On the Thursday night of last month's South by Southwest festival, Margot & the Nuclear So and So's, an eight-piece from Indianapolis, squeeze onto the stage at an upstairs bar on Sixth Street. They avoid eye contact with each other and with the audience. They have a trumpet, a cello and two drummers, one of whom stands over a kit and pounds it like a taiko. A few college-aged girls and one music critic call out requests, which only makes the bandmates seem less comfortable in the same clothes they probably wore on the van ride from the Midwest.
Margot & the Nuclear So and So's are playing a truncated set, opening for other bands with whom they share nothing. When they finally find a groove which is equal parts surging clamor and sweeping folk the bass player loses it. He shakes like an epileptic and then pile-drives his bass into the floor, nearly taking out the cello and the drummer. He storms offstage in the middle of the final song and waits to be fired.
"We actually gave him a raise," Richard Edwards, the band's 22-year-old songwriter and lead singer, says. "That had been building up for a month or so. It wasn't scripted, unfortunately; he just got a little carried away. That wasn't his bass, so he was a little bummed out that he broke someone else's guitar."
Margot & the Nuclear So and So's aren't a buzz band. They're more like a murmur, a secret barely whispered around mainstream and indie power-centers alike even with a fresh record deal from V2/Artemis and a spot on MTV News. Perhaps Artemis thinks it's found the next Sufjan Stevens or Belle and Sebastian. The phrases "chamber pop" and "freak-folk" are tripping off of media tongues. Margot has a niche and whether they fit into it or not, they'll have to get used to the attention.
"I don't know if this is what I wanted," Edwards says. "It is, I guess, but you don't really know what it is. I really like traveling and playing, but it's really tiring. I think I'm more suited to being private. So I'm trying to be more rock & roll about things. We're starting to see more people at shows, and things have gotten busy, like grownups are busy. That's weird. I never had cable growing up, so I never watched TV. MTV kinda represents something I'm not too fond of. It's nice they put us on there for a minute. Maybe Artemis paid them off. Seriously, I think a couple of people running that segment legitimately liked us."
Critics compare Margot & the So and So's to other large ensembles with quirky instruments (such as the Decemberists and the Arcade Fire), though their sound and substance is far more sincere and far less pretentious. With vulnerable melodies and a forthright approach to songwriting, the band orchestrates acoustic sounds to serve the reticent soul of their material, rather than the other way around.
"It's just lazy," Edwards says of the comparisons. "It's based on some aesthetic, not on what we actually sound like. There are some similarities, a lot of the kids in those bands, we grew up on the same stuff, so there will be some parallels. But I don't see it at all, not one bit."
The band started a year and a half ago, when Edwards met guitarist Andy Fry in a pet store in Indianapolis. They both loved the Cardigans and Paul Simon, and both wanted to record. Edwards had been attending Indiana University, focusing on film studies, but quit with a few math credits still hanging over his head. He took the band name from The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson's wry ode to an unreal New York. Edwards' own songs feel like interior dialogues on relationships as imaginary as they are deeply felt. Like Anderson and Paul Simon, Edwards follows the ebb and flow of a sweetly agonizing ennui, the bittersweet absurdity of trying to understand let alone love anyone or anything.
Last year, Margot quietly released their debut, The Dust of Retreat, on Standard Recording Company. They'd quickly depart the tiny label. "They were just some friends of ours," Edwards explains. "They didn't have the resources. We were touring all the time and needed a little help. Andy and I had been getting flown out to NY pretty regularly. We met Geoff Anenberg from Artemis while we were there. The label was committed from the beginning and didn't try to impose themselves or change everything."
The newly re-released album features a fresh sequencing, a few overdubs and a sharper mix from heavyweight LA engineer Mark Needham, who has worked with jazz greats Pharaoh Saunders and Bobby Hutcherson, as well as Fleetwood Mac and the Killers.
"We'd always done everything ourselves, so it was interesting to see another guy do his thing," Edwards says. "The album probably cost us $24 to record, minus going to get Hardee's. If we had to pay for studio time, we'd never have been able to do it. We're all pretty anal, and we'll take six hours to do one thing. We only recut one song, 'A Light on a Hill,' which had originally been recorded in a bathroom. We touched up a few songs, but they were things that bugged us from the beginning."
More than a few indie bands would choose to cling to those inadequacies, wearing them as badges of credibility. But in their melodic outreach and unscripted sincerity, Margot & the Nuclear So and So's find a way out of the perennial contradictions of indie rock. For all its peculiar edges and metaphors of addiction and psychic ruin, the band welcomes the populism at the heart of pop music, defying ironic insularity and cool-for-cool's-sake.
"I don't like talking down to people, and I don't like being talked down to," Edwards says. "That's why I never understood indie rock. The only band to really pull that off was Pavement, and that was because they were making as much fun of themselves as they were their audience and their peers. I like sincerity, but I'm also cynical. The songs I love, like Paul Simon's, they're not making fun of you, and they're not trying to bust your balls. In a culture of cool, there's so much self-consciousness about writing personal songs, being sincere. It's a lot easier to be cool than to be laughed at. It's just like high school."