'So I see you got a drink at Pizza De Roma, there. So, you like that place?' Rusty Sellmeyer, a slim, understated, 20-something, giving piercing glances and intent with words, had quickly taken the opportunity to turn the conversation 180 degrees, making me the subject of his own interrogation. Never pausing for an answer, the guitar player made his case. 'You've got tape left, man. It's our turn!'
Our turn. This is fitting for the band known as Chuck Marten. Their turn has been roughly seven years in coming. With a resume of shows that reads like a walking tour of the Central Indiana area all-ages clubs - where they've filled the rooms with a torrent of guitar-seething power chords laced with a softer strain - the band continues to pay its dues.
A new CD bearing the title Concrete will mark the band's first polished studio release. Previous work exists as a collection of old and new under the title Electric Junk (sometimes known as The Naked CD for the cover art), but that effort doesn't satisfy the band. When Electric Junk was completed, several key performers were no longer present and, as a whole, the recording process was less than professional. With Concrete, this is not so.
Twelve tracks of material complete the new disc, recorded and produced over six months by P. Pod Productions (the homegrown effort of Dave Handy from Extra Blue Kind). Making this wholly today's Chuck Marten sound, existing tracks from older recordings were scrapped, and each song was made current from the ground up. The result is a signature closer to what the band has been performing for the past year: a fusion of old inspiration left behind by those now departed and the fresh influence of new members to the Chuck Marten family. Concrete will serve as a vehicle for the band's self-promotion for radio and out-of-state venues - something the band has been eager to tackle.
Beginning in the latter part of 1995 with a name stemming from a disagreement over counterculture footwear, Chuck Marten has evolved, progressed, replaced and generally stood their ground when it came to the troubles that follow any rock outfit on the planet. Over the years, the name has shared bills with the likes of Rusted Root, L7 and the less-than-celebrated Harlow. But lineup changes and the inevitable artistic differences have made for frustrating times.
Being the longstanding veteran, Sellmeyer holds no pretense of ownership when it comes to the direction of Chuck Marten. All members of the band have made their respective marks in the group's history of sound, bringing their own touch to the songs and evolution of the music. No thesis statement exists for the music.
'Screw that!' Sellmeyer protests. 'I like it. It's not going to get me chicks. It's not going to make me millions of dollars. It might. It might not.' The big difference between Chuck Marten's first forays into music and today's position as a mainstay in the Indianapolis music scene, as the spectacled guitar player puts it, is, 'I can play now.'
Toni Dunn, Chuck Marten's thundering bass player and sometimes vocalist, takes an expanded viewpoint on the band's outlook and history. Joining up with Sellmeyer in 1996, Dunn has been the center of the band's visual presence with a look that walks the line between Midwest All Americana and punk rock flippancy.
'There's no real leader - we all have equal say. Rusty and I have been the main songwriters. And when Gwen [Noel] came in, we had somebody else who actually could play guitar, and sing, and write songs. Before that, if somebody had an idea when they left, we would usually change what they did.' Dunn continues on the subject of those who came before. 'After we got Ben [Hodges - the latest in a line of drummers], I said that there'll be no other members of Chuck Marten. Ever. If anybody leaves now, we're not doing it again. Just because this is the lineup. [It is] the best one we've had.'
As much as things have changed for the band, one constant is the co-ed approach that Chuck Marten takes - more often than not featuring a strong lead female vocalist. Sellmeyer's simple admission, 'I like bad-ass women,' does little to explain this philosophy in the lineup. Looking deeper, chemistry once again turns out to be more important than image or sex appeal with a predominately male audience.
'At one point we had a male lead singer and it just didn't fit with the songs,' Dunn explains. 'What we said was, 'Whoever came in and could do it was going to be the singer.' It didn't matter if it was male or female But then I felt uncomfortable being the only girl - being the standard girl bass player.'
'That,' Sellmeyer adds, 'and the stuff that we had, pre-Gwen, didn't sound right if it was a guy singing it.'
'Bad ass' or not, the addition of Gwen Noel to the Chuck Marten lineup in the fall of 2001 seems to have made an impact on the group's stage show and visible presence in the local music community. When the 25-year-old Muncie native isn't instigating onstage wrestling matches with Dunn, Noel is often with her bandmates on the other side of the lights, supporting other local players. Noel's arrival into the fold was loud, as Dunn tells the story.
'We're all sitting there, in my living room. And I hear this whine and it gets steadily louder. And this big wife-beater truck goes by [an '84 Chevy Scottsdale]. And I'm like, 'Oh thank God that wasn't her.' And then it turns around!
'I thought she was shy until the first show. ... Actually, until the first time we got drunk together.' Oddly enough, Noel claims to have no recollection of the first time the two bandmates got drunk together. Yet the two would form a close relationship that serves to push each other to their limits as performers.
Despite appearances, Noel does not take immediately to the spotlight. Almost dragging Dunn to the microphone, the singer insists on sharing time on vocals in order to bring a fuller sound to the band. 'She has a great voice,' Noel says of Dunn. 'I love her voice and I think she can do a great job. I love the dynamics of a band where two different people can sing.'
Living in Muncie, finding herself in a less than inspiring job, Noel made the move to Indy in search of something better. 'Music has been my love if I'm going to do something with it, I'm going to do it now. Or else I'll be stuck in the factory for another 25 years until I retire and die. What's the point in that?'
Admittedly being a rare musical breed, the band finds instant understanding in each other - with their music and friendship. Dunn and Noel have made an impression on local audiences, commanding attention as they rip through anger-fueled alt-rock with rippling waves of melody.
Sellmeyer holds no illusions about group dynamics. 'Toni and Gwen are seen. Ben [Hodges] is behind his drum kit, but people still kind of see him because he has cymbals that are flashing in the lights. Me, however, I'm always on the side of the stage - nobody is looking there anyway because they're all looking at Toni and Gwen.'
Sealing the deal for the lineup was the addition of Ben Hodges, who came to the group a month after Noel took over lead duties. Before auditioning with Chuck Marten, the 25-year-old did time in original and reluctant cover bands. Surviving a short grace period, Hodges had to almost confront the rest of the group about his status as the drummer. The simple reason being that everyone assumed that he knew he was in.
'Ben?' Dunn smiles. 'You're in the band.'
When Concrete drops on the city, it will be with a sense of purpose for the future of Chuck Marten. Friday, Dec. 13 will be the lucky day of the CD's release. Chuck Marten will headline an all-ages bill at the Emerson Theater that night with DENT and Medicated Becky. Tickets are $7 and the show begins at 8 p.m.