Meeting up with Beta Male is like setting up a clandestine rendezvous with, say, Deepthroat.
"Drive to the corner of such and such a place downtown," said the voice over the phone. "Call this number and we will give further instructions."
Camped out on a frigid winter night in the shadow of Lucas Oil Stadium, I found myself wondering if this would be an interview or some sort of fraternity hazing.
Because Beta Male is not a band known for its restraint. I last got to know them a few years ago when they exploded onto the local music scene, propelled by a penchant for self-promotion and a taste for the spectacular. They one-upped themselves with every show, whether with near-naked hula-hooping or ridiculous costumes.
In print, I called them "David Bowie meets George Michael in a space-age band of lunatics" and frequently wondered if they might actually burn down a club someday. P. David Hazel fronted from behind, playing drums while singing; wife Allison Hazel and partner-in-conspiracy Jess Hack provided keyboards and dancing (sometimes in the back, and sometimes right up front). Other members came and went during those early years.
As I wait outside the hulking stadium, my iPod plays my favorite Beta Male song, "Mirrorball," one of their earliest songs and a longtime live-show staple, driven by a ferocious hook and pounding bassline.
Sometimes the whole crazysexycool thing ticked people off. I often got the feeling Beta Male – particularly Allison, who directs most of the band's PR operations – enjoyed pushing people's buttons. "There were all these rules about how people were supposed to sound and present themselves," Allison told me once. "We got a lot of criticism when we started down that hypersexual road." In one noteworthy incident, she and Jess showed up at an event in burqas just to stick it to the naysayers who didn't like the whole nearly-naked thing.
Given all this, I could be forgiven for holding out suspicion that tonight's outing will somehow end up with me in the trunk of a car trying to dial a cell phone with my teeth. No such madness; the cloak-and-dagger business had much more to do with surprise birthday party for Jess at a nearby apartment.
When I finally got the coordinates and arrived at party central, I found the band more down to earth than I expected — in other words, they didn't seem remotely inclined to throw me in a trunk. After the party, we ended up spending a good chunk of time bar-hopping, which I recommend as the best possible way to get to know a band.
One key point we mused on that night: How pop culture has caught up to Beta Male.
"When we started out, there was no Lady Gaga," Allison says as we all talk over drinks in a hazy cigar bar downtown – our third meeting site of an ever-shifting evening, 2 a.m. and counting. "It's not only accepted but expected in the broader culture that people are going to do wild things."
Underoos and unitards
So how has the band adjusted to the zeitgeist? Why, by calming the hell down just as everyone else is ratcheting up. No wonder we made it through the entire evening without anyone spontaneously combusting.
"We're moving into a phase where there's nothing to rail against," Allison says, in between screamingly loud blues sets at the Slippery Noodle, stop No. 2 of the night. "This reaction of 'You all don't belong here' has faded away."
"Our culture is oversaturated; we're bombarded with so many visual and sexual cues that it's become the norm," Jess says.
Their music has become refined — even, dare I say it, mature — and a Beta Male set these days is as likely to feature evening wear as unitards or Underoos. After releasing demos and EPs, the band has completed their first full-length album, and is ready to move onto the next stage, whatever that may be.
"We've come all the way around," P. David says. "For a while it was this whole dance rock movement, where the only thing that made sense to people was colorful neon explosions and sexiness and bootie shorts, and that really wasn't us. We've come back to where we want to have fun."
Beta Male still have a Bowie-gone-electric thing going on, their sound very much a product of the glam 1970s and new-wave 1980s. But for all the electronic tricks available — and P. David loves playing with his toys — it's still a stripped-down, guitar-and-keyboards sort of band.
Back when everyone actually listened to albums in order and not just iTunes downloads, the more experimental bands, especially the prog-rockers and the new-wavers, put a lot of emphasis on pacing. Start the album out with a burst of energy, ebb and flow over the course of 60 minutes or so, and close on a slightly melancholy song that's a nice sendoff, equal parts elegiac and hopeful, the aural equivalent of "Thank you, goodnight!"
Beta Male's new release follows that template. The album includes reinterpretations of several songs the band has been playing since the beginning. "Mirrorball" takes on a darker sound, but with a certain hopefulness about it, a sense of "here we are, here's what we've done, take it and hold it and we'll see you next time." The album's version of "Mother's World," another longtime Beta Male favorite, is more polished than its demo — and also a little more unnerving, a shifty-eyed glance into the corners of the room where you're not sure what's there and you're less sure you even want to know.
They've always had a political edge to their work ("When you see injustice going on and just go back to your drink or whatever, we're the first to call bullshit," Jess says), but a lot of it is equally applicable to day-to-day life. I don't think it's coincidental that several Beta Male songs are written in second person – "Are You Holden?" and "Where Were You?" come to mind. The politics are less in the lyrics than the structure — most songs virtually out to the listener, demanding to know "Who the hell are YOU really?"
A few years can make a lot of difference. Beta Male's music has always been restrained, but the most recent incarnations of the group carry the definite tenor of age and experience. "A lot of the material is very dark and introverted, not extroverted music," P. David says.
"It's more organic," Jess comments. "It's like you're more comfortable with your position. You own it now. Which speaks for the band and how we've evolved. At first you were unsure and we were unsure."
"I don't really feel that way," P. David responds. "When I churned out that first EP in five days, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. It was very rough and I've since settled into what Beta Male is and what the sound is. The album is thematically back to that early mood, but it's better than the original stuff. We've gotten a lot more solid."
The birth of the beta male
Beta Male was born a few years ago when P. David, then of Extra Blue Kind, felt dissatisfied with that band's poppy feel. He locked himself in a room for a week, during which he conjured up a five-song EP. After Extra Blue Kind dissolved, he devoted the bulk of his creative efforts to Beta Male.
Allison recruited Jess from their time doing burlesque together. They were initially backup dancers, but eventually started playing instruments. Other members came and went, including Indy veteran Vess Ruhtenberg. Two years ago T.J. Briggs joined as guitarist, and they've been a stable quartet ever since.
"I'd created a cartoon character who started to stand for things," P. David says of the band's name and philosophy. "The beta male, the man behind the man, the little dude who's driving inside the brain."
"Did Beta Male embody for you what you couldn't express in everyday life?" Jess asks him. (Honestly, the best interviews are the ones where it's like I'm not even here. I get the feeling that the band members themselves are still exploring themselves what this all-new, all-different Beta Male actually is.)
"No, I was just trying to embarrass myself by being as honest as possible about things," he replies. "I wanted to see how far I could go with the philosophy. We live our lives as a farce because there's this biological process going on behind us. You think you're in control of everything you're doing, but you have no idea how to turn food into energy. You have no control or input over these processes that your life depends on."
Even if they've "matured" some, Beta Male hasn't given up the theatrics. Not long ago, Allison and Jess dressed up as sex dolls and performed their set with robotic focus. Sometimes all band members wear masks.
"Every band presents themselves the way they want to be seen," Allison says. "To go with no frills is a gimmick in itself. You're always trying to package yourself. We've just been more brazen about it."
"We're trying to put the mystery back into what we're doing," P. David says. "With the whole dance rock thing, there was a general impression that we were the sex rock band. It's still theatrical; we still represent ideas physically onstage, but without neon and dayglo. But things like the masks create a creepy darkness."
The beta male. Man behind the man. "We want people to think about what's behind their own mask," Jess says. "We want our audience to look inside themselves and realize they're not necessarily in control."
"The way we're talking, it sounds like we were really thinking it through, that it was designed like this," P. David muses. "But we're making art very naturally. It's been very honest and the ideas keep coming through. When I first started Beta Male, I wanted to make a record that I would want to buy myself. That hasn't changed."
The whole thing's a work in progress. Nobody knows where this experiment will end, not even Beta Male.
"Some things are going to work and some things aren't, but we're not scared anymore," Jess says.
Allison: "Were we ever?" P. David: "I'm scared every time!" (For full effect, you have to imagine these statements said perfectly simultaneously. You couldn't time a situation comedy better.) "But I'm more scared NOT to change," P. David adds.
The mirrorball spins. Everything changes. One facet dark, another bright, another blinding, then dark again.
"The question is, how do we emerge again?" Allison asks, not entirely rhetorically. "How does it get presented on stage? We'll see how it goes. And maybe the pendulum will swing back again. Nothing's really happened to Beta Male yet. It's all been buildup."
Stream: "Are You Holden" from Beta Male (feat. Richard Edwards from Margot & the Nuclear So and So's)
Stream: "Were Were You" from Beta Male
Meet Beta Male:
David Hazel, "The CEO"
Vocals, drums, overall maestro
Representative quote: "There's not room in a band like this for musicians with egos."
Pogue's thoughts: It's funny that a band so known for being in-your-face is directed and driven by someone so introspective, but that's part of the genius of the thing.
Representative quote: "My job is to represent sonically what David has imagined.
Pogue's thoughts: T.J. doesn't strike me as ever having been quite as maniacally insane as the old-school Beta Male was, but a band like this needs a guy like him, the sort who's all like "So I'm going to push a box on the stage and carry out the girls who are dressed as dolls? Sure, I can do that" and then goes out and plays his part to perfection.
Keyboard, bass, vocals, dance, overall planning
Representative quote: "I don't care if a magazine cover calls us the sexiest band or the worst band in Indianapolis. I just want to make a mark."
Pogue's thoughts: If P. David is the musical mastermind, Allison is the PR schemer who comes up with the PR stuff, the attention-grabbing id that made up the Beta Male image for so long.
Representative quote: "We're never satisfied with being the same for long. We're constantly evolving."
Pogue's thoughts: Over the course of an evening with Beta Male, the thing that struck me most about Jess is her relentless optimism and cheerfulness about the group.