When the time came to record the follow-up to their debut album The Dust of Retreat at the end of 2007, the eight members of Indianapolis’ art-pop collective Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s traveled to Chicago to camp out in the studio of their new producer Brian Deck. There, during one of the coldest winters the Windy City had experienced in decades, the group worked in shifts, with band members recording their parts in shifts around the clock. This went on for three straight months.
“People didn’t really leave the studio,” recalls Margot’s frontman and songwriter Richard Edwards. “It was freezing.” “But we had little mats on the floor, so you could sleep anywhere,” guitarist Andy Fry adds brightly. “If you got drunk enough, eventually you’d pass out somewhere.”
For the band, the result of their labors is Animal! — a genre-defying blend of lilting melodies, grinding guitars, sweeping strings, and frenetic percussive elements, topped off by Edwards’ expressive, yet often apprehensive croon. The songs, initially written by Edwards, swell into noisy mini pop-operas once filtered through Margot’s collectively skewed sensibility. “With eight people, there’s a lot of possibility for noise-making,” Fry observes.
Spent, but elated after their three months in Chicago with Deck, Margot gave Animal! to its label, Epic Records, which had fallen in love with the bohemian indie group and signed them in October 2007 — a few years after their previous label, Artemis Records, shut down. Epic expressed disappointment that Animal! was missing several key songs that the band had been performing over the years, including the fan favorite “Broadripple is Burning.” Firm in their vision, Edwards and Fry were unwilling to alter the track-listing. Drama ensued, but a compromise was reached. Epic would release two albums: Animal!, featuring the band’s original song sequence, would come out on vinyl (with a digital download card inside), while Not Animal, a compilation of the label’s favorites plus five tracks from Animal!, would be made available digitally and on CD.
“It seemed like an okay solution,” Edwards says. “I don’t have a problem with the other songs, I just don’t think they hang together as a album. I consider Not Animal more like a compilation of songs.” Adds Fry: “Animal! feels like the director’s cut. The cool thing about it is that Epic did leave us alone and let us make the record we wanted to make. It’s untouched as far as what we wanted to do.”
Taken together, the 12 tracks on Animal! unfold under a cloud of anxiety, which Edwards struggled with while writing the songs last year. “I had trouble leaving my house,” he says. “I was experiencing very severe panic attacks, so I wrote while I was buried at home doing much of anything.”
Because Edwards and Fry, along with three other band members — Fry’s brother, drummer Chris Fry, percussionist Casey Tennis, and keyboardist Emily Watkins — all live together in the same house in Indianapolis, it was inevitable that Edwards’ nervous state would affect Margot’s music. “The album’s broader theme is definitely fear,” says Fry. “The mood sometimes feels like a heavy blanket of doom.”
And so songs arose like “Hello Vagina” (about the Heaven’s Gate cult whose Nike-clad followers committed suicide in 1997), “As Tall As Cliffs” (about a ghost in a haunted hotel trying to hang a sheriff), and “Mariel’s Brazen Overture, (“about farm children who set up a community in a mineshaft,” Edwards says). Others, like “A Children’s Crusade on Acid,” “Broadripple is Burning,” and “My Baby Shoots Her Mouth Off,” Edwards explains away as “just a string of words put together. I’m never writing about anything. If I’m writing about somebody shooting their mouth off, I just fill in words with little bits of experience.” Then there’s “I’m A Lightning Rod,” which Fry feels sums up the anxious mood of the past few years.
Those years may not have always been easy, but they did include Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s creating one of the most beguiling indie debuts in recent memory. Lyrically based on Edwards’ musings on what life must have been like in 1960s Greenwich Village, The Dust of Retreat is a lush, folky affair that led one critic, writing in Harp, to declare it “everything you like about music: vibrant, cathartic, expressive, commiserative, eloquent, elegant, awesome.” After the album was released (by the Standard Recording Company in 2005), then remixed and re-released (by Artemis Records in 2006), the band hit the road traveling the country in a beat-up black school bus that had bunks, but no air-conditioning. (“I’m not sure it was even street-legal,” Fry says.) After logging more than 100,000 miles, it was time to go home and make a new record.
“I just wanted the new songs to sound a bit more raw,” Edwards says. “I wanted them to be noisier — to have more sounds and more electric guitar. They don’t sound like what we did when we first got together.”
Edwards and Fry formed Margot in 2004, originally telling journalists that they had met in a pet store, but which they now admit is untrue. Now 24, Edwards had been writing songs since the age of 13. Eventually he began to play acoustic shows, but, due to strict Indiana liquor laws, had to wait outside the club until it was his turn to go on. Fry caught a few of those early shows. “I hadn’t heard anyone with a voice like his who could write songs like that,” he says of Edwards. The two became fast friends, bonding over a love of the Beatles and their shared musical ambitions. “Here was somebody who was going to take playing music seriously,” Edwards says of Fry. “Andy was one of the first people I met who felt the same about it that I did.”
The two decided they were going to “do it or die,” as Fry puts its. “Then we ran out of money so we had to move in together.” One by one, musicians they had begun to play with also moved in, figuring housing was part of the deal if they joined the band. “Most of them were borderline homeless,” Edwards recalls, “so it was mostly out of necessity. We didn’t plan to make it some sort of commune.” Nevertheless, a communal vibe emerged, one that exists to this day as this rag-tag band of eight continue to make music together. In July 2008, they became the first artists to formally release the songs from a session recorded for online music site Daytrotter. The Daytrotter Sessions EP includes four songs from Animal!/Not Animal and the Dust of Retreat favorite “Bookworm.” In August, they performed a well-received set at legendary rock festival Lollapalooza.
All of Margot’s shared adventures have led to a self-assurance as a band that informs the songs on both Animal! and Not Animal. “The music is definitely more assertive,” Fry says of the 19 collected tracks. “We’ve become a lot more confident from playing together, getting in fights, resolving them, and learning about each other.”
Says Edwards: “The music just sounds more like us.”