Neutral Milk Hotel Biography
by Phil McMullen
Neutral Milk Hotel isn't so much a band as a concept. The product of the singulary imaginative mind locked inside Jeff Mangum's head, it's been a band in the past and will be a band again, but at the same time it can just be Jeff and a few friends or even just Jeff and some odd bits of furniture with peculiar acoustic properties. The peripatetic Mr. Mangum has rarely stayed still long enough in the past three years to hold a stable line-up together anyway, and talking to him I came to realise that it's the extraordinary breadth of his experiences which are lending such a melancholy and dream-like quality to his songwriting. If great art is born of suffering then Neutral Milk Hotel is high art indeed; and if it ain't, then it still makes for wonderful pop music.
The first thing that strikes you about Neutral Milk Hotel is Jeff Mangum's voice. It is gruff, melancholy and yet at once strident and powerful. He can hold a note like nobody's business and, cleverly, uses his voice as an instrument in itself and not simply as an adjunct to the foreground instrumentation as most other artists might. Songs like the deceptively dark jingle pop of "Naomi" and, especially, the faltering beauty of "You've Passed" on Neutral Milk Hotel's debut album On Avery Island (Merge Records) could indeed be easily likened to generic Jeff Kelly / Green Pajamas numbers, heaven forbid such a thing should exist, with rolling bass lines, innocently slip-shod percussion and skewed vocals and lyrical delivery.
Jeff Mangum spent the early part of his 26 years in Louisiana. His earliest exposure to music was through listening to the radio-"I have strong memories of being in the back of a big blue Pontiac being driven by my mother. We would go to the swimming pool every weekend, and on the way back Mom would smoke cigarettes and blast out '70s soft rock, whatever was on the radio at the time. Later I'd listen to the local college radio rock show when I was supposed to be doing my homework. I'd have a tape in my little stereo and would record what I heard. If I liked it, I'd leave the tape rolling, and if I didn't I'd quickly rewind and try to catch the next song. This would be in the early '80s I guess, so there'd be mostly punk rock and some experimental stuff happening. That's when I discovered the Minutemen, who are probaly one the few bands I still listen to from time to time. I really love Robert Wyatt as well. Whatever point in my life I'm at I always seem to pick up a record he made twenty years beforehand and find it was the record I needed to pick up at that moment. And I love Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and Bulgarian music and early Thomas Edison recordings and some psychedelic stuff . . ."
Neutral Milk Hotel's music is full of such contradictions. Throughout On Avery Island solemnly gentle melodies such as "You've Passed" are followed breathlessy by altogether more sinister nunbers such as "Someone Is Waiting," a song which is progressively deconstructed until at the end it becomes an atonal cacophony of beautifully distorted sound. Somehow, it fits. One moment you're carried along by the rounded folk tones of a church pump organ, then immediately you're slapped in the face by a trombone. Just as the lyrics start to make sense and you feel you've achieved a brief understanding or connection, Jeff comes up with something like "Song Against Sex," as surreal an anti-drugs rant as they come. Following a brief discourse concerning a figure of Christ kissing fishes as they fly away from this fingers, going on to describe pretty men and burning girls hanging on meat hooks at a market stall, Jeff hits you with what appears to be the core of the song: "...all the drugs that I don't have the guts to take to soothe my mind / so I'm always sober, always aching, always heading towards mass suicide . . . don't take those pills your boyfriend gave you, you're too wonderful to die . . . I'll sleep out in the gutter, you can sleep here on the floor. . . with a match that's mean and some gasoline you won't see me anymore" - and if you think that's heavy, try the ultiamte melancholy of arguably the most disturbing Neutral Milk Hotel song yet recorded, a number which perfectly illustrates the maxim that the sleep of reason breeds monsters. "Three Peaches" runs roughly, yet sublimely, thus: ". . . so wake up, run your lips across your fingers till you find some scent of yourself that you can hold up high to remind yourself that you didn't die / on a day that was so crappy . . . you're in the bathroom caring holiday designs into yourself / hoping noone would find you but they found you and they took you and you somehow survived . . . I'm so happy you didn't die . . ." (and somehow Mangum makes the word survived drag out for thirty terrible seconds and even the phrase "I'm so happy" sounds like a mourner beset by the death of a twin.)
Jeff: "The album was recorded in Denver with Robert Schneider from the Apples in Stereo. Robert's a friend I met in second grade, we must have been about eight years old at the time. (Apart from producing On Avery Island, Schneider is also credited with organs, fuzz bass, xylophones, and horn arrangements. Jeff in return plays bass and sings backing vocals on the Apples in Stereo album, Fun Trick Noisemaker on Spinart Records.)
"It was January in Denver, freezing cold and snowing all over. I moved into a friend's house and was living in a closet and it was cold, not only because of the weather but because it was a haunted house. The closet I was living in was haunted. The person that lived in the house kept having dreams of people having cocktail parties in my closet. There would always be these really beautiful women in really tacky fur coats drinking champagne and telling my friend that we should get the fuck out of their party because we were really pissing them off . . .
"So I lived in my closet and listened to a lot of John Coltrane and waited about a month to start recording. Robert and I would get stuck on something when we were recording and walk around and grab our heads and get really frustrated, go outside and have a cigarette and to the store, and then we'd suddenly hit on something and we'd jump up and down and hug each other. The whole album just blurs in a beautiful way to me, like a dream, because I guess my whole life the past three years had been geared towards the end which is the album itself. It's sort of the culmination of the whole experience."
Jeff Mangum's extended family of musical friendships actually goes way beyond schoolfriend Robert Schneider, and it's this mutual love and respect built up over a number of years which I suspect lends such an intimacy and empathy to the music they all play together. Will Cullen Hart of the Olivia Tremor Control was another junior high school chum. Bill Doss of the same band met them in high school and all of them grew up together in the same small town in Louisiana.
Jeff: "Becoming aware of punk rock in 1983 was sort of a revelation. Will Cullen and I started our own little punk band called Maggot, which was me and Will on guitar, we'd both had guitars for Christmas, plus a guy named Ty Storms on vocals. He's now a conservative lawyer in New Orleans or something. So we were squawking on guitars while Ty was singing about masturbation and how much he hated his parents and running away from home and the kind of stuff you sing about when you're 13 years old. We just set out to be the most disgusting band that had ever existed. After that Will and I were in the Cranberry Life Cycle, which was our little 4-track pop thing we had going when we were about 19 I think. It was basically just us trying to find our voice. We'd dropped out of school and had moved into a little shack of a place with this really obnoxious alcoholic slob who left smashed televisions and garbage all over the house. We were desperate to be out on our own so we moved in there and started recording, just putting sounds together and seeing what happened. Then we formed a band called the Synthetic Flying Machine. A lot of the songs we did in the Synthetic Flying Machine the Olivia Tremor Control do now, although when people say today "I really loved that band Synthetic Flying Machine . . .", it doesn't seem like it was a band as much as it was an extension of myself, and playing with Will was as natural as drinking water, you know? Also, Bill would come by and play guitar with us, he was living in Lousiana at the time. I guess we were sort of Neutral Milk Hotel as far back as 1989, a litttle noise/fuzz group, kind of a ramshackle attempt at being a band.
Apart from appearing on the new Olivia Tremor Control double album Music From The Unrealized Film Script, "Dusk At Cubist Castle", on which he plays some (out of tune) piano, melodica, and slide guitar, Jeff was officially a member of the Olivia Tremor Control during the recording of their first EP, California Demise, which was recorded while they were all living together for four months or so in another run-down house in Athens, Georgia. This was shortly after Jeff left Seattle and before he lived in a boiler room in Denver, a story which I'll try to weave into this peace furthur along.
It was while living in Seattle that the first Neutral Milk Hotel single came about. "Everything Is" / "Snow Song Pt. 1" on Cher Doll Records is one the few really great singles released in recent years, a deceptively jolly pair of titles with a brooding, fuzzy guitar underscore through which Jeff's haunting, and haunted, vocals weave their way, leaving little scars behind them like a drunkard blundering through a cornfield.
Jeff: "The single was a Godsend becuase I was pretty much at the end of my rope with just about everything in my life at that point. I'd moved away from my home and all my friends for the first time and I was very much alone and sad. I ended up sending a tape to Nancy at Cher Doll Records and she saved me merely by saying she wanted to do a single. I just sent her a tape of what I had around at the time, some songs I'd recorded on a four-track, and she chose "Everything Is" and "Snow Song Pt. 1."
Another song which dates from Jeff's time in Seattle is "Up And Over" on the 7" EP The Amazing Phantom Third Channel, also on Cher Doll Records. "A lot of us were really lost at this point in our lives and we were all pretty scared. So I wrote that song for everybody to sort of say, you know, everything's going to be alright, don't be afraid. Most of my songs were recorded for friends, a friend would be depressed or having a hard time and I'd write a pop song for them to make them feel better.
"The song 'You've Passed' was actually written for my grandmother who passed away right after we left Seattle. I happened to call my Mom while were in Washington state and she told me that my grandmother had died, and I didn't even get to go to the funeral. So that song was written for her when I was living in a sort of boiler room connected to a friend's apartment in Denver. The room housed the boiler and all the pipes and stuff and when the maintenance people would come I'd have to run and hide my bedding and pretend I wasn't living there. Actually, I wrote a lot of songs in there. I have nice memories of that little room. All of my songs are life, you know? I have a little dream world in my head and I just sing about it. I don't really understand it either, or undrestand it in a way that I could express verbally."
Two more 7" EP releases complete the smaller picture, "Rubby Bulbs" on the Those Pre-phylloxera Years compilation on Box Dog Sound (Bill Doss of the Olivia Tremor Control helps out on that one) and "Invent Yourself A Shortcake" on the Champagne Dancing Party EP on Cher Doll which features Bill Doss and Will Cullen. There's one further 7" on Cher Doll featuring Neutral Milk Hotel, a song entitled "Bucket" which Jeff claims, "I'm not very happy with because it was recorded in a studio and doesn't sound like me, it's sort of . . . unfinished. I think everyone has to record at least once outside of their typical environment and realise you can't just walk in and expect things to turn out the way you wanted."
Given that Jeff's "typical environment" appears to be a series of squats, cupboards, and boiler houses, it's perhaps hard to imagine that a clinical studio environment wouldn't be a more comfortable place to work. I think I know what he means though, and as I said earlier, apparent contradictions such as this abound on On Avery Island. There are, for example, songs that sound identical but which somehow remain distinct and independent, like an artist working on the same portrait in pastels and then in oils. "A Baby For Pree" and "Where You'll Find Me Now" are twins aside from being lyrically distinct and separated at birth by a distorted Casio keyboard and tape loop instrumental stanza, the first of which was the last song written for the album (when the friend named in the title became pregnant) and the second being a lament to unrequited lust: "The scent of you sweating smells good to me / as long as keep in our clothes . . . and out in the dark the world is still rolling / kids in their cars, cigarette smoking . . .", closing with an allegorical ice-cream van jingle that echoes lost childhood and innocence. A short trombone interlude from Rick Benjamin then leads to another surreal parable of love, an elegaic couplet entitled "Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone" which reads thus: ". . . like a walk in the park / like a hole in your head / like the feeling you get when you realise you're dead / this time we ride roller coasters into the ocean / we feel no emotion / as we spiral down to the world . . . it gets hard to explain / the gardenhead knows my name / Leave me alone for you know this isn't the first time / in fact, this is twice in a row / that the angels have slipped through our landslide and filled up our garden with snow." (Consider that this is followed by the deceptively gentle strummed guitar / pump organ refrain of the nightmarish "Three Peaches" and you start to get some idea of the sheer force of poetry that underlines this album.)
Jeff: "'Gardenhead' was written right before the sun came up one morning in Athens. I was sort of hallucinating because I hadn't slept in a long time and I was dying to go to sleep but I kept telling myself that I needed to finish this song first. Finally I finished it and collapsed asleep with exhaustion. I woke up next day, sang it again and there it was."
On Avery Island closes with a seemingly endless howling banshee of atonal cacophonous sound, like a storm trapped in the belly of a buffalo it rumbles around screaming to be allowed out where a living nightmare can become daylight reality. Given that there's a strong instrumental pulse running through this and indeed all of his records, pulling in all manner of different strings, horns, percussive effects and sounds, I asked Jeff whether he was a trained musician or purely an intuitive one?
"I play guitar, bass, and drums and I play some keyboards. I just hum a alot, I guess. I do do a lot of humming! There's some things I really wish I knew, in some ways I wish I'd foresaken all else as a kid and just learned every instrument I possibly could but that's not very realistic, plus I would have missed out on everything else that's happened to me. Banjo has given me some trouble, that's sort of an awkward instrument, but altogether I consider myself to be pretty primitive. In the live band at the moment, Julian plays banjo and he also plays accordion and the saw and the Moog. Another friend, Scott, plays guitar and banjo and trumpet and our drummer is Jeremy, who dropped out of school to be with us. His parents aren't very pleased
"I'd really like to settle down myself, because I haven't had a home in a long time. I'd like to try and find a home and sit there for awhile and record, becuase I really miss those days when I could just go to my room and make music. I still have the opportunity to record and I still have the opportunity to write songs but I kinda want to get to be old recording. I want to explore all the things I can get down on tape and see what happens. I like to work slow, to think about what I'm doing and feel what I'm doing. I'm just making music and that's where it ends."
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yeah... | Reviewer: Guillermo | 7/31/2007
my favorite album - it accomplishes the highest of all musical goals better than any other cd i've ever heard.
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Amazing | Reviewer: Adam | 5/9/2007
This is a great article.
Their songs are mindblowingly moving and...deep
Two Headed Boy Part II is out of this world.
Haunting, beautiful. Just wow.
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NMH | Reviewer: Julia | 2/26/2006
Yes, I agree. I certainly hope it was written before '98... because In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is arguably one of the most amazing albums ever. So here's to hoping that the biography is updated sometime soon.
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Neutral Milk Hotel | Reviewer: Chas Trowbridge | 6/21/2005
'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea' changed my life. It is probably the best album i its class I have heard to date. I hope the band bio was written before that album came out because it wasn't even mentioned. 'On Avery Island ' is a great album, don't get me wrong, but it is no 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'
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