The music industry is filled with stories of artists delivering albums to record companies, only to see their bottom-line-minded bosses reject the work. There are tons of websites and books dedicated to these "lost albums." Indie-rockers Margot and the Nuclear So & So's were all set to add their contribution to this pantheon when they settled on a compromise with their label.
When the Indianapolis-based Margot delivered their major-label debut album to Epic Records in the spring, the company's suits "just weren't going to put it out," says guitarist and co-founder Andy Fry. So they found a way to keep everyone happy: They released two albums - Animal!, a vinyl-only document of the original album the band turned in, and Not Animal, a CD and digital version of the record-company-approved work.
"Epic pretty much left us alone when we were making the record," says Fry. "Then we turned it in. We didn't hear from them for a week or so, and we were like, 'They're not gonna put this out.' It was so different from what they expected us to do. It was really doomed from the start. In a way, we kinda knew that the whole time, but we just thought that we'd make it so good, it would overcome all that."
Much of the dispute stemmed from the fact that the label was anticipating the songs it had heard when it signed the band. The group, however, was excited to record a batch of freshly penned tunes. "The [label] really wanted [certain] songs to be on it," recalls Fry. "By the time we went in to record, those songs were two or three years old."
On the surface, there really isn't that much of a difference between the two Animals. The band's Animal! is a bit more audacious, working the eight-piece group through a series of skewed chamber-pop songs; Epic's Not Animal is a bit more tuneful. (Despite their godawful name, Margot isn't a jam band. On the contrary, their concerts stick pretty close to the intricate arrangements laid out in the studio.)
Still, Fry says when he listens to the two records, he can spot the differences, especially in their degrees of user-friendliness. "Not Animal is definitely more accessible," he says. "I like when people make accessible music that's interesting. Indie-rock tends to get a little too inside. I don't like that at all. Not Animal is more fun to listen to, and it rocks harder. They're the songs we danced around to in the studio during playback."
Five songs (including the excellently named "A Children's Crusade on Acid" and "Hello Vagina") show up on both albums, but they offer totally separate listening experiences within their respective contexts. "Crusade," for example, opens Not Animal but doesn't appear until more than halfway through Animal! The placements really do set the albums' tones.
Yet through all this, things never really got too heated with the label, says Fry, even though frontman Richard Edwards got drunk one night and decided to fly from Indiana to New York and meet with execs right then and there. "He was at their offices when they opened up in the morning," laughs Fry. "And he was somehow more drunk than when he left. We were hurt about what happened. But to them, this was what normally happens: You make a record and they fix it."
Fry and Edwards formed Margot three years ago. (There are multiple explanations for the group's cumbersome name. We're not even going to bother to add to that list.) It takes a carefully constructed flow chart to keep track of all the people in Margot and what they do. The seven guys and one girl play banjos, trumpets, violins and a bunch of other instruments, which triggers fans to compare them to Arcade Fire and tag them "chamber pop."
Their debut album, The Dust of Retreat, was released on an indie label in 2006. Extensive touring yielded word-of-mouth buzz, which led to the Epic deal. When they started recording the 19 songs that would eventually end up on the two Animals, Fry says there wasn't much of an "agenda." "Richard started writing a mini-opera, and some of those songs are peppered throughout - like any time you hear a song about miners," he says. "But to be honest, they're really just surreal images rather than any attempt to be focused. It's a collage of thoughts.
"But we get accused of being pretentious enough," he laughs. "A really focused concept album would have ended any chance of making a third record."
While Edwards takes the usual leader role in Margot - he writes and sings the songs - things trickle down democratically from there. Fry, as co-founder and guitarist, has a big say in the music's structure and course. For one thing, his fluidly rolling guitar lines are a big part of the band's organic sound and one of the things that keeps Edwards' occasionally out-there lyrical explorations ("Hello Vagina" is actually about the Heaven's Gate cult) somewhat grounded. "It really is collaborative on the music side," says Fry. "Richard is the filter, but everyone's ideas are listened to."
On their current tour, Fry says Margot is favoring the more experimental sounds of Animal! Those songs tend to be "more fun to play live," he says. "We're indulging ourselves. The record company can promote Not Animal." Besides, the band still kinda prefers Animal! over Not Animal - even though Fry says it depends on the circumstances. "Our bass player summed it up best," he says. "When he's driving, he likes to listen to Not Animal. When he's getting drunk, he listens to Animal! It's a really great, wine-soaked record.
"But it's not like there were any songs that we didn't want to come out," he concludes. "We just wanted to make a focused record. We were kinda pissed at the record company at first, but it's totally understandable. I just wouldn't want to go through this every time we make a record."
<i>Margot and the Nuclear So & So's, with Everything Now, and the Return of Simple, 9 p.m. Thursda, December 11, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216.383.1124, Tickets $12</i>