Barnes, and Julian Koster. Along with The Olivia Tremor Control
and The Apples In Stereo
, one of the three main bands forming Elephant 6
's first wave.
These guys are pretty much worshiped by indie kids. Most publications (excluding Pitchfork) tend to ignore them, despite never really being critically panned by any of them. To some, they are overrated, to others they are underrated. No matter what side people stand on though, their influence is undeniable.
Jeff Mangum formed a band called Synthetic Flying Machine with high school friends Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss in the late 1980s. Though the band never fully got much recognition, they stayed together for a couple of years, eventually changing their name to The Olivia Tremor Control. Mangum soon got the desire to do some experimentation with a separate project and that's where Neutral Milk Hotel
After leaving The Olivia Tremor Control, Mangum started putting more work into Neutral Milk Hotel
and in 1996 their first album, On Avery Island
was released. Though critically praised, this album is — perhaps rather unfairly
— not nearly as remembered as their Cult Classic
that would be released next.
Over the next two years, Mangum would develop a strange obsession with Anne Frank
and the Holocaust, and he would start writing lyrics for what would appear on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
, which is considered a modern classic. The album was released in 1998 and the band toured in support of it, but as touring persisted, Mangum's obsession just grew stronger. Eventually music press wouldn't leave him alone and the depression of his thoughts constantly swirling around his obsession caused him to have a nervous breakdown, which caused the band to split in 1999.
Hints of reunions have circulated around over the past years, but nothing definite as to whether or not they'd truly get back together. Finally, in 2013 the full band was reunited, if only for a tour. As of yet, there's no information on possible new records. Arcade Fire
said that they signed to Merge Records because it was Neutral Milk Hotel's record label. Because of this, the two bands are constantly compared. In contrast, Jeremy Barnes' other band, A Hawk and a Hacksaw
, is so wildly different from his work with NMH that the two are rarely compared.
Neutral Milk Hotel contains examples of the following tropes:
- Careful With That Axe: Used on "Rubby Bulbs", "Sailing Through", and various SFM-era recordings (Invent Yourself A Shortcake).
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Jeff Mangum is known for being a bit... odd... If his lyrics weren't any indication, but Jeff is downright mundane compared to Julian Koster. Oh, sweet Jesus Julian Koster... He's not dressing up in that page picture. He just goes out like that. The guy is from another planet. Think like if Luna Lovegood had a kid with Emo Phillips, and that's a bit like what he's like.
: I met Julian Koster. He played a concert in my basement on his Christmas Caroling Tour in November. He made my friends and me write down our deepest wishes on pieces of paper, and he lit them on fire, and he put some weird powder in the fire, and he blew the pieces away into the wind. That night, he ate my peanut butter, and he slept on my couch, and he told me that I could become a professor one day. He told me I could achieve anything I set my mind to, and I believe him with all of my heart.
- Creator Breakdown: One of the most notable in the indie rock world, Jeff Mangum suffered a pretty serious nervous breakdown which he credited to the unfulfilled hope that his music could help the people he cared about who were suffering (namely the individuals whose stories inspired In the Aeroplane over the Sea, and in the same vein Anne Frank). He stopped playing live for nearly a decade and has only recorded a small handful of songs since.
- Doo Wop Progression: Used in "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea."
- Epic Rocking: "Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey's Eye", "Oh Comely", "Message Sent", "Ferris Wheel On Fire", the "Rubby Bulbs"/"Snow Song Pt. 2" live medley-thing...
- Everything is an Instrument: Notably Julian Koster's use of the singing saw, though that method of playing a saw as an instrument isn't unique to the band. Aside from that, though, are plenty of other things thrown in, much of which is done by Julian Koster (whose side project The Music Tapes is filled with this trope). On In the Aeroplane over the Sea Mangum is credited with playing shortwave radio and tapes, and Koster is credited for "white noise" (most likely the background noises in "Communist Daughter").
- Everything's Louder With Bagpipes: These guys loved their bagpipes and horns.
- Fading into the Next Song: Many of their songs faded into each other, especially live.
- Five-Man Band
- Lost Episode: Many songs performed live by the band, while probably recorded at some point, have never even been bootlegged in their studio incarnations. The most infamous example is perhaps fan favorite song "Ferris Wheel On Fire" or "My Skull".
- "Ferris Wheel on Fire," along with other fan favorites, among them "My Dreamgirl Don't Exist" and "Little Birds," the only song known to have been recorded since "Aeroplane," received an official release in 2011 along with some re-recorded tracks as part of the "Walking Wall of Words" compilation package.
- Loudness War: In the Aeroplane over the Sea is really clipped for a folk album, with a dynamic range rating of DR6 and a ReplayGain value of -9.80 dB. The 2009 vinyl appears to have been sourced from the same master as the CD. This may be a case of digital distortion being used intentionally (the album actually credits "white noise" as a musical instrument) but it's still really disorienting at first.
- Madness Mantra
- My Nayme Is: It's Mangum, not Magnum.
- Subverted, as Jeff himself has said he really doesn't care how people spell or pronounce his name.
- Not Christian Rock: "King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2" starts off with the lines "I love you Jesus Christ". Many people confuse this for a Christian rock song. Notice that a part of the lyrics for this song is absent from the booklet, with this message being there instead: "a song for an old friend a song for a new friend and now a song for jesus christ and since this seems to confuse people i'd like to simply say that i mean what i sing although the theme of endless endless on this album is not based on any religion but more in the belief that all things seem to contain a white light within them that i see as eternal."
- Reclusive Artist: Mangum remained out of the limelight for ten years. In 2009, he began making live appearances again, usually sitting in with his friends' bands or playing solo gigs for charity.
- Recycled IN SPACE!: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is Anne Frank... ON FREUD!
- Spiritual Successor: While Arcade Fire is the most immediately discussed candidate, their work after Funeral became progressively further from their NMH influence. Commonly discussed successors in certain communities that idolize Neutral Milk Hotel include The Microphones (specifically his album The Glow, pt. 2), joordan mason and the horse museum, and Seamonster.
- Stop and Go: In "Ferris Wheel on Fire."
- Three Chords and the Truth: The band is known for using simple guitar chord progressions, with songs that have only three or four chords ("King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 1-3," "Ghost," "Oh Comely," and "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" just to name a few ) and one song with only one chord ("Rubby Bulbs").
- Vocal Tag Team: Mangum does this with himself in "The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1," to disorienting effect.
- Word Salad Title: Take a look at that band name.