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Interview
Ponytail

Ponytail

date
Monday 9th August, 2010 1:21PM

Ponytail are part of the much-hyped Baltimore music scene (along with the likes of Animal Collective, Dan Deacon, Beach House and many others). Ponytail’s Krautrock inflected punk – evidenced in their incendiary live shows and two acclaimed albums (2006’s Kamehameha and 2008’s Ice Cream Spiritual) - while earning them comparisons with the likes of Deerhoof, is a unique and propulsive sound . Singer Molly Siegel’s unusual vocal antics is the band’s major talking point (she doesn’t sing lyrics, instead, she uses her voice as a rhythmic instrument), but the band’s furious energy has led them to be declared Baltimore’s “best live band”. I talk to guitarist Dustin Wong about being formed by accident, the influence of huayño music, and fitting in solo work.

How did you get into music in the first place?

I think I started listening to music when I was about twelve, going through my Dad’s collections and while he had some ‘60s and ‘70s music, he had some unusual taste. He was into Hendrix and Clapton and stuff, but he was also into Iron Butterfly and that kind of stuff, Miles Davis. That sparked my interest. He also made music on his own. He never really played anything but on a four track player and a drum machine. He made kinda Bowie, Depeche Mode music. That was the beginning, then it was researching on my own and discovering punk rock.

You guys started by accident?

We formed in a class. The teacher divided up people in the class into groups, into bands and he’d pick people - like ‘these girls are beautiful together, you’re in a band’. We were some of the last people put together.

Are you guys the only people left in your class who are still making music together?

Yes we are. There was one guy I was in a band with, Matt. He was in the class too. He was in a different band, and he’s currently making music in Ecstatic Sunshine [a band in which Wong was a founding member], which is really brilliant stuff.

There’s a lot of talk about Baltimore being this exciting musical place – is that just some artificial construct, or is there something really going on there which helped you guys?

I think there is a lot going on. There was a group of people who made music before our community started. It’s not like there’s one community, there is a lot of overlapping. There was a pretty strong free improvisation, jazz and noise happening before Dan Deacon came along. Dan Deacon brought down all his posse from his college days. That really got people excited to start bands. And it got to a point where these bands started touring, and there are a lot of people moving to Baltimore. There’s an unusual amount of solo acts, veering towards ambient and Krautrock influenced, electronic influenced music - really cool things are happening now.

Does it get annoying being lumped into the scene?

I think it’s inevitable, when someone’s distant from something that’s happening. It’s easy to generalise. It’s not really frustrating, it’s the fact which happened.

Molly Siegel’s vocals get a lot of attention. Was it an intended m.o. for her to sing in this way, or did it just happen?

When we first started as a band to write music, she wasn’t singing. She had a toy xylophone which she was playing. It was fine and everything. My roommate told me that maybe she should be the singer, and I was ‘that’s a good idea’. Molly and I talked about it, and she was thinking about that as well. We got together one day and conceptualising ‘how do you want to sing?’ It was a silly place to start – it’s more like ‘how do you sing?’ I went through my music collection and we were listening to this Peruvian music from the ‘60s called huayño. It’s folk music with a pop element. The vocalist had this striking way of projecting their voice, and the emotion they convey, it’s not happiness or anger. It was more about projecting energy. That seemed like a really good place to start. During practice, she was a lot crazier in the beginning – a lot of screaming. I think she’s refined it a lot since.

It acts like its own rhythmic instrument…

Yeah, definitely its own instrument.

How much of the progressions are mapped out, or is there much room for improvisation?

I feel like the way we write music is improvisation. We start improvising, and when things start working, that’s when the framework begins. With Molly, it takes a long time to figure out what to do. Not as much as it used to, it’s much quicker now. When we were writing Ice Cream Spiritual, we wrote most of the songs and we went on tour. The second weekend, Molly was like ‘I got it, I know what to do now’. I think it’s a good thing to give her that freedom to figure it out, even when supposedly the song is done.

How much room do you and Ken Seeno have as guitarists?

We either start from scratch together by ourselves, or I come in with something, or he comes in with something, or I wrote on top or he writes on top. It feels pretty crucial to us. We get into quarrels over song-writing, because it’s vital. We’re all very different from each other, just because we don’t come from a group of friends. There are some overlapping interests, but our interests are pretty different. And trying to make that all work. When it does it’s pretty gratifying.

As art school graduates, do you conceive of music as images?

We talk about imagery a lot when we’re writing. ‘What does this make you feel?’ Or, ‘do you have any imagery when you hear this music when we’re playing’? A lot of that lends itself to the song title, or the idea of the song, that kind of thing.

You guys have a great reputation for your live shows, does that raise expectations when you play? Do you set yourselves high standards?

When I first heard that, I was really flattered but at the same I was, yeah, really pressured. But I try to keep it in my periphery. I’m just really flattered. We’re just trying to perform the best we can, every show, and I try to put in 100% every time, even though it might be hard when you’re touring and you’re tired. It really feels great.

A lot of the live reviews talk about how much fun you guys appear to be having…

Yeah we have to write songs for us to have fun. We need to write songs that are fun for us. That’s a dumb way of saying it.

I thought I’d ask you about your two albums, and start off with Kamehameha. You guys don’t really hold back, it seems quite free. Were there nerves about appearing that loose?

I don’t think we really knew what we were as a band, the identity of the band at that point. It was an unrefined chaos. Whatever worked was fine, because we didn’t know our potential as a band. But we weren’t embarrassed at all, because we didn’t know how out there we were. We didn’t know that people thought that we were that out there. We were a pop-punk band.

Does that mean with the second album, you guys were a bit more aware of who you were?

I think just being able to see our songs in retrospect, allows us to judge ourselves. We wrote these songs and sang it as a collection – you can see yourself and use that as a point of reference.

Ice Cream Spiritual sounds much bigger in sound…

The engineering had a lot to do with that too. I mixed the first album on my own, using a pretty crappy mixing sampler, a freeware [programme]. The second album we had Jay Robbins from Jawbox record us and help us mix the record, and we had a bunch of microphones that were put by the drums, which had this really great sound.

We wanted to have the majority of the album live. We played the album live and there were minimal overdubs. Subliminally you could hear a flute, or whatever – it was pretty subtle overdubbing. But it was really great recording in that way. I learned a lot about sound and how things worked.

You’ve had to deal with a bit of critical acclaim with these two albums...

I don’t have any problems. We don’t get hyped as much as a lot of bands. I’m really thankful of that. We get to make our own road.

You also have your own solo project, how do you find fitting that in as well?

There is some overlap with a new song we wrote. My solo work is mostly loop based, and layering loops on top and affecting the loops. This one time I built these loops in the middle, which is very similar to what I do live solo. I use all the same pedals I use in Ponytail, and all the same order. I just use it completely differently when I play solo.

Does your love of loops inform your guitar playing – there’s a Krautrock feel?

When you play alone, it’s very self-reflexive. When I’m working with a bunch of loops, it’s about being myself, and seeing different sides of myself. With working with a band, it’s completely different. It’s finding a common ground with different individuals, and trying to soar up to the sky.

What have you got planned for the next recording?

We’re writing right now, and it’ll probably be next year, in late spring. We have about four songs at the moment. It seems like eight is our limit, we don’t have that much stamina.



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