Relative to the remainder of the recorded output of the three Carney brothers of Virginia who comprise Pontiak, "Shell Skull" amounts to a Top 40 pop number. The first track from last year's excellent debut, Sun on Sun, "Shell Skull" fades into feedback before the four-minute mark and after a march of riffs, drums and voices that—for the most part—lock into a serrated rhythmic stomp. It's a rock song, plain and simple, with verses and a chorus shouted like a mantra that seems to read, "How far we gotta go/ Standing outside in the cold?" I'd go so far as to call this a hook.
Especially on its forthcoming follow-up, Maker, Pontiak seems more interested in warrens and planks than such mid-length tanks; that is, these days, Pontiak brilliantly aims for intertwining, elevated jams that wrap so densely you think you'll never see the other side, or they burst into and through song-shaped sprees of sound that expire by the time you recognize the language. But the concision and craft of "Shell Skull" carry over into the new material, so that even the band's most distended or distorted jams still carry a sense of melody and meter. This is the band getting the song right. Wait a few months—and on Maker, one of the year's best rock records—you'll be able to hear them rip it apart.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: So, let's start simply with "Shell Skull." How far back does this song date for Pontiak?
VAN CARNEY: Well, we actually wrote that when we recorded it, like literally. That take is when we wrote it, so that was it.
Was it a jam, or was there an idea to work from?
Well, we were just playing, and it's kind of one of those things where you just, with us three brothers, when you're playing you can go somewhere together just by looking at each other. You just start playing something, and you're like, "Oh," and weave your way through. "Shell Skull" is a pretty straightforward song, so I don't actually know if we were looking at each other that much. It just kind of did what it did, and then we were like, "OK."
Did you have the lyrics before the jam, or was that improvised?
Oh, no. I wrote those lyrics afterwards. I think we recorded that song and then we were like, "Hey, there we go." I think the next day, just because we were down in the cabin recording the record, I wrote the lyrics and put them down.
One of the things that's generally overlooked about Pontiak is the group-singing, or the harmonies. Are you multi-tracking yourself here, or is it all three Carney boys?
We're all three singing.
How long have the brothers been singing together?
You know, I think it's probably just something that happened with the band. I think my parents are pretty musical. We weren't like the Von Traps or anything. But I guess, occasionally, we had it around. My mom, she sang in choirs and what not, and my dad is a guitarist. When you have all that kind of music around you, I think it's one of those things you just absorb. I think it just comes naturally. I can't remember any specific concerted effort to sing harmonies or even sing together for that matter. But, you know, Jennings has a good harmonic voice, and so does Lain. They both have really good harmonic ideas. I probably don't so much.
In a band of brothers, it seems interesting that one eventually emerges as a frontman. How did you become that person, and were there growing pains with that decision?
You know, that's a good question. I don't know. I'm not sure that I'm even there to stay. I think it's one of those things where I tended to write more lyrics, so it just happened that I started singing more. Lain and I both started out playing drums, and we'd trade off. He would sing some songs, and I would sing some songs. Then he just got a lot better than I was at the drums, and I was like "Dude. You just gotta play drums. There's no way I can play like that." I just started doing that a little bit more. Now we write the songs completely collaboratively, and I write the lyrics. It's something that I just really enjoy doing. Lain and Jennings, they might enjoy doing it, but we all have specific goals or specific things that you're like, "Hey man, I really like doing this."
Are there band issues no one wants to handle?
When you're on the road and someone's gotta keep the finances. I think that's the worst part. Otherwise, I think it's pretty equal. Like I said, I just really enjoy writing the lyrics, and certain parts of the recording aspects Lain will really like doing. Jennings likes writing harmonies. It's like when someone's building a house and you're a framer and you've got dry wall and the dry waller is coming and you're like "OK. He knows how to do it better than I do." You're kind of relieved.
Do you guys still record in a cabin on the family's land in Virginia?
We actually are in a studio now. So the studio we recorded Maker [the band's second album, due April 7] in is at my brother's house, but the one we recorded Sun on Sun is my buddy's dad's cabin. He had a cabin about two hours south of where we live, and it was free and available. We decided to go down there for a couple of days and kind of hole ourselves up. But Maker, we recorded at Jennings' house in actually a completely different way.
So you've recorded in a house and a cabin. Are you trying to avoid actual studios, or has that just been easiest?
I guess it just depends on the budget. I really wouldn't mind. With us at least, you've got three captains on one ship, so you tend to want to have a little bit more time maybe. It's also about knowing your equipment and knowing what you can get out of it. When you go into a real—well, we have a real studio—but when you go into a professional studio, you're going to pay a lot of money per day. And in my mind, I'm like, "Why don't I just buy the gear because I've been recording for the past 6 or 7 years, so why don't I just take that extra $1200 bucks, $2000 and just buy a sweet piece of gear?"
Back to the song, you reference the cold and some kerosene in a trashcan. Why not just set it on fire?
Yeah, there's some kerosene in there and some rags. I think you're right. I think it's just that, for that song specifically, it was just a portion of images kind of strung together. I wouldn't say a stream of consciousness or anything, but there's no overarching narrative to it. I think that's the most interesting thing about music sometimes is that, especially now, you can sort of pair something up lyrically and musically and at the same time have the lyrics not necessarily be logical or figurative. They can be imagery not in a way that... You listen to Bob Dylan, and it's just imagery, but at the same time it's narrative. It's a very specific thing. I feel like, even now, people are really successful at just getting lyrics to just combine seamlessly with the music.
Which songwriters do that for you?
Oh boy. I would have to say that—that's a good question. It doesn't at all, but it makes me feel like it can go there when you listen to Nick Cave or Will Oldham, or even sometimes Bill Callahan or something like that. Sometimes it's not quite narrative and you're like, "What are you talking about?" But yet at the same time, it kind of just blends in with the music. I think Will Oldham more specifically, at least for me, would be something like that. You know, Nick Cave tends to be extremely narrative, but sometimes he's not. I don't know. It's an interesting idea.
Where does the title come from?
Yeah ... I just don't think it really comes from any place too significant.
Maker, your new record coming out in April, certainly sounds like the same band, but it takes a much different aim structurally than a track like "Shell Skull." What were the band's thoughts heading in to record Maker?
Well, this was a very exciting album for us. We recorded it in kind of a different way. It was real specific, and we had an idea behind what we were going to do. Maker is a very weird album at the same time. I mean weird in the best way possible for me, in the way that it's put together. I don't know. Have you listened to the album? I think it's weird but in the best way. It's kind of unsettling in a way.
Exactly, like that huge pause in the beginning of "Laywayed." It's like Morgan Freeman-plus.
We just put it in there. We thought it was cool. We were doing some mixing, and it just was in there because we had just cut some things out and were playing them and we were like, "Lain, that needs to stay in there" and he was like "Yes, it does." Stuff like that just kind of happens. But with this album specifically, the way that we recorded it, every single one of those songs except for "Aestival" was pretty much recorded and written in the same day, in the same take. But we had this specific idea of what we wanted to do and how we wanted it to sound and how we wanted it to flow. I don't know if you can tell on the album. We have a couple of songs that are four minutes long, then we have "Maker" which is 14, and then we have a couple that are a minute and a half. But that was kind of the idea, to get in between those spaces where music can be and it usually sometimes isn't.
"Headless Conference," for instance, is only 74 seconds. Is that the tune, or is that an edit of a take?
Yeah, that's the tune. I guess that's kind of what I'm talking about. Most people would approach that and say, "What the fuck? It's really short. What are you doing?"
They would want to know how to handle it. "74 minutes of instrumental music? Where's the hook or the drone?"
Yeah, exactly! "How do you handle that track?" Yet, at the same time, that's what music is there for. It's not logical. It doesn't have to do any of those things. It can just be there. That rarely happens in music anymore.
Pontiak plays Nightlight Tuesday, Feb.17, with Durham's Tooth at 10 p.m. Tickets are $5.