Christianity had Paul. The United States had Federalist papers. Indie rock has Neutral Milk Hotel. What do they all have in common? They did not invent the game but they all wrote the rules. Neutral Milk Hotel was the big bang. They were the point from which all matter (or for that matter, all THAT mattered) collapsed into itself into one super dense, super brilliant point and then, exploded out in all directions, forming all that exists in our universe today. Neutral Milk Hotel, more than any other band, has been the defining influence on the past decade of music. What Pixies were to the ‘90s, Neutral Milk Hotel has been in the ‘00s.
The story of Neutral Milk Hotel’s short existence has been told and told well (see Kim Cooper’s wonderful 33 1/3 book on the subject). What is untold, and in many respects, far more interesting, is the influence of Neutral Milk Hotel. There are five major themes that spring forth from Neutral Milk Hotel that you see repeated time and time again. Jeff Mangum and his crew did not synthesize these themes; all existed prior to the formation of the band in the mid-‘90’s. But, going back to the black hole analogy, all the matter in the universe existed before it collapsed into a singular point in space and time. Similarly, these five pre-existing themes all collapsed into a singularity known as Neutral Milk Hotel before they were expelled outward into the musical universe, altered and defined by the impact of Neutral Milk Hotel.
The first influential theme of Neutral Milk Hotel is the idea of an indie concept album. While concept albums obviously have existed since the mid-60’s, they were horribly out of fashion and had yet to be appropriated by indie bands. (Note: we don’t count the Smashing Pumpkins‘ Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness as it has no theme whatsoever.) With In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, indie had its first true concept album based around a personal and somewhat decidedly “uncool” subject matter. We have seen this pop up again in albums by bands such as The Acorn, The Decemberists, Okkervil River, and Sleep Station.
The second influential theme is that of a deeply cathartic live show which frequently featured members of the band playing live in the audience. Venturing into the audience is as old as Iggy Pop but the Neutral Milk Hotel version was decidedly less punk and much more communal. Actual full band songs were played rather than tables walked upon. Bands who’ve incorporated very similar cathartic live shows with audience participation include (most famously) Arcade Fire, Beirut, Bon Iver, Ra Ra Riot, Animal Collective, Liam Finn, and Girl Talk (Girl Talk even sampled “Holland 1945″ on Night Ripper).
Third is unconventional instrumentation such as the banjo and the singing saw but especially horns. Horns had always been a large part of rock (see Blood Sweat and Tears) but at the time when Neutral Milk Hotel rose to prominence, they were rarely if ever seen. Guitar bands such as Pavement reigned supreme in the indie scene. Not only did they introduce horns to indie rock but they used horns in a very specific way; simple but uplifting and powerful, often at the climax of a song. We can see this in Beirut, The Antlers, Bon Iver, The National, DeVotchka, Man Man, Sufjan Stevens, Jens Lekman, and Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin.
The fourth influential aspect of Neutral Milk Hotel was their brand of punk influenced folk. Folk punk has existed since the Violent Femmes but songs like “Holland 1945″ and “King of Carrot Flowers, Pt 2+3″ firmly established a conventional sound that we see replicated by bands like Frightened Rabbit, the Rural Alberta Advantage, Okkvervil River, The Microphones, The Bowerbirds, The Mountain Goats, Deer Tick, and Phosphorescent.
The final major influence of Neutral Milk Hotel is the use of intensely personal, at times embarrassingly so, lyrics. Much of “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” is a completely unironic love letter to Anne Frank. We see the lyrical influence in bands and artists such as Spencer Krug (and by extension Wolf Parade), Final Fantasy, Okkervil River, Bon Iver, and The Microphones.
Besides for the major influential themes already mentioned, there are a number of bands that were greatly influenced by Neutral Milk Hotel, even if their music does not outwardly show it. One of the more interesting of these is Danger Mouse (and by extension Gnarls Barkley). Danger Mouse went to college in Athens, GA during Neutral Milk Hotel’s height and was friends with the band. One of his earliest remixes was “The Fool”, off In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Promo photos of Danger Mouse exist where he is wearing a Neutral Milk Hotel shirt. Another unexpected influence is the emo band Brand New, who frequently cover “Two Headed Boy” in concert. British dance punks Franz Ferdinand have also publicly stated their love for Neutral Milk Hotel. Other bands of note who have covered Neutral Milk Hotel live include: the Drive By Truckers, Kevin Devine, Matt Pond PA, Rilo Kiley, The Faint, Wilco, Mason Jennings, the Dresden Dolls, and The Wrens.
I’m willing to bet after the first paragraph you doubted my words. But look at the list of bands we have compiled: Franz Ferdinand, Brand New, Danger Mouse, Bon Iver, The Microphones, Final Fantasy, Spencer Krug, Okkervil River, Frightened Rabbit, The National, Sufjan Stevens, Animal Collective, Man Man, Beirut, The Decemberists, and Arcade Fire. What I just listed is almost a majority of the current indie rock scene. Not only that but a number of those bands are highly influential in their own right, spreading the secondary influence of Neutral Milk Hotel even further. It’s pretty fair to say that Neutral Milk Hotel is the most influential indie band of the past decade.
The author would love to turn this piece into a documentary someday. Just as soon as he gets a paying job and a video camera.
The Chairs – “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” [mp3]
Pelican City (Danger Mouse) – “The Fool” [mp3]
Wilco – “King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1″ [mp3]
Dresden Dolls – “Two Headed Boy” [mp3]
The Mountain Goats – “Two Headed Boy” [mp3]
Neutral Milk Hotel – “Engine” (Vinyl Rip, Holland 1945 7″) [mp3]