So what do you call an ensemble that plays singer/songwriter tunes with an indie bent that are too smart for top 40?
The Bowery Ballroom in New York has a large stage for a 600-capacity venue, giving bands ample room to move during a show. But the space was still a squeeze for the eight-piece Margot & the Nuclear So & So's on this April night. The act sports two guitarists (one of them, Richard Edwards, sings the lead vocals), two percussionists, a bassist, a keyboardist, a trumpet player (who also does percussion) and a cellist. Seeing them crowded together as they performed was akin to undergrads packing into a dorm room for an improv session.
Having so many players poses the threat of a discordant delivery, but Margot and company are much tighter than students enjoying a casual jam. Instead of filling songs with bombast, the collective treads lightly as needed on cuts from its recent Artemis debut, "The Dust of Retreat." Delicate chimes ring during "Vampires in Blue Dresses" before military drums blast at the finale. Ditto for the softer cello and dual guitars in "Quiet as a Mouse" that are countered by a strident trumpet recalling brass band wandering the streets of Mardi Gras.
So what do you call an ensemble that plays singer/songwriter tunes with an indie bent that are too smart for top 40? The press has tagged the group as "chamber pop," naming such bands as the Decemberists and the Arcade Fire as comparisons, but Edwards disagrees.
"At first it was kind of funny, but it's gotten to the point where I think a lot of journalists are just reading other people's [writeups]; it's so based on what it looks like instead of what it is," he says. "A lot of stuff they compare it to is just mind-boggling to me, and at this point it's kind of frustrating."
Edwards describes Margot & the Nuclear So & So's as pop that "certainly has a singer/songwriter edge." Folk music is another influence, since he grew listening to acts like Simon & Garfunkel and Neil Young. "When a folk song is done well, it's just like the best kind of song in the world ... the content and the storytelling, which I'm a big fan of," he observes.
The heavy-hearted stories on "The Dust of Retreat" belie the upbeat treatment the band gives them. For example, Edwards sings of a cat in "Paper Kitten Nightmare" that could be taken as a metaphor for a woman tramping the streets, but he got the idea for the song after seeing movies about the Holocaust and how mothers smothered their children as a mercy killing.
"I was just trying to think of a kind of lullaby that a mother would sing to a child if she were trying to put him or her to rest to spare them something that is theoretically a lot worse than a quiet death," he says.
Margot formed in Indianapolis two years ago when Edwards was recording a solo project after his former group, Archer Avenue, broke up. Lending a hand were brothers Chris and Andy Fry, Hubert Glover, Jesse Lee, Casey Tennis, Emily Watkins and Tyler Watkins. (The Watkins are not related.)
Somewhere during the sessions, the eight of them evolved into a band. They also began rooming together in one modest house to reduce expenses and dedicate themselves to living as musicians. Living together, working together and now touring together in a gutted-out bus -- is this a reality show in waiting?
Edwards laughs. "I don't think we'd do anything like that, just because ... I think we have enough trouble with people talking about other things besides our music."
Edwards says the band has done some recording for its next album and will probably work on it this month. He describes the results as "kind of weird folk songs" with operatic elements and heavy guitars, but he doesn't know if they'll make the cut. Writing for the album won't keep Margot off the road, though, as the band is attracting very diverse audiences.
"It's been kind of confusing whether to book all-ages shows or 21-up because it's been really varied," Edwards says. "Right now there's been little enough hype and buzz [where] I think everyone that likes it can get into it without the context of 'Is it cool or uncool to like it?'"