When the end-of-year “Best Of” lists came out in December, every publication seemed to have the same mediocre picks at the top. For the most part, it was a year where middle-of-the-road reigned supreme. It seemed every publication felt the need to put the same records in the top 10. Not that those records aren’t good… or even great, but very few of them got stuck in my head… certainly not the way Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s “Slingshot to Heaven” did. The band’s records have always combined infectious pop hooks with an inherent evil and riddled lyrics that you may not understand, but you also cannot shake. Nobody ranked this record at the top, but it never left heavy rotation in my 2014. I think it’s time the record got it’s due.
I interviewed Richard Edwards back in early 2014 for the Boston, NYC and Philly Metro Newspapers to talk about “Slingshot to Heaven.” It was an interview long in the making, While the conversation is dated, it still seems relevant, and these exclusive photos live from the Middle East in Cambridge should provide some proof of the band’s prowess. Enjoy.
Richard Edwards makes music on his own terms. You could see it early in his career, but his hands-on, no-compromise mentality toward his recordings and releases has only become more pronounced over time. As the founder and lead singer of Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s, Edwards took the money from the advance on his debut record and built his own studio. He signed to Epic records for his second album in 2008. When the record company didn’t like his song selection, he convinced them to release two records simultaneously. “Animal” was his ideal release, while “Not Animal” was Epic’s chosen offering. From then on, Edwards and the band have gone on to self-release three records on their own label, Mariel Recordings. This interview was conducted shortly before the release of their latest, “Slingshot to Heaven.”
How far along is the record? I know the songs are done, but as far as putting it out do you have a precise date?
So you’re doing special online release options where you can pick and choose some rare treats. Do you want to talk about that at all?
Well we finished the record almost a year ago. That usually happens with us and we just figure we’ll have to sit on it for a minute. We release our own stuff, but we go through a distributor and all, so there is a long process of getting records set up that maybe doesn’t exist for other bands who just hand it to the label. So I think we were just going to think of projects to keep that momentum and to keep boredom from setting in. The idea was to shoot these songs in one-take performances that were stripped down and taken with 16mm. I have a friend in Chicago who has these cameras and he’s also very generous about letting people use them—especially people who don’t know what they’re doing–which is a dangerous thing when you’re talking about an old Éclair. So he lent us these cameras and it sort of snowballed into being almost the whole record performed on 16mm… which turned into a 40 minute set. It was just colored in Chicago at Film Workers. So yeah it’s done. It turned into a much bigger project than making the record, which it wasn’t supposed to but…
Is the cover of the album a still from the movie? Or something else?
No, I wish it was. I just decided that this was the cover I wanted. My friend Bart, who is a really good photographer, just decided to go out there at the Golden Gate Bridge every day for a couple of weeks–just waiting for it to be an overcast day, which can be hard to find. He just had a bunch of rolls of film for me on a day that was overcast and we put together that cover which is the first image we had when we started recording.
And you guys recorded again on tape, right?
Yeah, which we’ve done before, but this time we didn’t use any computers at all, which made it different than any way we’ve recorded in the past.
Yeah we do. I don’t think it’s political or anything. The idea to not use computers was Tyler’s idea. We always like using tape because I’m one of those people who thinks you can tell the difference. Tyler, the bass player and engineer, wanted a challenge– which we always try and do to sharpen our focus. His idea was that we finally have this studio set up to do primarily analog recordings so why are we fucking around with the monitor and sending that into ProTools. So he just wanted to try it and it was my favorite way of recording so far. It definitely makes a difference on focused performance, I think.
So, from what I remember, when Rot Gut Domestic came out, you had said it was going to be part of a 3 record trilogy. Is this record the third part or was that idea sort of abandoned?
It was supposed to be; I think it kind of works out that way because this record happened in my 20’s right before I turned 30. It feels that way to me, but sonically they don’t hold together as a trilogy so much. With the musical vibe I think it’s important to make records that radically depart from one another. Thematically I think it works like that still, but sonically if you put Buzzard on and then this one it wouldn’t make sense I guess.
What would make them a trilogy? Is it just times and age?
I just considered it when I started doing it…. It’s like a growing up trilogy. The first 2 or 2.5 records seem like their own thing to the extent that the band name could have even changed after that. I like the idea, whether good or bad, from when you’re young to when you’re older, of housing it under one name. But after those records, starting with Buzzard, the band was moving on. We weren’t living in a flophouse anymore. I had a baby in 2009. Then this one ends and I just turned 30, which isn’t a big deal, but it did seem like a growing up or that something else is starting.
These songs all sound a little more quiet and stripped down than some of your other records. Would you agree with that and was that a conscious decision or the evolution of songwriting for you?
It was just the evolution of songwriting for this one. I’ve already written the next one– and it’s rowdy– not as rowdy as Buzzard is– but it’s pretty up-tempo and a pretty pronounced pop thing, which I like. With this one, I think the reason it ended up that way– it was constantly brought up while we were recording– that this was becoming a pretty mid-tempo affair. At some point you just have to say, “this is what it is.” My friend Cami and I sat around a lot and played the songs on acoustic guitar and sort of arranged them before we started, and that really set the tone for what ended up happening in the studio. We were listening back to the demos done that way and we were encouraged to keep writing. I sort of unconsciously continued to write songs that I thought would feel nice to play with my friends in my living room. That’s the only thing I think that would have pushed the songs in that way. There’s definitely not a place in the writing process to take a sharp turn.
I’ve always found your lyrics very intriguing; this album seems a little more straightforward, maybe a slightly less riddled…
I’m not sure. There’s not “out there” stuff like “Tiny Vampire Robot,” but still when I hear “Long-legged Blonde” I am reminded that I’m always getting yelled at by the publishing company at how unplaceable my lyrics are, so it’s hard to differentiate between weirdness. But yeah, it’s a little bit narrative based.
There are references to San Francisco and Los Angeles, but you’re still in Indiana, right?
I was in Chicago for 5 or 6 years, but yeah, now I’m in Indiana.
Are these travelogues? Are you inspired to move to California?
I don’t know. I think I’m still figuring out stuff about what I write. It’s like “oh shit we have like 5 songs referencing how I want to move to California.” And the first record I did was always New York, New York, New York. When I wasn’t on tour, I would just fly to New York and stay on people’s couches. Maybe with this one it’s because the winter was so bad. I listen to a lot of modern country radio when I’m driving, like Hank FM. Really, really modern, “country” in quotes. And so, for a long time, I thought, I’ll make a new record, and if this one does okay I’m going to move to LA and write songs for Kenny Chesney or something like that. It was actually something I really wanted to do. It would also be nice to be a little warmer than I’ve been for the past few weeks.
Yeah, you guys have been getting hit pretty hard up there, huh?
Yeah it’s been rougher than I can remember.
Tell me about the evolution of the band personnel-wise. I hear a female singer, but haven’t seen any women on stage when you perform. Is there a recording band versus a touring band?
There’s a girl coming back in, but I’ve been musically very promiscuous when it comes to touring since that first band dissolved. By design– I guess just like getting divorced– I want to do what I want to do and whomever I want to do it with. This time around I sort of stumbled on my dream band, but I’m sure that will change because everybody’s got to do there own thing. But I’ve had a pretty steady group of touring musicians since the old band and a lot of those people play on the records too. I generally bring in one other guitarist, and usually a female singer that I collaborate with the harmony treatments. But I think the next record will pretty much be the same band as on this record, but will be a faster tempo record.
How has self-releasing been going and does this all go back to the bad experience early on with Epic?
I think it’s a mixture of things. There aren’t very many people knocking on our door. You know what I mean? We are in a position where we have a small, passionate fanbase, but it’s not certainly big in the traditional sense. I never really considered the Sony thing that bad. They released the thing that I wanted them to release. I know some people get really pissed off when they don’t think the label is doing what they can to promote the record. I just don’t really care about any of that. As long as I can make it. So that’s fine. But as far as self-releasing, I really wish we had done it from the beginning, because I really underestimated the pride in owning the shit that you do. When I have a stack of things that I’ve made, even if they’re not really worth that much, it’s really, really important for me to own it. It’s amazing to me that there was a period in my life where I thought ‘Yeah $50,000 it’s yours.” It’s so little money and what does it last 8 people? A year maybe? So that side of it, I wouldn’t be opposed to working with a label. We almost did with Rot Gut, we almost did with Buzzard, but I can’t see us ever again where I wouldn’t want to own it. That means a lot to me as I get older.
Is it an added difficulty when you’re self-releasing? Is there an added amount of personal work you’re doing it on your own, or even just for it to get heard or distributed?
Yeah there’s a part of that for sure. And this time there’s been more than I’ve ever had because the guy in the band who always helped us with that is sort of a grownup now and has a job. So a lot of it is on me now, but at the same time, I sort of like that work. I like boxing those records as much, or more than I like making records. My head hurts so much that I just want mindless work where I don’t get stuck inside the pattern of thought that I’m always in. Some of that mindless stuff I sort of enjoy and I find gratifying. It’s super, super cheesy, but it’s like I have a small business and the act of transporting these records to people has some sort of meaning to me as I get older. You get meaning from a lot of lame stuff as you get older.
Where did the title of the DVD portion of the record come from [“Tell Me More About Evil”]?
I think I told my friend– the movie ended up demented and scary in this way and I told my friend Heidi who is simultaneously trying to make her own record. She’s a really, really good songwriter who always has trouble finishing a record. She’ll always have mixes and she always needs one more song mix and that’s enough to derail the whole thing. I think I told her something like her record needed a little more evil in the songs.
I found the title intriguing because your songs have always had this strange inherent evil to them. So that must be something your aware of?
I think it gets more skillfully articulated as I get older, but there’s always sort of like a Catholic/Christian guilt thing, a mixture between that which most people don’t shake, even as they get older and cast that stuff aside. I’ve always just sort of said that I like writing hit songs for the same reasons that I admire Robert Crumb. It doesn’t mean that I like everything that he draws, but I like writing songs that feel, both better and worse, are real reflections of how young men think and behave. Not all of those, not most of those, especially now are pulled from my life. I have a 4-year-old daughter and I’m very much in a situation where I’m a dad. But I also don’t ever want to mellow that stuff because I’m not somebody whose brain changed when I had a kid. Of course it did in tons of ways, but it did not change that part of me that’s super fucked up and gross. Part of the problem with the world, like the problem between men and women, is I think that I think just this thought is doing harm to like …the times. You know? I embellish a lot of things too. I always wanted to make songs that… I just never wanted to make myself look good, but maybe I should do more of that. I want to try and be honest, especially now more than ever, every problem with society is boiled down to “10 things you need to know about a failed something”. You know, “mean culture.” I feel like its changing actual meaning… I’m just rambling now. I’m saying something I don’t have words for. I just think it’s important, now more than ever, to just be honest and stuff. People need to be honest with themselves before they get on a soapbox about what’s wrong about the rest of our culture. If I was a little less shitty of a person, some of this would be better just by that.
Does your daughter like your music?
My daughter– she likes it a lot, but the two songs I’ve written that have any meaning are “Getting Fat” and “Prozac Rock”. For whatever reason, those are the two. She likes them and she likes hearing them in the car and she gets a kick if she’s at her friend’s house and it comes on Pandora she gets excited. She likes a lot of music. She’s pretty well-rounded. She can listen to Merle Haggard and she can still listen to the Frozen soundtrack. I suspect in 3 or 4 years it’ll be no more Merle Haggard.
For more info: http://margotandthenuclearsoandsos.com/