Indie rock is one of the most difficult genres to pin down. Over the years the term ‘indie’ has drifted far from its original usage in demarking the non-major record labels, eventually settling down to become a catch-all buzzword used to describe seemingly every guitar band and their grandmother. Yet, the capricious nature of the term means that ‘indie’ bands always have plenty of scope for evolving their sound in a way that few other genres would allow. If Mötörhead released a synth pop album would they still be considered the heavy metal titans they are? Probably not, yet bands like Arctic Monkeys can easily dip their toes into RnB, hip hop, psychedelia and garage rock and still fall squarely within the indie rock category.
The same holds true for Brooklyn five-piece THE MEN, who are on the cusp of releasing Tomorrow’s Hits, their fifth full-length album in as many years. The band are a living embodiment of the elasticity of the term ‘indie’, having swiftly moulted from scrappy punk/post-hardcore upstarts into a multifaceted, eclectic act over the course of just two albums following their founding in 2008, cramming in influences including everything from krautrock to doo wop and surf. Tomorrow’s Hits sees them push the boat out once again, this time with distinct classic rock vibes sitting neatly alongside alt-country flavours. The result is something that sounds a little like The Band – albeit slightly edgier – with hints of Springsteen, Exile-era Stones, and a touch of demented, visceral bar-room rootsiness thrown in for good measure. “We’re not a country band, I’d like to make that clear,” says Nick Chiericozzi, who splits guitar and vocal duties with Mark Perro, alongside bassist Ben Greenberg, drummer Rich Samis and lap steel player Kevin Faulkner. “I guess I was sort of brought up in a loose country tradition,” Nick tells us from his Brooklyn home. “I’m not from New York, I’m from the Midwest, so I think that influence crept in on tour because, when you’re in the van, you don’t necessarily put on the most raging stuff. Everybody likes Woody Guthrie a lot and all that stuff. We were just searching out for different things to draw on; all this stuff just sort of filtered through.”
Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates such radical and out-of-character changes, which all too often become a source of constant grumbling for traditionalists. Take, for example, the plight of American label Fat Possum Records: traditionally a blues label that played host to artists like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, they incited the wrath of many a bellyaching puritan who claimed the label was “going indie” after signing a range of new artists including The Black Keys, WAVVES and Unknown Mortal Orchestra. According to Nick, The Men have had their own share of naysayers as a result of their metamorphosis: “Some people, I think, don’t really like us anymore because we don’t play punk shows. We’re still totally down with those shows, but things have just changed for us. I’m sure we’ve lost some fans but gained others.” It’s invigorating to see that The Men aren’t a band in the slightest bit concerned with pigeonholing themselves or being pigeonholed; nor are they worried about public expectation; they are simply content to experiment and do their own thing. “We intended to make a different record than we had. We’d go and rehearse and write from noon until six and practice nearly every day, and the influence just kind of came from trying to play slow and quiet, but it ended up being a really hi-fi-sounding album. I think it sounds a lot like a classic rock album in a couple of bits; the band’s changed a lot.”
Flying in the face of adversity isn’t a new concept to them either: Nick describes their early days as an up-and-coming act in Brooklyn as something of an uphill battle, with the band struggling against the “cliquey” nature of the New York club scene. “We got a lot of shit from people because we played the Music Hall of Williamsburg, which is a venue in Brooklyn that has a lot of club shows and bigger bands.” In the end, it was their DIY punk ethic that pulled them through, with a solid fanbase of friends and an unbound passion for playing the music they want. It’s this devil-may-care attitude and acceptance of their role as being the square pegs in a world of round holes that perhaps is the secret to the band’s success. “Success is relative,” Nick says. “To me, it’s making a record. I guess we’re just sort of hungry as musicians. We’re really just chasing the same feeling you get when you write a good song. From [second album] Leave Home to now, it’s the same satisfaction that just materialises in a different way, and everything we do is homemade.”
So what is indie rock really? Does it belong to the foppish, commercial-dandy types that NME would have you believe are the face of the genre? Maybe it’s not even worth the effort of trying to define a genre with such wide goalposts which are prone to shifting at the slightest whim. One thing for certain is that, in a world where music is, at a glance, becoming increasingly homogenised, we should cherish the artists who are bold enough to simply do what they feel is right. After all, isn’t that the definition of artistry? It’s the Picassos of the world who are remembered, the Van Goghs, the Shakespeares and the Da Vincis; those who are unafraid to be different and to try new things. In 500 years’ time, will The Men be remembered as pioneering visionaries? Nobody can say, but they’re making a ruddy good effort.