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Dark and twisty: Tesla Armada's relentless march



Adam O'Sullivan skipped law school for this.

This being Tesla Armada, a prog-rock quartet with a penchant for lulling melodies that take dark, twisty turns.

The room they practice in is a cramped, wood-paneled space connecting the garage to O'Sullivan's Speedway house. It's unadorned except for the band's gear, including a tall lamp used by singer/guitarist Chris Wallace as a mic stand, sans shade.

That doesn't seem to inhibit the band's creativity. They do a run-through of their song "Kegel," all woozy, stuttering, circular rage with pile-driving lapses. Another, "Mr. John Lochness," is all roiling rhythm changes and Eddie Van Halen-worthy fret fire.

Indeed, both Wallace and guitarist Luke Pollock play much of their parts with a tapping technique, in which a string is fretted and vibrated in one motion instead of the traditional way of fretting it with one hand and picking it with the other. Both are self-taught. Wallace discovered the guitar through his dad's stringed-instrument repair shop and Pollock followed in his footsteps after moving to Avon from the Ben Davis district in junior high.

"I don't know if everything we play is practical in theory, but it sounds cool," Wallace says while the rest of Tesla Armada are seated on a couch in O'Sullivan's living room. "We have fun doing it."

Tapping was the execution Wallace and Pollock took in their former band The Phoenix Lights. Being a fan of artists like Tool, O'Sullivan kept hearing about them as an undergrad at Indiana University, but wasn't seeing any evidence of their existence.

"Everybody that liked music would talk about them," O'Sullivan says. "I wouldn't see anything on them, but it was like everyone had heard of them."

Eventually someone showed him a YouTube of the band.

"It was these guys finger-tapping and playing all these ridiculous polyrhythms," O'Sullivan says.

The drummer started mining his network to find Wallace, determined to start a band with him. By then The Phoenix Lights were no more, and Wallace wasn't interested in pursuing another collective after the way that one ended.

"It left a sour taste in my mouth," he says.

But if O'Sullivan can be described as anything, it's determined. He didn't start his own commercial/residential painting business and be promoted to new car sales manager at a Ford dealership (after a year and a half) without a little drive. O'Sullivan focused some of that motivation on persuading Wallace to play music again. Eventually Wallace agreed, if Pollock was in the ranks too. That was no problem. After they struggled to find a competent bass player, O'Sullivan begged to have his friend Sean Barry fill out the ranks. The concern was he had only been playing for six months at the time. But after half that time Barry already had Tool covers mastered.

"He's better than all of us now," Pollock says.

Strangely enough O'Sullivan, who grew up in Avon too, was in a band with Wallace in junior high, but didn't remember him. Ditto Wallace. Perhaps they were trying to block it from memory.

"It was a horrible band that played Weezer and Papa Roach covers," Wallace says. "That's what was cool in eighth grade."

They've come a long way with Tesla Armada, a name Wallace derived from the story of the Philadelphia Experiment and its alleged ability to jump dimensions. In fact O'Sullivan, who learned his chops playing in the drumline of Avon's Black and Gold Marching Band and in the jazz band, had his own learning curve the first time he rehearsed with Wallace and Pollock. Coming from a mostly metal background, O'Sullivan was used to double bass and constant fills.

"They started playing and I was like ... 'fuck'," he says. "What am I going to play? They're going to kick me out of the band. It was the first time in my life I was ever picked on. I was hazed for like the first 20 practices. Not only were they as good as I thought they'd be, but for the first time in my life I'm the worst person in the band."

Turned out Wallace and Pollock's non-practical way of playing didn't initially jibe with O'Sullivan's "German mind" - his strict adherence to counting the music's measures.

"I finally learned to let go," O'Sullivan says. "After we wrote some songs, I just started forgetting to read music and embrace the feeling. When it became less structured and more free-flowing, it got so much better."

That was essential because unlike many young acts, Tesla Armada rarely turn the first idea introduced into a fleshed-out song. Instead bits and pieces of inspiration are painstakingly crafted into something everyone agrees is worthwhile.

"We'll all write at home. Then it becomes a huge collaboration, but still disconnected," Pollock says. "Then it all comes together, but different from the way we played it before."

O'Sullivan's contumacy has paid off -- especially in getting the band recognition. Initially local promoters wouldn't even book them. They had to start out playing in friends' garages. But enough people attended and spread the word that now they're choosing where they'll perform.

Meanwhile O'Sullivan was engaged in "serial killer-type" stalking of labels and musicians he loves to take notice. Atlantic and Warner Bros. Records were two that did. Tesla Armada played a showcase for both in Atlanta. It was a cattle call of sorts, but label reps ended up talking with them far longer than any of the other potential signees. The response was ultimately what you'd expect for Tesla Armada's pedigree from companies with this type of bottom line: You're incredibly talented but not commercial enough. One A&R guy there noted he'd signed Circa Survive, one of Tesla Armada's favorites. They didn't make him any money.

Undeterred, O'Sullivan has worked tirelessly to conquer another seemingly impenetrable frontier - - radio. Tesla Armada have received some airplay on satellite radio and locally on X103. B97, Bloomington's Top 40 station, added their song "Smallest Girls." O'Sullivan heard it while at a gas station there. He got a free Slurpie from the attendant for his achievement.

"If we can get on Sirius I know it's going to be massive," O'Sullivan says. "A lot of bands that have blown up started there. People actually want to hear good music nowadays."

That German mind is useful in another way. O'Sullivan is just a couple months away from paying off his mortgage. Just don't think he wants to sell cars the rest of his life.

"The whole goal has been to make enough money to buy a few franchises, like Jimmy John's, so we can go on tour and know we'll have jobs when we get back," O'Sullivan says. "That's why so many bands fail."

Meanwhile, Tesla Armada figure they have eight or nine songs ready to be recorded. Barry knows an IU student who will record them in a studio there for a class project in the next couple months.

That gives them the feeling that this year or next could be a breakout time for them. For now, though, they have to be content with what they've got. O'Sullivan relates how one of his co-workers, a debutante from the South, attended a Tesla Armada show. He recounts her description, with the accent.

"The whole place was quiet and peaceful. Everybody was holding hands and swaying. Then their band came on and it was like the devil came out and started stabbing everybody."

His reply?

"Yeah that was pretty cool, wasn't it?"


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