ADD Surf Rock? Jazzercise Punk? Joy-Thrash? Baltimore's Ponytail creates music that is hard to define but pure fun to experience. The foursome constructs beautiful, churning waves of melody that simultaneously evoke the technical proficiency and experimental vocals of jazz, and the aggressive and independent spirit of punk.
(Clockwise from top: Jeremy, Molly, Dustin, Ken)
Their new album, Ice Cream Spiritual, sees the band adding to its high-energy approach with new sounds and multiple-movement song structures. The four members passed the phone as I spoke to them while they travelled to New York for a concert. An excerpt of that discussion after the jump.
-Dave, host of WYEP Afterhours: Monday
WYEP: You all met at the Maryland Institute - was music at all part of your education or was it a hobby in addition to what you were studying?
Dustin (guitar): Well the class we took together - we knew that it was going to be a band thing - we were going to get formed into a band. But we didn't know who was going to be in which band. Of course, we love music. We all listen to music and we're all big fans of music.
WYEP: So Ponytail actually came out of a class you signed up for?
WYEP: Wow. What was the syllabus like?
Dustin: The syllabus? I can't really remember it from the top of my head, but it was you form a band and you work on one art project. That's pretty much what the whole class was. Every week the professor would show a film. He showed Gimme Shelter, The Piano Teacher.
[Asking the others] What were some of the...what were some of the -
Unidentified Ponytail Member: -Nashville
Dustin: -Nashville was another one. Just like stuff that really kind of...you get a vibe of what music is about.
WYEP: That sounds like a really interesting experience.
Dustin: Yeah it was really great.
WYEP: How many kids were in the class?
Dustin: There were probably thirty-five kids.
WYEP: Were you randomly assigned or did you play pieces and audition and then the professor put you together?
Dustin: Oh no no, there was no audition. It was just the professor pointing at each...he'd be like 'You're a hot girl, and you're a hot girl...'
Dustin: 'You're a band!'
WYEP: It was a first day, just pairing people up and sending them on their way?
Dustin: Well the first week he didn't form the bands, he Just kind of explained what the class was about and he let us out early. And then the second week - it's really funny actually - we were all sitting in a circle. It was a large classroom and each student was kind of in the circle and the professor was direct in the middle, [turning] 360s and observing the students. And then he would pick people out.
WYEP: So I guess it was in part based on your social interaction and what he saw happening.
Dustin: Yeah. He would kind of feel out each person's vibe and then put them together.
WYEP: That's a really cool idea.
Dustin: I think it's just fun to be in his spot, you know? I'd love to do that.
WYEP: Did you start playing shows right out of that class or was it a long time before you got to that point?
Dustin: No no, we practiced once a week until the end of the semester which was where all the bands would come together. We had a big party - it was called Parapalooza - and all the bands would play the songs they'd written in the course of the semester. It's just a good time, and we were just practicing up to that point and it was really fun. We wanted to continue.
WYEP: What was the initial reaction for Ponytail in Baltimore? Was it intimidating coming through [art crew/performance space] Wham City?
Dustin: I was really nervous when we played our first shows, but there wasn't any sort of pressure, I don't think. Everybody was really supportive and we love being supported.
WYEP: Were there certain bands that were really helpful as far as when you were starting out and playing your first shows?
Dustin: Yeah, yeah. Double Dagger, whose a band from Baltimore invited us to play a show. Dan Deacon has been super helpful. It's great.
WYEP: How was it starting out in Baltimore?
Molly (vocals): Everybody is extremely supportive of each other and really wanted something to happen. And it did.
WYEP: How has your family reacted to Ponytail so far?
Molly: My family's really into it actually. My family is so so supportive. My sister actually is super into it. She made me a scrap book of all our early reviews.
WYEP: That's awesome.
Molly: It's really sweet. Even my grandparents came to our show in Phoenix. My grandpa's ninety now.
Molly: Yeah! [laughs]
WYEP: That's effort.
Molly: Yeah - it's pretty amazing. So I'm really lucky.
WYEP: Your vocals are not usually word sounds, and you have song titles that are sometimes made up of punctuation. Do you think there's a benefit to be a little harder to understand?
Molly: I think we're interested in that - in not being able to fully understand. I don't know if we fully understand, really. [laughs]
WYEP: Do your songs change much show to show because of that?
Molly: The feeling of doing it, from show to show, changes a lot. The songs themselves have been pretty stagnant, staying the same. But of course they change slightly - I guess I improv some every time.
WYEP: Do you consider your music rebellious compared to what else is out there and what you grew up listening to?
Molly; There's an element of rebellion, I think. We're reacting to what we're surrounded by and what we grew up with. We're all a little rebellious. Also, at this point, we just really want to make something we're interested in more than just something different. It's not all rebellion, but it is an element.
WYEP: How aware of you of Pop culture? Is what's happening in the rest of the world ever a direct source of inspiration for song writing?
Molly: Definitely. I think we've been referencing elements of Pop culture since we began. With the Beatles drum line at the beginning of the song - [asking others] which song is it again? It's -
Unidentified Ponytail Member: - "Dear God" [Ponytail song "Dear God Plz Make My 2Eyes N2 One"]
Molly: "Dear God." Beginning of...no no no, beginning of which Beatles song?
Unidentified Ponytail Member: Oh, oh. "The End." [The Abbey Road song]
Molly: Yeah! "The End." The beginning of "The End." That was the beginning of the end! [laughs] I think we're definitely interested in referencing Pop culture. We've always been aware of what we might sound like or what we might be taking from and we're sort of excited about that. You can only go so far with it, but we're excited about that.
WYEP: Ken, you were recently part of a Stereogum feature called Quit Your Day Job. You talked about how you're currently a security guard at the Maryland Institute. Have there been moments where you had to commit to the band, where you realized 'This is definitely what I want to do, I'm going to turn down this other job' or 'I'm going to turn down this grad school opportunity'?
Ken (guitar): This week I worked my last shift, I think, as a security guard for that job because we're going to be away for so long.
Ken: Oh thanks. It's the easiest Job. Ever. It was great for - it was easy to pick up shifts and stuff but it just didn't pay very well. It was good to have that kind of Job, but I don't know if I want to do it during the school year. As far as turning down opportunities, I think you fantasize about stuff - going places and doing things. But the reality of the situation is that we've gotten so many opportunities by doing the band that it's been more like seizing opportunities than missing out on opportunities. Getting to travel and meet lots of people and play great shows - just being humbled by opportunities like recording. People listening to our records is an awesome opportunity in itself.
WYEP: You guys definitely do play great shows. It's a really interactive show - I don't think I've seen too many shows where the audience moves as much, if not more, than the band. Are there things that you guys try to create live that make that kind of connection?
Ken: The air around a show is always different, and it's unpredictable, but there's always an opportunity for it to get really fun. When it's fun, we feel like we're channeling something, to be honest. I don't know how that sounds, but when I'm playing I just close my eyes and stick my tongue out and play. [laughs] It seems like in some places, kids have definitely been bringing the mosh and kicking up some dust. It's cool. I feel like it comes with the territory of what we play and we're excited so it's a compliment when the audience is excited to.
WYEP: It's really rare to have songs that are as high energy and as complex as your songs are, so I don't know if people even know how to react to that.
Ken: [laughs] Thanks! We stayed at a house last night. Our friend, his dad [owner of the house], is an audiophile and has a really good sound system. We were like 'Let's listen to one of our songs on it' and we listened to it and afterwards I was like 'That was intense!' So I know how you feel.
WYEP: When you recorded Ice Cream Spiritual, was there a lot of overdubbing or was it mostly live, all four in a room?
Ken: Mostly live. There were overdubs; they were mainly to add flavors in with panning. There's a few things we probably could have done live, but we wanted to make some spaces and panning and stuff. I don't know if I want to say almost all of it, but every song was recorded live and there were overdubs added on. We met with J. [Robbins, producer] before we recorded and talked a lot, setting up the room in a way that we could really do it live. I think it sounds pretty live.
WYEP: It definitely does. Speaking of J., how were you approached to do the Callum benefit?
Ken: We got an email about it recently. It was unanimous that we wanted to do it. We love J. and working with him was incredible. It was the least we could do.
WYEP: It's been really cool to see people react in such a direct way. Even people who aren't associated with the concerts, who aren't playing on the bills are still linking to the website and still saying 'This is really important, this kid deserves a chance and if you can do anything, try to help out.'
Ken: After meeting J...he's Just one of the humblest and hardest working people I've ever met. I think just the person that he is - we all owe J. Robbins. If you ever met him, he's a great guy.
WYEP: What do you think makes a live show good? When do you know it's been a good concert?
Jeremy (drums): I love it when the crowd is having a really good time - it definitely reflects and bounces back to us. But usually, we can kind of create our own space on stage, or if we're on the floor, on the floor. If the connection is good between us, it's usually a good show for me.
WYEP: Between the four of you?
Jeremy: Yeah, between the four of us. I always feel really good, even if there's three people a show and they don't like us - which luckily hasn't happened - if we all feel good about the way we played.
WYEP: When do you know when a song is done, as far as song writing goes?
Jeremy: Usually what happens is it takes a while just in practice to flesh out all the ideas and get a basic structure together. And then, once it feels pretty good, we'll kind of play it, try it out live. That's usually a really good indicator if it's working. Actually last night, we tried out something during sound-check that Just felt wayyy off, but felt really good when we were writing it.
WYEP: This is probably my last question, and definitely my most important. You guys have had really great spots as far as an opening band for Hella, and Battles, and Don Caballero and High Places. Would you rather open for GWAR or Fleetwood Mac?
Jeremy: GWAR or Fleetwood Mac? Oh Fleetwood Mac, for sure!
WYEP: What do the other three think?
Jeremy: [Poses the question to the other three] Fleetwood Mac. Unanimous.
WYEP: Completely unanimous?
Jeremy: Yeah. We're huge Fleetwood Mac fans.