It's impossible to guess how many miles the eight musicians that make up Indianapolis lush-pop ensemble Margot & The Nuclear So and So's have traveled since their debut CD The Dust of Retreat was initially released last year. Hell, guitarist Andy Fry estimates the band covered somewhere around 10,000 in the last few weeks alone, during the band's tour of the West Coast and Canada.
One thing's for sure, though.a Anybody who's hopped in a car with three or four friends and driven eight hours to see a show, or even spent a weekend on the road with the family, can probably begin to imagine the sort of motivation it takes to keep an octet of individual personalities stuffed into an old-school bus crammed with musical equipment for weeks on end.
"It's certainly brought us closer as people," understates Fry. "We had to learn how to live all over each other in a way that, I think most people can probably appreciate, but I never anticipated it — the amount of compromises you have to make traveling with eight or nine people. We must love each other a lot to not kill each other."
Motivation and dedication. Luckily, Fry has plenty of both when it comes to the project with which he's currently involved. In fact, it only took listening to Margot principal Richard Edwards' evocative, cinematic tunes a few times — shortly after first meeting Edwards himself — to convince Fry and his brother, Margot drummer Chris, to put their own band The Academy on indefinite hiatus in the name of helping Edwards realize his musical vision.
"We were meeting Richard and going, 'These songs are great,' and we just felt like they needed to be recorded," says Andy. "I have to confess when I heard his songs ... I didn't mind focusing totally on that.
"I think we all figured that if we had time, we'd make other records with the bands we're in. But it's not a source of contention or anything. We're all pretty happy. It feels like real band, in other words."
Edwards already had the songs, and they're good ones. But one of the things that makes The Dust of Retreat — originally released on hometown label Standard last year, then reissued by Artemis this past March — so dynamic and uniquely moving is its arrangements. The tunes rely much more heavily on keyboards, cello and trumpet than standard guitar chord progressions to lend them their respective personalities; the Fry brothers and Edwards cleverly minimalize their instrumental contributions, allowing Edwards' vocals and the nuanced, moody performances of the other players to lift the folk- and pop-indebted songwriting above the traditional.
"[Edwards] always has the songs written, and it's a very personal issue," Fry says. "And I think that's one of the things that makes it work, having so many people — there's that hierarchy. We know he's gonna come with a finished song, and even if we make changes to the songs, it's his decision finally ... we make up our parts and goof around on it, and he's always really open to ideas like that."
The result is the sonic equivalent of an independent film whose creators found a way to transcend their limitations, to make it look bigger than its budget. And Fry says the celluloid analogy is more than apt in Edwards' particular case.
"He just consumes films, that's what he does all day," reveals the guitarist. "I always was a fan of movies, but he was one of the first people I met that had a complete passion for filmmaking. He reads every book he can find on, like, Scorsese. I think it definitely influences him just as much as hearing the music that he's into, if not more."
Also like the best — or at least the most critically lauded — independent cinema, there's no clearly happy ending to be found on The Dust of Retreat. Weaved in among its occasional upbeat tempos and jaunty horn flourishes is a pervasive sense of dark melancholy, of unrequited yearning and questions that, when asked, always lead to unwanted answers. It doesn't bog the disc down by any means, but it's there for those who want to pull that thread. And plenty of listeners have.
"I don't think anyone [in the band] bristles about that, because that was how the album felt," Fry says. "To me, it was a really down, depressed album. We made it in the middle of winter; we were sneaking into a studio every night at 10 p.m. and we'd stay up until 8 a.m. for three months. We never saw the sun. And I think Richard was in a really dark place himself at that time. So I would expect people to get that from the album."
The group's folk ingredients and chamber-pop finished product have inspired critics to endless comparisons with hip, literate indie bands such as The Decemberists, Broken Social Scene, The Arcade Fire and Bright Eyes. Such associations are doubtless beneficial to Margot & The Nuclear So and So's when it comes to getting the cool kids to take a listen, but Fry sees it as more of a convenient handle than anything else.
"I mean, it's sort of flattering, you know," he says. "But at the same time, it is confounding, because when we were making those records, none of those bands or albums — I don't think we were even really aware of them. ... We all have an appreciation for folk and the things those bands are doing, but I think we've consciously tried to avoid having any stylized marketing tag on us. We're just trying to make pop music."
The guitarist is personally more heartened by the disparate crowds Margot has been drawing in, particularly the old boomers scattered amongst the cool kids, the ones who recognize in Margot a reverence for more timeless singer-songwriter fare.
"It's really cool, actually," he says. "Everybody feels that it's kind of a sign that we're doing something well. And we're from Indiana — we've been taught to respect our elders."