Consistency is better for butter than bands. While it's natural to want our favorite artists to stay trapped forever in the amber of their greatest moments, if you love them, you have to let them grow.
So raise your glass to Richard Edwards, the leader of Margot and the Nuclear So and So's. After releasing two well regarded orchestral rock albums during the band's first four years--including a couple spent on the major label merry-go-round--Edwards took a left turn into rock on his last two albums. Of course, that's only one perspective. To Edwards, it was the band's Baroque approach on its 2005 debut, The Dust of Retreat, that was the left turn.
"The initial kind of thing I started doing was much less ornate," Edwards said from his Chicago home, where his 3-year-old daughter Eleanor could be heard playing in the background. "At the time, it felt like a fun, challenging thing to do--employ instruments that aren't traditionally used in rock music in a way that feels creepy and cool and not necessarily for their anthemic potential."
But Edwards wasn't alone in that idea.
"At the time when we were making that record in 2004, it felt to us like not a lot of people were doing it," he said. "It was exciting and challenging, and then we had the really bad fortune that our record came out like a month after that first Arcade Fire album hit and everything about the world became very Arcade Fire-centric at that point."
It's hard not to hear the Decemberists, as well, in the tender, swelling violins, tinkling keyboards and sweet dreamy sway of "Skeleton Key" off The Dust of Retreat. The album injects dark cabaret moodiness and Baroque pop elegance into catchy and intermittently edgy rock. After self-releasing the album, the band was initially signed by Artemis Records.
But after re-mixing, mastering and re-releasing the album in 2006, the label merged with V2 and was later absorbed by Capitol. The band followed former V2 head Andy Gershon to Epic, where it continued recording songs for its second album. For three months, the band worked on around 25 songs before presenting the label with Animal! While Gershon loved it, the suits weren't happy.
But after some haggling, Margot was allowed to release Animal! as an vinyl/digital release, while the label kept five songs, and added seven new ones for Not Animal, a "director's cut" version. The band left the label a year later, and Edwards split with his bandmates. He moved to Chicago with his newborn daughter and started Margot anew. He blames the cliquish work habits the band had developed, as well as his own changing creative needs, on the original lineup's dissolution.
"There were issues, inner-band wise, about not being that happy about how we were recording. At a certain point, I was [like], 'fuck it and this chamber pop nonsense,'" Edwards said. "So some of it was probably a bit of a snotty reaction. But more of it was natural. I just wanted to fucking play loud. That's a misconception, too, that we were this soft little fey thing all these years. I defy anyone to look up those old tapes of us playing live and think that wasn't a rock band."
Edwards returned in 2010 with a new lineup and a new album, Buzzard. The band excised the strings and horns, and added a more rocking guitar-bass-drum attack. But there are still traces of the group's old spirit in the somber, questioning love paean, "I Do," in the tender combination of strummy acoustic guitar and choir-like backing vocals on "Lunatic, Lunatic, Lunatic," and in the moody, psych-tinged swirl of "Let's Paint Our Teeth Green."
Edwards' characters are notable for their pervasive sense of anxiety, a trait they share with him.
"I've gone through that stuff personally to varying degrees of severity," he said. "I've experienced pretty gnarly anxiety and panic attacks, so I think that's probably certainly been one of the dominant ... attributes of the people that litter the songs."
Working with producer John Congleton (The Thermals, Baroness) helped tame Edwards' self-consciousness on the band's latest album, Rot Gut, Domestic. Congleton--who Edwards said drank four liters of Dr. Pepper daily--was a whir of energy and they completed the entire album in 10 days.
"Every time he finished something, John was like, 'What's next? What's next?' When you do that, I think the benefits far outweigh the negatives. ... You don't have a whole lot of time to overthink stuff," said Edwards.
The result is an album that feels whole. From the ambling, moody opener "Disease Tobacco Free" to the shifty "Prozac Rock," with its dreamy ahh-ing background vocals, to the shimmering, sun-speckled exultation of "Coonskin Cap," the album hangs nicely together. It's a sweetly textured blur featuring much of Margot's typical musical ebb and flow. And Edwards' writing imbues the album with a somewhat cinematic quality, even without strings and horns.
Edwards has already begun work on the band's next album, and suggests it may be less distortion-heavy but no less aggressive. Edwards believes his comfort with his personal life and his touring band (he always expects to bring different folks in to record with) has emboldened him to explore darker places.
"When you're really feeling shitty--and I've gone through this, too--it's not that fun to be dark. You would rather be healthy and light. ... I'm married for all intents and purposes to the mother of my child and my daughter is going on 3. At a certain point when you have people that are sort of forced to like you, you can afford to be really not likeable in your art," he said with a chuckle. "Not trying to impress girls helps. Your music's a lot better when you don't mind being repulsive sometimes."