It's 1:30 a.m. on a perfect night in early June, and I'm standing in the living room of Mediumship. It's dark except for some blue lights focused on the band, and it's hot. Really hot. Not because it's hot outside, but because the twenty or so people in the room - along with the band - are freaking out. There's no other way to describe it. To say "dancing" would imply some ritualized form of movement conceived in a past century. No, this extended, half-hour drum and guitar excursion has turned these people into raving lunatics.
Joey Shepard and Jacob Gardner, both from the band Crys, are playing drums and guitar. The bassist, a guy from Chicago whose band played earlier in the night, is wandering through the crowd as he plays, observing with demonic delight at what the music is making these people do. It is a demonstration of the bizarre, almost mystical power of rock and roll to make people move.
It's also a Monday night. Some of us have work tomorrow. Some of us don't. Most of us don't care either way.
This is the kind of evening happening almost nightly within just a few blocks radius of the intersection of Virginia Avenue and Prospect Street inside the Fountain Square neighborhood. It's thanks to a close-knit group of about two dozen impossibly interconnected musicians who've moved here at an increasing rate over the past five years and made it their business to play as much music as possible and support each other in whatever way is necessary to keep it all going.
In describing the explosion of music and culture that took place in San Francisco in the mid- 60s, journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote, "... every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in long fine flash, for reasons nobody really understands at the time."
This particular group of musicians and artists might not represent an entire generation, but it certainly seems that for underground rock music in Indianapolis, this is that "long fine flash" Thompson wrote of.
The path to understanding what's going on in Fountain Square, and why, leads directly to a few people and places. It leads to GloryHole Records, houses like Mediumship, and bands like Learner Dancer, Vacation Club and Crys, even to bars like the Brass Ring. From there it heads outward to the freakishly ambitious network of side bands and individual projects like Cataracts Music Festival and arts spaces like A.K.A. and Shared Heritage.
It's not about being cool, it's not about doing drugs and it's certainly not about making money.
As Shepard said over beers at the Brass Ring one evening, "You don't have to be drunk, you don't have to be stoned, you just have to be there." For a certain type of person, this the only way to live.
If one were to draw a schematic of all the musical relationships in Fountain Square, it would reveal a web of cooperation and collaboration far too dizzyingly complex to catalogue here. However, at least one thing is for sure: at the center of that diagram - at least, as of today - would be Jim Peoni, founder of GloryHole Records.
Peoni is a short, wiry guy with a perpetual three- or four-day growth of beard, a penchant for cut-off khaki shorts and a teenage kind of spring in his step. He is not what comes to mind when you think of the word "record executive," but that's precisely why he's able to stay at the center of this scene and maintain his credibility amongst people who take their creative freedom very seriously. The bands he puts onto his label are some of the weirdest, edgiest, most innovative acts in the city and his support has been instrumental in their growth.
"Without Jim, this whole thing would not be what it is right now," said Tyler Bowman, former member of The Kemps. "Because he got behind the Fountain Square bands, it kind of jump-started everything and gave us this automatic influence to just produce as much as we can."
The feeling, he went on to say, was contagious and has spread to the visual arts as well.
"Jimmy's the godfather of all this," said Shepard.
Peoni had been kicking around the idea of starting up a record label for a few years when, in summer 2010, he was outside Radio Radio after a set by the Indy-based psychedelic garage rock band Vacation Club. Someone suggested he put out a 7" for the band, and things built from there.
He currently releases albums for such local acts like Adam Kuhn, Apache Dropout, Christian Taylor & Homeschool, Crys, Learner Dancer and Vacation Club, with Knoxville-based Three Man Band and Bloomington-based Humans on his roster as well.
Peoni said he does not make his bands sign "contracts"; he only asks them to sign an agreement giving him the rights to release the songs. The bands are free to sign with other record labels and even release those songs with other labels, but GloryHole retains rights to release them as well. He doesn't insist on any creative involvement, even when he's paying for studio time.
"The band might let me listen to something or ask me for suggestions, but overall it's up to them," he says. "It's more of a friend or family kind of relationship."
GloryHole finances the production of the finished product - the cassette tape or vinyl release - and then gives a certain number of copies to the band, keeping the bulk of the records for the label to sell at shows. This is the only way he earns revenue or pays his bands.
"I find most bands are pretty happy with that arrangement," he said.
It's the kind of practical, arm's length business arrangement that allows Peoni to do what he loves - archive and distribute the products of his friends around the local music community - while allowing musicians to maintain their independence. GloryHole treads the very fine line between investing in the local music community as a business venture, but staying far enough removed at least creatively to give the artists room to breathe.
Peoni's expectations are not high where money is concerned, which is a good thing, because selling 7" vinyls to local record stores and at concerts isn't the road to wealth.
"If you can just break even in this business, that's considered successful," he said. "If I can just put out a lot of good records in the meantime, that'd be cool."
This sort of lack of monetary ambition or desire to "make it" is, surprisingly, one of the defining threads that unites Peoni with his bands. It's not as though they are completely unconcerned with money or renown — after all, why record or distribute anything if you weren't slightly concerned with getting your work out there and making a few bucks?
However, almost uniformly, when asked about the idea of "making it big," the simple answer is that most of these musicians would like to be able to make a living playing music, but are unconcerned with anything beyond that.
I'm milling around on the porch of a two-story house on E. Morris Street with the guys from the Mediumship bands Vacation Club, Learner Dancer, and Crys. It is constant motion and activity, and constant entertainment; a group of smart, funny, creative people who know each other so well they may as well all be siblings. They bust each other's chops and crack jokes relentlessly. And they just happen to be really funny. There's rarely a moment without a howl of laughter coming from somewhere.
For that reason, it's hard to single any one of them out for something so "serious" as an interview, which is what I'm trying to do with Sam Thompson, the lead singer and guitarist of Vacation Club.
I want to ask him about why he sings in the high-pitched, bubble-gum voice he uses on stage. Finally, I corner him on the porch, but I barely get the question out of my mouth when a tall, swaggering, shirtless guy bounds up the steps and towards me. This I know to be Brandon Jackson, Vacations Club's bassist.
"I'll answer your questions," he says, "I'm your man. Come on. Let's go."
I feel as if I've been put on the spot. I almost mumble something about wanting to do the interviews in private but, like it or not, the moment has arrived. I ask a few questions about modern music, influences, that kind of thing, but he deflects them. When I ask about the beginnings of Vacation Club, however, he and everyone else begins to open up.
Not only were they the first band GloryHole agreed to back, but they are one of the most prolific live bands in the area. Their sound harkens back to mid-'60s pop and garage rock. They take that sound and distort it, expand it, making it even more psychedelic and far-reaching, so that does what rock and roll was meant to do: make you slightly uneasy.
The band's origins are in Kokomo, where Thompson and drummer Jered Sheline played in a punk band together before joining up with guitarist Jeb Lambert and forming Vacation Club. In 2009 they met Jackson at a friend's house in the Garfield Park area, where they had stopped to practice on their way from Kokomo to their gig later that night in Bloomington. Allegedly, Jackson just walked up to them, much as he did to me on the porch - "I'm your man" - and asked if they needed a bass player for that night's gig. They did.
They taught him their nine songs and let him play at that night's show in Bloomington.
"We came back to Indy the next morning and never went back home," said Thompson.
Since then, they have released two 7" records on GloryHole ( a new six-song EP and another 7" are on their way this summer). They've been playing shows at a blistering pace at nearly every venue in the city, from Deluxe at Old National Center down to house shows like Helter Shelter and Mediumship.
There was a time when music fans practically couldn't go to an indie rock show in this city and not see them on the bill. At one point I wouldn't have been surprised in the least to see them lugging their gear into an old folks' home to play a warm-up gig before a set at Radio Radio.
Thompson laughs in agreement when I bring this up but, in all seriousness, Vacation Club is perhaps one of the most obvious beneficiaries of the growth of the Fountain Square music community. All of the band's members came from outside Indy to find a warm welcome, a cheap place to live amongst other musicians and a variety of places to play.
Vacation Club, "Forest Babe"
Though rents are going up gradually, there's also a lot more to do than there was even five years ago, as new music venues and restaurants, and even a brewery have popped up in the past two years.
"Artists are directly responsible for the prosperity of this neighborhood," says local musician and long-time Fountain Square resident Christian Taylor, referencing art spaces such as the Big Car Gallery (which has now relocated to Lafayette Square) and the Murphy Building galleries.
Even more recently, White Rabbit Cabaret, Revolucion and La Margarita have popped up to cater to the increasing amount of young, hip people spending their time here.
But the deeper answer to that question lies in the overall shift of a portion of the music community away from Broad Ripple, a trend that started as live venues like The Patio and others in the area closed up shop. This effect continues today, as the venue Locals Only on 56th and Keystone, is planning to shut its doors.
"Broad Ripple was a lot different five to 10 years ago than it is now," said Jon Rogers, founder of the band Everything, Now! and current editor of Musical Family Tree, who moved from Muncie to Indianapolis
Rogers settled in Broad Ripple because of its proximity to live music venues catering to local musicians. But, shortly thereafter, he started finding it difficult to book shows in the area and found that musicians were no longer moving to Broad Ripple. In fact, they were moving out.
"I kind of witnessed the deterioration of [the Broad Ripple scene]," he said. "There definitely still is lots of good music in Broad Ripple," he added. "But that whole indie music scene seemed to migrate over the last decade and, in a way, it moved to Fountain Square because it had to: it's perfect. That's an area where the gritty rock and roll vibe will always be alive and well, and all the rock and roll kids needed an area in the city to call their own."
At the time, musicians like Christian Taylor, and Jorma Whittaker and Dave Jablonski from Marmoset, were already living in Fountain Square and had been for years. But most agree that a small, but key moment in the evolution of Fountain Square as a destination for a new generation of musicians was when Benny Sanders and Lisa Berlin, of now-defunct band Jookabox, moved there, eventually drawing their friends as well.
"Them moving to Fountain Square kind of started an exodus [from Broad Ripple] or a migration to [Fountain Square] for a lot of other music-minded people, and that's directly influenced what's happening now," said Rogers.
By now there are houses in Fountain Square whose musical history can be traced like a genealogical chart. For example, the house where I met Peoni has been home to at least three different crops of musicians over the years, which is another reason the scene has been able to grow and thrive. Once one group gets a foothold in a certain house or houses in the neighborhood, they tend to pull other musicians in, and the close concentration of creative minds breeds more creativity.
"Because they're crammed into a little space, things start to happen," said Taylor.
He described the excitement he felt watching more and more of his friends begin moving to the Square; the feeling of waking up day after day and being able to walk next door to a friend's house and start playing music unlike in earlier days when it took more effort to get musicians together.
"Shit just didn't get done when everyone was spread across town," he said.
After a while, he noted, attention starts to gather more often at certain houses, unconsciously and sometimes very consciously, as places where everyone congregates.
Every once in a while, certain houses in the neighborhood rise to prominence not only as collecting points for musicians to practice, party and keep the rain off their backs, but as regular music venues. Mediumship, located across the highway in Bates-Hendricks, just west of Fountain Square, is the site of multiple house shows per week.
But Mediumship is also kind of a collective within a collective; it's a trio of bands - Vacation Club, Learner Dancer and Crys - who hang out together, tour together and help each other record.
Shepard, who founded and lives in Mediumship, said he became friends with Vacation Club after he loaned them his reel-to-reel mixer to record their first album. The sharing of gear and expertise is perhaps one of the least visible but most binding elements that ties musicians together.
"What really drew me to all these guys was the fact that they only wanted to play music, and the styles they were playing was the kind of stuff I'm into," said Shepard, referring to the overall psychedelic bent that all three bands share.
About five years ago he began making periodic trips back to Indy from Bloomington, where he was attending IU. Through playing shows at places like the now-defunct Vollrath, he fell in with what is now the Mediumship crew. His band Crys includes Gardner on bass and Mitchell Duncan on guitar, and is strongly influenced by early-'70s German krautrock; their tracks are characterized by long songs with fast, driving beats overlaid with tightly wound and repetitive guitar riffs and psychedelic fuzz to spare.
Over drinks at the Brass Ring, he speaks about various side projects and ideas in an almost manic, rapid-fire way that suggests that he's a visionary and a planner, one moment he's explaining the merits of the analog recording process, the next we're on to his future plans.
"My goal is to run a full-length vinyl label and to turn Mediumship into a label," he said. "But right now, the means are not there."
I ask him what he would do if he suddenly inherited $50,000.
"Oh, I've got it all laid out, it's all right here," he said, flipping open his laptop to reveal a series of spreadsheets and plans for how he would move Mediumship forward.
Somehow, I'm not surprised.
But therein lies the looming paradox of this movement: while no one really seems to care about making money, it's acknowledged that working capital is ultimately what it will take to move ahead with many of their projects.
But for now, people like Shepard are advancing their projects through cooperation and the few dollars they make from shows or selling records.
Most of them have day jobs, of course; these are not Trustafarians trying out the Bohemian lifestyle for a few years before they pack it in and head to law school. Furthermore, a lot of them come from small towns in Indiana that they're in no rush to go back to. They have invested their time and energy in each others' continued success because for many of them there is no way back, only forward.
Learner Dancer, "Fortune Teller" / "Forever Today"
While normally you can pick out a few bands that might be analogs or "Recommended If You Like so and so," Learner Dancer is a little more difficult to pin down. Their music is a soundscape of distortion, pulsing rhythms, unidentifiable noises and the occasional identifiable, repeated theme that doesn't quite merit the term "hook," but that acts to give the track some structure.
According to guitarist Jesse Lee, of Pravada and formerly of Margot & the Nuclear So and So's, Learner Dancer improvises most of their live performances.
"That's part of what I think helps sell our live shows," said Caldwell. "You go and see some bands and they play note-for-note from the album; I personally get a little bored with that."
At the same time, Caldwell says Learner Dancer's new LP due out very soon has a stronger pop sensibility than their previous recordings.
"That's always something I've been interested in, that sort of 'pop in disguise,'" he said.
With Peter King on drums and Lee and Duncan on guitars, this band is another intersecting point for the interlocking web of musical relationships, connections and side projects going on in this scene. To describe the music careers of Lee, another long-time Fountain Square resident, and King, formerly of The Impossible Shapes, would require another genealogical chart altogether.
Caldwell has played with all three Mediumship bands, as well as his friends' side projects Psychic Feel, Peter and the Kings, Holiday Girls and Church of the Infinite Space Ritual. He also books most of the Mediumship shows and helps with the booking for Cataracts Presents' shows - an offshoot of Jacob Gardner's Cataracts Festival - and runs his own cassette-only label Hermetic Tapes, with which he's collaborating with GloryHole for the upcoming label sampler album, FSDC Vol II.
As someone with his hands in a number of different projects, I figure Caldwell might be a good person to ask a persistent question I have: "What is the goal of all this?"
He's adamant that the fun lies in the process rather than the end result.
"All of us are flying by the seat of our pants; none of us really has any clue what we're doing," said Caldwell, "It's just a continuous learning process."
It's impossible to explain what's going on down here without bringing up FSDC, which stands for "Fountain Square Don't Care," the semi-official motto of some of those who live here. The phrase is everywhere, but tracing the it's origins and meaning is harder.
Most agree it started with Christian Taylor who allegedly used to shout "Fountain Square don't care!" when he and his friends would occasionally get harassed by the locals, back when free-wheeling artistic types stuck out like sore thumbs in this neighborhood. In that sense, it's a phrase that stands for defiance, individuality and the freedom to be weird.
"It's like, we can do what we want cause 'Fountain Square Don't Care,'" says King, who follows that up by saying he's not even 100 percent sure that's what it means.
Others say it stands for the somewhat insular nature of the Fountain Square life. Those who live here spend most of their time here, some even work here; for them, what's going on in other parts of the city ceases to matter.
Even others, like Lisa Berlin, say it's more of a phrase people use as a way of saying "No problem" when they are lending a hand to others in the neighborhood; it's a unifying statement that reminds people of the importance of community.
"We actually care a whole lot; sometimes it means Fountain Square Does Chores," she said with a laugh.
Whatever it is, it's important enough that GloryHole named its first tape compilation FSDC Vol. I, and the letters appear graffitied on people's garages and even tattooed on their bodies.
On Saturday night, legendary Indiana and Florida-based band The Vulgar Boatmen played to a crowd of about 150 people at Mediumship. After 20-plus years of touring, the band now only plays live three or four times per year. That they would turn up to play a house show in Fountain Square is a remarkable achievement for GloryHole and Mediumship.
Before their set, Vulgar Boatmen guitarist Matt Speake and I stood in the back yard to talk briefly, amidst a small sea of rock fans standing outside to smoke or just escape the heat inside the packed house. Speake looked at the crowd in the back yard and marveled at the level of support Mediumship could generate for such a show.
"Social media has just allowed such a high degree of organization," he said. "When I was these kids' age, we couldn't have done this."
Later, the Vulgar Boatmen played a set that lasted nearly an hour, despite an atmosphere inside the living room that felt like the inside of a sweat lodge. If anyone was putting any toxins into their bodies, they certainly sweated most of them out during the Boatmen's set. If not, Vacation Club took care of that, capping off the night with their own raucous hour-long set. Sweat visibly dripped off the band as they played; crowd members, both male and female, stripped off their shirts as they danced and howled.
Well after their set ended, as the crowd thinned out and the temperature inside the house started to cool off again, Shepard played the newly recorded and as-yet-unreleased Crys album from his laptop.
It felt like a sacred moment, an advanced screening, and so I stayed to listen.
As the pulsing sounds emanated from the speakers in the living room, a handful of people stopped by to listen here and there as Shepard paced, off to the side, in deep contemplation of the music and of people's reactions.
Brandon Jackson jumped and danced around the living room like a shaman giving his blessing. Sam Thompson stood nearby in the kitchen, hovering over the ice tub where he was chilling the night's last beer, as he and Christain Taylor discussed Vacation Club's new tracks. Jim Peoni passed through a few times, a pile of GloryHole T-shirts on his shoulder, looking slightly preoccupied but not so much that he couldn't flash Shepard a quick nod of approval.
The Crys album sounded tight. It will be the band's first solo release and the finished product will be something for which Shepard, Crys, Mediumship and all of this entire interlocking set of friends in Fountain Square can be proud. You can be assured they all played a part in one way or another.
Crys, Live from Cataracts