"The moon belongs to America, and eagerly awaits the arrival of our astromen."
We can thank a Simpsons spoof of a newsreel for inspiring one of the greatest band names this town has known. "I wanted to change it for the longest time," Christian Taylor, frontman of the band America Owns the Moon, says. "But we couldn't ever come up with anything better, so we kept it."
Now, ten years on, America Owns the Moon has persevered through ups and downs that have destroyed lesser bands. Crushing poverty? Check. Drug and law problems? Yep. A key member leaving the band and moving across the country? Yessir. Despite or perhaps because of all that, the band is getting ready to make their big move this summer, with a new album that will have bloggers swooning and scenesters shaking their asses.
Sure, there appear to be four people in America Owns the Moon: guitarist and lead vocalist Taylor, guitarist Danny Ray Russell Jr., drummer Tony Beemer and bassist Ben Messer. But those guys are quick to point out that the band really includes hundreds of people. People who subbed in for a band member, attended shows, loaned guitars or otherwise contributed to the cause.
"I learned that we needed to take advantage of our network," Taylor says. "We had a lot of people who loved our band and who believed in us and who wanted to help us. But we were just too busy being in our band that we never thought to take advantage of that. Once we started to let people help us, things really started happening."
The GI jive
Back in the days when Bill Clinton was chasing tail on Capitol Hill, Taylor was an enlisted man living on an Army base in Oklahoma. He got himself a pawnshop guitar and was soon jamming on base with fellow soldiers, including Hoosier Shelby Kelley, who was to become frontman of the now defunct hard rock band Creepin' Charley and the Boneyard Orchestra.
Kelley and Taylor hooked up again when both were stationed in Germany and a friendship was formed. And after their Army stints, Kelley invited Taylor to the eastside of Indianapolis to start a band.
"I was living in a tiny room in a garage with a disgusting roommate who just smelled awful," Kelley remembers. "I called Christian to come up and I basically moved him in there, while I moved in with my girlfriend at the time."
The two never really got a band going, but Taylor's living arrangement forced him out for fresh air.
"Yeah," says Taylor, "I went to the Emerson all the time, and I met [future bandmates] Danny, and then Tony and Ben, and before too long we were living together in Fountain Square. We lived in that house and did nothing but listen to old punk rock records and blues and jazz and anything we thought was cool."
"Then we started to take all the stuff we were hearing and use it in our music," Beemer remembers.
The roommates started by recording one of Taylor's originals, "Let's Pretend We're Retarded." Then came the Simpsons episode and, at the dawn of the new millennium, America Owns the Moon became a going concern.
A new sound from the ground
The guys rehearsed for a year, building up a cache of strong songs like "Ping Pong," "Skintightworld,""Horny Mess" and "Freak Out!" By the time they started to play actual gigs, they constituted a tightly coiled machine.
Those were heady days in Indianapolis. Bands like Margot & The Nuclear So and So's, Rev. Peyton and his Big Damn Band, The Brand Plastic and The Slurs were crawling up from the muck and making their mark on the city.
But America Owns the Moon burst upon the scene with a fully formed sound that was so unique, so captivating, so rocking that they quickly became the toast of the town. Barely six months into their career, they were tapped to open for Guided By Voices at an infamous New Year's Eve show ("A massive failure on our part, because we so weren't ready," Beemer chuckles.)
Their sound was a spastic blast of guitar noise and distorted vocals.Taylor resembled an evil garden gnome — his taut, wiry frame topped by a toothless grin and a bristly beard.
Beemer called the shots with his muscular timekeeping, driving the songs, controlling the chaos. "I used to drive Ben crazy during practice," he laughs. "We would play 'Freak Out!' over and over and I'd keep playing it faster and faster until he'd almost break down in tears."
Messer and Russell looked like they belonged in any other band but this one. But they functioned as a perfect, responsible, enabling counterweight to the other half of the band.
Benchmark Records released the band's first EP, Tiger, and the band continued to amass buzz. Not that Taylor noticed.
"We were doing a lot of gigs and people were coming out and there was a definite buzz around us, but we didn't think much of it," Christian says. "We thought it was because there weren't any other good bands around, so everybody came to see us. Not that we were being egotistical or anything. We thought every show we did was a bad show. We were never really happy with our shows. So we thought there must not be much going on for people to want to come see us play a crappy show."
Before long, Taylor's behavior became more and more erratic. Drugs and self-loathing took their toll.
"I was in a really weird place," Taylor explains. "I was in a bad place. We had to open for The Black Keys at the Music Mill and I was strung out and I didn't want to do it, so I called Ben and left a message and told him I didn't want to do it anymore. Everybody thought we broke up, but I didn't really see it that way. I just wanted some time out to make music on my terms."
Other band members welcomed the breakup, in a way.
"After the initial shock wore off, it was kinda nice to take a break for a while because we are all in this dysfunctional, co-dependent relationship," Russell says.
Beemer agrees. "I was 24-25, I was ready to go. I had a few songs and I had no hesitations. I was disappointed in what happened to AOTM, but I thought I might as well move on right now, cause it just isn't going to happen."
Meanwhile Messer began to take his graphic design career more seriously. He ended up moving to San Francisco, where he found success designing ads for the likes of the Air Force and Coca-Cola.
Of the foursome, Beemer had the best go of it musically, after the breakup. He hooked up with Those Young Lions, with whom he proved himself to be an outstanding frontman. Russell flirted with several projects, without anything really catching fire. Taylor did some nifty solo work until his demons caught up to him and he spent time in jail.
A rebirth, in the pokey
As time went by, America Owns The Moon became little more than a footnote to local music history. But then Beemer found himself writing a letter to Taylor.
"I forget what I was doing then," Beemer says. "But I wrote Christian a letter in jail and told him that I thought that we needed to do more with what we had, instead of just throwing it all away."
"I swear, the minute before I got the letter, I had been thinking, that I was going to work on a new direction with my music, and that when I got out to do my solo thing, I was never going to do AOTM ever again," Taylor laughs. "Then I heard my name, and that letter came, and it was all like, 'Dude, we gotta get the band back together!' So I took a shower, because I always take a shower when I get emotional."
With Taylor out of jail, and Messer on the other side of the country, the remaining Moon-owners decided to go it as a trio with Russell picking up bass chores. But something was clearly missing.
"We came to a point where we knew it just wasn't going to work as a trio," Beemer says. "We needed two guitars and we needed Ben to be America Owns The Moon."
Messer joining the band wasn't necessarily in the cards, but salvation came in the form of Margot trumpet player Hubert Glover. Glover grew up with Messer, knew the songs by heart, and with the recent downsizing of Margot, suddenly had some time on his hands.
"There were other bass players calling me up, wanting to play with us, but Hubert was there," Taylor explains. "He picked me up, got me to the gig, bummed me smokes, got me high. So while these other guys were calling me up, Hubert was already there. The closest people to you are the closest people to you."
Taylor continues. "Ben is more of a rock and roll bassist. Hubert is more...Hubert puts more sex into it. He kind of marries two scenes — you got the Fry brothers and you got us — and he kind of manages to fit into both of our scenes effortlessly."
So with Glover filling Messer's shoes, America Owns the Moon's problems were solved. Glover now acts as Messer's proxy while Messer is in San Francisco.
"It's beautiful," Russell says. "Hubert fits in great with us, and we know that we can count on Ben to get here if we really need him to be here."
The grail of a full-length
With a full line-up in place, the band started towards the object of their next quest: an America Owns The Moon record. They had no problems finding a backer. Jeb Banner, owner of Musical Family Tree, agreed to put out the album. He also tried to get the band to record in his garage studio.
"We really, really wanted to do the record at Queensize, but we had no money," Taylor recounts. "Jeb wanted us to do it in his garage...[But] I think his in-laws were in town, and I just couldn't do it in a garage. Nothing against Jeb, but doing this record in a garage was just soul-crushing to think about."
"So we started working on Andy Fry to let us record at Queensize," laughs Beemer. "Yeah, I mean he's a nice guy who doesn't like to say no to anybody."
"I finally cornered him at the Vollrath and it was late and I think he was tired and I just poured it on," Taylor recalls. "I told him it was about the cause and what we all wanted to do after all we'd be through. I said just give us two days, man. Just two days. So that next morning I woke up, and there was a text from Andy and it said 'Two days.'"
America Owns The Moon's newest album, slated for release in late June, is just about the most balls out, vital and engaging album to come out of Indy in 30 years. Older songs, like "Freak Out,""Chocolate N Heroin" and "Beat Yourself Up," are given their definitive readings, showing an intensity and power only hinted at in earlier recordings.
"Freak Out" from Fit (all tracks via Musical Family Tree):
Meanwhile, the band's outside interests add a few twists and turns to the proceedings. There's the twisted Nuggets-gone-bad of "Russian Blues," the poignant beauty of "Lifted Melody," the roiling, hypnotic swirl of "Box o' Bones," the Satanic beach party of"Hey Hey (Whadda Ya Say?)."
America Owns Moon Owns America
Four songs stand out and form the heart of the record. The edgy "Blues Now Honey" blasts excellent new wavy punk rock. "Dance to Your Own Record," is the song that hip, Brooklyn-based bands have been trying to record in vain for years.
"Live to Live" is hands-down, Christian Taylor's crowning achievement. Starting with a greasy blues riff and pounding back beat, Taylor sings the lines, "I got a life to live, I got a life to live, I got a death to Die" in his trademark high register howl before the song enters a wondrous, swirling bridge which finds beauty and release.
"Life to Live":
"The Truth About Us," the band's best love song, balances the exuberant energy of youth with a wisdom afforded by age. When Taylor shouts, "I got the dirt on you, you got the dirt on me," you can feel reason struggling against passion.
"I wanted to make a really good rock and roll record, like a real rock and roll record," Christian says. "Something real and meaningful." And he succeeded.
Now comes the time for America Owns The Moon to, well, own America. Ben, who contributed his bass line on the record via remote hook-up, is assembling an outpost for the band in San Francisco by bringing together gear the band might use while in the city. The band made its longest trip outside Indiana when it traveled to SXSW in Austin, Texas in March.
"We took the Margot bus, three-fourths the size of a school bus, painted black and retro-fitted with bunks," Taylor says. "One of the perks of having Hubert in the band. We took some friends and played a couple of poorly attended unofficial gigs. We drank a lot of free beer, ate a lot of free food and smoked some of the best herb ever. We even saw Bill Murray."
And what's more, according to Taylor: "We saw a lot of Indy musicians and organizers. Indianapolis was fully represented. It was great to see people from the local music community out of the normal context, made me proud. All in all it was a learning experience. It was sort of a personal mission. I have feared the road in the past, and SXSW was me dipping a toe in the water."
[Music] Rock, Roots