You will find few brothers who work together better than Jennings, Van and Lain Carney. You'll also find few bands that work as hard as Pontiak, the lead-heavy Virginia psych rock trio comprised of these siblings. In just five years of existence they've managed five full-lengths and an EP. The pace would suggest a workman-like approach, finding a groove and holding steadfastly to it. Such is not the case with Pontiak. Their output is striking diverse, continually finding new avenues to explore while retaining a core of muscular, Southern-tinged hooks. Where 2010's Living found then indulging in densely metallic sludge, the 2011 EP Comecrudos found them meandering into dark avant-garde detours. The recently released Echo Ono is yet another evolution, a resplendently catchy rock record painted with a restless, psychedelic brush.
The Independent caught up with bassist Jennings Carney before Pontiak's Wednesday show at Raleigh's Kings Barcade to discuss the new album as well as the trio's relentlessly shape-shifting approach.
Independent Weekly: I've read that Echo One was an attempt to make a more impressionistic record — a color project painted through music. Can you explain what you guys were trying to do with that?
Jennings Carney: Specifically Van, the guitar player, sees color in music. I don’t. I contextualize music in a completely different way, which is almost impossible for me to define. It’s almost like shapes. Van (guitar) — and Lain (drums) to a different degree — see music through color. When we started talking about what kind of album we wanted to write, Van said he wanted to make an album that represented or kind of helped to showcase the color that he sees when he plays. We kind of took that a step further.
We like to use specific kinds of media when we record, and we like to use our equipment in a certain way. For instance, not because I am a purist, but the way my bass sounds on this album — I didn’t use any pedals, nor did Van, so any distortion that you hear is a direct result of just using the amp itself. If you think of that in the terms of a painting, you know, an oil painting will have different characteristics than an acrylic or even — if you want to get commercial — like a latex. They all have different textures, and they kind of represent themselves in different ways that are very distinct. Some bands go out there — which is totally cool — and they record on the Pro Tools and it’s all digital and they use amplifiers with a lot of effects. And it will sound a very specific way. Not that we don’t like the way that that sounds, but we wanted to do it in our own very specific way.
So we said, ‘Here are the kinds of media we really like: We like tape. We really like analog. We have our analog board. We have our tube amps. Let’s use those and do it in a way that kind of helps to project this kind of overall image that we want to paint.’ But instead of using paint, it’s using music.
In not using pedals or effects on this record, was it more of a challenge, or were you looking to take the sound in some way out of your hands?
I think of it differently. What do you like to do? Generally, like cooking? Skiing? Hiking?
I like water skiing.
I’ve never done it before. I’ve been a life-long (snow) skier, but I can imagine if you got a new pair of skis that are a specific kind of skis. And you really connect with those skis, and all of a sudden you find that you can do a bunch of things. Or you can perform in a specific way that you hadn’t thought about before.
When we started out to make this album, I didn’t say, ‘I’m going to use just this amp and no pedals.’ Van had been looking through Craigslist and he found this Fender Bassman 100 head in West Virginia, and the guy was selling it with the original cab, like the whole thing for this incredible deal. So Van said, ‘Well, shit, I’m going to get this amp.' He went, and he bought it and brought it back. And we were playing it with the guitar, and it sounded cool. One day I was like, let me try this instead, and so we plugged it up and it sounded amazing. Those old Fender amps are all gain-figured, so your treble, your mid, your bass, your master volume are all volume boosts; they’re all gains. So if you turn them all up to 10 you get this really amazing distortion. So we said, ‘Well, why would I need a distortion pedal if I can just use this amp, and it sounds way better than this extensive but cheesy pedal.' And it opens up all these worlds. I can kind of change my tone just depending on how hard or how soft I hit the string and also I can use my volume on my bass itself. Then we also used different recording techniques to bring out different qualities of the sound. It was more that it just opened up a ton of possibilities than us just saying, ‘We’re just going to do it this way.’
There’s a lot of differences between your records. How much of that has to do with that kind of organic approach?
For this album, we were very specific about what we were doing. Not that we’re never not specific, but in a different way. There is an arch to all of our albums and to the greater creative process. I would say that starting with Sun on Son and on through Comecrudos, which was our EP that we released just before Echo Ono, those were all done with the idea of, ‘Let’s catch the immediacy of going into the studio with very little rehearsal time on the final product.’ Instead, we took a bunch of ideas and played around with them for a while, and then said, ‘Let’s record that.’ So you get this really intense, immediate, dynamic kind of ‘We don’t really know what’s going to happen, but we’re trusting in the process’ kind of thing. We worked through that until we got to a point where we felt that we were really able to grasp that mentally and physically in the studio with each other and then out on the stage. By the time it got on the stage, these things were formed in and of themselves. It became specific parts.
For Echo Ono, what we did is we wrote the songs out. There’s still room in the songs. Like, ‘OK, in this section, Van, you can go off,’ or, ‘In this section, Lain, you can throw in a drum fill,’ or something like that. Echo Ono was a very specific thing.
Why did you guys opt for that more structured approach?
We had been working on a certain approach to working on and recording an album. Once we kind of had internalized that approach, we decided that we were ready to start a new approach. Not that it’s really that new, but it’s still something that kind of is more a refined process. The ultimate goal — and I can’t speak for all musicians — but at least for us the ultimate goal is that there is this kind of dynamic interaction between the three of us when we’re playing. If we can capture that and at the same time capture something that’s relatable to other people, then I think that’s kind of where we want to go.
Pontiak plays Kings on Wednesday with Left Outlet. The show costs $8 and starts at 9:30 p.m.
It's impossible to listen to The Storm (streaming here), the tight, well-produced psych-rock debut from Raleigh-based recording project Cocoon, without thinking of another band — one that no longer exists. Josh Pope, the man behind the Cocoon moniker, was once the frontman of The Light Pines, a band that rode a similar sound to the brink of national recognition before breaking up last summer.
The comparison is obvious: One, this record sounds an awful lot like The Light Pines. Two, Pope initially posted the EP to Bandcamp as the Pines before switching the name to Cocoon. The Independent caught up with Pope to ask him about his new project, the name change and his plans for the future.
Independent Weekly: Tell me about how Cocoon came about. When did you start working on these new songs?
Josh Pope: After The Light Pines broke up in July of last year, I took the rest of the year off from writing music. I got the urge to start writing again about a month and a half ago, and these songs are what I've done thus far.
You first posted the EP under the Light Pines moniker. Why did you change it?
When I initially posted the songs it hadn't even occurred to me to change the band name. Once they were posted there were some objections from former members of the band about me releasing new music as "The Light Pines." I was never that attached to the name, so I pulled the songs off Bandcamp, came up with another name and re-posted the songs.
Did you record these songs on your own? Tell me about the process.
Yes. These songs are me sitting in my house writing and recording. My songwriting process is best described as prompt-based. Just like a creative writer who may use a prompt as a starting point for a story, I'll take a drumbeat, a melody, a bass line, a lyric, a guitar hook, anything that has caught my imagination, and start writing from there.
The EP is layered much in the same way that the Light Pines' stuff was, but it's much more rhythmic, the appeal of each element coming more from the groove than the texture. Were you going for a more rhythmic sound here?
No. In fact, I was self-conscious about these new songs lacking a rhythmic feel! There was a definite plan with The Light Pines to make the music rhythm based. I think my lack of experience at the time with engineering and recording music ultimately obscured that rhythmic agenda. There was a tendency to compensate for poor sonic fidelity by just adding more and more shit on to the track and with all that information and texture, the rhythm and groove were often lost. These new songs have a lot more space in terms of arrangement — there is still some layering — but for the most part, the tracks are less dense. I think this allows for the rhythm to come across clearer. I'm a bass player. I'm always going for a rhythmic sound.
Your narratives on these songs are a bit more concrete than the ones you released with The Light Pines. Where is that coming from?
When I first started writing music, everything I wrote was love songs—very "heart on my sleeve," literal lyrics. I wrote this way until The Light Pines. The Light Pines was a deliberate attempt at abstraction, to get away from writing about my personal emotions and experiences. Lyrically, Cocoon seems to be falling somewhere in between the two.
You've said online that you have more music on the way. When and what should we expect?
I'm writing a lot and feel very inspired at the moment. As I finish new songs, I will post them on Bandcamp. I don't really have a goal or timeline for future releases, but I would say 3–4 songs a month seems like a reasonable projection.
Do you plan to turn Cocoon into a full band, or will it remain a recording project?
To be determined.
“I’m moving to America,” Kathleen Edwards sings over and over in the chorus of “Empty Threat,” the lead track of her new album, Voyageur. Thing is, it wasn’t an empty threat: The Canadian singer-songwriter recently relocated to Wisconsin, leaving behind a marriage to a former bandmate and finding a new beginning both musically and personally with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
It’s an auspicious new direction. Voyageur, her fourth album, is brimming with exploration and confidence, perhaps the full bloom of an artist who first surfaced a decade ago with a self-released recording that became the little album that could (2002’s Failer). While Edwards was recognized primarily in Americana circles with her debut, she’s always had a steadfast indie streak, and so Voyageur—co-produced by Edwards and Vernon—sounds less like a departure than an arrival long in her sights.
“Some people have been saying, like, ‘This is a big departure for you,’” Edwards acknowledges, “‘but, well, no, not really. It still sounds like me. Although there are things I set out to achieve in making this record—a different style of production, a different approach to some songs—it still sounds like me, in the end.”
The record was indeed made in an entirely different manner than her last one, 2008’s Asking for Flowers. That was recorded in Los Angeles with ace producer Jim Scott and a first-rate cast of studio musicians; Voyageur was more homegrown. “This was the first time I’d done a significant amount of work in a home studio—Justin’s studio [in Fall Creek, Wis.]—which allowed for a certain amount of trial and error, without having to be careful that you didn’t waste time that you wouldn’t get back,” she says.
Working outside of the pro studio environment presented another opportunity for Edwards to push herself to be more involved in the process of actually making the record.
“It’s really hard when you show up in the studio and you’ve got Jim Scott, the best engineer, and [studio aces] Bob Glaub and Don Heffington and Greg Leisz,” she says. “You can’t help but just barely participate, because those guys are just so incredible. It was an amazing experience … but in retrospect, it didn’t push me to step out of my comfort zone in trying things.”
On Voyageur, though, Edwards is credited with playing 11 different instruments, more than twice as many as she’d handled on any previous record. Many were variations of keyboards—piano, organ, Wurlitzer, B3, Rhodes—and if her new record stands apart in some respects from her earlier work, it’s probably this shift away from guitar twang toward keyboard atmospherics. Part of the credit for that goes to Durham musician Phil Cook (of Megafaun and Vernon’s former bandmate in DeYarmond Edison), who contributed various piano and organ parts to seven of the album’s 10 songs.
“Phil played a huge role in the early stages of the record,” Edwards explains. “He came back to Eau Claire to work on it at Justin’s recommendation, and some of the things he did transformed the early direction of the record.”
The bedrock foundation of Edwards’ touring band—guitarist Gord Tough, bassist John Dinsmore, drummer Lyle Molzan and especially multi-instrumentalist Jim Bryson, whose ties with Edwards go back to before she even made her first record—complemented the newcomers. Bryson and Edwards co-wrote “Sidecar,” which is one of Voyageur’s standout tracks, even as its more straightforward rock ’n’ roll delivery contrasts with the broader sonic palette on most of the record.
If Vernon and Bryson bring different elements to the mix, Edwards says she’s often struck by their common ground. “There have been moments when Justin got credit for things Jim did, and vice versa,” she says. “It’s funny, because I really think they have a similar aesthetic and a similar ear. They’re the two people in my life the most willing to try things; they’re always thinking about new approaches and new treatments, and just throwing stuff up against the wall. And that’s so important.”
Kathleen Edwards performs Tuesday, Jan. 31, at Cat’s Cradle, with opening act Hannah Georgas. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $20 in advance—$23 day of show. Visit www.catscradle.com.
American Aquarium has a lot in store for their fans this year. One is a live CD recorded at The Pour House, which will be available February 11. We caught up with the band’s Bill Corbin in Muscle Shoals as he was recording their new album, which will be out later this year. And yeah, it’s being produced by some guy named Jason Isbell.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: What lead to the decision of doing a live album at this point in the band's history?
BILL CORBIN: We've always wanted to do a live record and people always ask us to put one out, but the timing was just never quite right. Finally, the stars kind of aligned for it. We've been playing really great and are tighter than we have ever been thanks to a lighter touring schedule that actually allows us time to rehearse.
Combine that with the fact that we haven't released anything in almost two years, and a live record seemed like a no-brainer. We play some of the songs a lot differently live and recently had worked out a new arrangement for an old song, “Anne Marie.” We wanted to capture these with the energy and intensity of our live show. Overall, I think AA fans will really dig it.
Early yesterday afternoon, I reached out to Raleigh singer-songwriter and former Six String Drag leader Kenny Roby with a few questions about his Kickstarter campaign, which he'd launched just a few hours before. I'm a proponent of artists funding projects through Kickstarter, but still, I sometimes get flustered by artists who ask for and promise the moon in exchange for a little financial boost. Roby's campaign was especially intriguing, then, as he was asking for a mere $2,000 and offering actually interesting content (like the download of an unheard song) for as little as $2. His most expensive offering, at $500, included a house concert. Going with Kickstarter and staying humble often don't go hand in hand, but Roby managed it.
The strategy worked, too: In less than 24 hours, fans had funded the recording of Roby's next album in full. With more than 13 days left on the clock, Roby and his new band are already $127 past their goal. And that's a good thing: The one finished track I've heard is a keeper, pairing Roby's familiar sense for strong images and his comfortably polished country tone with the more impressionistic side of current indie rock acts. Think The National, but more delicate. Below, Roby talks about his Kickstarter strategy and the shift required for a songwriter once funded by big labels to ask his fans for help.
Raleigh’s Jack the Radio mixes modern Southern rock with light electronica, incorporating just enough a bit of grit into otherwise polished pop tunes. Last Tuesday, the band both released its debut LP, Pretty Money, and played a 10-band benefit show for local tornado victims. We caught up with George Hage and A.C. Hill, who share vocal and songwriting duties for the project, to ask about the busy week.
Independent Weekly: What did you have planned for the release day before the tornado benefit came up? Had you planned a release show and did this benefit on release day change the feel of Pretty Money's launch?
A.C. Hill: The day before, we had planned a small listening party at Slim’s, just a get together to give the CD a few spins. The tornado benefit didn't really change the feel of the launch for me, and if anything, I felt even more excited to play for such a great cause on the day our record came out.
George Hage: I totally agree. Since this is our first full-band, full-length release, we wanted to do something low-key where we were able to sit back and enjoy the work we put in over the last year. We did a last-minute, short acoustic set and made the entire event free. It gave us a chance to talk to folks about the record. We were all really stoked to be part of the tornado benefit, and I don't think any of us thought twice about it being same day as our release.
What stood out the most about the Tir na nOg benefit?
AH: It was a great musical lineup to be put together in such a short time; to be a part of that was great. I also was just happy to see that many people out on a Tuesday evening, supporting all the victims.
GH: Yeah, I was really impressed with how fast people in the community came together to help out! Mark Connor contacted several bands three days before the show, and he ended putting together a great line-up with 24 hours. It was great to see local brewers, businesses and artists coming together, hopefully showing how strong a community we are part of.
Were any of you personally impacted by the tornado?
AH: We were not directly hit. I know Brent’s neighborhood [drummer Brent Francese] was hit pretty hard, I believe they lost power for a few days. We were all extremely lucky.
How did the band get from the initial electronic incarnation to the Southern rock style it has today? I heard some of your first recordings, and the record almost sounds like it's by a different band.
AH: The evolution really came about by simply adding other members. When George and I started, it was just the two of us, acoustic guitars and a laptop computer to help out with some drum sounds. So, obviously, we were a little limited. Adding Brent and Danny [Johnson on keys, lap steel] really opened that up. To me, the writing style is still there, but it just has more space to move ... and “dance.”
You guys had some songs on the TV show No Reservations recently. How did that come about?
GH: We were very excited, to say the least. We are big fans of the show and couldn't be happier with how the songs were placed. We set up our own publishing company last year [Pretty Money Publishing], and we were lucky enough to set up licensing with Reverbnation Music and APM Music. APM houses a library of over 300,000 songs and caters to film and television.
Jack the Radio’s debut, Pretty Money, is available digitally on iTunes, at http://jacktheradio.bandcamp.com, and in limited quantities as a physical disc. The quartet’s next show is Friday, May 6, at Southland Ballroom.
Concha Buika ravishes with her singing voice, but even in spoken conversation, the sweetly rasping flamenco singer provokes goosebumps, pouring out her ideas in poetic cadences. Her artististic principles are at one with her outlook on life: an open bisexual, a child of African immigrants, a one-time Tina Turner impersonater, an aspiring electronica programmer—nothing's a contradiction for the ever-evolving Buika.
In this interview, Buika reveals what "your mother" and Chucho Valdes have in common, and dishes how she got kicked out of Chavela Vargas' dressing room and danced with Antonio Banderas. The Indy spoke with her by phone back in September, before she embarked on a North American tour behind El Ultimo Trago (2009). She performs at N.C. State University's Stewart Theatre Tuesday, Nov. 16, at 8 p.m.
Independent Weekly: How would you prefer that I call you, Concha or Buika?
Buika: Well, my name in your mouth is yours. Both are my name.
You've lived your life outside of convention in many ways. How has that affected your expression as an artist?
I don't know how I do what I do. I can't explain it. I do what I do because I am what I am. I just close my eyes and I sing what I hear inside.
I'm very interested in this Latin scene that's going on in Madrid right now; your producer has worked with El Cigala and Bebo Valdes, and now you did this album with Chucho Valdes. How much is it a "scene," that is, a new remix of these elements of Africa, Afro-Cuba and Spain?
Well, I think all the world is united for the same thing: the arts. I think that arts are a unique religion that we have, because it's the only one that unites the world. The rest of the religions, they separate the people. Every time I find myself in front of another musician, or a painter, or a writer, or a photographer, I think that I'm in front of someone who is trying to do the same mission that I do. That's to reunite the world again. I think that we are living separate [because of] ideas that are from other people. And I think that our idea is to be together.
We spoke with Shearwater and Wye Oak, who play together tonight at Local 506. Hospital Ships open the 8:45 p.m. show. Tickets are $10–$12.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You’re six records deep, and you’ve been playing as Shearwater since 2001. How do you keep it fresh? What was the strategy on The Golden Archipelago?
I don't think making art ever gets stale unless you let it. Over the course of the records, you can hear us finding our feet, figuring out what we're about. Palo Santo definitely felt like a leap forward—and these days, it's about as far back as we go in the live show. A lot of bands might have changed their name at that point, if only to avoid questions like this, but I think there's something a little sad about changing your name to appeal to the media's lust for the just-minted, the fresh face, the writer or musician who seems to have appeared fully-formed. If you scratch the surface, that's almost never the case—and none of my favorite artists knew what they were doing right out of the gate.
As for TGA, we wanted to make a really ornate album with a wide range of textures and colors, musically and emotionally—that worked on the scale of some of the big, dark, grand art-rock albums from the early ’80s that we loved, like Pink Floyd's The Final Cut or Peter Gabriel's third record. I was a kid when those records came out, but they were what I listened to most often in high school while Nevermind was conquering the world. Making a record like this—at a fraction of those albums' budgets—took several months and a lot of help. Very different from our first record, which we made in two and a half days a million years ago.
How is the new album translating live?
Really well. I never think about how we're going to play something when we're recording it. I just trust that we'll be able to make it work somehow, even if a song's got a ridiculously elaborate arrangement, as several on TGA do. I find that a lot of times, when you're playing live, you can let more wild, elemental textures creep in to substitute for more refined ones on the recordings—the weirder the better (i.e. distorted bass, some severely distressed samples, and Wurlitzer in place of strings, winds, and real piano). To me, it's not fidelity to the recording that matters so much as fidelity to the emotional content of the songs—and on that count, I think we're at the top of our game right now.
You’ve answered a thousand times about how being a birder has influenced your music, but how has your music influenced the way you look at the world? And are Rook (with the many bird references) and The Golden Archipelago (with it’s sort of lyrical tension about man and nature) products of that?
Thank you for not putting me through that one again! I guess I'd say that over time I've become more and more interested in the special ability of music to convey and evoke conflicting emotional states at the same time. The recording of the Bikini Islanders singing their national anthem that opens TGA was a really powerful example of that, for me. When you read the lyrics, it's a song of exile and despair, but the performance is full of a wild energy, even joy. When I heard it, I knew I wanted the album to explore that emotional state as much I as wanted it to be about the islanders and what happened to them.
What do you want this band to be when it grows up?
I'm not sure. What do you want to be when you grow up? How will you know when you've reached it? I don't mean to go all "the-journey-is-the-destination" on you, but the thrill of discovery is what keeps you going as an artist. I hope we never really settle down or get too comfortable. I've already got a title for the next record, and when I'm daydreaming with my nose pressed against the window of the van on this tour, that's what I'll be thinking about.
For our talk with Wye Oak, hit the jump.
It’s not a stretch to describe Bill Kirchen as one of the music world’s Zeligs. There he is back in his Ann Arbor, Mich., childhood in a school picture with Bob Seger and James “Iggy Pop” Osterberg, Jr. That’s him, Fender Telecaster in hand, in the team photos for Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen and for proto-new wavers (found in that big tent’s roots-revival corner) the Missing Moonlighters. Shots of Doug Sahm, Emmylou Harris, and Elvis Costello in a studio or on a stage would reveal Kirchen, guitar still smoking, nearby. Spot him backing Nick Lowe as an Impossible Bird, and then spot Lowe backing Kirchen on the latter’s 2007-released Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods, a genre-hopping gem. You can even catch his name in a George Pelecanos book.
Of course, the difference between Zelig and Kirchen is that Woody Allen’s fictitious chameleon was a passive bystander. Kirchen, while as unassuming as they come, is always right in the middle of the action. And with a new record due in May and a busy touring schedule, he clearly intends to stay there for as long as possible.
A standard Q&A phone call quickly turned into a roaming conversation between two music geeks—one just happened to be the King of Dieselbilly, a gent once described by Lowe as “a devastating culmination of the elegant and funky,” and one of the best guitarists in the land (the other decidedly none of those things). Below are just a few of the things Kirchen had to say.
There’s a treacherous drive—alternating clay and gravel, and passing over a shallow creek—that turns off of a certain Chapel Hill road and leads into the trees. After several hundred yards, the red clay driveway opens, revealing a little house that’s more of a hermitage.
It’s the warmest it’s been in several weeks today, and I’m sitting in the sun with Adam Brinson and Joe Taylor—together, Blag’ard. They’ve recently finished their second album, Mach II. It’s a solid unit, a catchy if menacing rock record that squeals off the lot like a muscle car and handles like Luke Skywalker’s X-wing.
Being at Joe’s house is like looking through a window into his mind: There’s a kind of sacred disarray here that contrasts the piercing clarity of his thought process. It’s organized, sure, but it’s organized the same way a forest floor is organized. His black Gibson, the guitar from his Capsize 7 days, leans against a wall like a fallen branch. Fliers on the walls tell tales of shows and bands long gone. Looking out the windows of the little room where this loud, loud band practices, I again see the trees and a gentle slope that falls toward the creek. This could be anywhere. Joe’s pretty intense, and Adam’s one of those gleeful dudes who makes himself laugh on a regular basis.
They have agreed to take a verbal Rorschach test, of sorts.