There Is Nothing to Grieve: An Argument Against a Neutral Milk Hotel Reunion

[8 May 2011]

By Sean Brady

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.

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.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/140113-there-is-nothing-to-grieve-an-argument-against-a-neutral-milk-hotel-/