Greencastle native Justin Renner took the long route to his current life in Indianapolis. Fronting one band, backing another, working his day-job, and flirting with his acting chops, Renner has become a sort of modern Renaissance man.
by Donovan Wheeler
photos by Tim McLaughlin
Justin Renner sits belly up to the bar in Fountain Square’s namesake brewery. Sporting a beanie, his locks fall out from underneath its knitted edge, curling around the corners of his jaw, blending in with the stubble on his chin. His eyes glassy, he turns to the camera, glaring as the sound of Cyrus Youngman’s voice carries over the room. From the YouTube screen sitting on my lap, a mixture of contempt and hate radiates from those eyes as the tight shot on Renner’s expression closes in. Abruptly, the camera cuts to a full shot of Renner now standing beside Youngman, pouring a pint of pale ale over the latter’s head.
If you ask Renner how he feels about the character he plays on Fountain of Squares, he’ll laugh. He’s the first to admit that “Marcus” is kind of a dick, but he also sees “something sort of honest and likeable about him, too.” At that he pauses, and then Renner—this time the real Justin Renner, hanging out with me on a Tuesday night in Plainfield’s Black Swan Brewpub—smiles affably, half-shaking his head, his eyes looking away from our seats casting against the wall behind us.
Fountain of Squares, a web-series promoting the arts and culture of the still bohemian Indianapolis district, started as a side project for Renner, but it’s become something he’s quite proud of, and it’s definitely something he talks a lot about. Eccentric and impulsive, Squares evokes the sort of grit-ridden back-and-forth banter you see in shows such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Aziz Ansari’s new series, Master of None. Hands down, Renner’s Marcus is the most caustic figure on the screen, and if you’ve known Justin for a long time watching him become someone you’ve never seen before can be a bit jarring. For that reason, for the fun getting in front of camera, the chance to throw out a half-dozen f-bombs, and the opportunity to chase IPAs with shots of whatever he pours when the camera’s rolling, playing Marcus has become yet another opportunity for self-exploration as well as great diversion from a very busy life.
Justin Renner in Fountain of Squares (Warning for Explicit Language)
Like a lot of artists throughout the state, Renner’s life is anchored by the traditional day job, where he puts in his obligatory 40 hours managing a warehouse. When he’s not there, he’s in school, studying logistics and supply-chain management for said day job.
“That’s my secret identity, if you will,” Renner says. “Then at night I put on this costume of sorts, change into this other person, and go to band practice.” He’s in one costume or another almost every night. On Mondays and Wednesdays he logs hours with Cyrus Youngman (Spoiler: in real life they’re great friends.) playing mandolin for Youngman’s band, the Kingfishers. On his other two work nights, he’s rehearsing with his own band, Hex Mundi, a four-person act which borrows bassist Andrew Roti (Renner’s best friend) from the Kingfishers and features Justin’s wife, Stephanie at the drum set.
Running one band, playing for another, acting on a web series, putting in full days in a warehouse. This kind of piled-on responsibility marks a long transition from a decade ago, when Renner sat in my high school English classroom, generally goofing off, always smiling, ready to get out of school and move on.
“I almost didn’t graduate from high school,” he admits unhesitatingly. “After failing multiple math classes I was referred to the alternative school. I had about one semester to complete two classes, and I finished both of them very quickly. I basically taught myself three years’ worth of math in about six or seven weeks. I guess it was just a thing where I teach myself better than having to sit in seat for 45-minutes while someone who doesn’t connect with me tries to teach me the same thing.” Despite his adept skills at self-instruction, Renner was still a kid, still living by the rule of the moment, so when his drama teacher, Vickie Parker, asked what he was going to do after graduated, he was taken aback.
“I said, ‘I don’t know…you can’t go to school for acting or performance, can you?’ When she said yes, I was shocked. I said, ‘Where? Hollywood or New York?’”
Slightly off the path from either coast, Renner enrolled at Indiana State and indeed studied acting. Along the way he discovered his knack for design and writing as well. Eventually settling in with a college band of sorts, Renner—who had stuck with merely singing—was encouraged to pick up something and play along with the others. His choice proved fateful.
“Most people learn guitar, bass, drums…then after that they turn to things like keys…maybe violin or saxophone,” Renner explains. “But when I stumbled onto the mandolin I thought, ‘Oh, that’s something you don’t see very much up on stage.’”
“It’s really fast for one thing,” he says describing a mandolin’s distinctions from traditional guitars. “But it’s tuned very uniquely. Basically take the tuning keys of a bass guitar and flip them upside down, and that’s sort of what you have with the mandolin. I just really clicked with it. I had learned a little bit of guitar and bass but not enough of either of those to be proficient.”
“I still get people who come to me and say, ‘You should learn the guitar,’” he adds. “But I don’t want to learn the guitar. I chose not to learn the guitar because everyone else does, and hearing that suggestion too many times can get annoying. Then throw in people’s reactions. When we start setting up the stage, and people see my instrument, they never expect it. Someone is always caught off-guard by it, and they’ll ask me things like, ‘Oh, what is that little guitar-thing? Is that an electric ukulele?’”
“When we start setting up the stage, and people see my instrument, they never expect it. Someone is always caught off-guard by it, and they’ll ask me things like, ‘Oh, what is that little guitar-thing? Is that an electric ukulele?’”
His weapon of choice, a specific instrument he calls The Hatchet, is his own design. Working with the Kingfishers’ technical master, James Cook and his company, Cook Custom Guitar, the duo set out to create the perfect mandolin, a process which did not happen quickly.
“I gave him a page-and-a-half of specs, and he built it,” he says. “Then I sent it back to several times so that he could make adjustments until we finally had it where we wanted it. And now we’re designing an ‘octave mandolin’ which is going to be about seven-inches longer when it’s finished.” Together the pair have been discussing additional designs, and Renner is contemplating the chance to offer his services to other musicians who have heard of the team’s handiwork. But to reach that point in his life, Renner first had to wind his own biography across the eastern third of the US, making several stops before putting his roots in the Circle City.
That journey began in earnest when he left Terre Haute for the East Coast.
“It’s a long story,” he says, a sort of groan sliding out. I’m in no hurry. The beer at Black Swan is pretty good, and they make these killer French fries which I don’t want to leave behind. The burger sitting inside me will need at least an hour to work into my colon—I’m assuming. Renner has a lot to tell me. I want to hear it all. And I’m going to eat all of those damn French fries.
Eventually, he gives me the story. Interning for a theater company, Renner found himself in one of the best positions an aspiring actor could hope for, but the dream he’d scripted in head as he headed east turned into something very different.
“I had to do a lot of very bizarre, circus-like exercises on stage,” he says. “It was a sort of sadistic game of Simon Says, a lot of crawling on the stage on your elbows and knees for two hours. Then Simon Says run on your tip-toes for three more hours. I reached the point where I looked around at the people beside me and thought, ‘What would be really cool is if Simon Says go play on your mandolin for a few hours or just fuck around for the rest of the afternoon.’”
Back in Indiana, he settled in Bloomington. Played with one band, left that, formed another…which took off. The group, an argot (named after the term used to label code languages in small groups) was on the verge of traveling the country.
“That’s a long story,” he repeats. The fries are still all over my plate, and I look at him. He talks.
“Three hours before we were supposed to leave…the band breaks up. By that point, all that time off you’ve requested from work and all the money you’ve saved for the trip…that’s all wasted. And now you’re stuck in this town, and everybody knows that you’re supposed to be gone by now. By that point I was thinking, ‘I’m going to hide…for like a year…’”
The collapse of an argot was hardly a devastating setback. For one, the band’s drummer, Kate Siefker, would go on to play for and co-arrange with the hit act Lilly and Madeline. And as for Renner himself, in the aftermath of the band’s dissolution he would meet his eventual wife. Together, they traveled north, setting up a home in Indy, and Justin Renner would start to frame the walls for the musical foundation he had spent more than two decades building.
The early incarnation of Hex Mundi coming together, Renner happened upon Youngman at an early Sofarsounds event, a moment Renner recalls clearly: “He said, ‘Hey, we should hang out and play some together some time.’ I remember sitting beside him watching a show, and I turned to my wife and said, ‘One day I’m going to play with this guy.’”
Two different bands. Two different roles.
“With the Kingfishers the arrangements are more complex…because they have to be,” Renner says. “With Cyrus’s band, you’re talking anywhere from seven to eight people on stage, but with my act you’re looking at a four-person band. You can’t be intimidated by the scope of the thing. The Kingfishers have to rework songs all the time. Any song can change from one month to the next; it’s all very fluid, but I like that challenge. With Hex Mundi, the songs are more concrete…and they’re more ‘poppy’ as well. Writing for my band feels more like writing for indie radio whereas the music we play with Cyrus is more of that ‘dad rock’ sound.”
“But that’s why I joined the Kingfishers,” he adds. “Doing this will make me a better musician for one thing. I love hanging out with all those guys for another. And there’s something to be said for sometimes not being the front guy…for just being able to show up and do your thing and enjoy the time on stage without all the stresses you face when you’re the face of the band.”
“I like the dichotomy of it all.”
Considering all his irons the fire, Renner is managing slightly more than a dichotomy. At the moment, the day job remains quite real, his bond with the Kingfishers holds solid (the band will travel to Nashville in December to record a full-length album with famed producer Mark Rubel), Hex Mundi continues to offer his needed creative outlet, and he has family as well.
As we settle our bill and walk out to the parking lot so that I can take a good close-up look at The Hatchet, the conversation turns to one member of that family, his father-in-law, a man Renner respects deeply: “Here’s a guy who challenges me. I kind of like that. He’s always looking at me with this gaze that says, ‘You’re not good enough for my daughter…’ and he’s totally correct. He’s always encouraging me to do something more practical, and I get that.”
He gets it. He does. You can see it when you look at him. Maybe one day, the time will come to pursue that more pragmatic path. But when that happens, Renner will be able to look back on the life he’s traveled thus far and say the following with powerful affirmation: “If you were given the opportunity to something crazy, but also something that very, very few people get to do, then you’d be stupid not to take that chance. If I were to ignore that impulse, turn my back on that desire…that’s what everybody else does with their lives.”
If Renner ever moves his life toward “what everybody else does” no one doubts he will still turn that into something eclectic. Neither does anyone doubt that it’ll probably be a long story as well.