On 4 December 2010, something unusual, though not altogether unprecedented, occurred in a little club in Brooklyn. Jeff Mangum, indie rock’s previously most reclusive star, made a surprise appearance at the Schoolhouse, and performed a full acoustic set, the first in at least a decade. What followed was a chain reaction that, some could remark, is the return of the Neutral Milk Hotel frontman and key figure to the Elephant 6 Recording Company: The announcement of the second Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour on which Mangum was expected by many to make an appearance or two (causing every show to sell out quickly), the announcement of the Portishead-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties “I’ll Be Your Mirror” event with a full set by Mangum, and, finally, the combined announcement of an East Coast tour and his curating of an ATP weekend in England, complete with an appearance by Elephant 6 stalwarts the Olivia Tremor Control (of which he once was a member).
All of this, of course, brings up the distinct possibility of a complete reunion of Neutral Milk Hotel. After all, to many, the primary stumbling block of a reunion was Jeff Mangum, who famously isolated himself to the world at large after he broke up the band in 1998. And with one promising performance by all the band’s members during the first Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour, it seemed a likely conclusion.
But is this a a good idea? Not really.
There is little doubt that Jeff Mangum, Jeremy Barnes, Julian Koster, and Scott Spillane have at least entertained the thought of a reunion, especially after the first Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour. But all of them have likely dismissed the idea out of hand simply because, after all that has happened before and since the break-up, it really isn’t necessary for them to return in full force. And despite the utter significance of their two albums, a reunion will only severely blunt people’s expectations, if not sour them.
Let’s Go to Athens
To get an understanding of the band’s mindset, one has to go back to Athens, Georgia in the mid-‘90s. Back then, most of the band’s future fans were at their eldest in middle school and early high school, as were many of the bands that would eventually claim NMH as an influence. With the exception of the most prominent, many music writers were at best still in college. The Internet was still a confusing concept to everyone in the world, and at fastest ran at 28.8 kbps, a 20th of the slowest speed most broadband connections run at now. Publications like Spin and Rolling Stone still had significant critical influence, as did fabled music critics like Robert Christgau.
More importantly, back then, the arts culture of America was far different from now. Williamsburg/Greenpoint and Silverlake/Echo Park, the current east and west coast hipster nexuses, were just low-key neighborhoods. Backed by a wave of financial prosperity in the country, the development of the arts was far more regional, usually set in a small set of art warehouses in the older industrial neighborhoods of any city. Many floundered due to the chaotic communal aspect of these warehouse scenes, some collapsed under the weight of gentrification. But it still meant that a young person did not necessarily need to move to New York City or Los Angeles at that point in time to be creative and successful. This kind of regional art would eventually decline before resurfacing in the Great Recession, though for different reasons altogether.
In a sense, the Elephant 6 Recording Company, which was established in Denver in 1991, was like an art warehouse community. Given the collective’s ultimate location in Athens, Georgia, it obviously had a more rural and spread-out situation, with the concept of sustainable co-ops still a decade away. But the elements of an art community were still there, with various members working on a shared set of projects, all playing around with different ideas. A testament to its existence, however, was the camaraderie between these members: It was less a community and more a family. There was never any sense of ambition beyond what was creative among its members, and everybody did their part to do something amazing. In the minds of all involved, Neutral Milk Hotel was as much an equal in Elephant 6 as the Apples in Stereo, Dressy Bessy, Elf Power, even a young Of Montreal.
The collaborative nature of Elephant 6 was felt throughout: Jeff Mangum was an early member of the Olivia Tremor Control, Bryan Poole played in a few different acts before settling with Kevin Barnes, and every prominent recording at least seemed to have the presence of Julian Koster. Albums were recorded at somebody’s house, though, in some cases, bands used Robert Schneider’s personal studio in Denver, Pet Sounds Studios. During this time, talk and even recording began of a film project, which eventually resulted in the short film Major Organ & the Adding Machine. All in all, there existed a positive, flourishing environment in Athens. The only other scene at the time that could compare to Elephant 6 was Providence’s Fort Thunder.
They Were All Waiting for Me
It was with this backdrop that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was developed and released. When it came it out, the album received praise, but only modestly. Some even criticized the (at the time) cryptic lyrics and mess of a production. This is not to say that the album was seen as a bad album, and in fact many considered it a great album. But it did not garner the instant classic reputation that was developed of other albums that decade, including Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and Nevermind.
In a way, it is hard to really assess the two albums that make the backbone of Neutral Milk Hotel’s repertoire in the mix of everything else that was released in the ‘90s, in the more specific contexts of indie rock or even Elephant 6. This is in part due to the continual personnel changes until the establishment of Scott Spillane, Jeremy Barnes, and Julian Koster as a permanent lineup with Mangum. That said, On Avery Island was more of an Elephant 6 album than the singles and tapes that came prior to it, with Robert Schneider and Lisa Janssen supporting Mangum in creating something more accessible and less built on the principles of sound collage, while still being scattered in multiple directions. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, however, was a much tighter arrangement, one that sacrificed the more experimental aspects that underline Mangum’s concepts of sound for an actual rock record. But the artistic core still existed through the lyrics, conceivably mixed with sexuality, Christian and Jewish religiosity, and other provocative concepts. These albums were, in a way, more art than music.
Thus, it was also with this backdrop in other cities, such as Providence, Chicago, and San Francisco, that the fanbase Neutral Milk Hotel confronted in later days would develop. The communities that existed then and still exist today are quite different in social structure. Many of these fans were artists themselves, trying to create something meaningful in the world, as well as music geeks trying to establish footholds in their local scenes through simple music zines (in numbers far smaller than today). For many, these communities had a certain tribal element that allowed them to be different at a time when it was hard to do so in normal society. To these people, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea represented something far greater than the casual listener and the average rock critic could understand at the time: Finally, one of their own created their album, their anthem.
Eventually, this belief built up to a point of worship. Word of mouth spread rapidly between the zines and warehouses of the album’s greatness. In a period where album leaks were unheard of, these art kids had memorized the lyrics of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea only a couple weeks after its release. When they arrived in droves to what became Neutral Milk Hotel’s final tour, things got weird and annoying quickly. Whatever song NMH played, the crowds would sing along so loudly that the band could not even hear itself play. After shows, Jeff Mangum dealt with the strangest groupies this side of Elliott Smith, often displaying their devotion (and social ineptitude) in ways that would probably lead polite society to call the police or run away screaming.
Anyone who had to deal with this form of fan worship probably would have stopped playing outright, or lashed out at the crowd. That Jeff Mangum, the quintessential face of the band, had to bear the brunt of it with utter stoicism, is impressive enough. But the situation became too much for an awkward art kid such as himself to handle. That, combined with the rigors of touring already becoming too much, pushed him to break up the band shortly after completing the tour in 1998.
It could have just ended like that, and in a way it did. Scott Spillane and Julian Koster, while still eminent figures in Elephant 6, went on as their already established acts the Gerbils and the Music Tapes, respectively. Jeremy Barnes disappeared into Europe for a few years, before resurfacing with a wife and a new duo, A Hawk and a Hacksaw. Elephant 6 eventually dissolved as an entity by the early 2000s, with its successor taking the form of sustainable co-op and record label Orange Twin.
But art kids, being the socially confused bunch they were, could not leave Jeff Mangum well enough alone. After breaking up the band, he intended to quietly continue his work in sound design in Athens, eventually doing some field recording in Europe. However, the art kids started moving to Athens with the intent of being close to Jeff, attempting “Jeff sightings” throughout this period, often holding some degree of control over the E6 Townhall forum as well. This only served to make Mangum isolate himself from the world as much as he could.
These art kids eventually matured enough to leave town, but they decided to utilize the Internet and college radio to spread this worship of the band in the same way fans of TV shows on the brink used the Internet and print media, possibly inciting them to reunite. Jeff Mangum’s isolation from the world only served to perpetuate the mythical status of a band that, while certainly incredible from an artistic standpoint, may have otherwise been forgotten from the annals of music history. The band never suffered the trappings of actual fame, because they stopped well before they could reach that peak. So the backlash that is usually associated with such mythologizing never happened.