Genre: Indie rock
If the measure of a band is based on artistry, energetic shows and steady success, then Arson Garden was the top band in Central Indiana. James Combs on guitar and Joby Barnett on drums started with a sound and a mutual appreciation for intricate rhythms and breaking new ground. They built up the band with James’ sister, April Combs, and bassist Clark Starr. Their first gig in 1987 was held at Second Story in Bloomington, at the event known as Er Night, and later that year they opened up for the Replacements at Alumni Hall. From then on, the band enjoyed a loyal following and a wild ride along with guitarist Michael Mann, who joined while also playing in the Opiates.
“People in Bloomington at that time were really interested in music,” James says. “Our earliest songs received amazing feedback, and we had this instant connection to the crowd.” Arson Garden’s early music (1988’s Arson Garden, produced by Paul Mahern, and 1990’s Under Towers, recorded at Paisley Park by Tom Herbers) was a unique blend of Midwestern guitars, poetic lyrics and adventurous rhythmic arrangements.
Frequent touring, better record deals, a Peel Session performance, a slot at Lollapalooza and airing a video on MTV’s 120 Minutes soon built the band’s self-confidence and international notoriety.
April recalls a Red Hot Chili Peppers performance giving her bigger ideas about her stage presence. “The wilder I was and the more I jumped around, the better,” she says. “It was never about beauty for me; it was always about art, performance and energy. Connecting to the audience ... I loved it!”
As the band began rehearsals for Wisteria in 1991, the guitars became a greater focus for them. According to James, he and Mann were working on a song called “Pact,” during which they both began writing intricate guitar parts and pushing the sound as far as they could imagine it.
Their final album, The Belle Stomp, should have launched them into the national indie-rock mainstream. When recording The Belle Stomp, Arson Garden had the freedom to explore a less bombastic new sound within the context of the full band. It was the most ambitious album the band had made, and with the emergence of new independent bands into international superstars, the world seemed wide open to a creative group of free thinkers with a powerful live show. “Prophetically, our record came out the week Kurt Cobain died,” James says. “Everything just seemed to kind of stop.”