- Phillip Hill
- Clockwise from left: Crys (Mitchell Duncan [also of Learner Dancer], Joey Shepard, Jacob Gardner); Learner Dancer (Peter King, Landon Caldwell, Jesse Lee); Vacation Club (Jeb Lambert, Jered Sheline, Sam Thompson, Brandon Jackson)
It's 1:30 a.m. on a perfect night in early June, and I'm standing in the living room of Mediumship. It's dark except for some blue lights focused on the band, and it's hot. Really hot. Not because it's hot outside, but because the twenty or so people in the room - along with the band - are freaking out. There's no other way to describe it. To say "dancing" would imply some ritualized form of movement conceived in a past century. No, this extended, half-hour drum and guitar excursion has turned these people into raving lunatics.
Joey Shepard and Jacob Gardner, both from the band Crys, are playing drums and guitar. The bassist, a guy from Chicago whose band played earlier in the night, is wandering through the crowd as he plays, observing with demonic delight at what the music is making these people do. It is a demonstration of the bizarre, almost mystical power of rock and roll to make people move.
It's also a Monday night. Some of us have work tomorrow. Some of us don't. Most of us don't care either way.
This is the kind of evening happening almost nightly within just a few blocks radius of the intersection of Virginia Avenue and Prospect Street inside the Fountain Square neighborhood. It's thanks to a close-knit group of about two dozen impossibly interconnected musicians who've moved here at an increasing rate over the past five years and made it their business to play as much music as possible and support each other in whatever way is necessary to keep it all going.
In describing the explosion of music and culture that took place in San Francisco in the mid- 60s, journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote, "... every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in long fine flash, for reasons nobody really understands at the time."
This particular group of musicians and artists might not represent an entire generation, but it certainly seems that for underground rock music in Indianapolis, this is that "long fine flash" Thompson wrote of.
The path to understanding what's going on in Fountain Square, and why, leads directly to a few people and places. It leads to GloryHole Records, houses like Mediumship, and bands like Learner Dancer, Vacation Club and Crys, even to bars like the Brass Ring. From there it heads outward to the freakishly ambitious network of side bands and individual projects like Cataracts Music Festival and arts spaces like A.K.A. and Shared Heritage.
It's not about being cool, it's not about doing drugs and it's certainly not about making money.
As Shepard said over beers at the Brass Ring one evening, "You don't have to be drunk, you don't have to be stoned, you just have to be there." For a certain type of person, this the only way to live.
If one were to draw a schematic of all the musical relationships in Fountain Square, it would reveal a web of cooperation and collaboration far too dizzyingly complex to catalogue here. However, at least one thing is for sure: at the center of that diagram - at least, as of today - would be Jim Peoni, founder of GloryHole Records.
Peoni is a short, wiry guy with a perpetual three- or four-day growth of beard, a penchant for cut-off khaki shorts and a teenage kind of spring in his step. He is not what comes to mind when you think of the word "record executive," but that's precisely why he's able to stay at the center of this scene and maintain his credibility amongst people who take their creative freedom very seriously. The bands he puts onto his label are some of the weirdest, edgiest, most innovative acts in the city and his support has been instrumental in their growth.
"Without Jim, this whole thing would not be what it is right now," said Tyler Bowman, former member of The Kemps. "Because he got behind the Fountain Square bands, it kind of jump-started everything and gave us this automatic influence to just produce as much as we can."
The feeling, he went on to say, was contagious and has spread to the visual arts as well.
"Jimmy's the godfather of all this," said Shepard.
Peoni had been kicking around the idea of starting up a record label for a few years when, in summer 2010, he was outside Radio Radio after a set by the Indy-based psychedelic garage rock band Vacation Club. Someone suggested he put out a 7" for the band, and things built from there.
He currently releases albums for such local acts like Adam Kuhn, Apache Dropout, Christian Taylor & Homeschool, Crys, Learner Dancer and Vacation Club, with Knoxville-based Three Man Band and Bloomington-based Humans on his roster as well.
Peoni said he does not make his bands sign "contracts"; he only asks them to sign an agreement giving him the rights to release the songs. The bands are free to sign with other record labels and even release those songs with other labels, but GloryHole retains rights to release them as well. He doesn't insist on any creative involvement, even when he's paying for studio time.
"The band might let me listen to something or ask me for suggestions, but overall it's up to them," he says. "It's more of a friend or family kind of relationship."
GloryHole finances the production of the finished product - the cassette tape or vinyl release - and then gives a certain number of copies to the band, keeping the bulk of the records for the label to sell at shows. This is the only way he earns revenue or pays his bands.
"I find most bands are pretty happy with that arrangement," he said.
It's the kind of practical, arm's length business arrangement that allows Peoni to do what he loves - archive and distribute the products of his friends around the local music community - while allowing musicians to maintain their independence. GloryHole treads the very fine line between investing in the local music community as a business venture, but staying far enough removed at least creatively to give the artists room to breathe.
Peoni's expectations are not high where money is concerned, which is a good thing, because selling 7" vinyls to local record stores and at concerts isn't the road to wealth.
"If you can just break even in this business, that's considered successful," he said. "If I can just put out a lot of good records in the meantime, that'd be cool."
This sort of lack of monetary ambition or desire to "make it" is, surprisingly, one of the defining threads that unites Peoni with his bands. It's not as though they are completely unconcerned with money or renown — after all, why record or distribute anything if you weren't slightly concerned with getting your work out there and making a few bucks?
However, almost uniformly, when asked about the idea of "making it big," the simple answer is that most of these musicians would like to be able to make a living playing music, but are unconcerned with anything beyond that.
I'm milling around on the porch of a two-story house on E. Morris Street with the guys from the Mediumship bands Vacation Club, Learner Dancer, and Crys. It is constant motion and activity, and constant entertainment; a group of smart, funny, creative people who know each other so well they may as well all be siblings. They bust each other's chops and crack jokes relentlessly. And they just happen to be really funny. There's rarely a moment without a howl of laughter coming from somewhere.
For that reason, it's hard to single any one of them out for something so "serious" as an interview, which is what I'm trying to do with Sam Thompson, the lead singer and guitarist of Vacation Club.
I want to ask him about why he sings in the high-pitched, bubble-gum voice he uses on stage. Finally, I corner him on the porch, but I barely get the question out of my mouth when a tall, swaggering, shirtless guy bounds up the steps and towards me. This I know to be Brandon Jackson, Vacations Club's bassist.
"I'll answer your questions," he says, "I'm your man. Come on. Let's go."
I feel as if I've been put on the spot. I almost mumble something about wanting to do the interviews in private but, like it or not, the moment has arrived. I ask a few questions about modern music, influences, that kind of thing, but he deflects them. When I ask about the beginnings of Vacation Club, however, he and everyone else begins to open up.
Not only were they the first band GloryHole agreed to back, but they are one of the most prolific live bands in the area. Their sound harkens back to mid-'60s pop and garage rock. They take that sound and distort it, expand it, making it even more psychedelic and far-reaching, so that does what rock and roll was meant to do: make you slightly uneasy.
The band's origins are in Kokomo, where Thompson and drummer Jered Sheline played in a punk band together before joining up with guitarist Jeb Lambert and forming Vacation Club. In 2009 they met Jackson at a friend's house in the Garfield Park area, where they had stopped to practice on their way from Kokomo to their gig later that night in Bloomington. Allegedly, Jackson just walked up to them, much as he did to me on the porch - "I'm your man" - and asked if they needed a bass player for that night's gig. They did.
They taught him their nine songs and let him play at that night's show in Bloomington.
"We came back to Indy the next morning and never went back home," said Thompson.
Since then, they have released two 7" records on GloryHole ( a new six-song EP and another 7" are on their way this summer). They've been playing shows at a blistering pace at nearly every venue in the city, from Deluxe at Old National Center down to house shows like Helter Shelter and Mediumship.
There was a time when music fans practically couldn't go to an indie rock show in this city and not see them on the bill. At one point I wouldn't have been surprised in the least to see them lugging their gear into an old folks' home to play a warm-up gig before a set at Radio Radio.
Thompson laughs in agreement when I bring this up but, in all seriousness, Vacation Club is perhaps one of the most obvious beneficiaries of the growth of the Fountain Square music community. All of the band's members came from outside Indy to find a warm welcome, a cheap place to live amongst other musicians and a variety of places to play.
Vacation Club, "Forest Babe"