The women of Neon Love Life have a message for Indianapolis, and they're shouting it from the highest rooftops – well, a high one anyway: "PEOPLE OF BROAD RIPPLE. TAKE OFF YOUR TOPS."
Lindsay Manfredi, Sharon Rickson, Ashley Plummer and Tasha Blackman of Neon Love Life are enjoying yelling random things at passersby, either from their car or from the top of one of the Ripple's taller buildings. This is lesson No. 1 in why you don't let rockers have megaphones.
Nobody takes off their top; honestly, nobody much seems to notice. "This megaphone's a lemon," one band member remarks. "Maybe you need to blow into it to make it work, like a Nintendo game."
Precisely how we avoided getting arrested on that outing is beyond me.
"Don't yell at those two, they look like sixteen!"
So, yeah. A few things you need to know about Neon Love Life:
-The name comes from a Bonnie Tyler lyric. Rickson freely admits that they were pretty much looking for random words, proving once again that rock really is on the verge of running out of names.
- They bonded over the plan to help young girls learn rock and roll.
- And also while getting totally hammered in the handicapped bathroom stall during a Breeders concert. (I'm sworn to secrecy as to exactly where.)
The band assembled in the middle of 2009, although they're all Indianapolis music veterans: Manfredi (vocals, guitar) with We're Not Mexican, Rickson (bass, vocals) with Small Arms Fire, Plummer (guitar) with The Peggy Sues, Blackman (drums) with Roach Brothers and Dark Matter Halos.
Blackman and Rickson go back the furthest, and met Plummer at a Breeders concert, hence the bathroom stall incident. Rickson knew Manfredi from previous shows, and soon a band was born. Neon Love Life has become a regular staple of Indianapolis nightlife with a hard-driving, hard-drinking brand of poppy punk that's difficult to limit to a single genre.
"People ask, 'What do you sound like?' but to me, it's like asking, 'Who do you look like?'" Rickson says. "I look like me. We may have elements of punk or pop or rock, but the four of us put together sound like Neon Love Life. We sound like a rock and roll band and we sound like we're having fun."
"I don't think that we ever sat down and though we would be X type of music," Manfredi says. "We all have our own ideas; we all have different music in our cars."
Trying on archetypes
Now that they've had their say, let's see if I can at least describe them a little. All four seem to channel different archetypes.
If you put an acoustic guitar in Manfredi's hands and tried to pass her off as a singer/songwriter in the Lilith Fair mold, it would totally seem convincing. (Also deceptive. This is a band with a song about drinking lots of whiskey.)
Blackman is every bit the wild maniac drummer that three generations of Muppets have taught us about.
Plummer has this whole Jimmy Page thing going on where she's focused and vaguely distant and doesn't seem to see anything in the world besides her guitar when she's playing. (She tells me I'm not the only one to have mentioned this.)
Rickson is by far the most old-school of the group, who reminds me of those manic '70s-era singer-songwriters who would push together an album with nothing more than a guitar, gumption and a battered 8-track recorder.
I'm trying hard not to pigeonhole anyone here; think "iconic" and you're close to what I'm getting at.
Their music rolls along at a blistering pace; an hour-long concert feels like about 15 minutes. It's stripped-down hard rock with little pretense.
"Whiskey" is a fast-driving traditional bit of rock that gets its edge from a decidedly exotic guitar lick Plummer keeps rolling throughout the song.
"Tuesday Night," one of the more traditionally hard-rock portions of their repertoire, starts out a bit softer, like it could be the closing theme song to a John Hughes movie from 1986, and then promptly clubs you over the head. (There's an album cover quote! "Like being clubbed over the head by John Hughes.")
And then there's a cover of "Teenage Werewolf" in which Blackman sings lead in a manner that can only be described as "maniacally cackling." Well, actually, I have no idea what the hell is going on with that song, except that Blackman can scream like the Wicked Witch of the West, and she sure seems to enjoy herself when she does.
Exploring the past
Actually, if we're going to figure out their sound, it's instructive to look at who they are and how they came to be; their influences, who's in their CD players right now.
Remember what I said about Rickson fitting that 1970s mold? As she puts it, she harassed her parents into giving her an acoustic guitar when she was 13, upgraded to electric the next year, and the rest is history played out in basements, coffee shops and garages in the Chicago area.
Manfredi grew up in Kokomo, taught herself chords using her dad's guitar when she was 17, played in Florida for a while, then ended up back in Indianapolis.
Blackman is classically trained: "I was in drumline since fifth grade, lots of marching band, and it's nothing to snicker about" — Rickson gets a sharp glare here — "because it's amazing."
And Plummer learned a lot of her music at a young age from her dad: "I used to be a big insomniac, and I'd go downstairs and my dad would spin vinyl all night." They listened to the Doors, Beatles, Ritchie Valens, the Motown girl groups. "The first time I heard 'Leader of the Pack' and realized, 'Wow, a woman can sing,' I knew from a young age I was going to do that someday. Then I learned I was never going to be able to sing, so I'd better play an instrument instead."
As Neon Love Life took shape, so did their other major project, Girls Rock! Indianapolis, a rock'n'roll day camp devoted to girls from 9 through 16.
Rickson picked up the idea when she worked at a similar program in Seattle. "It was about teaching young girls music, having a positive body image, having self-esteem, being able to practice self-defense and all these empowering aspects that I think every young woman should know," she says.
She brought the idea back with her to Indianapolis. The band's work culminated this summer in a week-long day camp that included 40 campers and about 200 volunteers.
"It's a crash course in working together," Rickson says of the camp. "When you're in a band, you learn real fast you're only as strong as your weakest link."
"It brought people from all different genres together, especially in the female scene," Plummer says. "Indianapolis has a lot of really solid female musicians; they just all play through different kinds of scenes."
"A lot of people sacrificed their week and worked very hard because they felt this was important for young women and wished they had something like this when they were that age," Rickson adds. "Body image and self-esteem are at the forefront. We try to teach them how the beauty industry is marketed, and how they're never going to look like these magazine layouts without Photoshop and a lot of spray-on tan. It's about your mind and voice and your life, not what you look like."
"By the end of the week, the older girls were picking up the younger girls and putting them on the stage, everyone glowing in their own way, everybody working together to their same point," Blackman says. "People are competitive because you want to be the best or the cutest or whatever, and at the end of the week, everybody wanted to work together."
"We got a letter from a parent who said, 'Thank you for curing my daughter of Justin Bieber fever! Now she wants to listen to Blondie,'" Plummer says. "I felt good that we'd introduced these girls to new stuff."
All that volunteer work didn't exactly hurt the band side either: "We learned to function as a unit, put in a lot of hours, and still rehearse and work very diligently as a group," Rickson says. "We all have very different sets of skills and talents that mesh perfectly together."
"There's no one person who does everything," Plummer says. "We've written two songs just off Tasha's drumbeats."
On the fringe
It's late night at the Fringe Fest tent, and Lindsay Manfredi is trying to bowl me over by proxy. She's jumped on someone's back, I have no idea who, and piggy-backer and piggy-backee are just careening around the lawn outside the stage.
"Look out for the photo guy!" she cries out as the duo nearly crashes into me. (We'd only just met, so I was still just "photo guy." She needn't have worried; I've survived mosh pit photo shoots.)
After a minute she hops off, out of breath and excited. "Who was that?" someone asks.
"I have no idea," she replies. "But it was fun!"
It's a telling moment. Neon Love Life has a plan, but all sorts of unusual things have happened along the way. Case in point: Manfredi has some of Rickson's blood on her guitar. (Watching Rickson's mother get unnerved about this on Facebook is simultaneously a tribute to the digital age and a summation of everything fun about hanging out with this crowd.)
At another show, Blackman headbanged a little too hard on "Teenage Werewolf," smashed her head into a guitar and, well, let's just crib from Manfredi's Facebook for the rest: "Blood dripping down her face for entire song, and when she would howl, blood would squirt out (GROSS), and she was oblivious to all of it."
But the plan remains, blood-spattered though it might be. Next up for the band: Getting an album out the door and taking it on the road in spring. Meanwhile, Girls Rock! will focus on acquiring nonprofit status and plan for more camps, more activities, more everything.
One last thing: Don't necessarily think of them as an all-girl band. "You don't look at boy bands and say, 'Oh, it's an all-boy band,'" Rickson says. "Friends make bands together. I know we've gotten a lot of local attention because we're all female, but we're going to back it up with music."
"We were a rock and roll band before we were an all-girl band," Blackman says.
For my own part, I just hope they're still doing this when my own little girl is old enough to pick up a guitar.
Neon Love Life next performs at the Locals Only New Year's Eve party Dec. 31.