|NMH FAQ vers. 2009-11-02|
|Real basic, what's the deal?
Neutral Milk Hotel is (was) a band lead by Jeff Mangum. They were active in the mid-late 90s, basically based out of Athens, Georgia. Their style of music is self-described "fuzz-folk" but they're usually grouped under the "indie rock" umbrella. They released two main albums, 1996's On Avery Island, and their breakthrough In The Aeroplane Over The Sea two years later.
I highly recommend Kim Cooper's 33 1/3 book In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Regardless if you've been a fan for years or you just recently got into them, you'll find the book very helpful in sorting through the puzzle pieces that came together to become Neutral Milk Hotel.
Though named after the band's magnum opus, roughly the first half of the book is devoted to tracking Jeff's progress from childhood through touring On Avery Island, and the friends he made along the way that would shape the classic 1998 album. It makes for quite an interesting story, and gives you a good understanding of where the album came from, without tarnishing its mystique.
Cooper lets those involved tell the story, with revealing quotes from nearly everyone directly involved. While Jeff himself declined to be interviewed for the book, he gave his approval, and is present in the form of old interview excerpts and stories remembered by friends. I think this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Jeff's detachment is a main element of the story, and if he were sitting there answering questions about the album, it'd likely lessen the impact.
Kim Cooper has made a webpage for the book at http://www.scrammagazine.com/nmh.html
|Who is in Neutral Milk Hotel?
Jeff Mangum is Neutral Milk Hotel, pretty much. It kinda started as a solo project, with Jeff playing most of the instruments on the early releases (in addition to guitar, Jeff is also a proficient drummer, keyboardist, and all around "multi-instrumentalist"). But when he needed to put together a live band in order to tour in support of 1996's On Avery Island, a four piece line-up solidified that would last through the band's brief heyday. That band consisted of Jeff (guitar, vocals), Julian Koster (saw, banjo, accordion, guitar, bass, etc.), Scott Spillane (horns, guitar, etc.), and Jeremy Barnes (drums).
Born in Ruston, Louisiana, Jeff is the man behind the songs of Neutral Milk Hotel.
He has also made guest appearances on several records made by his friends
(see The Musical Adventures of Jeff Mangum).
In addition to music, Jeff is interested in other creative avenues, such as
drawing and collage. He currently enjoys a life away from the limelight in New York.
Wildcard utility player whose versatility and enthusiasm helped give texture to Neutral Milk Hotel's
music by adding singing saw, banjo, accordion, and more.
He's also worked with Olivia Tremor Control. Before joining up with Jeff Mangum, Julian had a band called
Chocolate USA which put out a couple records in the early 90s. He also releases
music with friends under the name The Music Tapes.
Scott Spillane. Known
for his stellar work playing horns for Neutral Milk Hotel (trumpet, trombone,
as well as sometimes second guitar, tambourine or whatnot, Scott has also appeared on albums and in live shows by
Elephant 6 artists such as Olivia Tremor Control, Of Montreal, and Elf Power.
Scott fronts a band called The Gerbils.
Jeremy Barnes. In
addition to being the dynamo drummer for Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeremy has also played as a member
of the avant-jazz trio Bablicon, as well as done guest work with the likes of
Broadcast, Bright Eyes, Now It's Overhead, and Of Montreal.
He currently releases music self-described as "folk-Dada" under the name A Hawk
And A Hacksaw.
Notable "5th Member" types to mention include Robert Schneider and Laura Carter. Robert played here and there on the albums, but not live with the band, due in part to his involvement with his own band, the Apples In Stereo, taking precedence. Laura is a member of the band Elf Power, but she appeared on Aeroplane, and often joined NMH on stage (zanzithophone, keyboard). Other people who would sometimes be part of live performances include Will Westbrook and John D'Azzo, both also members of the Gerbils. Robbie Cucchiaro, who played with Julian in the Music Tapes, also played live with NMH at times. When the bill was shared with other e6 bands, such as Elf Power and Olivia Tremor Control, it was common for members from the bands to join each other on stage.
|Whatever happened to Neutral Milk Hotel?
Neutral Milk Hotel hasn't been an active band since late 1998. A February 2001 one-off solo performance in New Zealand is thought to be the last time Jeff Mangum played a full set of NMH songs live. There was never an official break-up announcement or anything. Jeff just wasn't interested in continuing, so the guys split off into their own things. Jeff distanced himself from Neutral Milk Hotel, but continued to occasionally perform music with his friends, including involvement with Major Organ & the Adding Machine in 2001 (basically an Elephant 6 collaboration album) and touring with Circulatory System as drummer in 2002. He hasn't released any more of his own music, however, apart from offering a peek at his sound collage work, which he credits as either Korena Pang or The Long Warm Wall of Alfred Snouts, during a stint as a DJ at an independent radio station in 2002.
In May 2001, Jeff wrote a message posted on the old version of the e6townhall forum on his behalf by a friend, effectively a farewell to NMH. The authenticity was somewhat questioned at the time, but has pretty much been confirmed since. Below is the message exactly as it appeared (thanks to archive.org for their backup):
In addition to that message, Jeff granted an interview to Pitchfork in
February 2002 (link).
Those seem to be his most recent public comments.
Jeff is said to currently be living happily in New York with his wife, filmmaker Astra Taylor. Recent public appearances include briefly guesting at NY shows by his friends Olivia Tremor Control (August 2005) and Elf Power (November 2005). He also joined the E6 "Holiday Surprise tour" in October 2008, performing the NMH non-album song "Engine" with Julian on several of the tour's stops (Scott and Jeremy were both on the tour as well, but a full-band reunion never transpired).
Jeff also emerges with charitable pieces from time to time, such as drawings and autographed NMH albums, usually sold or auctioned on his behalf by friends or organizations supporting humanitarian causes, including Children of the Blue Sky.
Friends say he still writes and records songs, but isn't interested in releasing them at the moment.
|What does the name "Neutral Milk Hotel" mean?
When asked about the meaning behind the band's name, Jeff Mangum hasn't given an answer, instead saying that it's something he wants to keep private. Jeff actually first recorded under the name "Milk" but changed it after learning of another band that was already using the name.
How do you pronounce "Mangum"?
"I'm not worried too much about my name being pronounced, because it doesn't really matter much." - Jeff Mangum, GLR radio interview 1998.
Some people say "MANG-um", some say "MAN-gum." As the quote above indicates, Jeff doesn't really care. And the funny thing is that nobody seems to have actually heard him pronounce his own name.
A common mistake people make is pronouncing it "Magnum".. mixing up the "n" and the "g." This doesn't really seem to bother Jeff, however.
|What is Elephant 6?
Elephant 6 is a creative collective of friends. It all began with four childhood friends at high school in Ruston, Louisiana. Robert Schneider, Bill Doss, Will Cullen Hart, and Jeff Mangum would record music for and with each other. Hilarie Sidney and Jim McIntyre later joined the original four, hence the "6." Eventually, more friends/bands joined the fold and a somewhat-real record label emerged, helmed by Robert Schneider. In April of 1993, The Elephant 6 Recording Company put out their first release (an EP by Schneider's band, The Apples In Stereo). Later that year, E6 (as it's sometimes referred to) put out Neutral Milk Hotel's Hype City Soundtrack. The cassette-only release was regarded as the first true NMH album, though it wasn't distributed much and is now thought of more as a glorified demo tape. Schneider also opened a recording studio called The Elephant 6 Recording Company (A.K.A Pet Sounds Studio) in Denver, Colorado where both NMH's major albums were recorded. The label was active through the late 90s, but went dormant in the new century. The studio was closed around that time as well. Still, though, the people involved are friends, and it's not uncommon for Neutral Milk Hotel to be referred to as "an Elephant Six band," grouping them with the likes of Elf Power and Olivia Tremor Control. For more info, check out the semi-official site elephant6.com.
|Is there an official Neutral Milk Hotel / Jeff Mangum website?
Yes, neutralmilkhotel.net. However, it's very rarely been updated since the late 90s. Jeff apparently had a hand in putting together the site's content originally, but doesn't seem to have had a direct hand in it since. The only major update to the official site in recent years was in September 2005 when a section was added selling original drawings by Jeff (which quickly sold out). The drawings were sold on Jeff's behalf by a friend of his. Jeff doesn't really pop up online publicly or have a public email address. Fake/hoax "Jeff Mangum" accounts on websites such as Facebook and Twitter are common, however.
|How can one get in touch with Neutral Milk
Hotel / Jeff Mangum?
I often get emails from people looking to contact the band. They are usually for either booking inquiries, interview requests, or copyright permission. First of all, this is just a fansite and I have no personal affiliation with the band nor do I have private contact info for them. Booking inquires? Sorry, the band has been more or less inactive since 1998.. it's safe to say they're not looking to book any gigs at this time. As for interviews, sorry, but Jeff very rarely agrees to interviews, and has only done a couple in the decade since NMH disbanded. As for copyright permission, while I must stress I have no legal say here, I think it's safe to assume Jeff would not mind if you used an excerpt of his lyrics in your artwork or school yearbook or something like that. For a commercial usage, however, such as using a song in a film, you should probably contact Merge Records. And in fact, my best recommendation for anyone desperate to contact Jeff or the band would be to go through the record labels Merge and/or Orange Twin.
|Will posthumous Neutral Milk Hotel material be released?
There's long been a NMH rarities album rumored to be in the works. The official NMH site has a news update that's been there since 1999 or so. It reads:
In the several years that passed since that was posted, there's been no news
regarding Jeff's stories or movies.
But a year later, the entire project was postponed indefinitely. Andrew from Orange Twin replied to an email from Dan at the Sashwap fansite, basically saying that Jeff decided he didn't like any of the tracks, and shot down the project completely. Perhaps someday they'll convince him to give the go-ahead to release rarities and/or reissue early self-released material. But until Jeff changes his mind, don't expect that stuff to see official release.
In 2005, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was reissued in the UK. The person at the label overseeing it had tried to get Jeff to approve some unreleased tracks for a bonus disc. But it was to no avail, and the reissue ultimately consisted of only the original album in a special case.
More recently, On Avery Island was slated to have a UK reissue on a different label-- announced in 2006, supposedly a "redux" edition with live and rare bonus tracks. The label went as far as to claim the band themselves were overseeing the project. Delays regarding the bonus tracks supposedly caused the release to be pushed back several times. It wasn't until 2009 that the reissue finally came out, and sadly, the only bonus tracks included were 2 songs, "Everything Is" and "Snow Song Part One", both of which were already widely available on a single.
|If I like Neutral Milk Hotel, who else should I check out?
The lack of output by NMH causes many people to search out other artists who have a similar sound and/or feeling. However, the "What other bands sound like Neutral Milk Hotel?" question has yet to produce any definitive answers. There are a few bands that usually get brought up as being almost-kinda similar. The Decemberists are a current band who often evoke comparisons to NMH. The Mountain Goats share many mutual fans. Other bands under the Elephant 6 umbrella may be of interest to NMH fans, such as The Olivia Tremor Control, Of Montreal, and The Apples in Stereo. And there are the NMH side projects Major Organ and the Adding Machine, The Music Tapes, The Gerbils, and A Hawk and A Hacksaw. Some other artists who may be closer on the musical map to NMH than, say, Brittany Spears include The Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, The Magnetic Fields, Calvin Don't Jump, Frog Eyes, Wanda Lee and the Drum Machine, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Songs:Ohia, The Black Heart Procession, Animal Collective, The Mighty Rime, Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, The Shins, Broken Social Scene, Iron & Wine, The Weakerthans, Guided by Voices, The Microphones, Okkervil River, Akron/Family, Phosphorescent, The Gifted Children, P:ano, Oh No! Oh My!, Swan Lake, and Built to Spill.
As far as "oldies" that may or may not have had a noticeable influence on the music of NMH: Robert Wyatt, Tall Dwarfs, Sonic Youth, Robyn Hitchcock, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Tom Waits, The Minutemen, and The Beatles.
...and these are just rough lists, by no means complete or accurate.
Neutral Milk Hotel's influences?
Jeff has said that the Minutemen were his favorite band when he was young. He's also a big fan of Robert Wyatt / Soft Machine, as well as John Coltrane and Daniel Johnston. He's also mentioned in interviews his love for experimental composers such as John Cage, Luc Ferrari, and Pierre Henry. Much of what he likes is eccentric and esoteric, including authentic world music, field recordings, and avant gard jazz. For a better understanding of what Jeff is into, check out the playlists from his days as a radio DJ at WFMU in 2002.
Kim Cooper's Aeroplane book also mentions several of NMH's other favorites.
Jeremy Barnes is a big fan of Taraf de Ha´douks. Julian Koster loves Lincoln by They Might Be Giants.
But the band would likely site their friends as their biggest influence, such as their fellow Elephant Six artists.
|What bands have covered Neutral Milk Hotel songs?
I'd like to compile a list of NMH cover songs here. But to keep it from getting out of hand, let's limit it to signed/national acts.. ie, not garage bands, local coffee shop performers, and the like. Not to discount such artists, but that list would be crazy long. So as a guideline, this list will include artists who show up in an amazon.com search. With that in mind, please feel free to email me any additions to this list.
Neutral Milk Hotel cover songs:
April 8th - Hazeldine (live, Radio 1, Berlin, August 1998)
Holland, 1945 - Calamine (live 2006)
Holland, 1945 - Drive By Truckers (live at least once.. 2006-10-28)
Holland, 1945 - Kevin Devine (live many times) [clips on youtube]
Holland, 1945 - The Faint (live 2005)
Holland, 1945 - Saturday Looks Good To Me (live 2006)
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea - Dax Riggs of Deadboy and the Elephantmen (live)
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea - Matt Pond, PA (on the Winter Songs EP) [link to site with mp3]
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea - Rilo Kiley (live once.. Knitting Factory, L.A. 6/28/02)
King of Carrot Flowers - Glen Phillips (live 2000) [link to site with mp3]
King of Carrot Flowers - Jeff Tweedy (live at least once.. Chicago, IL 1/29/05)
King of Carrot Flowers - Mason Jennings (live a few times, summer 2006)
King of Carrot Flowers - Mike Doughty (on the Gambler EP, an iTunes Music Store exclusive)
King of Carrot Flowers - Screamfeeder (on the Home Age covers EP)
King of Carrot Flowers Pts 2 & 3 - Broken Family Band (on Jesus Songs EP)
King of Carrot Flowers Pt 3 - The Apples In Stereo (Score! Merge compilation)
Oh Comely - Jesse Lacey of Brand New (live)
She Did A Lot of Acid - Murdocks (live 2003) [link to site with mp3]
Two-Headed Boy - Dax Riggs of Deadboy and the Elephantmen (live)
Two-Headed Boy - Dresden Dolls (live a few times, 2004-2006) [link to site with mp3]
Two-Headed Boy - Glen Phillips (live many times) [link to site with mp3]
Two-Headed Boy - John Cameron Mitchell (live a few times)
Two-Headed Boy - The Mountain Goats (live) [link to site with mp3]
Two-Headed Boy - The Wrens (live at least once.. Denton, TX 8/05)
Two-Headed Boy Pt 2 - Glen Phillips (live a few times) [link to site with mp3]
Two-Headed Boy Pt 2 - Jesse Lacey of Brand New (live)
If you have a suggestion for a question not answered here, or have an addition or correction to make, feel free to email me. firstname.lastname@example.org