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Neutral Milk Hotel

With a relatively slight body of recorded material and a trajectory as mysterious and uneven as their music, Neutral Milk Hotel became one of the more important and influential bands in indie rock on the strength of how unique and connective their songs were. Centered around the songwriting of founder and key member Jeff Mangum, NMH explored faith, spirituality, sex, and mortality from skewed and unpredictable angles all their own. Mangum's simple yet bold melodic folk tunes were delivered in waves of fuzz and intensity, tempering direct delivery with otherworldly magic on the band's two studio albums, 1996's On Avery Island and 1998's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, both critically canonized and cherished by fans as essential and even life-affirming. The band went on hiatus in 1998, right as they were forming a cult following. They resurfaced for a brief window of touring between 2013 and 2015, and various compilations and ephemeral releases appeared as their legacy grew, with 2023's The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel presenting the lion's share of the band's widely shared music. Neutral Milk Hotel began in the late '80s as Milk, one of several home recording projects by Ruston, Louisiana teenager Jeff Mangum. The experimental sounds Mangum and his high-school friends were making at the time would eventually grow into the Elephant 6 collective, but it began with Mangum, Bill Doss, Will Hart, and Robert Schneider trading cassettes of their homespun creations. After high school, Mangum moved to Athens, Georgia, still recording songs but now under the name Neutral Milk Hotel, having learned there was already another band called Milk. The first somewhat public release from the band came in 1993 with the Hype-City Soundtrack cassette, also one of the first releases from Elephant 6. A 7" EP entitled Everything Is arrived the same year, and NMH's music made it to the ears of Merge Records, which signed the group. At this point, the band still existed mostly as a lo-fi recording project that Mangum stitched together with help from various friends. After decamping to Denver, Colorado to record proper debut album On Avery Island with Schneider, Mangum expanded his long-running project into a fully realized touring band, bringing on drummer Jeremy Barnes, bassist Julian Koster, and multi-instrumentalist Scott Spillane. The newly minted band relocated to New York, where they rehearsed for upcoming tours. On Avery Island was released by Merge in March of 1996 and performed well for an indie-released debut from a virtually unknown band. The group toured in 1997 and then ventured back to Denver to record their second album, again with Schneider producing, but this time as a full band. This album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, was released by Merge in February of 1998 and initially performed similarly to On Avery Island. The production was somewhat more nuanced than the debut, and the full-band arrangements went deeper into moments of chamber pop, circus music, and Beatlesque psychedelia, where On Avery Island tended to be more experimental and sometimes challenging. There was a gradual groundswell of excitement for the album that only grew as time went on, and the band noticed more and more people at their shows. This newfound attention almost immediately began effecting Mangum's mental and emotional wellbeing, as fans could be obsessive, sometimes hounding him at shows with questions about his lyrics. After a show in London in October of 1998, Mangum withdrew from the public eye, and NMH stopped performing and making new music entirely. It was during this time that the band, Mangum, and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea all began rising to almost mythic status as more listeners became fascinated with the album's strange world of hallucinatory imagery and captivating melodic songwriting. The album continued to sell steadily years after its release, and more press pieces were dedicated to unpacking the mystery of both the band and the reclusive mastermind responsible for these peculiar songs. In 2001, Live at Jittery Joe's was released: a bootleg-quality recording of a solo show Mangum had performed in Athens in 1997 shortly before leaving for the NMH tours in support of In the Aeroplane. In 2008, Mangum resurfaced to play some select solo shows, which led to full solo tours in 2011 and 2012. In 2011, a self-titled vinyl box set of the majority of the band's recorded material was released, including newly recorded songs from an EP entitled Ferris Wheel On Fire. The entire quartet lineup of the band reunited to tour between 2013 and 2015, but after those tours concluded, they insisted any future reunions were unlikely. In 2023, a digital version of the 2011 box set was issued as The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel.
© Fred Thomas /TiVo


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