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

Jonathan Sanders
Photo: Stephanie Bassos

As the leader of Indianapolis’s Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s, Richard Edwards is a songwriter who knows what he wants. The result has been one of the more varied and interesting discographies to be found among modern indies.

Margot and the Nuclear So and So's

Rot Gut, Domestic

Label: Mariel Recording Company
US Release Date: 2012-03-20
UK Release Date: 2012-03-20

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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