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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.
More info?
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).

Jeff Mangum. 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.
Fun fact: "Jeff" is short for Jefferson.


 

Julian Koster. 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.
Fun fact: Julian used to sell pretzels in Union Square Park, NYC.

 

Scott Spillane. Known for his stellar work playing horns for Neutral Milk Hotel (trumpet, trombone, flugelhorn), 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.
Fun fact: Scott and his wife Sally currently reside in Athens, Georgia.

 

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.
Fun fact: Jeremy's middle name is Hartford.

 

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):
Max Munch
Unregistered User
(5/26/01 9:48:29 am)
 
A message from Mr. Mangum

Jeff emailed this over to me for all of you to read. He probably won't see your responces, just so you know.


hello everyone

i think its time that i made a few things clear.
first of all, i am not in hiding, as some have said. where i am i supposed to be hiding?
behind the coach? in the cat box? under the bed?

i wake up everyday, i walk out into the world and i say hello to the people i meet.
the sun shines, the birds sing, the dogs birth out of the old womans eyeball, the
afterbirth overwhelms me, swimming with strange creatures, etc. living in the great mystery
is enough for me right now.
also it has been said that i dont like people listening
to my music, that i dont like playing live, that i stopped playing because people heckled
me at my shows, called me names, etc. if you really think im that pathetic, then you should
burn my records, and forget about me. but its not like that. not that i thought every aspect
of being in a semi popular
rock band was totally healthy, but im not knocking it either. but when i hear people bitching about
being famous, i always wonder why they keep doing it. if you dont like doing interviews
anymore, then dont. its that easy.
but anyway, im getting off track here. what happened to me
comes down to two things.


1.immune system breakdown. i was getting sick every two months for a year, and finally in
the spring of 99 i got hepatitis and mono at the same time, which turned me into
a vomit tornado with yellow eyeballs for two months, and gave me chronic fatigue for the next
two years. which led to number two.
2.spiritual breakdown. this little nervous breakdown, which lasted about two years, was
one of the best things that ever happened to me. it turned out great in the end, even though
it was a living hell for a long time.
in our society, we are supposed to feel ashamed of ourselves when we breakdown,
were supposed to go to the shrink to "fix" the "problem",
so that we can come out as smiling productive members of society.
what a load of crap.
we must live in the loneliest society on earth, one that has taken the spiritual
aspect out of becoming a healthy person.
in other cultures, spirituality, human
phycology, physical health and meditation are all one thing. you cant separate them into
compartments. i didnt know any of this a few years ago, and my breakdown forced me
to begin to see through the horrible mental boxes that our society imposes on everyone.
two years ago i was a mess, every belief i had was disintegrating, everything
i had based my life on seemed shaky. i was tired, confused, and i just didnt think
i could simply sing my way out of it this time. and i was right. the songs i did write
were confused, very dark and not anything i thought anyone needed to hear. they were
more for myself, to help me to work through my mental problems. so, doing shows seemed
inappropriate, since anything i would sing would instantly end up on the net, for
everyone to hear. im not knocking people sharing my music on the internet, but
at that point, it didnt seem right.

so where am i at now? well, all my belongings are in storage, and i am leaving for spain in a
week. dont know whats going to happen. life is better that way. my attitude has always been
to remain open to all possibilities. maybe i'll write a song, a story, a tape piece,
learn meditation, capture a beautiful event on tape, make a friend, see something i've
never seen before. and if at some point, if it all adds up to be something worth
releasing to the world, i will do it gladly. i dont give a fuck if it
"tops aeroplane" or not. thats just another mental prison. anyone waiting for an album
to top the last one should look somewhere else, because you'll inevitably be disappointed.


when i wrote aeroplane, i spent 90 percent of my time screaming nonsence
into my little tape recorder, or chopping up sounds with my sound blender, or
just making noise,
and 10 percent of my time writing songs. it was very liberating,
because i never thought about what i was doing, and a week before we went to record i didnt
even think we had a half finished album. but i didnt care. i figured if we went the studio,
and only recorded one finished song, then that would be fine. creating just one minute of
something inspiring is an incredibly fun thing to do. so next time you hear that neutral milk
is recording, dont get your hopes up. it may only be one minute of music.
and if i ever release my korena pang peices for you to
hear, you'll soon find that
its just liberated dada to free the mind. if you want more neutral milk, dont buy it.
you'll hate it. i for one love music that makes my brain freeze, like the shags, or art ensemble
or maybe some chanting and
banging and confusion from bolivia that makes me forget myself for awhile.
major organ was just a bunch of friends putting music together for fun. it was a project
that changed hands at least a dozen times, and most of the time you didnt even know who was working on it,and you never knew where it would go.
released mostly to inspire other dreamers and home recorders to do the same with there friends.
we weren't trying to create a masterpiece. trying to do anything is the of death of creativity,
and if we can encourage people to not try, but to just do, then we have accomplished our goal.
the jittery joes show should be out in august or september. it was a show i did in 98 before going
to denver to record. i think the video footage makes it worthy of release, since lance bangs
did such a good job. we're putting it out to encourage people to stop paying alot of money
for second generation live shows. but again, dont get your hopes up. its really not a big deal.

so thats it. thanks to everyone for listening to my music. now i need to forget myself again,
so you may not hear from me for awhile. forgetting yourself is freedom, and i need to be free.
happy travels. jeff

 

In addition to that message, Jeff granted an interview to Pitchfork in February 2002 (link). Those seem to be his most recent public comments.
Another in-depth article appeared in the September 4, 2003 issue of Creative Loafing, an Atlanta weekly. That one didn't have direct involvement from Jeff (other than asking the author to leave him alone), but there are quotes from some of Jeff's friends that are somewhat enlightening (link).

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:

There are currently plans to release a two-volume set of early Neutral Milk Hotel, featuring music from the early, self-released cassettes, live performances, and unreleased recordings. The band wants to do this as a result of the excessive prices at which bootlegs are currently selling online and elsewhere. They will be available from Orange Twin. No date has been decided upon for released. It could be awhile in the future.

Jeff has been working on a collection of short stories. He also just joined the circus and wants to make a movie about snails.

In the several years that passed since that was posted, there's been no news regarding Jeff's stories or movies.
And for a long time there was no news about the proposed rarities album. Then in March 2004, hope sparked anew, with the Orange Twin record label's own Laura Carter posting the following on a message board:

we've gotten half an album's worth of non released NMH/Jeff songs approved by Jeff, but the rest he's not interested in releasing, so we are trying to get more stuff that he likes. We are thinking now that it will be two discs, the second being a DVD of a live show that we played in San Francisco.

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.
What are 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 (onKing of Carrot Flowers -
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 -

If you have a suggestion for a question not answered here, or have an addition or correction to make, feel free to email me. gavin7@gmail.com

NeutralMilkHotel.org - The Carrot Flower Kingdom
nmh releases // compilations // misc. / other // related / guest // gigography // bootography // song index // news // everything else // links