Margot & the Nuclear So & So's sit around on a couch and chairs in a cluttered 1960s-green living room drinking bottled Pabst Blue Ribbon and smoking, smoking, smoking. In the background, the Beach Boys harmonize out the hi-fi or, later, the Beatles rumble from an eMac in the kitchen decorated with a wallpaper mural of an island sunset. The group engages in overlapping conversations; they sit close to each other, sharing cigarettes, sharing lighters, sharing space.
A couple of them fiddle with an acoustic guitar left lying around. A couple of them argue. A couple of them laugh. Some are quiet. On first glance, this could be any party at any house, anywhere, any time. But it's different here. What they talk and laugh and argue about is music. What they do is music. What they breathe, besides smoke, is music. And this is a party that never ends.
It's not like this band, which recently signed with the national label Artemis, is on some kind of non-stop collective coke bender. The party doesn't end here because the people from this party can't ever go home. They're already there.
For the most part, all eight people - seven men and one woman - who make up Margot & the Nuclear So & So's live in Andy and Chris Fry's modest near-Southside home at the end of Parkway Street. "It's like American Bandstand every night," Andy says.
Before Margot went nuclear
Back in early 2004, it was just the two brothers sharing what now must seem like an abundance of space. They had regular jobs and played in a good local band, The Academy, with Andy on guitar and vocals and Chris on drums. Chris' girlfriend, local visual artist Stacy Novak, moved in during that time. She had no idea what was about to happen.
Soon, Andy became friends with singer-songwriter Richard Edwards, a local prodigy who started writing and recording songs with the band Archer Avenue as a teen-ager. Archer Avenue had split up and several people, including Muncie-based bass player Tyler Watkins, who had worked as an engineer on Archer Avenue recordings, lined up for an opportunity to work with Richard. "I was hoping his band would break up so I could be in another one with him," Tyler says.
So, with Andy on electric guitars, Chris on drums and Tyler on bass, Richard planned to put down some music as a solo artist at Queensize, the local recording studio Andy co-owns. As that process began, other eventual Margot band members began chipping in. Jesse Lee of Pravada brought his cello. Richard contacted his old friend Emily Watkins - they went to prom together - to help on keyboards.
The last piece of the puzzle - maybe the one that brought Margot's sound together - was Hubert Glover, who Jesse brought in, on trumpet. "It lends to the orchestral feel of it. It's another sound," Jesse says of the horn. "It raises it from being an acoustic rock band with a cello player. Now you have an orchestra pit."
Later, after recording had ended, Casey Tennis, also of Pravada, chipped in on percussion for live shows. He stayed on - as did Hubert - as a full-fledged member of Margot & the Nuclear So and So's.
"This wasn't even supposed to be a band," Richard says. "Then it was."
Getting what they need
Recording sessions came whenever people could get to Queensize between day job responsibilities. It would be a few hours here and there, one or two days a week. By late 2004, they decided to take a chance, quit their jobs and move into Andy and Chris' house together. They decided to get serious.
But the choice to live together wasn't about the house becoming a non-stop music-making center. It was an economic decision.
"It's like an eight-piece band on the budget of a three-piece band," Tyler says. "It's a community. We don't make much money off of the band. But if somebody needs something we find a way to get it for them. We all get what we need."
With some drywall and 2-by-4's, Andy turned his downstairs bedroom into three. All of a sudden, Stacy wasn't living with Chris, his brother and a cat or two. She was living with a rock orchestra.
"There was a little anxiety at first," says Stacy, who does all of the bands artwork. "I thought, 'Oh gosh.' I had been living on my own for five or six years and then this. It was crazy. Now I'm sort of holding my breath and hanging in there."
All of the members of Margot, who range in age from Richard at 22 to Andy at 30, were making the same sudden adjustment. Their rooms are no bigger than their beds. Their home is never a solitary place.
"It's not always easy," Andy says. "But it's still better than having a job. It would be silly for us to be paying five different rents. And the fact that we can tolerate it is a testament to how close we all are."
Richard agrees. "It can be stressful. But, the nice thing is, we're all best friends. If I hate somebody one day, I can still hang out with one of the other six."
Nostalgia without sentimentality
While recording sessions continued for the album, eventually called The Dust of Retreat, Margot began playing around town. Their style - both recorded and live - is hard to pin down. Sometimes they sound a little like something the Rat Pack would dig, sometimes like a jam band, sometimes like an experimental folk act, sometimes like turtleneck-and-tweed-jacket Burt Bacharach easy listening, and then, other times, they just rock - heavy guitars, heavy beat.
Every member of Margot brings his or her own influences to the table. They're all encouraged to "just do what they want." The final product is a mixture of Richard's somber but somehow optimistic songwriting and singing and an eclectic carnival of sonic fun.
Probably the best way to explain this band's work is through a link to film. Margot members feel a kinship with the work of Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, etc.). Richard named the band, in part, after Margot, the character played by Gwyneth Paltrow in Tenenbaums. He named his old band, Archer Avenue, after the street where the Tenenbaums lived.
Like Anderson's movies, Margot feels nostalgic without being too sentimental, a little numb with depression but, ultimately, optimistic. It's an optimism that comes from understanding we aren't in control as people, that we can't answer all the questions. In a Wes Anderson movie and in Margot's music, everything is hazy on the edges but clear in the middle. Kind of like dreams. Kind of like memories. Kind of like life.
"Our music is very cinematic. In just about every song, we focus on stories. We want them to be children's lullabies but a little more frightening," Jesse says. "Wes Anderson has a very childlike, magical approach to things, much like we do. He makes an older style of movie, not so new and loud. They have a magical simplicity. They just look like they're from a different time. They're just beautiful. We try to do that."
Local buzz blooms national
Margot's first show, after two practices, happened at the Patio on Dec. 29, 2004. Emily had never played live. Still, Margot's debut went over well and the band launched into playing as many shows as possible. In the meantime, Standard Recording Co., then based in Kokomo, released the band's CD. With the help of ongoing buzz surrounding Richard, the band and the new album got lots of good press - especially from Indianapolis Star music critic David Lindquist, who had once picked Archer Avenue's work for album of the year.
"It was easy to write about us because they could say, 'Come see a band made of people from Archer Avenue, Pravada and The Academy,'" Richard says.
With all of the press, the bands' connections and a sound that started to really come together, the local buzz soon bloomed into a national one. "It was good timing," Casey says. "Everybody was willing to make a sacrifice."
Andy points to Richard - who wrote all of the songs on the album - as the reason for Margot taking off when the "20 other bands" the different members were in prior to this one didn't go anywhere. "It works because of Richard," Andy says. "He was the piece we were all missing."
This was quite a switch for Andy. In The Academy, he was the one who wrote the songs and brought them to the band, as Richard now does with Margot. It was Andy who once stood center stage in his white suit and sang.
"Now, instead of freaking out about 'am I singing this well?' it frees me up to do what I do well, and that's it. I really like looking at the overall picture," he says. "I thought what I liked about music was writing songs. But I like this so much more. Giving that up wasn't hard at all."
Spotlight on Richard
Record companies like Columbia began flying Richard and Andy out to meet their reps. During that time, a representative from Artemis contacted Margot through its MySpace page. "At first, we thought it was bullshit," Richard says.
But, already flown to New York by Columbia, they decided to check Artemis out and were glad they did. "They were so much cooler. We went from the Sony building, which was kind of like the Death Star, to see Artemis. And it just felt so much better. I don't want to talk shit about major labels, but it is just a different culture," Andy says. "At some point it felt like people were just shining a big fucking spotlight on Richard to see what he would do in different situations."
But the ones at Artemis knew Margot's music, requesting particular songs. It just felt right. "After going to all of the other labels, everything seemed so surreal. They were committal and noncommittal at the same time. At Artemis, they seemed to like what we were doing. They seemed more serious," Andy says.
During the meetings, Andy and Richard got the feeling that the major labels are scrambling to keep up with the independent labels and the changes brought on by new technology. "They're all terrified," Richard says. "And they're all fighting a huge uphill battle in a flawed system. They just don't know how to resurrect it."
While other labels plodded forward, Artemis reps attended several Margot shows, including another at the Patio when the band opened for Juliette Lewis and the Licks on Nov. 5, 2005. The label's president saw a video of that performance, pretty much sealing the deal. They signed their contract just before playing a live set on WOXY Internet radio in Cincinnati on Nov. 28, 2005. Artemis faxed it over to the office and the band faxed it back. Then they played a set dripping with joy.
"I felt more relieved than anything," Jesse says of the moments after the contract was signed. "I was just ready to see what this label wanted us to do. I was sitting there thinking, 'Well, what next?'"
A surprise to all of us
Next was the whole band traveling to New York to meet the people at their new label - which also represents a range of talent from Better than Ezra to Steve Earle, to The Pretenders, to Al Franken, to lots of other, newer acts. After that, Margot did some more touring around the East Coast and Midwest, where people in other states were even singing along with their songs (thanks to MySpace, WOXY and satellite radio).
The band recently returned for a break to "tweak" the record released by Standard for re-release by Artemis in March. Later this month, they'll head out in their van for a western tour, highlighted by a gig opening for Rufus Wainwright at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 21.
"We all like touring," Richard says. "It's a little bit of a soulless endeavor. But, when you get to the club, it starts to get good." With such a large band, in the past Margot has sometimes outnumbered its out-of-town audiences. But they don't mind. And those days are most likely behind them. "Who cares? It's better than sitting here. It's still more fun to play a show with two people and drink for free than sit here at home and get drunk and watch The Real World. Our theory is that we'll keep touring on zero money and, each time we go back, there will be more people," Richard says.
Margot has already started recording its next record at Queensize, where the band invested its first advance from Artemis on top-quality studio equipment. They plan to finish the next record late this year or early in 2007.
"With this record, I think we're going to try to focus on even more of an orchestral sound," Jesse says. "When you're recording, things are pieced together and becoming something on their own. I'm curious to see what is pieced together. I think it will be a surprise to all of us."
Nuclear family photograph
During the photo shoot for this story, Andy climbs into a double bed barely squeezed into his tiny room. He's made it into a sort of loft, complete with storage underneath, an area at the foot of the bed to hang his clothes and a stand that hangs from the ceiling for a small TV. While the photographer snaps pictures, Andy calls in the other band members. First, Tyler arrives, slipping off his shoes. Then Emily and Casey squeeze in. They all yell for the others. In a minute, Jesse, Hubert and Chris pile on top. And last, Richard strolls into the closet-sized room, looking over the situation with a new cigarette in his lips. Emily tells him he can't smoke in there. He says he's going to smoke if he has to get his picture taken with seven other people in a bed. Nobody argues with that. He climbs in next to Chris.
So there's the whole family: Andy typing on his laptop, others asking if he's really answering e-mails (he is). And Richard, at the foot of the bed, half-smiling and smoking and looking away.