An oral history of Neutral Milk Hotel in St. Louis

An oral history of Neutral Milk Hotel in St. Louis

Of the many indie-rock comebacks of late, few have been as unexpected as the return of Jeff Mangum. As the lead singer and principal songwriter of Neutral Milk Hotel, he was the driving force behind two of the most treasured albums of recent memory, 1996's On Avery Island and 1998's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The band went on hiatus in late 1998, and Mangum famously retreated from the music world. Not that he's been completely inactive: He's done a radio show on WFMU (91.1 FM) in New Jersey, released an album of Bulgarian field recordings, performed on friends' records and occasionally toured as part of the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise. But only in the past year has he returned to the stage. After a couple of low-key shows in New York City, he embarked on his first solo tour last year, performing select shows to adoring crowds. Late last year he helped release a beautifully designed Neutral Milk Hotel box set with more than a dozen unreleased songs. Meanwhile, 2012 is shaping up to be even busier, with more tour dates (none closer than Chicago, sadly) and the hope of new songs.

As much of a miracle as it may be to hear Jeff Mangum perform well-loved songs to large audiences in 2012, it is inherently different from having seen him in a local dive as a member of an up-and-coming band. Between the summer of 1996 and early 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel played St. Louis three times — an unusually high frequency even then — and Columbia once. We asked those who were there, including support bands, DJs and local music fans, to share their memories.

July 25, 1996. Cicero's, with Butterglory

Attendance: 100

Setlist: Song Against Sex, Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone, Tuesday Moon, A Baby for Pree, The Fool, Through My Tears/Goldaline, Unknown, Everything Is, Ferris Wheel on Fire, Naomi, Snow Song Pt. 1, The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3.

Matt Suggs, vocals/guitar, Butterglory: It was the last show of that tour. Everyone was in good spirits. Not a whole lot of people came. I think our set ended with a few Neutral Milks onstage with us. Also, I remember there was a late opener for the gig. They had all this super nice gear. Butterglory's gear was pretty poor, and Neutral Milk Hotel's was even worse, and here was this opener that wasn't even advertised on the bill, and their gear looked like it was worth a million dollars! I'm not 100 percent sure, but I think that band was Jimmy Eat World.

Jim Utz, Vintage Vinyl: I worked the door for the Cicero's gig and liked Butterglory better.

Suggs: The crowds back then were fairly small, but NMH was definitely causing a bit of a stir. We were headlining the tour because at that time Butterglory was the more known band. I had met Jeff a couple years prior to that at a house show in Ruston, Louisiana, where he played solo acoustic. This was a full band, and a pretty wild one at that, full of energy and great songs. To say they upstaged Butterglory every night of that tour is a bit of an understatement.

May 5, 1997. Side Door, with Olivia Tremor Control

Attendance: 90

Setlist: She Did a Lot of Acid, Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone, Naomi, Engine, The King of Carrot Flowers Part 3, Song Against Sex, The Fool, Oh Comely, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

By early 1997, NMH had decided to leave New York City and move to Athens, Georgia. Along with long-time associates Olivia Tremor Control, the band toured the East Coast and Midwest. Its St. Louis show at the Side Door was its second-to-last before settling in Athens three days later.

By the time the crew hit St. Louis, Mangum and horn player Scott Spillane both had the flu. Drummer Jeremy Barnes didn't even make it to the club. Therefore, this was a rare semi-acoustic show. A bootleg recording exists of this show; it's become one of the most traded live tapes. While the band sounds under the weather, there's a little extra pathos and drama to these already emotional, dramatic songs, and the drum-free approach is certainly novel.

We could not find a single person with a significant recollection of the Side Door show. Believe us, we looked. Of the twenty-odd people we asked who were of legal drinking age and lived here at the time, only three or four actually attended the show, and none remembered it well enough to comment. It's worth remembering, however, that this wasn't the Legendary Neutral Milk Hotel with the Famous Reclusive Jeff Mangum. Aeroplane was still months away. At this point it was still just a touring band, albeit with a growing buzz. So perhaps it's not so surprising that it only pulled 90 people on a Monday night in May.

February 19, 1998. The Blue Note in Columbia, with Superchunk

Attendance: Unknown

Setlist: n/a

On the heels of Aeroplane, NMH again hit the road, this time with Merge flagship band Superchunk. The tour included stops in Columbia and St. Louis.

Jon Wurster, drummer, Superchunk: A quick look at Neutral Milk Hotel's website reveals the band played only 90 or so North American dates in roughly two years as a live act. Fifteen of those dates were with Superchunk in February 1998. I honestly can't recall there being a ton of awareness about the band at this point. Hell, I was pretty unaware of them.

Korry Keeker, KCOU (88.1 FM): It was three months before I was going to graduate in May, and I was extremely excited to see Superchunk, my favorite band, for the sixth or seventh time. I believe I had heard bits and pieces of On Avery Island, and though I liked it a lot, it didn't strike me as anything extraordinary from the rest of the Elephant 6 stuff or other indie stuff at the time. The Blue Note show was about one week after Aeroplane had come out.

Neutral Milk Hotel came out extremely awkwardly. The stage was covered with an assortment of instruments, and there were quite a few members, all of whom were ramshackle in appearance. I was uncertain if there was a leader in the band, as they gave off the impression that it was some sort of free-flowing cooperative that managed to haphazardly work, fall apart and stay together through the force of personality.

There were twelve to fifteen of us lined up awkwardly about ten feet from the stage in a sort of loosely spaced parabola. I remember it being one of those rare shows where you could actually see the "light bulb" going on over audience members. That is, as they busted out the tuba, the theremin and the saw, more and more people started warming up to things, as if we were taking turns freaking out. I can't remember them doing any of the Aeroplane songs in the stripped-down way they appear on the album, but they must have.

I guess the part that I remember most is the sort of crazed look on [bassist] Julian Koster's face as he cycled through playing crazy-ass drum fills and all the random instruments. Not being familiar with most of the songs, for me it was about being blown away by the pure-feverishness and the grab-bag, carnivalesque nature of the show. I admit, though, that I was over-anxious to see Superchunk take the stage and rock the shit out of some No Pocky for Kitty songs. So my memories are somewhat tempered.

February 20, 1998, The Galaxy, with Superchunk and Gaunt

Attendance: 350

Setlist: n/a

Keeker: The next day at the Galaxy bar, I was interested to see what the reaction would be, given that NMH was playing a seemingly incongruous set in between Gaunt and Superchunk. As I recall, the crowd again took [its] time warming up. There were some people there that we knew from the Washington University radio station that assured us, in their haughty Wash. U. way, that they "knew all about Neutral Milk Hotel." But I remember them standing there stone-faced and expressionless for most of the set.

Wurster: Jay Farrar was there with his dad. I imagine this was more to do with them wanting to say hello to our guitar tech (who also worked for Son Volt) than seeing any of the bands that night.

Utz: While I enjoy the records — the first more than the second — I've never quite understood the legend that grew around the band. Superchunk and Gaunt were so awesome that night.

Keeker: It's cool but also weird to see how certain bands or albums are remembered and mythologized. I mean, I was at a party a few weeks ago, and someone mentioned that they were going to fly to New Jersey to see Mangum. That person became almost weepy and likened Mangum to being one of the great, lost poets of our generation. I guess I always think of him more as an awkward, ramshackle twee-hobo who had an extended passage of clarity in which he made his bizarre characters somehow universal and resonant. I'm not sure that it speaks of a generation, but Aeroplane is certainly a great album that conjures being restless and in your twenties in the late 1990s.

Many thanks to Marla Hare Griffin, who booked all three local shows and shared the limited information she had, including attendance details. "My recollection of any of the shows I booked is almost always pretty fuzzy, unless I had some sort of trouble with the band. That was never the case with NMH," she said. 

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