A personal, firsthand account of Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut single

A personal, firsthand account of Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut single

The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.

In a basement apartment that reeked of cat piss, dirty dishes, and spilled bongs, Jeff Mangum handed me a copy of the first Neutral Milk Hotel single. 

“You’re in a band?” I asked him.

“Uh, no,” he mumbled, his longish hair tucked behind his ears and his shoulders hunched. He was a little too tall to be living in that low-ceilinged flat. “It’s just me.”

The year was 1994, and Jeff had yet to expand Neutral Milk Hotel from a solo project into a proper group—let alone one that would change the course of indie rock and inspire the kind of devotion that bordered on radicalization.

At that point, I had no idea he even made music. He had just moved to Denver and was crashing with a mutual friend, Robert Schneider. Robert and his girlfriend, Hilarie Sidney, were in a group called The Apples, a scrappy, sloppy outfit that reminded me of a psychedelic Superchunk. I loved The Apples. After seeing their first few shows, I started spending time at their dank, smelly apartment, shooting the shit about The Kinks and recording my own indie-rock songs with Robert on his beloved four-track. When Jeff—an old buddy of Robert’s from their high school days in Louisiana—showed up, he seemed like just another random slacker that Robert’s apartment seemed to attract like flies to cat litter.

My first impression of Jeff was that he was quiet and sweet. Not shy exactly. Just kind of… occupied. Robert, on the other hand, was (and remains) just as effusive in person as he is on record. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t expecting any kind of big bang from the seven-inch that Jeff had given me. The name didn’t help. At least The Apples had a short, punchy name (this was before the threat of a lawsuit made Robert change it to The Apples In Stereo). But “Neutral Milk Hotel”? It was a mouthful, and not a particularly juicy one.

Never one to turn down free vinyl, though, I took Jeff’s record home to my own crappy basement apartment that night. I slipped it out of its sleeve. The A-side was titled “Everything Is.” Seemed like a good place to start. So I cued it up and lowered the needle.

I did not have an epiphany or an orgasm or an out-of-body experience while listening to Neutral Milk Hotel for the first time. But I did think it was fucking stellar. “Everything Is” actually reminded me a lot of The Apples—which made sense, seeing as how Jeff and Robert had been close since high school and had launched a record label together called Elephant 6. It was supposed to be more of a collective than a label, but it was also meant to be an aesthetic. The lo-fi movement had been on the rise for a few years, and Pavement’s scuffed-up pop was definitely an influence on Robert and Jeff. But there was something about “Everything Is” that transcended all that. It was lo-fi, no doubt, with a ragged riff that reminded me of The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” But it was also lumbering—grungy, even—although that heaviness was lightened by Jeff’s nasally, afternoon-nap vocals.

But what really set “Everything Is” apart was its lyrics. Wrapped in bubblegum optimism, Jeff rhapsodized about love parades, children draped in flowers, and streets made of ice cream. Not even hippies were this happy. In indie rock circa 1994, self-loathing was the order of the day. Beck had hit it big that year with his Gen-X anthem “Loser,” and in April, Kurt Cobain had taken that nihilism to its ultimate extreme. Jeff’s basic musical approach wasn’t that far from Beck’s or even Cobain’s—but instead of singing “rape me” or “kill me,” he injected “Everything Is” with a bright-eyed, kaleidoscopic chorus: “Everything is beautiful here / It’s spinning circles around my ears / I’m finally breaking free from fear / And it’s fading.” But it didn’t sound saccharine for a second. Underneath the candy shell lurked demons. What was the fear that Jeff was breaking free from? He didn’t dwell on that, and I never knew him well enough to ask. But it’s clear it was still with him, even as Neutral Milk Hotel was taking baby steps toward immortality.

Jeff moved away from Denver not long after he gave me that copy of “Everything Is.” But he came back a year later, in 1995, and he had a band behind him this time. He’d returned to record an album with Robert, which would end up being On Avery Island. I worked at an indie record store then, and three of my coworkers—Lisa Janssen, Merisa Bissinger, and Rick Benjamin—played on the album. But I’d started a punk band by then, and I got sucked into that end of the Denver music scene. By 1998, though, I was playing in a shoegaze outfit, and we recorded an EP at Pet Sounds, the studio Robert founded. A year earlier, Neutral Milk Hotel had recorded its second album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, in the same room. Pet Sounds should have been called Pet Smells—it stank exactly like Robert’s old apartment. But the music he captured there was magic. Even then, though, it wasn’t obvious that In The Aeroplane would take off the way it did. But when it happened, I couldn’t help but cheer. Jeff had finally escaped that basement apartment. 

His fears, though, may have lingered. After In The Aeroplane morphed from cult favorite into cultural phenomenon, Jeff retreated. In 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel went on hiatus. Never bothering to offer a real explanation, Mangum became indie-rock’s most notorious recluse—and the more he shrank away, the larger his legend grew. The lanky dude with the sweet smile I knew from Robert’s apartment had become, no shit, an icon. When he finally began playing solo again in 2010, people lost it. His shows quickly sold out. Some concertgoers sang along with his songs so loudly, it was often difficult to hear the man behind them. And when an official Neutral Milk Hotel reunion tour was announced last week, the blogosphere gasped so hard it practically imploded.

The hyperventilation is justified. In The Aeroplane—as well as the relatively overlooked On Avery Island—captured a turning point in indie rock. The fact that Jeff walked away from it all for 15 fucking years added a layer of mystique to an already mysterious body of work. People needed that. The alternative movement of the early ’90s had tried hard to puncture the whole notion of musicians as heroes. At the time, that kind of heresy needed to happen. But by the late ’90s, indie rock was sorely lacking in mythology. Neutral Milk Hotel became that myth, and Jeff became that hero. After all, a music scene can only live on self-loathing for so long.

That said, I think it’s healthy to remember that Jeff Mangum wasn’t always Jeff Mangum—and that the name Neutral Milk Hotel once elicited shrugs rather than supplication. What makes Neutral Milk Hotel’s music so beloved is the intimacy of it, not just Jeff’s urgent voice and poetic songcraft. Revisiting the clunky, gleefully remedial noise-pop of “Everything Is” doesn’t diminish the richer music that came later. It makes it sound better, and somehow realer. It also helps to remind us all that Neutral Milk Hotel didn’t spring to existence in some holy vacuum. Those songs that have become so sacred to so many grew organically from all the crud and confusion—including all the cat shit and bong water—that once surrounded it. 

“Everything Is” also reinforces just how timeless Neutral Milk Hotel has turned out to be. In the wake of the reunion announcement, some people seem to be getting sick of the hype. But that’s all irrelevant. The songs stand as tall as they ever have. There’s a line in “Everything Is” where Jeff warmly warbles about “old men with kazoos and beating drums.” When he recorded it—way back in 1992, in a friend’s bedroom in Athens, Georgia, over a plate of homemade cornbread—he had no way of knowing what it would blossom into. Or that he might one day be that old man, blowing his kazoo and beating his drums.

I sure didn’t know. I’ve still got that record, the one Jeff handed me almost 20 years ago. And it still shocks me when I realize what that flimsy little piece of plastic has come to represent. Then I remember that it doesn’t have to represent anything. “Everything Is” is a killer song, plain and simple, one that begs to be wailed along with rather than whispered about. So every once in a while I slip that old thing out of its sleeve, cue it up, and lower the needle. And when Jeff’s ancient, boyish voice bleats, “It’s just you and me, and oh dear / Our life has just begun,” mine does, too.