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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. Addresses: Home--Neutral Milk Hotel, P.O. Box 80551, Athens, GA 30608.
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; it's a forum for the bands to collaborate, to sit around and share musical ideas, play on each other's records, and perpetuate their skewed sensibility." He went further and revealed the group's 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 6's 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 Hotel's 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, that's what the band is. I don't 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 other's 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 Hotel's first single, "Everything Is/Snow Song" was released by Seattle's Cher Doll Records in 1994. Nancy Ostrander, owner of Cher Doll, found Mangum's music intriguing. Cost conveyed Ostrander's attraction for Mangum's music, "It was fuzzy and happy and catchier than heck. I like music that is actual songs--the shorter the better--and 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 magazine's list of 10 Best Albums You Didn't 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 City's 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 Koster's who was attending DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, at the time played the drums. Scott Spillane, a Louisiana buddy of Mangum's, left his job in an Austin pizza parlor to join the collective. The product of that particular collection of musicians impressed many listeners. "It's 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 Baum's sequels to The Wizard of Oz or the more frightening aspects of the pre-Disney Pinocchio," Cost said of Mangum's work. Hart described how Mangum's writing created a story in his songs: "They're full of little images that create a larger picture. It's sort of like a pointillist painting: unhappy little stories--problems and turmoil that everybody has--but the large picture they make says, 'Don't worry. We're 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, it's really important for each project to have an identity of its own and to be taken seriously as its own entity." Schneider's 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 Stereo's 1998 release, Tone Soul Evolution.
by Nathan Sweet
Neutral Milk Hotel's Career
Formed in Ruston, LA, 1989; released debut album, On Avery Island, 1996; released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, 1998.
- 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.
- Graff, Gary and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
- Magnet, May/June, 1998, pp. 46-50; August/September, 1996.
- "Elephant 6," Addicted to Noise, http://www.addict.com/html/hifi/Features/Elephant_Six/960909/ (December 20, 2000).
- "Safe As Milk," Virginia Music Flash.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=&NewsID=3858&LookUpString=2981(December 20, 2000).
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