NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL
Jeff Mangum has recorded/performed under this name since high school. Apparently the guys in Olivia Tremor Control came up with the name (Jeff, in turn, came up with the name "Olivia Tremor Control," legend goes). There's a meaning behind the name(s), but Jeff has been reluctant to divulge. The band has not really kept a steady line-up over the years, but I've tried to organize a few different incarnations:
- Neutral Milk Hotel (1st incarnation)
Neutral Milk Hotel began as Jeff, Will Cullen Hart, and Bill Doss.. sort of a Jeff-lead alternative to the other band the three were in together, Olivia Tremor Control. I don't know if they did much serious recording/performing in this line-up. The early NMH demo cassettes were mostly solo Jeff recordings, but Will and Bill might appear on them here or there. They did play at least one show, a laundromat to a handful of people. That's considered to be the live debut of Neutral Milk Hotel. Alfred Hybrid, a friend of the band at the time, shares his memory from the show:
The laundromat wasn't just a laundry facility. It was a bar, live music venue and pool hall with coin operated washers and dryers in the back room. The Fun-O-Mat was its name. The live music consisted of mostly small college acts, but I remember when Better than Ezra played there (before their guy killed himself). When Jeff, Will and Bill played there, I think the name was still Cranberry [Lifecycle]. That's the name on the tapes they gave me at that time. I joined them on stage for one song (can't remember which one, but I knew the words, so it must've been on one of the tapes). I was in Ruston from August 89 to May 90, so this is my frame of reference.
- Neutral Milk Hotel (2nd incarnation)
In 1994, Neutral Milk Hotel was briefly a duo, with Jeff teaming with Ross Beach:
I was in NMH for only a month. Jeff had been living in Denver and was staying in Ruston for a month before moving to Athens. This was just after the Everything Is/Snow Song single came out on Cher Doll. He and I played as a duo. Our only public performance was opening for Jon Spencer in New Orleans. I'm not on any of Jeff's albums, but one time when he was recording at the house where I lived he pulled me into the room and asked me to play keyboards on a song. I also helped set up mics a few times over the years.
A curious note for this incarnation of NMH is that Jeff was on drums and vocals, with Ross handling guitar duties:
Jeff was always a great drummer. For putting together a band quickly, he probably figured it would be easier to hold down that aspect and get someone else to cram the guitar part. I had a reputation as a fast study, I guess. It was super fun. Very stripped down in a Royal Trux/Flat Duo Jets kind of way.
- Neutral Milk Hotel (3rd incarnation)
For the recording of On Avery Island, NMH was basically a solo effort, with Jeff doing most of the work, occasionally bringing in friends to lend a hand, especially Robert Schneider (The Apples In Stereo), Lisa Janssen (Secret Square), and Rick Benjamin (The Perry Weissman Three).
- Neutral Milk Hotel (4th incarnation)
Not long after the release of On Avery Island, the "classic" line-up of the band came together. Puncture magazine ran a great article on how this line-up came to be:
Julian Koster was the catalyst of the 4 members coming together. After Julian's band Chocolate USA ceased to exist, he arranged for NMH to stay in the basement of his grandmother's apartment on Long Island, in New York. Scott Spillane had been working at a pizza joint in Austin, TX and living in a van. At Julian's urging, Scott (also a former resident of Ruston, LA) jumped on a Greyhound bus in Austin and came to Long Island. Julian then made Jeff get on a train to Chicago to visit a drummer named Jeremy Barnes. According to Jeremy, Jeff only played half of one song with him the whole time he was there, 'cause he was so freaked out at how expensive the studio time was, but was happy enough with the way they sounded together. Nevertheless he asked Jeremy to drop out of school and meet the group in Long Island in 3 months. To the chagrin of his folks, Jeremy agreed. (Jeremy had met Julian when [Jeremy's band] Bablicon played a show with Chocolate USA in Chicago. He had stayed in touch with Julian, hoping to work with him in the future.)
The group stayed in NY for several months playing lots of shows before settling in Athens where some of their old pals from Ruston had already landed.
The second album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, was the first record with a fixed line-up. The bulk of it was recorded at Robert Schneider's "Pet Sounds studio" in Denver in 1997 and was released on Merge records in Feb. 1998. This record features contributions from Robert as well as Laura Carter from Elf Power.
After extensive touring in 1998, the band went on a break, turning down all offers for shows in 1999. Instead, the members went back to concentrating on other projects; Julian worked on Music Tapes, Scott worked on new Gerbils material, and Jeremy went back to Chicago to devote more time to Bablicon. Jeff spent time working on various projects with friends including musique concrete recordings with W. Cullen Hart (The Olivia Tremor Control, The Circulatory System).
Although all the members are still active with one another in other projects, it is unknown if they'll release anymore albums as NMH. But there are plans to release a NMH rarities/b-sides album eventually on the label Orange Twin. (elephant6.com)
- Neutral Milk Hotel (5th incarnation)
After the fixed line-up splintered apart, Jeff pretty much kept clear of the spotlight, effectively putting his Neutral Milk Hotel songs into hibernation. He did briefly reemerge for one show in February 2001, with Laura Carter lending a hand (See entry for Walking Wall of Beards, Incorporated.)
- Neutral Milk Hotel (further incarnations?)
What does the future hold for Neutral Milk Hotel? Who knows. Jeff apparently hasn't performed NMH songs since the aforementioned show in February of 2001... and he hasn't toured in any capacity since the autumn of that year, as best I can figure (drumming for Circulatory System). Since then, he's sometimes guested on a song or two at shows by his friends in Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, and The Instruments when they each came through NYC. It's been said that he still picks up a guitar from time to time, though has no immediate plans for the new songs he's working on. While a few fans would rather just leave the band's legacy as it stands, most pine for the day Jeff returns to making music to share with the world. Some point to Jeff's admiration of Robert Wyatt, a songwriter who tempers his albums with years of reclusion, and speculate Jeff will reemerge after a span of time in a similar fashion. It seems only time will tell if we've heard the last of Neutral Milk Hotel.