"I think it's more fun and interesting to chuck out anything you think about your band before you make a record and just make something as if you didn't have any records before," says singer/songwriter/guitarist Richard Edwards, frontman of Chicago/Indianapolis-based Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s.
For the group's just-released album, Buzzard, Edwards chucked a lot of things (and some ditched him): certain band members (including female vocalist Emily Watkins), the trumpet, a kind of echoey/dreamy carnival feel and a paired-back atmospheric artiness.
Among early reviews, what's most missed is Watkins and the horn, but, says Edwards, "I don't really care. I have certain tastes and I think that most of the people who like our band are really totally interested in hearing the record.They're not going to be turned off by something superficial like horns. We always just record whatever we think is cool at the time. Whatever makes us happy."
But to say Margot does whatever seems cool at the time is a bit of an understatement when it comes to Buzzard — a project that took on the proportions of total immersion. Edwards left Indianapolis with a bunch of songs and holed up in an abandoned movie theater in Chicago where he, apparently, rented all manner of art house oddities from the local video store (weekly screenings of Kamikaze Hearts attracted a motley crew of musicians who eventually lent their talents to Buzzard), burned a lot of candles and plumbed the theater's cast-off supply of 16 millimeter film for sound bites and chilling inspiration.
Near the end of the song, "Your Lower Back," a man's voice says, all dripping innuendo, "Tell me about your 18th birthday…" "Some of those clips and stuff we found. Sort of weird. Some were '70s American or European kind of sleaze films. It's pretty creepy," Edwards admits. Then again, so is recording an album in the gloom and dust of an old movie house, only between sunset and dawn, without benefit of artificial lighting. An yet, the end result (despite bearing the unsavory name of a bird of prey) is surprisingly buoyant and catchy, studded with pop acumen and smart lyrics that still manage to reference the echoes and dream language in which Margot is so fluent.
Much of the magic of Buzzard is owed to the place of its inception. "The setting or the lighting or the people who are around or even the season has a huge effect on the kind of music that you make," says Edwards. "If you wear the jacket to the studio, if you have to wear shorts, all that stuff is absolutely another instrument or another voice in the room that's being digested by everyone else and coming out in a certain way." Which means the theater, even abandoned, even with its scattering of sketchy films, is an ingredient in the sound. So are the candles: A press release reveals that three musicians and the engineer broke bones in the dim lighting, but all in the name of art.
Making a record is the same as doing any sort of creative project where you're probably not going to want florescent light or bad artwork on the walls, says Edwards. "But if you have a candle that you like or, I don't know, a certain kind of lighting or atmosphere, I think it comes through." He adds, Margot was "trying to create a certain feeling that wasn't like a 9-to-5 feeling. We've done that a lot. When we made Dust of Retreat, our first record, we didn't start recording any night before midnight because we were sneaking in to the place to do it." Other recording locales ranged from "pretty standard studios" to a shack in Utah and a warehouse in Indianapolis.
But as much as atmosphere and ambiance (and being cloistered in both) is important to the creative process, Edwards sounds downright sunny about the prospect of taking Buzzard out of the dark and into the stage lights of music halls. "It's really fun to play new songs in a venue," he says. "I think old songs get boring in a really short amount of time. The experience of playing Animal! live, was probably a lot more fun to us than it was to the audience. This one seems to be maybe a little bit more immediate, it's a little catchier and maybe a little louder."
Another difference between Buzzard and Animal! is that the new record is an independent release after Margot parted ways with Epic Records. "We were on Epic, but we weren't like The Fray," says Edwards. "We weren't treated like a band that was really on the label. The only difference [in being independent] is a lot more work, but I think this record's getting promoted a lot better than the last one did. I had, like, major label-junior experience and … I've tried to block it out."
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s (with The Enemy Lovers)
where: Stella Blue
when: Saturday, Oct. 2 (9 p.m. $10. myspace.com/stellabluelive)