Indian Jewelry's frontman, Tex Kerschen, is riddled with mixed emotions, though they're hard to detect even when he's talking about them. A hint of defensive posturing creeps into his voice, however, when he's asked about the relationship between the band and its audience.
"I like reading books and hanging out with my dog, and I don't like being in bars and talking to people. But that's part of the game," he mutters. "Obviously you have to be some kind of a narcissist to start a band in the first place. If you continue with it you're more of a masochist. But I'm not really a masochist."
Apparently, Kerschen feels an adversarial relationship with his listeners, but he also thrives on the tensions that arise between their expectations and his intent. That dynamic culminates in Indian Jewelry's clatter of bleak, psychedelic sounds that are confrontational without being antagonistic. By embracing that approach, the group takes its audience on a gorgeous hell-ride tour of scorched earth and smog-coated Americana, via swarms of beats, drones and manic nihilism.
Passing through the rural Midwest somewhere between St. Paul, Minn., and Chicago on tour in support of the group's second full-length, Free Gold (We Are Free), Kerschen explains by phone the contradictory impulses that have shaped the band. "There is a schizoid tendency between knowing that you have to be in public ... that I would like to be part of if I were in the audience versus making it interesting to me as a player."
In the past, Indian Jewelry has appeared in press photos hidden beneath layers of Middle Eastern garb, toting guns and riding horses, looking like a band of postapocalyptic desert outlaws. The group's base of operations is Houston, but at any given time its members are scattered throughout the country, turning up in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. These wayfaring brothers in arms are an extended family of players surrounding the core lineup of Kerschen (vocals), Erika Thrasher (synthesizer, guitar), Brandon Davidson (guitar) and Rodney Rodriguez (drums), and they're all dispersed among various other outfits with names like Swarm of Angels, Corpses of Waco and NTX. The current touring lineup consists of Kerschen, Thrasher and Davidson.
Onstage, the group conceals itself behind dense clouds of smoke, strobe lights and a rumble of drones, scratching guitars and tribal pounding that creates a hallucinogenic quality. All these elements converge to shroud Indian Jewelry in a blanket of mystery that's as much an aesthetic component of the group's image as it is a defense mechanism.
"We don't like to be in the light; it's boring and it's offensive," Kerschen barks. "You feel like you're being exploited as a person when you have people staring up at you, like a zoo animal. We're up there on stage because we're in charge, so we put up a shield."
Indian Jewelry is the ultimate outsider art-rock band. To the uninitiated they look like a noise band, and a small but devoted fan base follows the group with cultlike reverence. And even though the group does embrace the aesthetics of noise to a certain extent, a strong sense of songwriting guides every one of its releases. The music is fiery and often abrasive, but it's far from a painful listening experience. Every beat, every rhythm and every sound that appears throughout the group's labyrinthine catalogue of dozens of 7-inches with homemade sleeves, CD-Rs and scattered full-length albums on various obscure labels is an essential part of the listening experience.
Prior releases, such as its 2006 release Invasive Exotics (Monitor Records), harnessed a murky and aggressive side of the group. It channeled the sheer spectacle of Indian Jewelry's live presence onto a CD. "We've destroyed a lot of material along the way. With the first couple of records, we were on a mission to establish a new space of operations for ourselves. We took songs and ruined them. We thought, 'What's the very least thing that could survive all of this destruction,' and that's how we presented it," he says. "Aesthetically it felt great. But it's cartoonish to apply this process to everything we do."
Free Gold finds the group moving in a more refined direction. Throughout the album, songs such as "Swans," "Pompeii" and "Everyday" minimize the heavy doses of abstract rumbles to lean more on honest-to-goodness songwriting in a concerted effort to further pursue the essential parts of the group's sound while making the process less convoluted. "When we did this record it was like, 'Here's a song, let's just record it as is!' I'm fanatically in love with following themes, but a song is a song. You don't have to go unmask it or undo it just because people expect you to," Kerschen says.
"It feels slavish, and one thing we are not is willing slaves to somebody else's aesthetic program."