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Houston is like any other city if you were to take away outside interest, camaraderie and hope," says Tex Kerschen about the town he calls home. "That is to say, it is a vast, overwhelmingly alienating and inherently negative place. There is no money, no glory, and no future to be had playing music there.
"But on the upside," he adds, "because there is a little bit less of the social climbing, the glad-handing, the feel-gooding and the other vicious habits attendant to the industry mentality, we are afforded a tiny allowance there for the strange and the wild."
Around the turn of the century, Indian Jewelry, the mysterious, experimental outfit Kerschen formed with his longtime creative collaborator, Erika Thrasher, was among the bands making music that local music scribes dubbed "Houston Noise." For Indian Jewelry, the designation was a bit of a misnomer.
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"While I love a lot of noise," Kerschen admits, "I don't think that what we are doing is noise at all. Houston does have a lot of people who make noise proper — Black Leather Jesus, Rotten Piece, Concrete Violin, among many others — as well as people who make cool underground music like Rusted Shut, the Wiggins, Future Blondes, Balaclavas, A Thousand Cranes, etc."
Indeed, even a cursory listen to Indian Jewelry's four proper albums and the group's collection of singles reveals a band that can't be easily quantified, even within individual albums. All the same, there is a coherence of vision unique to this act. You can hear shades of everything from noise rock and dark psychedelia to experimental electronic drone and dub to various non-Western musical traditions in its music. Kerschen developed his taste for challenging music early on, from what was being played on KTRU, a radio station in his home town.
"When I was a teenager," Kerschen recalls, "that's when I first heard a lot of cool music — Negativland, Big Black, Jello Biafra, Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Fugazi. In recent years, it has grown more conventional and more focused on boring indie rock, but these are boring, ultra-conservative times we're living in."
Boring and ultra-conservative are two more descriptors that don't apply to the music Kerschen and company make. Prior to using the name Indian Jewelry as a moniker for his collaborative musical endeavor with Thrasher, the project had emerged from another outfit.
"Swarm of Angels was a band we had several years ago," says Kerschen. "Now it is an idea of sorts, the lineaments of an existential concept of style, volume and chance. Besides Erika, Brandon Davis and myself, the band comprised Ralf Armin from Culturcide, Pain Teens, Introverts, the Vulgarians, Dead Roses — look him up when you can; he's an underrated creative force — Domokos of Rusted Shut, A Pink Cloud, Future Blondes and Matt Frey, who played in an earlier band led by Jana Hunter, currently of Lower Dens." In the interest of keeping things interesting and fresh, the impressive batch of intriguing experimental musicians toured under various names.
"Though it seemed a good idea to stay chameleonic and operate under a shifting mantle," observes Kerschen, "it proved a better practical idea to let people imagine, somewhat wrongly, that we were just one band with one name. Hence the name Indian Jewelry, a phrase that was constantly before our eyes on the roads of the Southwest. It suggested contradictory things: love and respect for Native American culture and history, and also the tawdriness of commercial art."
For its 2006 album Invasive Exotics, Indian Jewelry brought on board an old friend to help engineer the record. "We met Don Bolles of the Germs and Fancy Space People shortly after we moved to Los Angeles for a couple years many years ago," explains Kerschen. "He became a fast friend of ours and helped us out in countless ways. He was one of the very first people to take an interest in our band in L.A. or anywhere else, and he opened a lot of doors for us."
Whether through the assistance of Bolles or other friends, the band has toured nationally and internationally with the likes of HEALTH, Clipd Beaks and, currently, Holy Fuck, and has gained renown for its hypnotic and electrifying live shows. In 2008, the band released the monumental Free Gold! And while the music for that album was a natural outgrowth of what Indian Jewelry had done up to that point, the players' avid exploration of sounds and music from unfamiliar locales led it to a blog that had an unexpected influence on the record.
"We found out about Awesome Tapes when we were already mixing Free Gold," Kerschen recalls. "Because of that site, we changed one song from 'Goodbye Old Life' to 'Hello Africa.' The song needed a change anyway — it was much too solipsistic before, lyrically. We also tried to refer to those awesome low-budget African album covers with our own album art."
The resulting album was rich with deep rhythmic textures and mesmerizing drones underpinning atmospheric melodies that, at times, sound like an approximation of the language of otherworldly insects. On its latest record, Totaled, meanwhile, the band incorporates those same tribal effects while still evolving and experimenting with its sound.
It appears that Kerschen and his cohorts put as much thought into the visual aspect of their band as they do the songwriting. For Free Gold!, they made videos for both "Swans" and "Temporary Famine Ship," utilizing archaic film footage and mixing it with footage created specifically for each video. Totaled's "Lapis Lazuli" received a similar treatment.
"When I made that video," Kerschen confesses, "I stole most of the imagery from the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov's [Three] Songs About Lenin. I'm not a Soviet or a fan of mass executions, centralized government, work camps, death camps — or any camps at all, for that matter — but damn, there was that time when they made great films. As for the imagery, it just seemed rich in mystery and beauty, which were things I was trying to connect to in that song."
Despite Indian Jewelry's powerful live show and creative exercises in media mixing, like any art worth its salt, it's not for everyone, and not everyone understands or appreciates the work.
Kerschen once heard the music of Indian Jewelry described as being "like a depressed Jimmy Buffett." In typical fashion, he laughs and shrugs it off. "I try not to listen to what people say about us," he concludes. "But sometimes I can't help myself. It made me laugh. A lot of our bad press makes me laugh. A lot of our good press makes me cringe."