Musical Chairs: An Interview with Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s

Margot and the Nuclear So and So's
Rot Gut, Domestic
Mariel Recording Company

As the leader of Indianapolis’s Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s, Richard Edwards is a songwriter who knows what he wants and how he’s going to accomplish it.

Edwards has built his career on that sense of uncompromising fury, and to this point he’s used it to his advantage, bringing in the right musicians at the right time to provide his albums with a constant flow of creative unpredictability. Initially featuring a more chamber-pop oriented sound which played well via the band’s early eight-member lineup, 2006’s The Dust and Retreat introduced them as genre innovators. They were quickly signed by Artemis, which reissued the album to a wider audience, and then Epic joined the party.

The result of that partnership has been well-documented. Edwards clashed with label leadership, deriding their planned 2008 release as not his artistic vision. In the end, the label released its choice as Not Animal, while Edwards’ “director’s cut” was issued as Animal! at the same time. When neither album turned the So and So’s into the next Arcade Fire as Epic had perhaps hoped, the band was quickly jettisoned.

Since then, as the primary writer for the collective, Edwards has chosen to work with a rotating cast of musicians and producers who understand his complicated vision. The result has been one of the more varied and interesting discographies to be found among modern indies. Buzzard, released in 2010 on the band’s own Mariel Recordings label, introduced a fiercer rock sound by trimming the lineup to three members and introducing electric guitar to the mix. The band’s latest, Rot Gut, Domestic, brought in Grammy-nominated producer John Congleton (The Paper Chase, Modest Mouse) to further develop the band’s signature sound.

Edwards sat down with PopMatters to discuss the new record, his take on big-picture concepts in rock music, and why sometimes a band needs to stop seeking perfection and simply bang out new records.

* * *

Your new album is called Rot Gut, Domestic. Should we come into this album expecting something we should simply hit head-on, like a bottle of hard liquor? Or am I just taking things too seriously?

I don’t know necessarily what we were aiming for with that title, but we wanted to continue the loud trajectory that we’d begun in the last year or two. It was such a loud and rowdy pop record, we didn’t have any overriding theme behind the songs.

Are you sure? “A Journalist Falls In Love”, with its dark take on an unhealthy obsession, seems to hint about our obsession with things which aren’t good for us but we’re drawn to anyway.

Yeah, I think that’s pretty undeniable. There’s this whole history predicated on that theme. As far as that being a big theme of the album, I just don’t think of things that way – it doesn’t mean it didn’t turn out that way. I tend to think a bit “smaller” than that [in scale], telling little stories about a person or situation and then it makes me happy if people hear those stories and think bigger. But I never start something with a big universal theme like that in mind. I tend to dislike art that comes across as putting big ideas before the small ideas. If you tell a good story – and I’m not saying whether I have or haven’t – generally those big things take care of themselves. When you start with the big picture, at least in my experience, the humanity of it and the nuances get lost.

On your last two albums you’ve built song cycles which load a big punch early, but you close out with “I Do” on Buzzard and “Christ” on the latest, both being more introspective ballads. Is there something to be said for writing songs from both sides of the coin?

I guess I’ve historically liked records which end that way, so I feel a lot of our records tend to end that way, with a quieter moment. As far as the writing from extremes, that tends to just happen with me. There seem to be two settings for me for the most part. First there are the furious, catchy rock songs and the other setting leads me toward ballads.

I liked how “Shannon” starts out sounding like you might actually get the girl, and by the end of the song you’ve given up and decided simply to go off and get drunk.

That’s what we were trying to do. I think the only guideline I had when writing that one was to show that progression which happens when you’re in a bar. You’re sitting there venting about something and there’s the irrational discussion you might be having and it’s all gone way off the tracks by the end of the night.

When I spoke with your band Archer Avenue in 2004, you told me you wrote the music and lyrics yourself and would then bring that material to the band. All these years later, how do you approach that songwriting process?

Yeah I would say I still focus on writing the same way I did when I was in college. I write the songs and bring them in — then generally we have a rotating cast of people who come in and create the finished product.

Does that help keep things more fresh and creative, since you’re not working with exactly the same group each time?

I think so. I like the idea of playing musical chairs with the lineup. I have this tendency to get bored and there’s nothing more exciting than creating songs with different people, as long as those different people fit into the broader aesthetic that I have. It’s got to be how it is when you’re directing actors. You get the chance to bring all these great different actors to flesh out the characters you wrote on that piece of paper. It feels that way musically when you take a song and you hear your friend doing something on the guitar, or responding to something you’re doing, it’s amazing.

I’m interested in what you look for in a song as you write. What tells you when a song’s reached its critical mass?

It varies. Sometimes your instincts are right on and other times it’s way off. There are songs I bring into the studio where I know this song doesn’t have an ending, or this bridge doesn’t go anywhere. Sometimes I do that on purpose when I feel under the gun. This record we recorded in nine days, but I did more rewriting in the studio than I ever had done, which was fun and challenging. I knew I’d brought two or three songs in which didn’t go anywhere, and I’d literally take ten minutes while everyone had a cigarette and just rewrite.

I heard you wrote the entire album in a month.

Well, it wasn’t that I first put pen to paper and then a month later I had a finished product, but that’s pretty much true. We recorded it really quickly and have just been trying to bang out records really quickly for a lot of different reasons.

There aren’t many bands which do that anymore. It’s as if everyone thinks because of all the technology everything has to be perfect.

I wish there was a little bit more of that, albums being pumped out quickly, because I’m not that interested in perfect music. I’m much more interested in strange records which were made quicker, like Like Flies on Sherbert, which is one of my favorite Alex Chilton records. I’d much prefer people put out albums at a reasonable pace and have them be loud and crazy, rather than get one every three or four years and have them be perfect. But who knows? Maybe I’ll wait three or four years before the next record. You never know. But I think we’re one of those bands, we’d flame out pretty quickly if we weren’t putting music out with regularity.

You told Atlanta’s A-List that “Tiny Vampire Robot” was about not wanting to write music anymore after Animal. What advice would you have for musicians just starting out, based on where you’ve been? Is today’s musical landscape more friendly to those artists who choose, like you, to go in your own direction rather than swallow what the label tells them?

Yes and no. It’s always more friendly to those people who are willing to make their own way, but it can also be all marketing. You can do exactly what a label tells you, and the label might tell you “tell the press you didn’t do anything we told you to do!” People are manipulated very easily by things like that, so most of the things you may have read about your favorite records aren’t true.

So I would give the advice to do exactly what it is you wanted to do in the first place, even if it doesn’t always work out the best financially for you. You have to develop a certain confidence as a writer to just not worry so much about whether you’ll have a long career.