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Neutral Milk Hotel

Neutral Milk Hotel

Rock group

For the Record

Selected discography

Sources

Neutral Milk Hotel, a fuzz-folk band from Ruston, Louisiana, was the conceptual manifestation of Jeff Mangum. He and several other young men from Louisiana stepped into their visions and brought them to life by forming the Elephant 6 Recording Collective. For the most part, their songs revealed the artists perception of their lives. Elephant 6 member Bill Doss told Gil Kaufman in Addicted to Noise online that the meaning of the Elephant 6 is really pretty simple; its a forum for the bands to collaborate, to sit around and share musical ideas, play on each others records, and perpetuate their skewed sensibility. He went further and revealed the groups close ties: Instead of sending out demos and trying to break into the scene, we made our own scene. So we just lived in this disillusionment that we were doing something really spectacular that nobody ever heard, and probably never will and we were OK with that.

Music from Elephant 6 was unique, but enjoyable. Johnathon Perry of Rolling Stone magazine described the sound of projects from the collective as being typically of the low-fi pop variety, but studio technology is the only primitive thing about them. The records are kaleidoscopic in scope, Technicolor in imagination, and densely, lovingly, populated with an endless parade of fairy-tale heroes, villains, and objects as seen through Elephant 6s warped looking-glass: flying phonographs and green typewriters, red kings and communist daughters.

Mangum and his neighbor, Will Hart, played middle school football together before playing music together. Mangum started his musical career as a teen listening to groups from the punk and hard rock scenes. The two brought their guitars, amplifiers, and attitude together and formed Maggot, one of the most wretched punk bands that ever existed, according to Mangum in an article by Jason Ferguson in Magnet magazine. He soon ventured away from the attitude-laden, simple instrumentations of punk, while his musical skill developed over time.

Following this experiment with punk, Mangum began tinkering with inexpensive cassette tape recorders. Soon, Mangum, Hart, Robert Schneider, and Bill Doss, all high school buddies, were passing their spare time by recording and sharing personal cassette tapes for each other. They recorded sounds such as parents on the answering machine, noises from instruments they could not even play, siblings screaming over breaking bottles, and other commonly unnoticed sounds from unique sources. When a tape was complete, the guys would pass it from friend to friend in a gesture of sharing and desire for comment. Enjoying the creation and recording of music, Mangum soon began writing songs. Those days of avant-garde experiments allowed the development of what was to become Neutral Milk Hotel, which began on a homemade cassette tape in 1987.

The influence of groups like the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and Fleetwood Mac can be heard in the recordings of Neutral Milk Hotel. Including instruments such as the singing saw, flugelhorn, and accordion, many of the projects use low-fi instruments and recording techniques. Mangum discovered Neutral Milk Hotels sound while working on a four-track recorder. Accidentally activating the remix function while his acoustic guitar was scruffing through a broken distortion pedal, the hyper-fuzz created by the combination warmed his creative heart. Mangum expressed the excitement of his find to Jud Cost in Magnet, I hit it one time accidentally and it blew my head off, and I totally fell in love with it.

Mangum explained his process of writing songs, many that are autobiographical, to Head, I just write whatever songs come out of me and just sing whatever comes naturally. So whatever those songs happen to be, thats what the band is. I dont have a real, conscious direction for the group. Band member Julian Koster explained to Perry that the members work together. He stated that, We all share a big love for each others visions, so if one of us has an idea, the rest of us jump in trying to help realize that vision.

After high school, Mangum moved from Ruston and traveled to Austin, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Chicago, Illinois; and New York City picking up temporary band members, playing, and recording music. Neutral Milk Hotels first single, Everything Is/Snow Song was released by Seattles Cher Doll Records in 1994.

For the Record

Members include Jeremy Barnes (member 1996-present), drums, organ; Julian Koster (member 1996-present), accordion, singing saw, bass, banjo; Jeff Mangum, vocals, guitar, bass, tapes; Scott Spillane (member 1996-present), euphonium, bugle, flugelhorn.

Formed in Ruston, LA, 1989; released debut album, On Avery; Island, 1996; released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, 1998.

Addresses: Home Neutral Milk Hotel, P.O. Box 80551, Athens, GA 30608.

Nancy Ostrander, owner of Cher Doll, found Mangums music intriguing. Cost conveyed Ostranders attraction for Mangums music, It was fuzzy and happy and catchier than heck. I like music that is actual songs the shorter the betterand he got bonus points for Snow Song sounding like the Jesus and Mary Chain. The band was featured on two compilations that were also released by Cher Doll: Amazing Phantom Third Channel, in 1994 and Champagne Dancing Party, in 1995.

Neutral Milk Hotel soon demonstrated their indie nature with an album through Elephant 6. Their debut album, On Avery Island, was produced by Schneider and recorded in his Denver studio, Pet Sounds. It was released in 1996 on their own label, Merge. Contributors to On Avery Island included Schneider, Lisa Janssen of Supersquare, Rick Benjamin, and an Indonesian-type orchestra, among others. According to Ferguson, Mangum created a dozen tracks of fuzzy, folksy pop that, though recorded on the cheap via a four-track with a small mixing board, bears none of the hallmarks of what most people perceive as lo-fi. The album was impressive to many listeners and even found attention in the mainstream as evidenced by earning a spot on Spin magazines list of 10 Best Albums You Didnt Hear in 96. Neutral Milk Hotel even supported their album by assembling a band long enough to put on a few live performances. In doing so, they made a prestigious leap from their supposed first gig in a Ruston laundromat, to venues as popular as New York Citys Knitting Factory.

Several of the collective eventually settled in Athens, Georgia, for awhile. Soon, work began on the second album. Schneider was again the dynamo in the studio, producing the new project, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, in his Pet Sounds studios. Cut on a 16-track recorder, it included typical low-fi instruments and even a temporary band. Koster played the singing saw, bowed banjo, and accordion. Jeremy Barnes, a friend of Kosters who was attending DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, at the time played the drums. Scott Spillane, a Louisiana buddy of Mangums, left his job in an Austin pizza parlor to join the collective. The product of that particular collection of musicians impressed many listeners. Its the work of a man influenced as much by William S. Burroughs or James Joyce as by the Edwardian illustrations of flying couches and talking sawhorses in L. Frank Baums sequels to The Wizard of Oz or the more frightening aspects of the pre-Disney Pinocchio, Cost said of Mangums work. Hart described how Mangums writing created a story in his songs: Theyre full of little images that create a larger picture. Its sort of like a pointillist painting: unhappy little storiesproblems and turmoil that everybody hasbut the large picture they make says, Dont worry. Were going to be all right.

The original members of Elephant 6 have played together for more than 15 years. Despite the collaborative nature of the collective, Mangum recognized the importance of individuality when he stated to Perry, Even when the projects contain some of the same members, its really important for each project to have an identity of its own and to be taken seriously as its own entity. Schneiders musical entity was Apples In Stereo with SpinArt as the label. Hart and Doss used The Olivia Tremor Control, which was on Flydaddy, to voice their expressions. In 1998, Secret Square and the Clay Bears were also bands within Elephant 6. As of early 1999, Julian Koster had added his band, the Music Tapes. The Sire record company was the first major label to invest in any of the Elephant 6 groups. They pledged a major distribution for Apples In Stereos 1998 release, Tone Soul Evolution.

Selected discography

(Contributor) Amazing Phantom Third Channel, Cher Doll, 1994.

(Contributor) Champagne Dancing Party, Cher Doll, 1995.

On Avery Island, Merge, 1996.

In The Aeroplane over the Sea, Merge, 1998.

Sources

Books

Graff, Gary and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock, Visible Ink Press, 1999.

Periodicals

Magnet, May/June, 1998, pp. 46-50; August/September, 1996.

Online

Elephant 6, Addicted to Noise, http://www.addict.com/html/hifi/Features/Elephant_Six/960909/ (December 20, 2000).

Safe As Milk, Virginia MusicFlash.com, http://www.virginiamusicflash.com/neutral.htm (December 20, 2000).

The Milk of Human Kindness, Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com/sections/news/text/newsarticle.asp?afl=&NewslD=3858&LookUpString=2981 (December 20, 2000).

Nathan Sweet

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