There Is Nothing to Grieve

An Argument Against a Neutral Milk Hotel Reunion

by Sean Brady

8 May 2011

Photos: Will Westbrook 

Where They'll Find Us Now

As life continued, the world changed. The Station nightclub fire in 2003 inadvertently instigated a chain reaction that decimated the American underground, forcing many artists to abandon their ambitions. Others moved to New York or Los Angeles to continue on, triggering a sort of renaissance where they were, for at least the next five years, the creative capitals of America. During this period, the demographic of Neutral Milk Hotel’s fanbase changed. The artists and zine kids had grown up, and the new artists were listening to a more diverse array of experimental and other music, thanks to the Internet. The age remained the same, but the fans became better adjusted, a bit richer, and better educated. These new fans did not rely on the zines of the 1990s, but the blogs that would revisit and praise In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

Meanwhile, Jeff Mangum maintained a reclusive lifestyle, though he did start making appearances that mostly involved sound design, be it an experimental music show on WFMU or playing a part on an Elephant 6 effort. With the exception of Kevin Barnes and Robert Schneider (who was never really in Athens to begin with), nobody from Elephant 6 ever really left Athens, and maintained some cordial relationship with one another, eventually developing Major Organ and the Adding Machine as a film in 2005-2007.

Which leads us to 2008, when Jeff Mangum finally surfaced on a frequent basis during the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour. While a year would pass before more regular appearances began to occur, the success of the tour left an undeniable impression.

Yet the same problem existed as it did before: The worship. This writer happened to witness one of the original Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour shows. The entire show closed with two songs involving Jeff Mangum: The Circulatory System’s a capella-esque “Forever”, followed by what was his staple at the time, the Neutral Milk Hotel B-side “Engine”, which occurred in the center of the room with Julian Koster on singing saw. Walking towards the center, the look on Jeff’s face was that of caution, though certainly not fear. The crowd, on the other hand, had awestruck eyes so wide one could throw water balloons at them and they would not flinch or move.

There is little doubt that Jeff Mangum has become a stronger man in the ten years between the last Neutral Milk Hotel show and the dramatic return with Elephant 6. But looking back, that crowd, which had already been aware that Jeff Mangum’s appearance was likely after reappearing a couple weeks before, had not changed that much from what he dealt with in 1998. And in the subsequent appearances (save the unannounced appearance at the Schoolhouse), that crowd of drooling fans probably did not dissipate. They may wear different clothes and earn more money, but they still act the same.

There Is No Dream

In a way, a Neutral Milk Hotel tour would just be that: A revisiting of the brief tours, only with a much larger audience to deal with. Given the small repertoire they have, you could even argue that it would be a “Don’t Look Back” of their entire back catalog. Given the separate lives and careers of the members, odds are that they have not worked together on new material simply because it never came to mind. Without any new material to suggest a continuation of the band, a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion tour would carry a similar feel to the Pavement and Guided By Voices tours of the prior year: Overblown expectations with a feeling that the shows were simply to placate fans. Such a statement is not meant to denigrate the immense talent of Neutral Milk Hotel, but merely point out that reunion tours that have no basis in future development often come about as hollow.

Furthermore, it is clear that the fans do not really want Neutral Milk Hotel to reunite. Rather, they wish to see Jeff Mangum, who some would argue is alone Neutral Milk Hotel, play again. They will certainly get what they want with his upcoming East Coast tour. A testament to this belief is the current Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour. While the anticipated appearance of Jeff Mangum on the second Holiday Surprise Tour certainly influenced ticket sales to a degree, his total absence allowed the tour to run more as a return for the greats that truly shaped Elephant 6 than a vehicle for its most well-known band, the hopes of some major fans notwithstanding.

The driving force that draws people to wish for this reunion is In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and the question that becomes of this is, does that alone merit a reunion?  Again, it is hard to say. But even if the reunion were to mostly focus on this album, the live experience might weaken the interest of fans who are not as rabid and outpouring in devotion. Furthermore, even if the live experience were to be actually a memorable one, the question remains of whether or not fans really want to hear the album live: With the combination of this album being so significant to many people and the long hiatus, people have an ideal of what In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is to them. That ideal could be easily lost in a single live set.

But the more important question is, in light of other reunion tours: Does Neutral Milk Hotel feel they need to reunite?  The answer there is simply, no. The sad reality is, the motivation for a lot of reunion tours is primarily financial, especially in the recent case of Pavement. In the general case of Elephant 6, as with most art collectives, money was never a key aspect of their lives. For them, all they really cared about was working together and creating something fun and interesting. They could get by, even in bad times. With that sort of mindset, there is little reason for them to get back together. They do not need to give back to fans, and as mentioned before, it is not like they are particularly interested in making new material.

A moment from the current Holiday Surprise Tour drives this point home more than anything else. Jeff Mangum, who now resides in New York City, was reportedly amongst the crowd at the Knitting Factory at the first Holiday Surprise Tour show in Williamsburg. At any moment, like that first time in New York when Eric Harris sang, “I hope Jeff will sing me a song / And everyone else will play,” Mangum could have easily jumped on stage and joined in. But to even guess why he did not is beside the point: What happened that night was an incredible show that brought together the greats of Elephant 6, including Will Cullen Hart, Laura Carter, Scott Spillane, Eric Harris, and Julian Koster, in a way that was memorable. Jeff’s presence as an audience member and nothing more could not take away from that.

Time will certainly tell whether or not Neutral Milk Hotel will ever reunite, and prove this argument wrong. But the history of the band, Elephant 6, and the very nature of their existences seem to make the claim that it is not necessary, nor favorable, to make a comeback. Jeff Mangum may have recovered from the aftermath of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but that may just mean he has moved on, like everyone else then. The only question is whether or not fans ever will.

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