The music industry is in complete free-fall; this is something that can no longer be denied. Ever since the invention of Napster, the industry as we know it has been attempting to change the way that music is sold in order to align with the new ways that people have chosen to consume music – and mostly, these efforts have failed to produce sales anywhere near pre-Napster numbers. As this decline crawls on, we hear story after story about small bands signing to big record labels, only to find themselves dropped when that record label merges with another, or to spend a few months recording their major label debut only to discover that the label is no longer interested in them after the recording process has finished – maybe their record is released with little to no promotion whatsoever, or maybe it’s shelved and the band ends up in contractual limbo, unable to release their work to their fans.
Richard Edwards of Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s knows this all too well; his band went through the major label ringer six years ago in 2008, and since then, they’ve steered clear of the music industry altogether. Margot signed to Epic Records (an imprint of Sony Music Entertainment) in 2007, and got right to work on their sophomore album, emerging with a large batch of songs – some of which the band liked, and some of which the label liked. There wasn’t much overlap. In a spectacular and unique bargain with Epic, the band released two different albums in 2008: Animal! was the record that the band wanted their fans to hear, and it was released on vinyl only, while Not Animal was the record that the label wanted to push, and it was therefore released on CD. After that, the band split from the record label, and since then, they’ve released three albums on their own independent label called Mariel Recordings: 2010’s Buzzard, 2012’s Rot Gut, Domestic, and 2014’s Sling Shot to Heaven.
Margot’s first releases – Animal!, Not Animal, and their 2006 debut The Dust of Retreat – are lush, orchestral, and gloomy, at times reminiscent of alt-country artists like Ryan Adams and Wilco. Following their departure from Epic Records, however, the band lost a number of its members and shifted their sound dramatically; Buzzard and Rot Gut, Domestic are loud, fuzzy, and bruised; Edwards’s words no longer came out softly, but more often took the form of manic shouts and yelps. The band gained some fans, but lost quite a few, too. Those who did stick with Margot through their loud years have now been rewarded with a return to form by Edwards and company, and the band’s best album yet: Sling Shot to Heaven, released on April 22 accompanied by the first-ever Margot film entitled Tell Me More About Evil.
Margot’s lineup on Sling Shot is stacked with talented musicians who have found success in other bands as well their own prolific solo careers, including Heidi Lynne Gluck (The Pieces, Some Girls, The Only Children) and Kenny Childers (Mysteries of Life, Gentleman Caller). Gluck in particular takes these songs to the next level; the harmonies that she and Edwards have crafted on songs like “Lazy” and “Flying Saucer Blues” give the impression that the two have been singing together since birth (these two songs are also highlights on the DVD – the harmonies sound even better than on the studio recordings). Edwards’s lyrics are as oddly charming as ever (“You are the apple of my eye, let’s be a pear”), and perhaps one of the most memorable songs of Margot’s career takes the form of a conversation between Edwards and his young daughter (“Go to Sleep, You Little Creep” – it’s nowhere near as mean as the title suggests, and in fact finds Edwards’s daughter telling him that she’s going to grow up to be a cow and moo at him if he doesn’t pour her a glass of milk right this second).
Edwards answered some questions for Brickwork via email shortly before Sling Shot to Heaven was released.
What was the recording process like for Sling Shot to Heaven? From some of the updates that I’ve seen you post online, it seems like you’re recording and demoing pretty frequently – did you have a lot of songs to choose from for this album, and did they go through a lot of stages?
We had a great deal of songs at the beginning, and like most records, an early attempt to record the thing was aborted. Then more songs were written. Then we started in earnest and kept going until it was done.
While every Margot album has sounded different than the one that came before it, Sling Shot in particular sounds much more reflective and restrained (in a positive way) than Rot Gut; what led to this change? Are there different musicians playing on this album, and is the thematic content of this album different, as well?
I think my friend Kenny [Childers] was very instrumental in that. We played a lot of songs in my living room and he was very encouraging when it came to continuing to write songs that sounded good in that setting. Just us two playing them on acoustic guitar. I wrote a lot of songs because of those early “jam” sessions. It would’ve been a very different record if he wasn’t helping me feel less self conscious about my “softer” side.
You’ve always worked to maintain a close connection between the band’s music and the fans, from allowing people to vote on which image would be the cover for Buzzard, to offering “record club exclusive” demos to fans who helped fund Rot Gut, and selling rare copies of Margot LPs directly to fans – cutting out the middleman, so to speak. What inspires you to involve the fans so deeply in these processes, and what are some of the most valuable experiences that you’ve had while working so closely with your fans? Will you keep using crowd-funding in the future?
I think I’ve always done some online interacting with fans, partially due to an occasional need for instant gratification, and mostly because I have fond memories of bands I liked as a kid who treated their fans like they were part of a club. I got more into doing it after we did Buzzard. It was obvious very quickly that there were some people who were not into going on that journey with us. I felt very sentimental about those who were, and who saw it as a logical next step for us. I still feel very protective of those kids, and grateful. I don’t always feel like interacting on a personal level with fans, but when I do, it’s those Buzzard fans I’m always thinking of. I feel a debt to them. I was in a very “who fucking cares about anything” phase, but they meant a great deal to me. I still love that record like a child, and when I think about it, it’s impossible to separate it from the kids who got it when it came out.
You filmed a DVD to coincide with the release of the new album, which you’re calling Tell Me More About Evil – what inspired the idea for the DVD, and can you talk a bit about the process of filming it? Did you make any changes to the songs as they are performed on the DVD than the versions that were recorded on the album?
I am mostly interested in film when it comes to an art form I “study.” So it just seemed like a good way to learn a little more about something I love. We knew it was going to be a minute before the record came out, and we were still really in a working on the record mindset, so it was also a way to keep working while the proper work was already done. The other idea was to try to do songs in one take, and sort of mirror the way songs like that are recorded in a studio when you aren’t doing a bunch of layering.
What elements of Margot do you consider to be DIY, and what is the significance of being a DIY band in this day and age? Are there, or were there, any bands or artists that inspired the way that you all conduct yourselves as a band?
Almost everything we do is DIY, and yet we are still distributed by a big company, I guess. After those Epic records, I felt, and continue to feel, almost as much pride in owning the records as I do in making them. I can’t see ever going back to giving this thing we made to someone else for hardly any money. It’s not like we even make money on them, but they’re ours. We own this thing that we lost our sanity to make. That’s more and more important to me as I get older, for some reason
What led to the creation of Mariel Recording Company, and how did you come to the decision to create an independent record label as opposed to simply self-releasing your music without any sort of label? What else is Mariel Recording Company involved in aside from Margot releases?
The thing I’m most proud of is our release of Gentleman Caller’s album Wake, which I think is one of the greatest things ever. I guess that was the idea. Build something mainly as an outlet for releasing Margot records, but which can also, maybe, occasionally put out things that are part of our community of friends. I hope we can do more of that.
Margot has worked with Luna Music in Indianapolis for several in-store exclusives, like the Record Store Day vinyl version of Sling Shot and a performance on that day; are there other things that you do as a band to work within and build excitement for your local community in Indianapolis? How have local record stores helped to strengthen Margot’s career?
I’m not sure, but they’re all friends and seem to be excited when we release things. I’d be very sad if these local record stores went away. I still feel a void after losing Mass Ave. Video. I hope record stores don’t go the way of video stores. Good video shops have been so instrumental in my development as a songwriter and a person. I’m super, super bummed that they seem to be a thing of the past.
Aside from the upcoming tour with Empires and Kate Myers, what is coming next from the Margot camp?
Another record! We hope to start in September.
Sling Shot to Heaven and Tell Me More About Evil are out now, and the band will be on tour through the end of June, stopping by the Southgate House Revival in Newport, Kentucky (less than an hour away from Oxford) on May 10.
-Matt Metzler, for Brickwork