Few bands play with the thoughtful intensity of Pontiak. Built around the three Carney brothers, Jennings (bass), Lain (drums), and Van (guitar) from rural Virginia, Pontiak’s music is hard to pin down. It is glides effortlessly from a sludgey stoner-rock feel to a swirling psychedelic rumble. Their music is loud, complex, unsettling, and utterly intriguing. Quite simply it is the perfect music for a serious bout of headphone exploration. But beneath all of that are gorgeously crafted songs that can exist just as easily in a wall of noise as they can in a simple acoustic strum.
First formed in 2004, Ponitak have released six full-length albums and three EPs. Satisfying the wanderlust spirit of the three brothers who originally got their start in Baltimore, MD before moving back to their home in rural Virginia, each of their albums has been an adventurous approach to recording with the band always looking to shake up their artistic process to see what happens. Their latest album, INNOCENCE continues this trend. Focusing, as guitarist and lead singer Van says, on the melodies and vocal lines of each song as opposed to the noise, textures, and ambient stuff, Pontiak have crafted their most accessible album yet, but one that stays true to murky, sludgy, soul-baring sound that is their music.
While navigating the mud-covered roads on the farm where they live, Van checked in with Honest Tune to talk about INNOCENCE.
Honest Tune: The new album is due out January 28, what’s the feeling among you guys in anticipation of the release?
Van Carney: We are definitely excited. It has been quite a process and a long time coming. I think we spent more time working on this album than any other record we have done. I think it is just more excitement to have it out and be able to sell it at shows.
HT: Was it a plan to spend more time working on this one or is that just how things happened?
VC: It was definitely a plan. We worked on this album very differently. We have had many different set-ups for our studio. This time we moved the studio out of the house where it used to be into a barn. We built that first and that took us like four or five months. We planned on once we got in there on taking a whole new approach to writing the record. We wrote it using melodies and vocal lines for the tracks and then writing music on top of it. So it was something we wanted to give ourselves enough time with so we could have some reflection and meditate on it.
HT: Was there a reason for that change in process? Was it just time to shake things up?
VC: It was definitely that. It was just part of the artistic process. It is just listening to your gut and figuring out how are we going to navigate this and looking at the stars and going for it. It was a case of if it feels right let’s do it this way.
The funny thing is that my brothers and I were just having a meeting and we were talking about the next record already which we have been talking about for a while already, and won’t come out for years – but it is one of those things we are constantly working on. If I am not working on it I go nuts. It’s just something I am constantly doing.
HT: Did you enjoy this process more, less, or indifferent?
VC: It was definitely different. It was a great process. It was hard work. It was working through some scar tissue artistically. Working with other people is a skill and talent. Being able to collaborate and listen and go in a new direction when no one really knows where you are going is tough. But you feel like let’s try this and see where it goes. It’s like the old adage about too many cooks spoil the pot, but the thing is with us we always have three cooks all the time. For us it is like, Ok, I am going to put on the salt, everyone come over here and taste it. How does it taste? So for us it’s a lot of by committee.
HT: I always think the dynamic of brothers in a band can make things very interesting. How does the dynamic of you guys being brothers impact your writing process?
VC: It’s a lot easier to fire someone you are not related to. At the same time it is always probably easier to work with someone you are not related to. I think what it has given us is the ability to not be able to run away from things and to have to work through issues. But it can be really intense. A lot of bands go through line-up changes and figure out what will work and what won’t. But with us that is not a possibility, so we have to work on things. If you are stuck on something, you really have to work through that artistic difference in a way that is like, I trust you, you trust me, and we both want the fucking world for our band. We are both going for the same thing. So we just have to recognize that. Once you can do that it’s pretty intense. I think siblings can also go the other way where they want to kill each other or never speak to each again.
HT: That seems to be the way lots of brothers in bands go, The Davies in The Kinks, The Gallaghers in Oasis, The Robinsons in the Black Crowes. I am sure Christmas must be a nightmare at their houses.
VC: [laughs] Yeah exactly. To me that seems super depressing.
HT: How do you feel about this new process? Is it a continuation of what you have done before? Is it a natural evolution for you guys as a band?
VC: It was a really cool process. For all the previous albums, everything before [2012’s] Echo Ono, everything up to [2010’s] Living we had written in a really specific way.Â We had written and recorded it in a first take. We would go in with an idea and basically know where we are going to go. It is not improve, but the whole point was to capture the spontaneity and immediacy of the artistic creation. You are just looking at each other and playing, and you are not fucking around, you’re not noodling, you’re not wanking, you are just literally on the edge of can we keep this together. All the albums up to Living were like that. It was just so much fun. It was something you were hanging on to that at any point could go widely out of control. When we got to Living we thought we wanted to try something different after this.
I write a lot of songs by myself, which are more song orientated. With Echo Ono we thought we would do it a little differently and focus on the song structure more and be a little more conventional and not just go for noise, textures, and ambient stuff. With this album we said let’s just take that idea even further, let’s just keep on going. On this album there were three songs I wrote, “Wildfires,” “Noble Head,” and the “Darkness is Coming” in my living room, months before and I brought them into the studio and we arranged them and used them. We approached the other songs like that. We said let’s cut out all the bullshit that is kind of cool, but is stuff that might be minimally engaging to someone not fully committed. We wanted to know how can we do what we do with an audience and make it better. We figured out what we think we do pretty well and we just minimized it to that. We have this thing we do where we practice our songs acappella when we are in the van on tour. We have problems with our stage sound sometimes because we are so loud and our vocals get lost. That’s our fault because we are just playing to loud. But when you practice these loud songs we have acappella everything becomes transparent. And then you play them on an electric guitar not plugged in and Lain is just playing a little bit of snare and Jennings has his bass just barely turned up and you do your whole set like that when practicing it is kind of incredible. You can see where everything is and what the song is really doing. So that is how we wrote this album. We stripped it down and saw what we were really doing.
HT: Do we dare say we might see an acoustic tour?
VC: [laughs] An acoustic tour! We actually have talked about that. We have a lot of acoustic songs and we are just waiting for the right opportunity to put an acoustic set together. I love playing the acoustic guitar. That is how I started. I didn’t even own an electric guitar until I was like twenty.
HT: With your past on the acoustic guitar, any influences or bands you really like that may shock people given the kind of music you make?
VC: Good question. Nothing shocking, really standard stuff. My dad was really into Leo Kotke’s first album. I grew up listening to that. I am into all kinds of old country music, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Hank and all those kind of people. I can’t get away from Chuck Berry. You have Elvis, but everything that came after that was informed by Chuck Berry.
HT: The album is coming out the end of this month what are your plans?
VC: We are basically going to be on tour the end of January through the end of June. We will be at SXSW and a few other festivals after that. Then we head over to Europe. It is always a pleasure for us. Touring is definitely work but it is the easiest part of it. Once you have your shit together and you have rehearsed and you have it down, you just go out and have fun. And that’s the thing we try and stay focused on is just having a good time.