NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL IS THE CULT that won’t stop growing. The band, with origins in Ruston, Louisiana in the ’80s, are known for two key albums, 1996’s On Avery Island and 1998’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, high-watermarks in emotional neo-psychedelia, and noted for their unusual instrumentation (drunk-sounding brass, singing saw) and the anguish and ecstasies of their singer and songwriter Jeff Mangum.
But in 1998, with the band poised on the brink of a genuine breakthrough, Mangum disbanded the group and retreated into an inexplicable seclusion. It was one of the oddest music stories of the decade.
It’s an enigma writer Adam Clair dives into in his new book Endless Endless: A Lo-Fi History Of The Elephant 6 Mystery, which tells all the intertwining stories of the Elephant 6 collective, an extraordinarily creative and nonconformist group of bands, all springing from that same Ruston root and including Olivia Tremor Control, The Apples In Stereo, Elf Power, Of Montreal, Circulatory System and more. It’s an epic of eccentric personalities, DIY recording, some drugs and lashings of onstage chaos and anti-commercial aesthetics.
Clair has also partnered with MOJO to extract the story of Neutral Milk Hotel’s masterpiece, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, its origins and afterlife and the impact (or not) on its troubled visionary, Jeff Mangum. Read that in the next issue of MOJO magazine, MOJO 341, on UK newsstands February 15.
For the uninitiated, or even for the initiated, here’s a glimpse of that inimitable Neutral Milk Hotel energy, in Providence, Rhode Island at their 1997 peak.
And here‘s a beautiful Phoebe Bridgers cover of In The Aeroplane...’s Two-Headed Boy (Part 2), testifying to the album’s continuing influence on contemporary artists.
Endless Endless: A Lo-Fi History Of The Elephant 6 Mystery is published by Hachette Books. It is currently available in the US, price $30.
Photograph: Neutral Milk Hotel by Will Westbrook. Courtesy of Merge Records. From left: Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, Jeff Mangum, Jeremy Barnes.