It's 11:15 p.m. on a Friday, and guitarist Andy Fry is about to take the stage with Indianapolis-based Margot & the
Nuclear So and So's.
He and his seven bandmates--fresh from recording their second album, "Animal!"--are tucked into a tiny room with green cinderblock walls in The Vogue's backstage area.
Fry is dressed for the occasion in a rubber T-Rex mask (an allusion to the new album's title) as well as his usual '70s retro garb: tan cords, plaid shirt and brown corduroy jacket.
Despite his rock-and-roll look and Margot's growing national popularity, Fry still gets anxious before important gigs. He has downed a small glass of whiskey to calm his nerves, and he encourages others to leave the room before he does.
As the band emerges, a crowd of 950 mostly 20-somethings cheers in anticipation. Before the show, they'd lined up for a block outside the Broad Ripple venue, awaiting the folk-rock/chamber-pop group's return after months in the studio.
Fans are ready for a sampling of the band's new material--Epic Records is set to release "Animal!" on July 29--as well as favorites like "Skeleton Key," "Quiet As A Mouse" and "Broad Ripple is Burning."
The 6-foot-3-inch shaggy-haired musician is used to the attention. He has played in five bands in the past 10 years or so, serving in various capacities, including singer/songwriter.
"As tall as he is, he's hard not to notice," said Margot trumpeter Hubert Glover.
Still, Fry doesn't seek the spotlight. In Margot's eight-person, 10-instrument stage setup, he hides in the back, beside bassist Tyler Watkins and behind keyboardist Emily Watkins (no relation).
While performing, Fry often keeps his head down, watching his fingers. Occasionally, his eyes wander over to lead singer Richard Edwards and out to the audience. He said watching the crowd infuses him with a combination of excitement and nervousness.
His gear--a 1982 Gibson 335 hollow-body guitar and a Vox brand amplifier--provide him with the perfect blend of shimmering, high-end tones and rich, fuzzy warmth.
"If you can't sound good with [that guitar and amp], you're pretty hopeless," he said.
If Margot's success is any indication, Fry is anything but hopeless. His guitar parts play heavily into the Margot mix, but never rise above the band's orchestral din. When recording the band's debut album,"The Dust of Retreat," in 2004, he tried to play textured guitar parts that didn't distract listeners from the vocals, cello, horns and piano.
On songs like "Quiet As A Mouse," his eerie, high-pitched guitar atmospherics resemble the work of Radiohead guitarist and avant-garde composer Johnny Greenwood. During "On a Freezing Chicago Street," Fry picks a more conventional, folksy lead melody. On hometown favorite "Broad Ripple is Burning," he opts not to play and leaves the stage.
"The last thing I want to do is ruin a song by trying to get attention," said Fry, a vehement critic of "big, dumb, rock guitar" riffs and an admitted fumbler at the popular Guitar Hero video games.
Fry takes the same low-key approach away from the stage. At 32, he's the eldest member of the band, and he often functions as the group's go-to guy. Since Margot formed in 2004, Fry has kept track of the band's finances, served as its graphic designer, and fielded the bulk of media calls.
"Andy's really a workaholic kind of guy," said his brother Chris Fry, Margot's drummer. "He does a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff."
Chris said his brother paid the band's expenses with his credit card before the project became profitable, and when members decided to make Margot a full-time gig, they shacked up at Fry's Indianapolis house--where they still live when they're not on the road.
Fry's demure style has proved a good match for singer/songwriter Edwards' more confessional demeanor. Edwards, 24, co-founded the group after meeting Fry in a local pet store and striking up a conversation.
They named the band partly after Margot Tennenbaum, a character from the 2001 Wes Anderson film "The Royal Tennenbaums." Edwards' previous band, Archer Avenue, took its name from the Chicago street where the fictional Tennenbaums lived.
Fry, Edwards and the other musicians who joined the Margot collective soon became local favorites and recorded "Dust," which Indianapolis-based Standard Recording Co. distributed. Margot spent 10 months on tour promoting the album, then inked a deal with New York-based Artemis Records to re-release it in 2006.
But Artemis folded in January 2007, only a few months after signing the band, and Koch Entertainment Distribution LLC began selling the album. Fans have purchased 15,000 copies of "Dust" since then.
After eight months without a label, Margot signed a two-album contract with Epic Records, a well-known subsidiary of Sony BMG Music Entertainment Inc. The group spent much of the last six months recording material for "Animal!" and another album, which band members said should come out in early 2009.
Margot management declined to disclose the terms of its record deal, but artists typically don't make money from album sales until the record company recoups recording expenses, said Craig Pinkus, intellectual property lawyer at Indianapolis-based Bose McKinney & Evans LLP. Most of their income comes from ticket sales and band merchandise, he said.
Margot's per-show fee also is confidential. The band's rider requests a meal and clean socks at every gig, Fry said, though the latter usually is overlooked. Still, there are perks, like the free drinks some venues offer band members. At the Vogue, the band nabbed an assortment of Amstel Light, Bell's Oberon and Two Hearted Ale.
Fry and others were vague about their financial situation. Band members don't claim to be business-savvy; they're musicians, after all. They say they don't keep track of income--when one member has a pressing bill, they pay it off.
"We get income by playing shows, or a record label gives us an advance on album sales; that's about it for revenue streams," Fry said, adding that the money coming in "fluctuates wildly."
In the past four years, Fry has achieved feats most musicians only dream about--scoring a major label deal, MTV airplay, a slot at the renowned South by Southwest music festival, and a mention in Spin magazine's "Who's Next" section--but it didn't just fall into his lap.
Once upon a time, Fry had a real job. Sort of. The jack-of-all-trades artist spent much of his 20s doing free-lance graphic design work out of his bedroom while fronting Indianapolis bands like The Academy. The work gave Fry the security to buy his home, where the band now lives. But the combination of too much free time and not enough challenges left him unsatisfied.
"I've never been more depressed [than I was then]," Fry said.
Working with Margot has been much more intense, he said.
"I've never even come close to working on anything as hard as I have this band," he said.
While recording the new album, band members slept in the studio and devoted nearly every waking moment to discussing or working on the material. The experience reminded Fry of his days as an art student at Indiana University, where he pulled a series of all-nighters during finals week.
Life on the road isn't easy, either. The band has 18 gigs booked for the month of May alone. And touring in Margot's converted school bus can be an adventure in itself. The bus has broken down three or four times in the mountains or desert, Fry said, as the band logged 120,000 miles of travel.
"It's not a comfortable lifestyle," Fry said. "You have to be able to stomach risk and be confident in your ability to deal with problems."
And though it's the path he's chosen, Fry doesn't see himself spending the rest of his days as a musician.
"I don't have any desire to be a 50-year-old rock dude," he said. Instead, he hopes to "make a few great records," then spend the rest of his life as a painter.
Still, Fry admits being a musician is not without its benefits.
An hour before hitting the stage that Friday night, he was down the street sharing drinks with friends and discussing the superiority of The Beatles' white album over the better-selling "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band."
"It's all part of the job," he said. "I'm definitely not complaining."
But his work day started much earlier, when he and the rest of the band began packing up equipment at their Indianapolis home and practice space. Seven hours before show time, they started unloading gear from their tour bus and carrying it through The Vogue's back doors. They then spent about an hour setting up their instruments and amps.
Next came their sound check, which took about 45 minutes. Each Margot member played individually so Vogue technicians could get sound levels right. Then the band played two songs from the set. In between, Fry and others fiddled with controls on Edwards' amplifier, as he feared his guitar's tone resembled the soundtrack to a Nintendo game.
Band members also took time to sign merchandise for Indianapolis-based Riley Hospital for Children, worked on their lamp-filled lighting setup, and figured out the particulars of their set list, which would keep the band onstage 75 minutes. After the show, they'll tear down the equipment and reload it.
Once that work is done, Fry will put an arm around Edwards and head back to the party down the street. They'll probably discuss their performance, the new album and the group's upcoming tour, which kicks off May 6 in Springfield, Mo.
"From the moment you wake up to the moment you sleep, it's work," Fry said. "It's casual, but it's work."
And for the time being, he wouldn't have it any other way.