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Music / Neutral Milk Hotel

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Very old-fashioned.

"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 American indie rock band that consisted of Jeff Mangum (vocals, guitar), Scott Spillane (horns), Jeremy Barnes (drums), and Julian Koster (multiple instruments). Along with The Olivia Tremor Control and The Apples in Stereo, they're one of the three main bands forming Elephant 6's first wave.

The band's origins were in the late 1980s, with Jeff Mangum forming a band called Synthetic Flying Machine with high school friends Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss. 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 was born.

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, the lyrics stemming from this obsession becoming the foundation for the band's next album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which was released in 1998. While initial reception was nowhere near universal praise, through the advent of the Internet and memes (primarily 4chan's /mu/ board), it is now considered a modern classic. Unfortunately, Mangum struggled to cope with his newfound fame, with the combined stress from touring and being repeatedly asked to explain his lyrics leading him to have a nervous breakdown and disappear from the public eye, resulting in the unspoken, unannounced breakup of the band in 1999 shortly after their tour.

Hints of reunions circulated around for years, but nothing was definite as to whether or not they'd truly get back together until 2013, when the band announced a reunion tour with the full lineup. They continued touring through 2015, when they stated that they had played their last tour for the foreseeable future, and went on a still-ongoing hiatus. 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.


Early demos (no wide official release)

  • Beauty (Milk demo) (1990)
  • Invent Yourself a Shortcake (1991)
  • Beauty (1992)
  • Hype City Soundtrack (1993)
  • Unreleased Demo (1993 or 1994)
  • Shannon's Monroe House Demo (1994)
  • Unreleased Demo 2 (1994)

Main catalog (wide availability)

Neutral Milk Hotel contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Album Title Drop: On Aeroplane's Title Track; "And one day we will die, and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the seeeeaaaa..."
  • 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.
    YouTube Comment: 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.
  • 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.
  • Grief Song: Much of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.
  • Identical Stranger: People note how much Jeff looks like Wes Anderson. Compare the two.
  • Instrumental: "Fool", "Marching Theme", "Pree Sisters Swallowing A Donkey's Eye".
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • No Punctuation Period: The insert for In the Aeroplane over the Sea writes the lyrics as one giant run-on sentence.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: "Little Birds" was written about Matthew Shepard.
  • Retro Universe: Like the rest of Elephant 6, NHM is very Sixties inspired. ...Aeroplane in particular references WW2 in its lyrics.
  • Stop and Go: In "Ferris Wheel on Fire."
  • Studio Chatter:
    • At the end of "Oh Comely", backup guitarist Robert Schneider can be heard yelling "HOLY SHIT!" Given that they'd just nailed the 8-minute song in the first take, who can blame him?
    • "Two-Headed Boy, Part II" ends with Mangum putting down his guitar and walking out of the studio.
    • "Song Against Sex" opens with Jeff and Robert Schneider talking.
  • 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), songs that have just two chords ("Untitled"), and one song with only one chord ("Rubby Bulbs").
  • Queer Romance: Heavily implied in "Song Against Sex".
  • Vocal Tag Team: Mangum does this with himself in "The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1," to disorienting effect.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: The lyrics are extremely dense and esoteric, more thematic than anything literal - they still draw a narrative, but in very abstract ways.
  • Word Salad Title: Take a look at that band name.