Neutral Milk Hotel: a beginner’s guide
Neutral Milk Hotel Press shot

It may be hard to believe for their die-hard fans, but Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut album On Avery Island turns 20 this week.

Often cited as one of the best cult bands ever, they are criminally overlooked among their indie-rock contemporaries, so as part of our ongoing series on underrated bands you should definitely get to know, here we shed some light on Jeff Mangum’s short-lived but much-loved Louisiana four-piece.

You can find a Spotify playlist of ten of our favourite NMH tracks at the bottom of this post.


Jeff Mangum Neutral Milk Hotel Wikimedia Commons

Neutral Milk Hotel formed in 1989 in Ruston, Louisiana. Originally Jeff Mangum was the sole member, providing all instrumentation including vocals and guitars to the project’s releases which, up until 1996’s debut album On Avery Island, only included a handful of demo tapes.

These tapes were not demos in the traditional sense, and instead of a ‘band’ Mangum treated Neutral Milk Hotel more like a recording project, with songs played between various sound collages and tape experiments, which include 1991’s Invent Yourself a Shortcake, 1992’s Beauty and 1993’s Hype City Soundtrack.

1994 saw the first full release under the Neutral Milk Hotel name in the Everything Is EP, which was recorded during a period of wandering from Mangum, where he would travel the country and sleep on friends’ floors. There was still no ‘band’ at this point, and so people appearing on Neutral Milk Hotel recordings alongside Mangum were usually whoever else was present at the time.

On Avery Island, the band’s first full LP, came two years later, and by this point Mangum had been joined by a childhood friend, Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider. Once the album was released and their popularity began to grow, it was obvious a full band had to be formed to take it on the road.

Best record?

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

Neutral Milk Hotel In The Aeroplane Over The Sea album artwork

This 1998 album was the band’s second, and is undoubtedly their most acclaimed.

It’s said to be heavily inspired by the story of Anne Frank, with Mangum frequently describing the songs at live shows as being based on the recurring dreams he’d had of a Jewish family during World War II.

Critics praised the eleven songs for their wildly inventive use of instrumentation, and the poetic and imagery-filled lyrics, sung with passion by Mangum.

Despite the praise, the record only sold a modest amount of copies in its initial run, though it has gone on to sell around 300,000 units according to label Merge Records, thanks in part to its ever growing cult status, and its reputation as one of the best underground indie albums ever created.

Ultimately, the record’s loyal support took its toll on Mangum, and a year of constant touring proved to be the final straw for the singer, who forced the project on indefinite hiatus and turned down high profile support slots with R.E.M..

3 defining tracks

‘In An Aeroplane Over The Sea’

In An Aeroplane Over The Sea‘s title track is a lilting acoustic ballad that jolts around in waltz time as Mangum’s nasal delivery complements his jangling guitar perfectly.

Schneider’s production chops kick in when a haunting sound looms from behind the percussion, and you genuinely can’t put your finger on what the instrument that might be.

‘Song Against Sex’

The opener to 1996’s debut On Avery Island shows Neutral Milk Hotel at their balanced best. A sharp burst of noise gives way to a softer main track, but one that’s laced with just the right amount of fuzz. An indie-rock masterclass.

‘Oh Comely’

All good bands seem to have an eight-minute masterpiece, and this is Neutral Milk Hotel’s. For the most part it’s just Mangum and his acoustic, but it somehow seems to be utterly captivating throughout, never letting up steam.

How it ended

Neutral Milk Hotel Press shot

A year of extensive touring of In An Aeroplane Over The Sea took its toll on Mangum, and he forced the band into an indefinite hiatus.

Fourteen years passed before the band were seen in full again, with Mangum playing solo shows of NMH material in 2010 and a full reunion tour following. They toured with the original In the Aeroplane Over the Sea line-up throughout 2013 and 2014, even going so far as to announce another run of shows for 2015.

However, that 2015 tour was to be the band’s last, and a statement confirmed this:

“Dear friends we love you but it’s time to say goodbye for the never ending now to announce that spring 2015 will be our last tour for the foreseeable future and so we extend our deepest gratitude to all the beautiful people who came to see us over the last year…..”

Who they influenced

Arcade Fire

NMH’s influence has been cited widley by a varying aural palette of artists.

Everyone from Arcade Fire (pictured) to Bon Iver to Franz Ferdinand to Bright Eyes has claimed the band as a pivotal informant of their own music, and the band’s songs have been covered by Brand New, The Mountain Goats, The Dresden Dolls, and Kevin Devine.

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