Uncovering Neutral Milk Hotel’s Long-Lost Seattle Past

Neutral Milk Hotel

Friday, April 4

Four years before indie darlings Neutral Milk Hotel gained cult status with its breakthrough release In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, front man Jeff Mangum had a brief stint as a Seattleite. During a set at the Moore in 2012, he told the crowd that the song “Engine” had been written a few blocks away from the venue. But his local ties run even deeper: The band’s first single, “Everything Is,” came out on the short-lived Seattle label Cher Doll Records, run by Nancy Ostrander.

Ostrander formed the label in 1993 with the intention to release one-off 7-inch singles in combination with a free fanzine she managed at the time. At the time, Mangum was on break from the band and living in Seattle to be near his girlfriend. He discovered Cher Doll’s first release— a split single by Crayon and Veronica Lake, with handmade cover art—at Fallout Records in Capitol Hill, and was inspired to send the label a tape of his music. “I think Jeff was pretty excited to get his music out there,” Ostrander recently told Seattle Weekly in an email. “Though why he wanted me, who had absolutely zilch experience in the music business, is anyone’s guess.”

Ostrander’s boyfriend encouraged her to put out the single, and she did, initially pressing 400 copies, then re-pressing 500 more (it’s since been reissued with two additional songs by various labels). Since Neutral Milk Hotel went on to release only two full-length records before calling it quits, for fans, “Everything Is” is an essential listen that foreshadows the band’s first album, On Avery Island. The single itself is lo-fi and sparse, with fuzzed-out guitars and minimal drum snaps in the background. The newer reissue features found-audio segues between tracks and brief interviews about Kiss and punk rock. It’s a bizarre look into the mind of Mangum, one that’s treasured by his many fans.

He left Seattle in August 1993 for Athens, Georgia before the single ever came out; and Cher Doll released, in all, nine 7-inch singles, a full-length LP, and a CD compilation before folding in 1998—the same year Aeroplane was released on Merge Records. Ostrander now works in a gardening store, which she says “is more than enough excitement for me now.” Mangum, as we all know, by popular demand got the band back together and back to the road.

His songwriting, Ostrander insists—not her willingness to take a chance on the relatively unknown artist—was crucial to the band’s success: “Someone else surely would have put his music out there eventually if it wasn’t me.” With Elf Power. The Neptune, 1303 N.E. 45th St., 877-784-4849, stgpresents.com/neptune. 8:30 p.m. $45. All ages.

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