Jeff Mangum, along with high-school friends Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, formed The Olivia Tremor Control, with Mangum appearing on their first release, the California Demise 7".
Prior to recording for friends under the Neutral Milk Hotel moniker, Mangum recorded a few cassettes under the name Milk; the most well-known of these tapes was called Pygmie Barn in E Minor. These are the earliest known recordings that Mangum initiated and executed himself. There were only an estimated dozen or so copies ever made of this tape, none of which has been made public. It was revealed c. 2006 on the Elephant 6 online forums that another tape under said name, entitled Beauty, was released, along with several recordings under the name Ruby Bulbs (also a song dating from that era, perhaps the only Milk song to be played by Neutral Milk Hotel).
Neutral Milk Hotel began simply as a recording project for Mangum, in the late 1980s. He produced several demo cassettes, among them 1991's Invent Yourself a Shortcake, 1992's Beauty (not to be confused with the earlier cassette), and 1993's Hype City Soundtrack, along with two more from this period, seemingly unnamed. Although easily found on the Internet, these demos capture the project at a very embryonic stage: songs are played in between various sound collages and tape experiments, one of which consists only of a six-minute conversation between Mangum and Hart. Another track, "Digestion Machine", features a varied collage of voices answering the question asked by Mangum, "What does the digestion machine mean to you?". The more accessible "Synthetic Flying Machine", also titled "Up and Over", later became "The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 3" on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
During this period, Mangum was wandering the country, staying in the closets of friends, and in a state of perpetual unemployment. It was in these circumstances that the band's first formal releases took shape. Strictly speaking, however, the 'band' usually consisted of Mangum and whoever else was present at the time. This is obvious on Neutral Milk Hotel's first release, a 7" record entitled Everything Is, recorded when Mangum was spending time in Seattle, Washington, released on Cher Doll Records in 1993.
A full album, On Avery Island, followed, this time recorded in Denver, Colorado on a four-track reel-to-reel tape machine, where Mangum was backed by the album's producer Robert Schneider of The Apples in Stereo, Rick Benjamin of The Perry Weissman 3 and Lisa Janssen of Secret Square. It was released by Merge Records in 1996.
After the release of Avery Island, Neutral Milk Hotel became a fully-fledged band, as Julian Koster, Scott Spillane and Jeremy Barnes joined Mangum, the band now being based in New York City. Soon after this, they moved to Athens, Georgia, where many of Mangum's friends had begun to settle, and the Elephant 6 had begun to take root. After this, the band went back to Denver, to record a proper follow up to On Avery Island.
The band's second album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, released in 1998 and also produced by Robert Schneider, is notable as a critically acclaimed and widely popular album. It is largely inspired by the story of Holocaust victim Anne Frank. During live performances, including the one released under the title Live at Jittery Joe's, Mangum has described some of the songs of this album as based on urgent, recurring dreams he had of a Jewish family during World War II. The album was highly praised by critics for its wildly inventive instrumentation and Mangum's provocative and impassioned lyrics. Although it was met with scant response from the general public when it was released, the recording has continued to gain momentum in indie music circles, selling over 300,000 copies, according to Merge Records. However, the record (along with the year of constant touring that succeeded it) took its toll on Mangum. The band abruptly went on hiatus, turning down all requests for shows, including a support slot for R.E.M.
Before Neutral Milk Hotel began their indefinite hiatus, Mangum played live at a house show on December 5, 1998 in Athens on Chris Bilheimer's birthday. The bill was shared with Elf Power, and the audience was made up almost completely of friends and bandmates. Playing solo and acoustic, Mangum opened the set with what was to be the only post-Aeroplane composition to be performed in public, "Little Birds," a song about a boy whose body becomes filled with miniature birds that protect him from his murderous father. Mangum finished the rest of the evening with most of the Aeroplane songs, encouraging the audience to sing along in substitute for the horn parts. For the last several songs, Scott Spillane took his trumpet into an adjacent room and played his parts through the wall. A recording of the show circulated on the internet, but it has never been officially released, most likely due to the poor quality of the recording.
Mangum played another show on December 31, 1998, at which he performed the songs "Oh Sister," "Engine," and "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," joined by Koster and Spillane.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has been cited by several as one of the greatest albums of all time.
Ferris Wheel on Fire is the second EP released by Neutral Milk Hotel. Although the songs contained were written and recorded between 1992 and 1995, its release was suspended until December 12, 2011 as part of the box set. The final of eight tracks, "My Dreamgirl Don't Exist," was recorded anonymously live at Aquarius Records. The other songs were recorded at Elephant Six recording studios.
During the hiatus, some of the members have been occasionally active with one another in other projects. Mangum contributed vocals to the song "I Have Been Floated" on The Olivia Tremor Control's 2nd album, Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One. When asked in an interview if he intends to write another album, Mangum said, "I don't know. It would be nice, but sometimes I kind of doubt it." There were plans to release a rarities album on Orange Twin Records; its cancellation was subsequently announced in 2005 on Orange Twin's website, which stated that Mangum decided against the project.
There has, however, been some activity since Aeroplane. First, Orange Twin re-released Everything Is, complete with extra bonus tracks, as well as Live at Jittery Joe's, a live recording by filmmaker Lance Bangs of a show Mangum played in a coffee house in Athens, Georgia in 1997. The Major Organ and the Adding Machine album, a rather secretive project released by Orange Twin in 2001 and consisting mainly of experimental musical collage, features Mangum, along with Julian Koster, of Montreal's Kevin Barnes, Elf Power's Andrew Reiger and the Olivia Tremor Control and Circulatory System's Will Cullen Hart and Eric Harris. There was also the release of Orange Twin Field Works: Volume I, Mangum's field recording of a Bulgarian folk festival, also on Orange Twin in 2001. He also played drums on the first Circulatory System album.
Since the breakup of Neutral Milk Hotel, Mangum has appeared live very infrequently, including once, at the Kings Arms pub in Auckland, New Zealand, at the request of the Tall Dwarfs' Chris Knox. The band was billed as the World of Wild Beards Incorporated, although when he explained this bizarre name during the course of the show, Mangum gave a small speech about an obscure, seemingly fictional company of the early 20th century named "Walking Wall of Beards Incorporated". The show consisted of performances by Mangum, Laura Carter, and Chris Knox. Mangum played 13 songs, about half of them from Aeroplane, and covered Phil Spector's "I Love How You Love Me" and John Lennon's "Mother", with Chris Knox joining him on the latter. A recording of the show exists, but it has never been officially released.
Mangum played drums and sang on Circulatory System's self-titled album, and joined them on their first tour in 2001. He also appeared on Circulatory System's following two albums, Signal Morning and Mosaics Within Mosaics. Mangum has also made occasional appearances with Elf Power and The Instruments, and came onstage at the first of the Olivia Tremor Control's New York shows on their 2005 reunion tours, to sing briefly.
The other members are all still releasing material: Julian Koster as The Music Tapes, Scott Spillane as The Gerbils and Jeremy Barnes as A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Bablicon and Marta Tennae.
In 2005, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was re-released by Domino Records in the UK, in a sleeve featuring praise from, among others, Franz Ferdinand and Arcade Fire, bands influenced by Neutral Milk Hotel. Mangum has also done a few small art projects—following a charity auction on eBay of an acoustic guitar decorated by Mangum himself, more guitars hand-decorated by Mangum were sold via Orange Twin Records for $900 apiece. Also, a number of his original drawings, this time costing only $10 each, were sold via Neutral Milk Hotel's website.
In 2006, a message was posted on the Elephant 6 message board, purportedly from Mangum, suggesting that he would record and tour again, though it was unclear if it would be under the Neutral Milk Hotel moniker. It soon caused an enormous stir within the indie community, and news of the message appeared in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork Media, and Billboard. However, it was eventually discredited by Robert Schneider, of The Apples in Stereo, a close friend of Mangum's. The perpetrator of the hoax is still unknown.
In 2007 The Apples in stereo released New Magnetic Wonder, a sprawling double album featuring Mangum playing drums on two songs. Mangum is also listed in the album credits as playing "cow object" (on the song "Energy" according to Schneider), contributing percussion, handclaps and backing vocals, and is reported to have been present for a number of recording sessions for the album in production and engineering roles.
In October 2008, Mangum made appearances during the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour. He played "Engine" (The "Holland, 1945" B-side) with Julian Koster at the Pittsburgh, Columbus, Chicago, Bloomington and Lexington concerts.
On May 6, 2010, Mangum played a 5-song acoustic set at the Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan at a benefit concert for his friend Chris Knox who was undergoing health issues at the time. Despite a message from the concert managers that the show was a one time benefit for Knox and not the restart of Mangum's musical career, the show sparked rumors that Mangum would begin recording and touring again. On December 4, 2010, Mangum played a surprise 10-song set of Neutral Milk Hotel songs in a Bushwick, Brooklyn loft building known as The Schoolhouse to a crowd of only 100 invited guests.
In the January 2011 edition of Q magazine, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was included in the top 250 albums of the past 25 years. Mangum announced a number of performances for the fall of 2011. These include curating an All Tomorrow's Parties music festival in New Jersey. On August 26, 2011, Mangum launched the website walkingwallofwords.com, where he is self-releasing a box set of Neutral Milk Hotel albums and unreleased tracks, as well as one-of-a-kind drawings and a radio show he curated. On October 4, 2011, Mangum made an appearance at Zuccotti Park and played several songs to the protesters participating in Occupy Wall Street.
On January 9, 2012, Goldenvoice revealed that Mangum would appear on the Saturday bill for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. On January 10, 2012 Mangum's official tour site revealed additional West Coast dates leading up to and through the Coachella festival.
Mangum headlined and curated the ATP event at Butlins Holiday Park, Minehead between March 9–11 of 2012, with other bands from the Elephant 6 collective announced to support including Apples In Stereo, The Olivia Tremor Control and The Music Tapes as well as other artists chosen by Jeff including Joanna Newsom, Half Japanese and The Magnetic Fields. Past members of Neutral Milk Hotel were in attendance performing in their individual projects.
On November 12, 2012, it was revealed on Pitchfork that Mangum would tour in January and February 2013, starting off January 9 in Buffalo, New York, and ending February 16 in North Adams, Massachusetts. Supporting acts include Tall Firs, Briars of North America and the Music Tapes.
In April, 2014 the Boston Calling music festival lineup was announced, which included Neutral Milk Hotel.
On April 29, 2013, the band announced a fall reunion tour with their original In the Aeroplane Over the Sea lineup via their record label's website. On this tour, the band was joined by multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Thal. The band toured throughout 2013 and 2014, and then after a period of a few months, another tour had been announced by the band with the following message: "Dear friends we love you but it's time to say goodbye for the never ending now to announce that spring 2015 will be our last tour for the foreseeable future and so we extend our deepest gratitude to all the beautiful people who came to see us over the last year....." Their final tour went from the Spring of 2015 into the summer.
Neutral Milk Hotel's sound has influenced numerous acts including Kesha, Bright Eyes, Melanie Martinez, and The Decemberists. Their songs have been covered by a number of artists including Brand New ("Oh Comely", "Two Headed Boy"), Matt Pond PA, Eisley ("In The Aeroplane Over The Sea"), The Mountain Goats, AJJ, The Dresden Dolls, ("Two Headed Boy"), Kevin Devine ("Holland, 1945", "Two Headed Boy Pt. Two") and The Flowers of Hell ("Avery Island" / "April 1st"). They are also considered one of the most influential groups in neo-folk and indie music, and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is typically considered within conversations of the best albums under these genre labels (specifically from this time period).
Core membersJeff Mangum - guitars, lead vocals, keyboards, bass guitar (studio only), drums (early) (1989–1999, 2013-2015)
Jeremy Barnes - drums, piano, organ (1996–1999, 2013-2015)
Scott Spillane - trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, euphonium, guitar, horn arrangements (1996–1999, 2013-2015)
Julian Koster - bass guitar, accordion, musical saw, bowed banjo, keyboards, organ (1996–1999, 2013-2015)
Live membersJeremy Thal - Uilleann pipes, flugelhorn, trombone, trumpet, bass (2013-2015)
DemosInvent Yourself a Shortcake (1991)
Hype City Soundtrack (1993)
Shannon's Monroe House Demos (1994)
Unreleased Demo #1 (1993 - 1995)
Unreleased Demo #2 (1994)
Studio albumsOn Avery Island (1996)
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
EPsEverything Is (1994)
Ferris Wheel on Fire (2011)