We do a lot of roundups in the NUVO universe. Last April, we picked the 100 best Hoosier albums ever. In the fall, we put together a comprehensive guide to local record labels and their upcoming releases. Why, just last week, we compiled more than 60 places to karaoke in the Circle City.
This is one thing we know: We could never successfully round up all the local bands we love in Indy. There are simply too many.
But the five artists and bands we've profiled here have impressed us, in very specific ways. Whether it's through killer album release shows, manic dance parties, or irrepressible song writing, we're predicting big things for these artists and bands in 2015. We believe these are the young local artists you'll hear from this year.
We brought them all to the Sinking Ship for a full day of conversation and photos. Portraits are by Angela Leisure, with hair by Chie Sharp and makeup by Julie Powers.
SM WOLF has three releases brewing
Adam Gross' pop songs are usually pretty joyful — so much so that he named one of his bands Amo Joy.
But a couple of songs the singer and guitarist wrote in the last few years just didn't fit Amo Joy. They were darker, sonically and lyrically. So he set them aside for SM Wolf, a band that, at the beginning, really wasn't really supposed to be a band.
"It started because Adam just kept writing songs and kept recording them," SM Wolf bassist and Amo Joy collaborator Ben Leslie says during a recent conversation. "There was no plan for SM Wolf being anything," Gross agrees, who took his batch of half-written songs, finished and recorded them in a week, and took them out live.
Then, "the people went crazy," keyboardist Rachel Enneking says. SM Wolf was immediately embraced on a local level, so much so that the band says they've barely sought out shows, instead playing gigs they've been mostly asked to do. But how did Gross take his side project to full band?
"It was really when Mel started playing with us that we solidified," Gross says. Mel is his wife Melanie Rav, who took over drum duties from James Furness. With the addition of Rav, Leslie and Enneking, SM Wolf became a regular on all sorts of bills in venues all over Indy. They perfected their set of psych pop by not being perfect, Gross' songs fuzzing out onstage through four bodies. Local label InStore Recordings released a 7-inch of those initial, quickly recorded songs; design duo Brain Twins created an animated video for their track "King of The Suits." They practiced. And practiced.
"Last year was all about having fun and just seeing what we could do and what people would be responsive to, and this year we have a really solid direction with it," Enneking says, "and we're ready to take the lead."
The band has a variety of releases percolating, including a full-length, finished last fall, their half of a cassette split due out on Jurassic Pop, and a super secret project that the band won't give many details on, except to say with unison laughs, "we can't say." They're plotting corresponding live dates.
At recent Indy shows, the band has played snippets of the new stuff live; it all fits right in to the rest of their irrepressible live set. But listening to their recorded tracks on record — especially the new songs for the split, which are the first the band recorded all together, rather than by Gross solo — those three new songs channel a looser, larger energy. It's the sound of a band settling into themselves, of a solo project unspooling into something much bigger.
It's exciting. We all think so.
"We're all on the same page, the energy and goals we have behind [this band]," Rav says. "We have all this unreleased material —" Leslie starts. " — and we're ready to launch," Enneking finishes, happily.
— Katherine Coplen
Next: Sirius Blvck's major album
SIRIUS BLVCK just dropped a major album
On the first Friday in December, despite a day full of rain in Fountain Square, a capacity crowd (and then some) packed itself into the Hi-Fi on Virginia Ave., waiting for one of the city's most anticipated album release shows of the year: Sirius Blvck's Light in the Attic.
As the rapper dove into his new cuts, the crowd had huddled close around the stage, and he was feeling it.
Blvck had been waiting all year for this day, and the middle of performing "Giving Tree," he stopped, teared up and spoke to the crowd.
"I've never been more proud of anything in my life. That'll change soon; that'll change soon. But right now, this is my proudest moment."
It's New Year's Eve, almost four weeks since his LITA release show, and Blvck — actually named Niqolas Askren — is hanging out in his newly rented duplex, waiting for his uncle to drop off some furniture.
He was unexpectedly called in to work the day before, and the 24-year-old looks tired. Askren is chill, though, and talks clearly enough to hear over the episode of Cowboy Bebop playing on the TV.
"I feel blessed to be here in Indy with my music," he says. "This thing we're building, it's going good right now."
At this time last year, Askren explains, he was recording Year of the Snake, the predecessor to LITA and second installment in the trilogy of albums he has crafted with Los Angeles-based producer Bones of Ghosts.
"YOTS was a darker album," he says, running his hands through his mess of hair. "It was after a bad breakup. I was losing a lot of homies." He shakes his head.
Originally planned as a double-album with LITA, YOTS grew so melancholy that the two "just didn't sound right as one," and Askren dropped YOTS by itself in January.
"By the time YOTS was done and I was started writing again for LITA, I wanted to go as far left as possible, sound-wise and with what I was talking about," Askren says. "I wanted to get rejuvenation as opposed to 'Damn, I gotta go think.'"
While Askren calls YOTS "no fun," the record soon became his most popular release as Sirius Blvck and a catalyst for his improving state of mind. "Seeing people respond well — so well — to that record, that kinda lifted my spirits," he says.
Bones of Ghosts (real name: Paul Schneider) happened to be feeling similarly, ready to bounce back from the heavy undertones of YOTS.
"LITA was as though we got to the exact same place mentally at the exact same time. If you listen to the music and listen to the words, they're both saying the same thing," Schneider wrote in an email. "Personally speaking, I was in a much more positive headspace when making LITA."
LITA's focused, cohesive 11 tracks live up to their billing; the record is a wavy shot of warmth for Indiana winters, exactly the young, head-up aesthetic that Askren and Schneider set out to create.
The rest of the city seems proud of it, too. Following LITA's release, seemingly every rapper in Indianapolis was posting the iTunes link online, and at the release show, every featured guest from the album was there to perform with Askren, and local musician Clint Breeze even hopped on a live drumset to assist.
"2015, we've been saying, is about to come up," Askren insists. "It's not a pipe dream anymore. It's an actual reality."
Aside from his music, Askren has the biggest moment of his life — the one he mentioned on-stage during his release performance — arriving in January. His first daughter, baby Khida, is due at the end of the month, and when Askren talks about her, a soft smile comes across his face.
"I'm so excited... [She] was a big part of the rejuvenation process and feeling like I was stepping into a new chapter in my life," he says. "I'm excited to see what I can do once she's here, both in terms of music and feeling what it's like when she's here. I'm excited to have that moment when I see her for the first time, because I know there's never going to be anything else like it."
— Adam Lukach
Next: Shame Thugs' mesmerizing stage show
Shame Thugs mesmerize onstage
It's been less than a year since Shame Thugs played their first gig at the all-ages
venue Westgate. I was at that show last March, and from the moment the duo commenced playing it was evident they were traveling a thoroughly unique path in Indianapolis' music scene.
Thinking back on that night, and the times I've seen them since, the band had all the elements of their artistic vision in place during that debut performance. If I'd been pressed to describe their music that night I might've referenced an early incarnation of NYC synth-punkers Suicide fronted by a more soulful Yoko Ono. The Shame Thugs' sound eschews obvious rock or electronic music genre cliches, mixing noisy improvisation over lo-fi beat loops pre-recorded onto homemade tapes that are played back over vintage cassette decks.
Shame Thugs is Rachel Weidner on vocals and keyboards and Jessica Hemesath on bass and cassette loops.
"Having cool tape players and doing what we do in our performance is a cool aesthetic," Weidner says during a recent chat. "But there's more to it than that. It's like a lifestyle. I collect tape players every day. I am always an the lookout for new tape players and always on the lookout for cool, weird tapes."
"I think it's also important to mention that there's an element of practicality with using tapes," Hemesath adds. "We're not sitting in front of a laptop scrolling through files."
At first perhaps the most striking element of the Shame Thugs' live show is the duo's aesthetic presence. The group often performs in their underwear accented with glitter, gold sequins and Valkyrie-style headgear.
"When I was a little girl I always thought it would be really cool to start a band with all girls and play music naked," Weidner explains.* "As I've grown up I realized that's not really possible in our society. By wearing my panties on stage, it's a little bit of a 'Fuck you' to the idea that I couldn't be naked because it would totally take away from the musical message and people wouldn't get any more out of it than 'Oh, naked girl.' "
"It's not about trying to be sexy," Hemesath says. "Think of how huge the difference is between a guy being in his underwear playing an instrument and a girl being in her underwear playing an instrument. In the name Shame Thugs we're trying to comment on that issue a bit."
The duo's theatrical approach and attention
to creative detail has paid off, as the group was immediately hit with offers for follow-up gigs following their debut. The band's word of mouth reputation spread fast in Indy's underground music scene.
"The second show we played, there were so many people. I looked up at one point and thought, 'Why are there so many people here watching us? We're so new,' " Hemesath says, with sense of genuine wonder. It's all a bit new for the Shame Thugs' bassist. She gigged for a bit as a drummer with punk rockers Sorry Joint and occasionally provides turntable duties for Sirius Blvck, but Shame Thugs is her first major project.
Weidner, on the other hand, has a more established presence in the Indiana music scene, having fronted the high-profile Bloomington-based outfit Thee Open Sex. It was the demise of that group that led her to Shame Thugs.
"It was perfect timing," she says. "Thee Open Sex was kind of coming to an end and I met Jessica. At that time I was like I want to meet women in Indianapolis and play music with girls that I'm not going to be afraid or ashamed of doing. She was gonna play drums and I was gonna sing and play guitar. But then she said "I'm also a DJ," and we immediately started talking about beats and stuff. I'd actually had three Open Sex songs that started as beats that I'd been working out in my head. Teaching them to the band was kind of difficult. I was thinking, 'I just needed to play with someone who likes beats.' "
Shame Thugs have accomplished a lot for a band yet to reach its one year anniversary. They've completed an East Coast tour with John Flannelly that brought them to New York, and released a cassette EP with an accompanying music video. The duo is planning an album in 2015.
As our chat concludes, I ask the duo about the origin of their curious name. Hemesath mentions that Australian outfit Total Control released an interlude on their album Henge Beat called "Shame Thugs."
Weidner jumps in: "Can I read you the definition of thug from Urban Dictionary? 'As Tupac defined it, a thug is someone who is going through struggles, has gone through struggles, and continues to live day by day with nothing for them. That person is a thug. A thug is not a gangster.'
"[And] the shame part is pretty self explanatory," she continues. "In the United States we experience a lot of shame. Obviously, as a girl, there's slut shaming. I feel like shame in general is an emotion women experience frequently. So we've gone through struggles and we're going to keep going through struggles having to deal with our shame as women."
— Kyle Long
Next: Sweet Poison Victim's big dance party
*A previous version of this piece misattributed this quote to Hemesath instead of Weidner.
SWEET POISON VICTIM makes every show a dance party
Call Sweet Poison Victim the best band to ever come out of a drum circle.
"We all met at Ted [Somerville's] house," singer Kwesi Brown says, when I ask him about his band's beginnings. "His roommate was Karl [Selm]. [Kwesi, Somerville, Selm and Mario Martinez] started playing; people were coming every week, play and then leave. As time went on, there were guys that kept coming every week, like him [gestures at trombonist and bassist Clarence Jones]. The way I saw it, I thought we could make something better out of this. Instead of a drum circle ... we can put some structure on it."
He slowly introduced the group of players to Ghanaian rhythms. "In the beginning, it was tough," Brown, who was born in Ghana and has a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, says. "It took us the whole year, when we started [jamming], to learn one song. A whole year. I tell you now, within a week, we can do two, three songs. Now, we've come out of our Western style. We've absorbed the other musical styles, too. ... You can tell how far we've come."
Those jammers became Sweet Poison Victim, a lineup that recently solidified as: Brown, Jones, Somerville, Martinez, Selm and Gerardo Ruiz Tovar, BC Nelson, Mike Blackwell, Nana Yaa, Xander Gieryn and Josh Nosie. And a sound solidified too, a booty-shaking combo of African highlife, South American rhythms and sing-along choruses. It's still evolving, though. "You never know what's next," Tovar says. "A year ago, we were trying to learn Kwesi's song, on that kind of vibe; right now we're on this Latin kind of vibe; we have everything going on."
Onstage, they're a band constantly in transition, trading spots on drums and guitar; putting lips to horns, then mics; swapping guitars for congas and cowbells. The constant between-song movement compliments the hard-charging, super danceable songs the group writes.
It was a three-part performance at Fountain Square Music Fest that sealed the deal for me. Organizers asked the group to play three mini-sets. By the end of the third, the jubilant crowd was whooping for more. After that show, I'd follow SPV anywhere, and I'd wager so would anyone else there. "We played, and by the time we played again, everybody was like, 'Man, you've got to hear this band.' And by the time we played the third time, it was a huge crowd," Nelson says.
Their shows, especially their rollicking festival performances, are a community experience. That's probably why Sweet Poison Victim gets asked to play so many festivals. "After the [Fried Green Tomato Festival], we had this jam session where all these little kids got on the congas. The community came and jammed with us," Gieryn said. "I just think kids' curiosity towards drums and instruments is so beautiful."
After a summer and fall full of festivals, things are shifting for the group. Sweet Poison Victim has yet to announce an album release, although they plan to release a select few songs from a recent recording session fairly soon. (They cite the undeniable difficulties of recording a band of nearly a dozen as reason for their delayed recorded output.) They've also lost a few key members to international moves, including guitarist Ted Somerville to Brazil (trumpeter Mike Blackwell transitioned to guitar to take his place) and singer Yaa to Australia ("That will be a hard position to fill," Jones says, of losing the singer/dancer/hand percussion player. They've already launched their search for a replacement.) In the meantime, they've planned a monthly gig at the Hi-Fi starting in February and continue to search for out of town gigs.
"We have very diverse members," Brown says. "We all have different experiences and we bring the experience to this band. ... I think 2015 is going to be our year. We have straightened out so many things. Right now, I'm talking about discipline. This band is now on track for so many things."
— Katherine Coplen
Next: Myah Evan's delicate folk
MYAH EVANS manifests folk brilliance
I would imagine the average Midwestern teenager is occupied right now preparing for a new semester of school.
Not Myah Evans. The 18-year-old singer-songwriter is busy preparing EP releases and plotting cross-country tours.
During the last few years, Evans quietly amassed a large audience of devoted Indiana music fans for her fragile folk creations. In 2015, she seeks to make that audience national.
I vividly remember the first time I saw Evans perform two years ago at a festival show featuring local talent. Prior to her performance, I'd seen her backstage sitting alone in a corner of the room, gently strumming an acoustic guitar. Judging from her youthful look I'd assumed she was the kid sister of one of the evening's performers. But a few minutes later, Evans took the stage and captivated the audience with an introspective set of original compositions. It was a remarkable performance. It's rare to see a young artist so fully developed as a writer and performer. But creating music has always come naturally for Evans.
"I used to sit in the car while my mom was shopping," Evans says. "I'd pull out a cell phone and record myself singing songs that I'd heard on the radio. I'd play the recordings back to myself and listen. That's how I taught myself to sing."
While Evans' debut Familiar Things is filled with original compositions, cover songs remain an important part of her repertoire. Evans' YouTube channel is filled with unique interpretations of popular hip-hop singles like Chance The Rapper's "Cocoa Butter Kisses" and Drake's "Girls Love Beyonce." But Evans is a folkie at heart.
"I say I'm an indie-folk singer songwriter, because folk music is acoustic and the songs have a deeper meaning behind them, a message the artist is trying to put across to the public," Evans says. And what's her message? "I guess I just want to make people think harder, and reflect on their life."
It seems Evans has been doing much reflection on her own life, especially on the steps she can take to further her career. One such recent step was relocating to Bloomington. She cites the college town's revolving student population as a major reason for the move.
"People go there from all over the country. I also like the energy. It's Bloomington, so I think things are going to bloom for me there."
Evans' immediate plans for 2015 focus on completing her next release "I am coming out with a new EP. It's called Y. We're releasing a music video for the song 'Flow This Way' and we're planning to push that really hard."
As I wrapped up my interview with Evans, who attended Indianapolis' School of Metaphysics for a time, I asked how she felt about being picked as one of NUVO's artists to watch in 2015. Did she think the designation would help further her career? Her answer was in tune with the metaphysical studies she references frequently in interviews.
"It feels amazing. I feel like since more people are thinking about it now it will manifest."
— Kyle Long