Neutral Milk Hotel

Neutral Milk Hotel combines many different categories of music into one. As discussed earlier in class, indie music groups tend to mix up many different genres to make their unique sound. Neutral Milk Hotel has a folky feel as well as rock-style instrumentals and electric pop sounds interspersed in between. Along with their unusual sound, they present their album as a complete project creating an entire experience that is different for everyone. These aesthetic differences make Neutral Milk Hotel’s album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, stand out as indie.

From an institutional viewpoint, because they chose to isolate themselves from producers that would want them to clean up their sound, the end result was unlike anything anyone had ever heard before. Because it was not as easily accessible as most of the music being produced at that time, it was more personal and offered everyone different experiences. The political lyrics also played an important role in setting their group apart from the rest. And their ability to preserve the sound the way they wanted was an important aspect in their production.

These hallmarks, of what we consider to be indie, are shared all throughout music, television, and movies. Each music group we studied didn’t have a typical sound, they all isolated themselves either by using different ways of recording and producing their music, and everyone had the opportunity to do their own thing. We have found that maintaining autonomy has been a significant part of how indie is classified as indie.


Trend in the Indie Industry

In the indie music industry, Musicians are able to have more flexibility to do things outside of conventional mainstream media.  Hesmondhalgh argues the relationship between the institutional and aesthetic in indie is the flexibility artist and and musicians have to do what they want.  However, big label companies do not allow this flexibility and focus on what is popular and trendy leading to profit.


What the indie film and music industry have on the most common ground is they both work outside of mainstream.  They allow the artist or director to express their views and opinions into their work.  Film and music try to build audience through their work. Artists who choose to go through an independent label tend to go that route for more control and freedom over their own creativity.  Independent labels cannot offer artists money, making the artists pay for career aspects out of their own pockets.  However, paying for all the expenses means they make all of their own business decisions.  The same could be said for filming directors until they are able to get to a film festival or picked up by a mini major.


Another similarity is artists or directors being “sell-outs“.  Independent artists sell-out to gain commercial success.  They use independent labels as somewhat of a security blanket to build a reputation.  When they are picked up by a major label, the labels have more control over the creativity and what is published.  This is because the labels have to make profit from what they are putting out.  Indie artists most times are linked to losing the integrity and support from when they started out.  Reputation is important for getting a fan base and creating more support.  The artists are writing music for themselves – not for radio play.  Fans tend to lose that sense whenever an artists or band sell-out.


An indie band’s sound and style is a unique piece of work that brings it out of the same generic Top 40 music that all sounds the same in mainstream.  “Indie represents the prag- matic 1990s response to that dilemma: a tendency towards classical pop aesthetics, and ‘arm’s length’ institutional ties with the corporations. But to point to the failure of indie (amidst its many pleasures) is not to argue for a return to a punk vision of an alternative cultural praxis. Times have changed: a different era calls for a different cultural politics, but hopefully one which will take into account the lessons of earlier failures.”  (Hesmondhalgh 57)

Indie Music & What That Is

What automatically comes to mind when you hear indie music? How do you know it is “indie” in the first place? Indie music is the rejection of the air-tight pop productions commonly found in the Top 40-Hits. It represents a side of the music industry that doesn’t necessarily have access to mainstream music production methods, but more importantly, it doesn’t need or want them.

Indie music is making the best of what you have, achieving creativity without resorting to the overproduction and gaudy glitz that popular music is notorious for. Therefore, as a practice, indie music is a response to the commercialized and calculated nature of the pop song market. If we are going off of Neural Milk Hotel’s 1999 album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, we see a classic example of indie versus institutional independence. The song ‘King of Carrot Flowers part 1’ a strum-y guitar starts us out, gradually building up and adding various instruments (including a campy horn), to back up the folksy delivery of the lead singer. What gives the song its indie vibe is the mellowed narrative, keeping with the theme of love and loss in the time of the second world war. The harmony and melodies of the song, as well as the whole album, are very up-beat and happy, which is at complete odds with the lyrics. If you’ve ever heard the surprise hit ‘Pumped Up Kicks,’ you know this isn’t an accident. What indie music strives for is a balance of independent production and creativity, that circumvents the signed sealed and delivered nature of modern music. They can’t use the same production techniques as the major label studios, but indie culture isn’t interested in higher production values anyway. Bands like Neutral Milk Hotel attempt warm instrumentals set against the backdrop of dark lyrics and narratives. To attempt that same goal at a higher end label would be seen as a selling out.

The Velvet Underground: Sound vs Success

After reading Joe Harvard’s piece on The Velvet Underground and Nico I wasn’t sure to expect from the music. What had been described was a plethora of different sounds that didn’t seem to me to mesh well together at all, but in retrospect make for quite a unique sound. With inspirations as wide ranging as the poppy sound of the Beatles, all the way to the down to the earth folk goodness of Simon and Garfunkel,  Velvet Underground mixes and matches sounds with surprising success.  This is in line with what Harvard described in his piece, as the constant struggle between creative control and off-beat sound make for a fascinating one.


One such element that is clearly the centerpiece of Harvard’s analysis is the involvement of Andy Warhol with the band. This interesting history is wonderfully retold by Harvard, as he moves from the inception of the band, all the way to their first real collaboration in a recording studio. “The band soon became part of the multimedia “happenings” that Warhol had been planning, but which had yet to materialize.” (Harvard 136) Here, Harvard describes how the bands unique mixture of sounds meshed with the celebrity status of Warhol, as well as describing just how much was going on in a particular venue when the band played. One aspect of the bands indie factor was the aforementioned celebrity status of Warhol, who used it to shield the band from any intervention on the part of corporate big wigs.


Celebrity or Bond villain? You decide.

While Warhol did provide the band with such protection, Harvard is also quick to point out his lack of experience as a producer. “Warhol recognized that he could only offer the band limited aid in the specialized world of record companies, lawyers, and publishers.” (Harvard 138) However, this didn’t mean that Warhol wasn’t able to surround the band with the technical talent to allow their first album to become a reality. “Fair is fair; with Warhol in and out of the studio, only Dolph and Licata were present in the control room for the entire time the album was being made.” (Harvard 142) Ultimately, by surrounding them with the necessary tools for success, Warhol provided The Velvet Underground and Nico with the means to make their music. “Overall, any evaluation of Warhol’s managerial tenure has to acknowledge the dual role he played. His administrative shortcomings were certainly counterbalanced by the creative stimulus he provided the band. It was in that role that he was of inestimable value to them, and to their first album.” (Harvard 139)


Getting back to the band’s sound, it is undeniably unique in its own right. By mixing and matching the sounds of their particular era in music, The Velvet Underground is able to etch out its own unique vibe. I can only describe it as something akin to if The Beatles, The Doors, and The Blue Oyster Cult met up in a bar and decided to record an album. It’s something else for sure.

Indie Music That’s All But Neutral

I really like Neutral Milk Hotel’s album, In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. What mesmerized me the most was the unique and mostly upbeat folk sound of each song, intertwined with the heavy, vivid, and solemn lyrics; along with the eeriness of some of the instruments added in.

Each song has many components in it- and while the songs seems simple and easy to follow (many times riffs are just repeated), there are different instruments highlighted throughout, sometimes in strange lengths and overlays. Skilled band member and mix-board translator, Laura Carter mentioned that with “so much was happening onstage that without someone helping [the soundman would get confused].” Listening to “Communist Daughter” at first sounds like a quiet warm-up– gritty guitar (or maybe accordion) notes fill the background as an acoustic guitar and trumpet simply play over it. The song ends with the weird mix of electronic overlay and fades without any melody from the guitar or trumpet. This odd complexity comes from one, the musical instincts of the band; and two, their freedom from mainstream institutional forces. Cooper writes that “…chaos was a friend to the band.” They placed that chaos purposefully in the songs, (and sometimes mistakenly in live performances), to have a sound independent from others that is also open to more musical interpretation. A major studio wouldn’t give that band so much creative leeway in production and performance.

If the music doesn’t hit your emotions, the lyrics will. I believe the lyrics of all their songs prove their title of “indie”. First off, many of the songs juxtapose music and words- for instance, “Holland, 1945”. The catchy and upbeat, folk-rock sound is contrasted as one listens to the lyrics more closely. As the song sings about what I assume to be World War II, the last stanza goes:

‘And here’s where your mother sleeps
And here is the room where your brothers were born
Indentions in the sheets
Where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore
And it’s so sad to see the world agree
That they’d rather see their faces fill with flies
All when I’d want to keep white roses in their eyes’

It’s full of emotion, of sadness and yearning; which I think is emphasized when sung against the unique/’happier’ music. Lines of death and war are not very common in mainstream music- moreover lyrics that make the listener think about this troubling theme and interpret it for themself. An emotionally heavy song that lends much interpretation is “Two-headed Boy Pt. 2”. It focuses on the lyrics as there’s only guitar and singing, with some ambient sounds. Personally, I had to listen to the song three times, and look up the lyrics until I formed my opinion about the theme. This in itself is “indie”, the media text is engaging with the audience, spurring thought and dialogue. (I had to ask my roommate what she thought of it after playing it for her!) None of this could be done as successfully without being independent from the mainstream.

Is it still indie?

    According to Hesmondhalgh the relationship between the institution and the aesthetic in indie is the way that the institution lets the musician do what they want. They let the musician explore more compared to mainstream music. Yet, this usually only happens if the label isn’t under a bigger label company. Since, the bigger company will most likely want to focus on the music that will lead to bigger profit. Causing the musician to change its music sound to something more familiar. 


   This relationship, between the music and the institution, compared to the relationship that the film industry and production institution have is fairly similar in the sense that they both stay away form what is mainstream. They let the artist explore and usually try to send a message to the audience. Both try to build a reputation causing them to only focus on projects that revolve around their “theme/ type of indie genre”.


    Another similarity is the way that in both institutions of music and film, the independent industries get bought out by bigger companies in order to get more money to produce more and have a wider range in reaching  out to the public. Although they do get bough out they still try to keep their reputation. Some examples of this are Miramax which was bought by Disney for the film industry and Creation which was bought out by Sony. With being under their wing the indie industries are able to go on beyond borders to promote their creations in other countries. 


   We tend to categorize indie movies by their aesthetics more than anything.  Yet, indie, music, is now, “…generally used to describe a set of sounds and an attitude, rather than an aesthetic and institutional position.”


Selling Out is All the Rage?

Independent record labels were separate from the larger labels but in order for them to support their artists, it was better for them to partner with other companies, who could provide the financial support needed. This can lead two ways, either they partner wants to have some power to control what is being produced or they are clueless and let the indie companies have full range. The latter was what happened with the indie company One Little Indian according to the piece, Indie: The Institutional Politics and Aesthetics of a Popular Music Genre, by David Hesmondhalgh. They partnered with an entrepreneur that had little knowledge of the aesthetics of punk. This allowed for the company to have control and keep to the indie aesthetics. But as with all things indie, after there is success in the indie world larger companies will do anything to capitalize on it. This is where the term ‘selling out’ comes into play.   

The aesthetics of indie music, as Hesmondhalgh describes in his piece,  are based on “mobilization and access.” The aesthetic if affected by what tools the artist and producer has access too. They were not always be able to work with the best equipment which created a sound that was not as clean as the main stream popular music. Being independent lets the artist to get their music into different countries and throughout our own country as well. It is more appealing to a larger amount of people.

I don’t think indie music may have the same kind of relationship that indie TV has institutionally, but I don’t agree that indie film does. Indie music and TV, in my opinion, still have the ability to be free from the restraints of the conglomerates; granted not overall, but they still have the ability to make out of the box, thought provoking, controversial media and still be successful. People, who has Netflix, are talking about Orange in the New Black or listening to a punk album. They have the ability to still reach the general population and be accepted, whereas a lot of indie films, unless produced by a mini major or the like, are not really heard of or brought to the eyes of the media consumer. It’s just not what people are buzzing about.