Streamlining Their Sound & Re-Evaluates Rock Orchestration
photos by Stephanie Bassos
Richard Edwards, the primary songwriter/vocalist/guitarist behind the Indianapolis band Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s, speaks candidly about the years his band was signed to, and later ignored by, Epic Records. “There was just a lot of turnover. We were signed…and then a few months later the people who signed us were gone, and we sort of felt like an afterthought.”
After an explosive debut on the indie label Artemis, the band came to the attention of the aforementioned major label, only to get into an artistic dispute with record execs who, and we’re paraphrasing Edwards here, “Didn’t understand anything about our music, and didn’t really understand who signed us or what we were doing in their building.”
2008 saw the unique dual release of the band’s album Animal! One version of the record was put out as it was originally envisioned by the group. Epic decided to release their own version of the album (with different song selections) at the same time, appropriately titled Not Animal.
On Margot’s previous direction: “We were doing something where we thought not a whole lot of people were orchestrating music this way.”
After their departure from Epic, Margot released Buzzard in 2010, featuring a more stripped down, less-orchestrated sound than heard on previous releases. After some more time on the road, the band is back with a brand new album, Rot Gut, Domestic, featuring some of the rawest, most abrasive sounding Margot tracks to date.
Edwards has one final, defining statement on his time spent with a major label: “I just lose interest and get pissy when I’m not doing exactly what I want to do, you know? It’s not very attractive.” At this point, the focus of the interview moves to the band’s current process, and in particular, the shift toward a more “traditional” rock sound.
Going back to your last record [Buzzard] – I know the sound on that was different. I guess “less orchestrated” is the best term I can come up with. Was that a conscious artistic decision to go more streamlined and “rock and roll” or did it evolve more naturally?
Yeah well, it kind of devolved. I had been making music like that [more orchestrated] for a long time, so to me that was more like going back home – I didn’t have to figure out ways to change; that kind of music comes naturally to me. If anything, I think that with the Animal stuff it just got stupid, you know? We recorded for four months and everything was overdubbed. We were putting a lot of shit on songs [so as] not to hurt band member’s feelings. It just got really, really stupid. [It was] kind of the opposite end of the too much strippers, cocaine, rock and roll scenario. We had the really nerdy overdose: way too much time sitting around and thinking about shit, way too many people in the kitchen.
“You know, we were always trying to make kind of small music with all those instruments, if that makes sense.”
You were getting into Pet Sounds territory…
Yeah, but I mean that’s a kind way of putting it. I don’t know what we were getting into. People weren’t concentrating that much on performances; there wasn’t energy. It just got to be damaging in a way that I didn’t really enjoy. So for Buzzard it just got to be like, ‘Man, I just don’t want to make music like that anymore – I don’t want to even hear music like that anymore – it kind of happened by accident.’ Margot was not supposed to be a band that was like, I don’t know, the Arcade Fire or something. It’s unfortunate for the second record we went really heavy in that direction, because the first record wasn’t really that heavily orchestrated, as far as I can remember. There’s like a violin on it here and there, a few horns…
On tighter recording schedules: “When you’re working at that pace, I don’t think your mind has as much time to get blocked up on stuff, you know?”
Yeah, I would say you get into that on the second record, but I think that’s where more people heard you and pegged you as that type of group. So I didn’t know if that sort of expectation crept into your head…
No, I didn’t really care about that. I mean, I found it slightly obnoxious, obviously. You know, I think what were trying to articulate…when we started and we were making kind of orchestrated music there were a couple reference points, like Neutral Milk Hotel or the Decemberists or something, and then by the time we made the second one the Arcade Fire just got so huge. We just came along at the wrong time, really. We were doing something where we thought not a whole lot of people were orchestrating music this way. It turned out that the ONE other band that was orchestrating rock just became so massive that…[trails off]
And won Grammy for Album of the Year and all that stuff.
Yeah. I’m not trying to compete with something so massive and anthemic. You know, we were always trying to make kind of small music with all those instruments, if that makes sense.
I got you. So how did that experience influence the songwriting on the new album? I know there was a time where you were in seclusion during the writing process…
I got sick this time around, which is normal for me. I had gotten off a tour that was kind inspiring. I went out with the band and had a good month tour and felt rejuvenated. I was still feeling kind of sick, so I went out to this place that I remembered from touring and just sat and concentrated for two or three weeks. I took scraps from stuff I had throughout the year and just concentrated on writing, and if not writing, then finishing things that had been started and never finished.
Do you write a lot on tour?
I never write on tour; it’s just hard to get into that headspace. Every once and a while you’ll be doing sound check and jot down a little melody to come back to later, but, you know – I don’t know, maybe if we had a tour bus and got to the city at 10 a.m. and went straight to the hotel, maybe we’d have more time to write. But the way we tour, [we're] constantly moving. I guess if you’re moving, you’re definitely not thinking, ‘I should devote an hour to writing a song.’
So when the writing is done, what does recording look like for you guys? Do have a set process, or is it different each time out?
It’s been extremely different each time out. The first time we did it completely by ourselves, and we kind of had to sneak around this studio that we didn’t own and couldn’t afford. So we’d record at very strange hours at night.
And this time?
This time around we did it with this guy, John [Congleton], who had been put in touch with me through an old manager and said he was interested in doing it. I guess the big change was that he moved around his schedule to do it in 11 days. And, you know, you think about 11 days, and that’s like a song a day. I kind of panicked. He calmed me down a bit and I agreed to trust him. It was really shocking actually; I felt like we had more time and we actually [recorded] it all in nine days.
So you feel more productive when you set up a block of time?
It moves so fast with him. I had never experienced that pace of working before, but he’s just like “zip zip zip.” You go back later and hit stuff if you don’t like it, but one thing is when you’re working at that pace, I don’t think your mind has as much time to get blocked up on stuff, you know? And the second thing is that I actually think everything you do is totally yourself, because you’re also not given time to really be too precious with the music.
I think if you drag it out, you just tend to over think it and then the self-doubt starts to creep in…
Absolutely. And [John] is just really good at – I mean, he’s a great engineer and a great producer, too – but probably the most valuable thing is that he’s constantly a) keeping everything moving and b) keeping the energy really high.
What sort of gear are you using in the studio?
We did the first week at Electrical Audio in Chicago. So, you know, we recorded some stuff with Pro Tools, we recorded some stuff with tape. And then we mixed it down with automation, that kind of a mixture of processes. As far as guitars and stuff, I used a modified [Fender] Twin amp for most of it. It’s like a weird – I don’t even know what it started as – kind of monster Twin stack at Electrical Audio. I played through that most of the time. Guitar-wise, I played a ’60s Les Paul for some of it; for some of it I used an SG.
Now are you a guitar guy, or do just kind of pick up whatever’s lying around the studio?
I’m neither one of those. I’m definitely not a guitar guy, but I’m definitely not the ‘pick up and play’ type. I mean, I’m very specific about how I want it to sound, but I’m absolutely not someone who knows a whole lot about gear.
I know a lot of people are throwing around the term ‘panic pop trilogy’ when it comes to your recent albums. I’m not sure if that’s something you came up with or something you roll your eyes at – care to comment on what that means?
I definitely don’t roll my eyes at it – I like it a lot. I feel like we were way more successful when we spent most of our time coming up with funny words for blogs. We had ‘scarf rock’ for a while.
Yeah, I remember ‘scarf rock.’
With Buzzard and this new record, and maybe this thing I’m writing now, I’m definitely trying to make pop music; I want it to be really as catchy as it can be. That’s what I really like to listen to. However, the flip side of that is lyrically and performance-wise, it’s definitely strange in a way that’s very specific to me, and that’s I guess where the ‘panic’ part comes in. I don’t know exactly what it is, but when I try to think about exactly what it is that makes it strange…maybe it’s like a dark sense of humor, but I don’t know if it’s always that way. I hope there’s a bit of humor.
I get you. Now, I know you guys are hitting the road in support of the record. Do you still enjoy touring?
I’m enjoying it less and less. I mean, I’m 28 years old; I’ve been doing this more or less full-time since I was 20, so that’s a lot of tours and hours on the road. So that part’s hard, and the other part is I have a kid and the other guys have their stuff going on. That makes it less fun than when you were 21, but at the same time when you get out – most of the time – you actually do realize how much you love it. How much it feels like home in a lot of ways, you know?
Do you picture a day when Margot becomes a full-time studio band and doesn’t tour?
It’ll just depend on how we feel. I mean at a certain point, if more people don’t buy our records, that’ll happen just because I’m not going to put up with the nonsense that goes along with releasing records at that scale, you know? If we keep growing with each record, then we’ll probably keep it going until there’s some serious physical reason not to. But if [after] the next record nobody likes it, and after the next record nobody likes it, then at a certain point I might just make records for myself.
Is there anything you can say to our readers about the new record or any impressions that you want to leave them with?
I mean, I don’t know…
Say it’s great. Tell them how great it is.
Yeah, yeah, [laughs] it’s fucking shit. It sucks.
That’s going to be the pull quote, you know. I’m going to put it over a big picture of you – ‘The record sucks’ – with your name under it.
Well I’m used to it [laughs]. No, I like it. I’m proud of it. I’m excited to do the next thing; I’ve kind of moved on. You know, I hope people listen to it and however they feel about it, great. If they hate it, cool. If they like it, even better.