Every few years, the music scene of Indianapolis seems to experience a near-complete turnover of bands. Older bands fade away and new groups crop up to take their place. The breakout bands we’ve selected for this story have vastly different styles, but all share a strong work ethic, the ability to please a crowd and ambitions of becoming well-known in cities other than Indianapolis.
The Virgin Millionaires and The Elms both have already established names for themselves on a national level, with Stereo Deluxe not far behind. And while literally dozens and dozens of local bands have achieved greatness and could have been chosen for this story, these three are symbolic of Indianapolis rock in the 21st century. They’re ballsy, smart and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their dreams.
Virgin Millionaires: Ready to give birth
by Sharmin T. McGown
Sex, drugs and rock and roll, the screaming crowds, the sexy female fans, the mountains of money: This is one of the variations on the American Dream. But for Zach Baldauf and his bandmates, creating great music is its own reward. Keep the groupies: The Virgin Millionaires just want to rock. This young group has been recording and touring, writing songs and jamming at a breakneck pace. Their audience is growing steadily: This year, the Virgin Millionaires played the introduction to the Indy 500 and headlined the NCAA Final Four show over Hoobastank. After releasing a strong debut EP, they’re ready to take on the world.
“This right here has been almost a year, nine months,” lead singer Zach Baldauf said. “And now we’re ready to give birth.”
Baldauf — along with guitarists Matt Carter and Nick Sommers, drummer Ryan Scarborough and bass player Scott Kreukeberg — makes heavy, melodic rock. Some might call it pop-rock, putting Virgin Millionaires in the same league as bands like the Foo Fighters and Fall Out Boy. But the guys are just fine with that label.
“I don’t know why we’re classified as pop,” Baldauf said. “Hopefully that means crossover, and that just means a bigger audience. Our album sales are incredible; we’re No. 9 in all of Indiana right now. That means we’re up there with the Chili Peppers, Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam. I’m fine with being called pop.”
That crossover appeal is being demonstrated by a supportive radio campaign: Z99.5, alt-rock station X103.3 and Top 40 station 93.1 keep the Millionaires’ songs in rotation. Their self-titled EP, available at Luna Music, Wal-Mart and Best Buy, is doing brisk sales. With a MySpace page that has more than 11,000 friends and high draws at local shows, the band is well on its way to being the hometown boys who made good. They’re a grateful bunch, thanking their fans and the radio stations who keep them in the spotlight.
“We’re getting the vibe that people like it,” Carter said, “and that’s the only way we can continue. I don’t see the point of having a band that nobody likes. If no one bought a CD or came out to the shows, we would have stopped a long time ago.”
Even with their recent successes, they’re keeping level heads about a temperamental music industry. Making music, not making a buck, is their main goal.
“No one could be in this band if it was about money, that’s for damn sure,” Carter said. “I have to play at church every Sunday, he [Nick] has to work on a forklift. It won’t be about money until we’re actually making money. That’s the bottom line. We’re poor as shit.”
They all agree that life in a band isn’t the typical rock star dream, but they’re willing to work hard to reach their goal of being professional musicians.
“As long as it’s financially possible for us to stay together and play music, we’ll do it,” Baldauf said. “But we all live so far apart and we all have our lives. It costs everyone money just to get together and practice three times a week. We have to pay for recording, mixing, engineering, gas money for practice, artwork, flyers for the shows. It gets expensive.”
Despite the obstacles, there is a fierce sense of loyalty and friendship among the group. After less than a year, they’ve learned each other’s strengths, weaknesses and quirks. “Sometimes it’s like five married people,” Carter said of their relationship. “We already know what to do, how to piss everyone off, we know where the buttons are. But we do build each other up. I’ve felt really good the past few weeks.”
The camaraderie has spilled over into their songwriting process. While Baldauf wrote nearly all of the material on the EP, the Millionaires are writing new material and collaborating with each other. They’re aiming for a recording session in the near future, as well as a clear shot at a major label record deal.
The Virgin Millionaires appear to be one of those bands whose intentions are as sincere as their songs; they make hard rock and they back it up with hard work. But … what if the band doesn’t make it to the big time? What will they do if fame eludes them?
Carter’s plan B is clear.
“I’m gonna go play for Jessica Simpson,” he said.
The Elms: Winning over minds one city at a time
By Steve Hammer
Owen Thomas is tired. Two days out from beginning a grueling national tour in support of Cracker, the lead singer of The Elms has a lot of stuff to do.
There’s press interviews, friends and family to say goodbye to and packing for a multimonth national jaunt.
“It’s a good kind of tired,” he says, the dark circles under his eyes emphasizing his fatigue.
The Elms have every right to be tired. In their brief existence, they’ve played hundreds and hundreds of shows, recorded an EP for national release on Universal South and made friends from coast to coast.
“When you find something that you love and something that you’re good at, you owe it to your destiny to really go after it full tilt,” he says.
The Elms hail from Seymour, Ind., home of John Mellencamp, but their music doesn’t necessarily reflect the rosy-cheeked optimism of “Pink Houses,” instead taking a darker and more realistic view of life in the Midwest.
The Chess Hotel, their Universal South release, is full of hard-rocking numbers about angst, heartbreak and redemption in the heartland.
Ironically, though, the group’s biography could be taken from the lyrics of “R.O.C.K. In The USA.” Owen Thomas and his brother, Christopher, dreamt of being in a band together from childhood. They met guitarist Thom Daugherty in grade school in Seymour.
The most recent addition to the group, bassist Nathan Bennett, is a longtime friend.
“I love that the band revolves around the fact we’ve known each other forever. It wasn’t a thing where we took out want ads, or put up flyers in Guitar Center. Our desire to succeed revolves around our friendships with each other,” Owen Thomas says.
“We’ve gone through a lot of difficulty the past few years, honestly, and it was to a point where some bands would have said, ‘Screw it,’ and given up. But that’s the point where we pushed through, and now we’re going on a real tour and getting some radio love.”
“I don’t feel like I have a choice but to do this,” Daugherty says. “Playing guitar is in my blood. Even when I was back in the fourth grade, I knew I was going to play music with this guy some day,” he says, pointing to Thomas. “I feel like it was written in the stars, as crazy as that sounds.”
Their music can generally be classified as rock, in the Bob Dylan and Tom Petty sense of the word: genuine, powerful and socially conscious, while never forgetting that rock and roll was based on the concept of shaking one’s ass.
“The second I was born, there was music playing,” Daugherty says. “My dad played all the best stuff: Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who. He exposed me to all kinds of stuff, but I ended up loving the guitar-heavy rock the most.”
The Elms have absorbed all kinds of rock into their sound, which gives their music a psychic and sonic range greater than some of their one-note contemporaries from New York or L.A.
“There are really noticeable cultural things happening on the coasts,” Owen Thomas says. “A lot of the jam-band sounds like Phish and Dave Matthews were birthed on the East Coast, and when you go to the West Coast, there’s the whole skate-punk culture. I feel like, growing up, I wasn’t tied to one style, musically. The first record I bought was a Cure album, when I was 17.”
In stark contrast to some of the faceless rock bands of the moment, there’s genuine camaraderie and personality dynamics on stage during an Elms show. “The personalities can be tumultuous during a show. I’ll look back at my brother and suggest a song and he’ll say no. But I think it’s that kind of conflict that makes us work.
“There are so many bands that you can name the lead singer of, but every other member is interchangeable. You never would have said that about Zeppelin or AC/DC. You never even would have said that about Nirvana or Pearl Jam. And that’s the way I feel about our group. It would be a completely different band if any of the guys weren’t there in their respective posts.”
After 25 shows on the first leg of the tour with Cracker, The Elms will head to the West Coast for more dates. In the fall, there’ll be even more shows. By the end of the year, there won’t be a section of the country that hasn’t had a chance to hear The Elms.
And the band will be blogging the entire time on their Web site, theelms.net.
“I don’t think we’re going to be tired,” Daugherty says. “This is an excuse to go out there and play as many shows as we can. That’s all we want to do.”
Stereo Deluxe: Hard work pays
By Steve Hammer
Ask Jay Elliott, lead singer and guitarist for Stereo Deluxe, about the group’s origins and he gives a response that is as pointed and as no-bullshit as its music.
“We’re all from the Southside and have been friends since grade school. By the time we were 13, we’d put a band together and played shithole shows and backyard parties. We liked doing it so we kept doing it. None of us have ever been in another band or wanted to be in another band. We’ve just been plugging along.”
By plugging along as they have, they’ve become possibly the most talked-about and admired local band in quite some time. Their effortless blend of power-pop, the occasional ballad and pure professionalism has made them the default straight-ahead rock group of Indy.
“When we first got together, all we were about was straight-up rock and good-time fuckin’ rock,” Elliott says. “And that’s the way we are now.”
Individual band members were fans of Aerosmith, Green Day and Tool and the post-grunge music of their youth, but their style owes more to radio-friendly pop-rock of the 21st century.
They’re the definition of the hard-working modern rock band. They arrive early to gigs, wear matching suits and work like hell to please the crowd. You won’t hear any ego-trip stories about Stereo Deluxe.
“We hold professionalism in the highest regard,” Elliott says. “I hate it when a band takes forever to soundcheck, and then the lights go down and they play a six-minute song. People aren’t interested in hearing a long drum solo until you’re a big band. We just come out there with our strongest shit and never give people a chance to be bored.”
Success has come quickly for the band on a local level, but they’re looking to go even farther.
“We’re happy with what has happened, but we’ve been together for a long time and we feel like we’ve been cutting our teeth, and we just want to continue and to grow,” says bassist Luke Schneider.
“A lot of bands say they want to get signed and become rock stars,” Elliott says, “but we just want to get into more markets and get more exposure. We love Indianapolis but we want to use it as a jumping-off point for shows across the country. This is what we want to do and we’re ready to do it. We just want people to know who we are.”
Touring during the fall and winter months is difficult, since three of the four members are college students — the oldest member of Stereo Deluxe is 22 — but they stay in shape with grueling three-hour practices several times a week, in addition to local shows.
“We all commit four to six hours a day to the band, in some way,” Elliott says.
Their debut album on Indie500 Records contains a wide range of music within the pop/rock genre. They can sound like Cheap Trick, but they’re no revivalists. They can sound like Fall Out Boy, but they’re no ultra-modernists, either.
What they are, pure and simple, is a good, live rock and roll band.
“We love recording,” Elliott says, “but you really get that sense of fulfillment from playing live. It’s great when someone you’ve never met says they loved the show and they buy a record. That’s when you know you’re doing something.”
Known until 2005 as Unreel, the band began taking itself more seriously when it changed its name. Through hard work, excellent shows and effective promotion, they won the $10,000 grand prize at last year’s Battle of the Bands at the Vogue.
“We said, let’s stop being a local, fuck-around garage band, and that’s when we stepped up the hard work and professionalism and good things started happening to us,” Elliott says. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we started working harder and we became more successful. Doing what we think we should do has seemed to work for us.”
They won’t be defending their Battle of the Bands title again this year, but Elliott says he’s constantly asked for advice on how to succeed in the event.
“You can send out e-mails, post on MySpace and do whatever, but just talk to people. That’s how you get them out to shows. And have music that people want to hear. That’ll work better than putting flyers on cars. And work hard.”
Next up for Stereo Deluxe: more touring, more songwriting and more practices. And with the professional guidance and assistance of local notables such as Eric Johnson of the Pop Machine and Andy Wilson of Live360, the future seems especially bright for Stereo Deluxe.