Neutral Milk Hotel Australia
Cassette culture … Neutral Milk Hotel: (from left) Jeff Mangum, Scott Spillane, Julian Koster and Jeremy Barnes
Their 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, informed everyone from Arcade Fire to Beirut. So why did the band call it quits the moment they saw their name in lights?
For the most part, the mythology around Neutral Milk Hotel has existed beyond their control. Their singer and leader, Jeff Mangum, is certainly a part-recluse, but beyond anything he’s simply a man who called it quits at the very moment his band saw their name in lights. By shunning interviews, he’s subsequently been billed as either a JD Salinger-like enigma or a modern-day Syd Barrett. These are two exaggerated interpretations, coined largely because the band, who split in 1999, have barely said a word since then.
The trouble is, they departed with a record that remains hard to explain. Unintentionally, they timed their disbandment with the rise of music-forum discussions, Pitchfork’s holy grail perfect-score verdicts and the internet’s tendency to give hearsay a bigger platform than concrete facts: Neutral Milk Hotel ended just when mythology became a crucial factor in propelling a band’s reputation, and in the absence of anything to diminish them, their reputation simply grew and grew and grew.
Hard to explain … Neutral Milk Hotel. Photograph: Merge Records
That’s not to say the 1998 album that made their name, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, isn’t a phenomenal record. Born from Mangum’s bizarre, brutally heartfelt interpretation of The Diary of Anne Frank, it shuns reality and historical interpretations for surrealist imagery, Bulgarian street music, drone sections and a lifetime’s supply of fuzz pedals.