Joel Conner is a rarity in music, the guy who doesn’t mind being the unsung hero: “There aren’t that many rhythm guitar specialists who really take pride in being the support guy,” he noted.
Conner has been all over the place in just about every genre, founded or played in more than a dozen bands in four decades, worked with dozens if not hundreds of people. Eclectic? You have no idea. The man’s music collection is so enormous and diverse he’s got Garbage shelved next to Judy Garland; his array of 100 Christmas albums makes up a bare fraction of his collection.
I could go on: about how his first concert was two months before he was born, when his mother saw a little-known singer named Elvis; about how he doesn’t look rock ’n’ roll at all until he takes the stage; about his collection of guitars and gear that includes everything from a 1968 Stratocaster to a set of fully functional 3-inch amps.
But with Joel Conner, it all begins and ends with lunatic ideas. The Wile E. Coyote of Indianapolis music, his ambitions have included a rock opera, a 12-band festival of all his old acts, recording 100 songs in one weekend and, on one noteworthy occasion, a Misfits tribute band — the Jem and the Holograms nemeses, not the Danzig guys. (That one was kind of my fault.)
He’s the perfect example of the dream deferred: middle-aged with a good day job, years of experience behind him, but no clear path. He’s got some projects out there — most notably the excellent rock act Indiscretion — but their schedules make long-term planning nearly impossible.
So what do you do with the idea guy? Write about the biggest idea he’s ever come up with, a long-term ambition to form the perfect house band, capable of playing anything, anywhere — a peg for any shape hole. That’s the approach Conner’s thinking of these days. Playing out first, glory second. One of the bands he most admires is one few people have heard of and even fewer can name a member of: the house band from the first season of Rock Star. “These guys can play anything they give them. Nirvana, Marley, Lennon, REM and they pick it right up.”
NUVO: Sum up the big idea for us.
Conner: The ultimate house band that could go play one night at the Slippery Noodle and play kick-ass blues, then go to the Mel and play punk rock, then play an acoustic duo thing at the Chatterbox, and then play a big night at Radio Radio. But to do that I’d have to have musicians who’d treat it professionally — who’d want to treat it as a second job, essentially. I want people who’d have that focus: You’ll be at practice on time, you won’t be wasted on stage, you’ll take pride in your performance, a good look and a stage presence. My ideal person is looking for less than an instant payoff and is more interested in making a mark on the Indy scene.
NUVO: So what’s the complication in lining up such a group?
Conner: These aren’t the people who would respond to an ad or put one out themselves, the people who would be just as happy playing Nirvana, Bob Marley or the Killers. There are two groups I’m thinking would be interested. They’d be the lady in a suit in her office, maybe a Christine McVie type who used to sing and play keys, she has nights and weekends off and a supportive family, but she’d read the ad in NUVO and not really respond to it. Or it could be some 23-year-old who’s been playing in bands since they were 16 and done nothing but Beatles covers, and would really like to do some Dido, some BB King. And I can’t figure out how to get those people to be interested. But I do know two things about both of those kinds of people. Because I’m a little bit of each of them. I know these people exist.
NUVO: So what’s the plan once this group is together?
Conner: We play four nights a week, four different places, four different kinds of music, and just kick ass. And we love what we’re doing. And it really shows with the audience, if the audience knows you love what you’re doing but you’re also playing to them, being intelligent and respecting your audience. There’s a niche there that nobody’s looking at, and if there’s a niche there in a town with as many talented musicians as Indy does, why not have it filled by people who can do it well and enjoy it?
NUVO: What are the logistics in making this happen?
Conner: The kind of people that would respond to something like this would already have half the battle won. They’d be talented, available and want to do it. I’ll do it one at a time if we have to. One female vocalist and I could immediately start playing. Add a percussionist and you can play more places. Add a keyboardist and a guitarist and you’ve got the house band. Throw in a male vocalist and you can do just about anything, two and three part harmonies. The interesting thing in building it backwards like this is, most of the time when you add somebody to a group, it limits what you can do, by the songs they know and the songs they want. But with this they’d already be interested in so much. And it’s reverse-engineering from the practical angle. If you just focus on the business side, you can sometimes make it, but more often than not you’ll just end up in debt. If you just focus on the artistic side, you can end up with a bunch of people playing to empty rooms and not making enough money to buy guitar strings. But if you focus on what’s out there and available, you could get essentially multiple-genre respect. And it’d be fun. You do your part and do it well. You’ve got to have fun; anybody that goes into it with the idea of just making money is delusional.