Bands without a commercial track record that have just signed to a major record label don’t often have much bargaining power. Indeed, they really shouldn’t have any, according to a common wisdom most colorfully and profanely summed up by producer Steve Albini in his essay, “The Problem with Music,” first published in the punk zine Maximum Rock’n’roll and easily accessible on the web. Albini imagines the band that is about to sign with a major label as swimming in a trench “about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit.” And it doesn’t get much better from there: band members swim to get a filthy carrot, then the carrot-holders (label reps) at the end of the trench say that they need just a little more seasoning, repeat laps and eventually succumb to addiction or a day job.
The memorable closing line of the essay is often incorrectly used as the title: “Some of your friends are probably already this fucked,” meaning that they’re making the music industry millions of dollars but only recouping a pittance for themselves, in debt to the label for the myriad costs (accounted for by the label) associated with recording, touring, promotion and all those other perks that come with major label clout.
If Albini’s vision of the music industry bears any resemblance to the post-Napster landscape — and all reports would suggest that, while the numbers have changed, the basic forces remain the same — how have the kind and gentle, not at all evil musicians that make up Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s managed to negotiate a truce with penny-pinching multinational Sony, arranging to release the “director’s cut” of their new album on vinyl while the label ships out its preferred version of Margot’s recent studio work on the more widely-available compact disc? And how did the band manage to convince the label to keep those titles, which just seem too irreverent — “this is our album and that is clearly not our album,” the albums seem to say — past the planning stages?
Not all the answers are forthcoming — and much rests on whether or not the subtle and morose orchestral rock that Margot is offering will sell a hundred thousand units — but a few facts remain: Margot’s unalloyed creative vision, Animal!, was released Oct. 7 on double vinyl on Epic (Not Animal, an album comprised of tracks chosen by the label culled from past studio sessions, simultaneously released on CD); the band is on a headlining tour that stops for an all-ages show at Murat’s Arabian Room Oct. 17; and lead singer and songwriter Richard Edwards is moving out of a house shared with four other band members, seriously endangering a Brady Bunch conceit at the center of the first (Jan. 2006) NUVO cover story about the band.
Whose idea was this?
It’s late afternoon on a Wednesday in late September, and several band members are gathered in their rehearsal space and studio, the eastside Queensize Twin Air, a former paintball range on the second floor of a somewhat low-rent office building. They unfurl, or awkwardly unroll, a large canvas painting of a woodland scene in primitive-art pastels, destined to be the stage backdrop during the band’s upcoming tour. But it’s, well, a little too big. “This wouldn’t even fit the 9:30 Club,” says one So and So, referring to the not-so-cramped stage at the Washington, D.C. nightclub. “Whose idea was this?” another wonders aloud, seeing some cash and energy — they’ve even obtained a fire code compliance sheet to allow them to tour with props in a post-Great White era — go up in smoke. If there’s a space large enough — presumably the multi-purpose room at the Murat should suffice — then the backdrop will enhance the animal motif the band is pursuing for their live show, complete with animal masks for each of the band members (seen briefly during their Vogue show in April) and some rectangular floor lamps that read “Animal!”, back-lit in the fashion of an “applause” sign in a TV studio and festooned with dried twigs lifted from a basket of potpourri. It’s playful, a little bit precious and suggests just how involved the band has become in all elements of the creative process; Edwards suggests that the time had come to liven up their live shows, to try to give a devoted fan base something more than a batch of new songs. Even if Edwards isn’t a showman — he’s diffident and brusque on-stage, perhaps compensating for anxiety, or just not interested in doing the rock star thing — the band is putting a lot of thought into their show, seamlessly tying band, album and live performance together into one friendly vision of nature, red in tooth and candy cane.
The band’s instruments are collected in an un-miked rehearsal setup at the center of Queensize, a surprisingly spacious studio with a large central space and offshoots that house secondary studios, a control room, a lounge, largely dysfunctional restrooms, an office belonging to Queensize co-owner Vess Ruhtenberg (contributor and sometime member in many local bands, but not Margot) and an even larger warehouse space housing the unsold back catalogue of Flat Earth Records. I know the nooks and crannies because, immediately upon entering the space, auxiliary percussionist and all-around friendly guy Casey Tennis took me around, showing off, in particular, the “echo room” filled with bells, marimbas and other percussion — “We were going to finish it off, but we liked the echo.” It makes sense that the So and So’s are pleasant and outgoing hosts, because they’ve spent long stretches when the studio became a second home, both Queensize and a Chicago studio where they did the bulk of the work on Animal!
But before getting to those long, drunken Chicago nights when the band finally put together their long-awaited sophomore album, it’s high time to get the band’s history, with a correction or two, out of the way. (Don’t worry, you won’t miss anything that the band is up to at Queensize; most of them are hurriedly signing copies of the Not Animal CD, attempting to get through a stack of hundreds before getting to practice, although two — Tennis and violinist and steel guitarist Erik Kang — are free to twiddle fingers or twinkle keys while the rest develop hand cramps, because they laid down their signatures earlier while watching an episode of King of Queens.)
There was no dog
Edwards and guitarist Andy Fry formed the band in 2004, though not after meeting in a Fountain Square pet store where Edwards was buying a kitten and Fry a lizard (or both were looking for a dog, as another version goes). The band invented that ongoing bit for reporters in a fit of mythmaking either desperate, inspired or both; it’s something that could happen, after all, in a Wes Anderson film, from which the titles of both Margot and Edwards’ first recording moniker, Archer Avenue, take their inspiration. To hear Edwards tell it, making up stuff about the history of the band is the only way to stay sane when doing phone interviews with faceless college journalists who absolutely must know about their oh-so fascinating lives. “It’s really embarrassing to talk about that stuff, especially with some kid that works for a college paper; it just seems really ridiculous when you’re doing it,” Edwards explained in the Queensize break room, chatting with me on a day when he skipped two phone interviews. “So we just started saying stupid shit and you have to pull back from it at some point because every interview you would get asked that.”
No, it was more prosaic than that; the Fry brothers, drummer Chris and guitarist Andy, were already in power pop trio The Academy, when Andy got the idea of recording with Edwards, who had already released an impressive album as Archer Avenue while still a teenager. Others soon joined in — keyboardist Emily Watkins; Hubert Glover on horns; Kang — with several living together in a house to cut down on costs. Tennis joined up after the first record to inject some on-stage dynamism, playing on sometimes dumpster-dived percussion.
Their first show was in December 2004, and 2005 saw the release of their debut The Dust of Retreat on Indianapolis-based Standard Recording Company, of which All Music Guide claimed, “What The Dust of Retreat does for indie rock in 2006 is almost everything Neutral Milk Hotel wanted to do in 1998 with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Just give it a chance.” Of course, that same review quotes what may have been another attempt at giving reporters something that they want while maintaining privacy: the claim that the album is based on Edwards’ interest in what it would have been like to live in ‘60s-era Greenwich Village. It mightas well have been inspired by anything from New York City to Timbuktu, but the world Edwards sketches is that of a Midwestern city for a guy exiting his teens who’s concerned with women, self-creation, drugs, sublimity, anxiety and negotiating relationships. The album’s chamber pop continues to sound fresh, sensitive, economical, often stiflingly serious — excepting the “meow” chorus on “Paper Kitten Nightmare,” a palate-clearing diversion with French background vocals and plunger-muted trumpet — and astoundingly well-composed and fully-formed for a debut record, particularly by such a young songwriter and by a band of such an unwieldy size.
On the strength of Dust, the band was courted by a string of major labels. In an aside that has now become somewhat ironic, Edwards told Jim Walker in that Jan. 2006 NUVO story that the band “went from the Sony building, which was kind of like the Death Star, to see Artemis.” While Margot is currently with Sony/Epic — after making a deal with the dark side — they chose the label that seemed much cooler at the time, Artemis. But Artemis wasn’t long for them, and after the label remixed, resequenced and re-released Dust in 2006, and advanced the band some cash for studio equipment and the like, they shuttled Margot to another label under the same corporate owners, V2. Then as V2 began to sink, Margot somehow extricated herself in Jan. 2006 before bankruptcy negotiations and spent much of 2006 without a label. Others came knocking though, and in Oct. 2007 they signed with Epic, renewing corporate support and moneys for the band.
The ultimate anxiety album
The walls were closing in on Richard Edwards as, in summer 2007, he began to write the songs that eventually ended up on Animal! in a house he currently shares with the brothers Fry, Tennis and Emily Watkins. “Intense panic attacks had made it difficult for me to leave the house, so I wrote about that,” writes Edwards in an essay included with Epic’s press materials for the Animal!/Not Animal release. “I wanted to create the ultimate anxiety album.” A February 2008 SPIN “Who’s Next” featurette on the band captures both Edwards’ presentation and social milieu quite well, saying that “Edwards has the kind of wounded-fella vibe that makes you want to take him home and pour him a mug of camomile tea.”
Of course, it should be noted that this same fragile thing flew a drunken red-eye to New York City to chew out Epic label executives when it seemed as if his band’s record was going to end up in a vault. Talking with Edwards, 24, he doesn’t seem histrionically angst-filled or anything but justifiably proud of his young accomplishments; he’s more quietly egotistical than pervasively fearful. But he is more than a little detached and anxious: a wool sweater draped about him on a rather warm afternoon suggests cold-bloodedness or illness, a cigarette in his fingers may relieve jitters, a somewhat dull and drawn-out diction doesn’t anticipate his expressive, cracking singing voice.
Back in the Queensize break room, Edwards says that he got something out of the prolonged period of withdrawal: “I wrote a lot — I didn’t have much fun writing; it was very weird and scary and I didn’t know what was really happening, but I guess the songs got written, so maybe it was a fucked-up blessing or something, I don’t know.”
Maybe giving another bone to music journalists a la the Greenwich Village story, Edwards says that he pursued at least a couple narratives while writing these anxious tunes: one on the Heaven’s Gate cult and another about a group of abandoned children living in mineshafts (part of a sketchy Lord of the Flies theme that pops up in “A Children’s Crusade on Acid,” or at least on that title.) Both were basically abandoned; Edwards says that “I usually get on really brief kicks; some night I’ll watch something and then I’ll lose interest in it and fail.” Moreover, such easy narrative clues don’t necessarily provide the skeleton key (eh?) to understanding Margot’s songs — Edwards’ lyrics, when not sometimes buried in the mix, seem much more imagistic and occasionally old-school surrealistic, with plenty of sex and violence (“I’ll boot your bony ass to the moon,” “But your hands looked so cold, I was feeling ashamed/So I set them aflame with a lighter,” “And we will dance on broken sheets of glass”). Besides, Edwards closed a line of questioning about those influences with an offhand. “It’s kind of irrelevant.” A quote Edwards gave on those label press materials may sum things up: He told the anonymous writer that on several songs, his lyrics boil down to “just a string of words put together. I’m never writing about anything.”
No sober vocals
The band began the new album at Queensize in late 2007, but after two sessions that Edwards says were “really successful” and yielded a fully-formed track for the album (“Cold, Kind and Lemon Eyes”) everyone started losing focus in a potentially destructive way. “It just got out of control; everybody started freaking out,” Edwards explains. “It devolved into a lot of indecisiveness and we’d just sit here for hours. Andy would be in here for two days straight on a 20 second guitar thing.” So they headed to Chicago, where they camped out in a studio for three months in winter 2008, working with producer Brian Deck (who had previously worked with Modest Mouse and Iron and Wine). According to Edwards, Deck helped the band to understand when to stop working on a song, either because it wasn’t likely to be improved upon with more takes or tracks, or because a persistent problem wasn’t likely to be solved by approaching it in the same way with tired minds and hands. And while major label money certainly allowed the band to bring in outside help and rent studio space, they weren’t frivolously blowing money or partying. They swore off the lures of the big city — partly because the winter was particularly cold, even by Chicago standards — and slept in rooms adjoining the studio, keeping warm and beckoning sleep with, apparently, copious supplies of liquor (Edwards says he recorded all vocal tracks but one while drunk, sauntering to the mic late at night after recording full band sessions during the day).
At the end of the three months — and with a little more post-production work — the band had an album they were pleased with. But the label didn’t feel the same way. Edwards still isn’t sure what they didn’t like about it, though he guesses they might not have appreciated the more experimental song structures — the opening track, “At the Carnival,” stretches out to a largely morose and angry six minutes, with Edwards crooning well above his range on the chorus, and the most formally diverse track, “Mariel’s Brazen Overture” moves from a folky duet to Ennio Morricone-style film music (with requisite echoing, distorted bass line) to hefty rock without setting upon a chorus or genre. In short, it’s a record that maintains the energy and eclecticism of Dust of Retreat but not always the hooks and emotional accessibility, which doesn’t bode well for big record sales.
The band and label entered a stalemate, with the band ready to take the album to the people if the label wasn’t willing to make some sort of compromise. “We pressed upon them that it would still exist on the Internet if they didn’t put it out; maybe we wouldn’t get paid all the money we were owed and maybe I wouldn’t get publishing rights, but it still would be out,” Edwards says. And then Andy Fry directed his mind to the fact that, despite all predictions that it would be all but obsolete by the end of the ‘90s, vinyl is still here to stay for a minority of devoted music fans, audiophiles and DJs. The band suggested to Epic that the band’s preferred album could be released on vinyl, ensuring that their vision will still get to those who go a little bit out of their way to hear it.
As Albini says, it usually doesn’t work out like this for up-and-coming bands. Sure, Margot’s album is still being marginalized: fans are already complaining online that they don’t “spin vinyl,” and therefore will only have the opportunity to hear the label’s version; music writers don’t seem entirely hip to the concept, or are left reviewing both records, without much critical engagement with either one. But if Richards speaks for the rest of the band when he says that the group’s central goal “is to make more records and have them sound really good,” than this album will get their sound — ambitious, panicky, lush — to anyone who happens to get his or her hands on it.
That being said, the label still had the chance to release what they could compile from the Animal! sessions and demos that the band had previously shared. They moved the poppy-est, most accessible songs (“A Children’s Crusade on Acid,” “German Motor Car”) — perhaps those on which they sound the most like the band recorded on Dust — from the second disc of the double vinyl Animal! to the top of the Not Animal CD. Then they added in several demos from pre-Animal! sessions, including local favorite “Broadripple is Burning.” Generally, Not Animal is a little bit more rocking, a lot less sophisticated and multi-tracked than Animal!, and while it seems just as dark, it’s a lot more lively in the darkness.
Lucrative T-shirt sales
For Margot to remain successful as a band, and to devote as much time to crafting a recording as they have this year, it might come back to those profit margins that Albini discusses in his essay; his argument is that, after paying back on the advance, delegating other money to the label, producer and engineer and spending money on tours and equipment, the band is left to make money on T-shirt sales, nearly exclusively, each member earning less per year than he or she might make at 7-11. On this point, Margot may have to compromise, but Edwards is adamant that the band needs to make some money to continue making records without having to seek out day jobs. “For us to devote as much attention as a Margot record needs, which is a lot of attention, we’d have to make enough money to where we could live modestly year to year, by playing shows and making records, and not have to go work somewhere else,” he explains. “If that happens, then I think we can keep making records. I don’t think anyone thinks that our band, even if we’re on a major, can do shit; if we sell 50,000 records, that would be great.”
Can a major label possibly gamble on a band that could be a modest success, but is likely too smart and unpredictable to ever move units at Wal-Mart? Edwards’ hope to make enough money to continue making records might be compromised by plummeting Sony stock, media consolidation that has crushed boutique labels and a depressive economic future that may spell doom for all but the strongest media companies (i.e. those indifferent to the artistic merit of anything they release, bent only on stimulating the buyer).
Not to mention that those record sales and contracts have to support eight band members; collectives of any type are not often lucrative enterprises. But Margot got their way on this record, and continuing to tour in a black school bus that Edwards thinks may not be roadworthy, sharing resources (even if not always in the same house), banding together against attacks of label disinterest and periodic creative disintegration, Margot may just have what it takes to survive the coming economic apocalypse.