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.

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.

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.