It ain’t your mama’s Southern rock, kids…
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Oh my, how hard it’s become to contextualize a good old fashioned rock band — a reality that Pontiak knows better than most. Reviews for their alternately punchy and tranquil new LP Innocence (Thrill Jockey) have referred to the Virginia trio as “proto-metal shredders,” (Paste) and a “bearded, vintage amp-loving, riff-worshipping psych-sludge band of brothers” (Dusted). The 405 pondered curiously at songs that “evoke great monsters of the ’70s in [their] heavier moments, and ’90s stoner rock in [their] mellower, more melodic moments,” while Pitchfork dismissively praised them as specialists in “amp-destroying sideburns-and-beer-runs riffage.”
Now, none of these critiques really miss the mark — or if they do, it’s not by much. Pontiak do draw influences from classic rock and folkish pop, from humid Southern metal and mind-bending psych explorations. But what they’re doing these days isn’t so calculated as these dissections would suggest. Their newest collection balances ragged rockers with bittersweet ballads, a formula that has dominated popular rock ‘n’ roll records for at least four decades. They’re not so much tweaking traditions as they are simply playing them, allowing their individual eccentricities to add flavor as they will.
“I think it’s been confusing for people in the past,” offers guitarist and singer Van Carney. “We’ve played shows with metal people, doom people, sludge people, occasionally some indie people and some folk people. And people always have a tough time categorizing us. They’re like, ‘You kind of fit here, and you kind of fit here, and you kind of fit there.’ We’re trying to do our own thing. I don’t think we can help it. It’s just what we do.”
As he speaks, the wind whips hard against the mouthpiece of his cell phone. He has stepped outside onto the Blue Ridge farm that has been Pontiak’s base of operations for most of their 10-year run. They record and practice in this tranquil setting, isolated from most of the fans and musicians they connect with on record and during frequent tours. His brothers — Lain and Jennings Carney, respectively the band’s drummer and bassist — are inside rustling up some lunch. They’re a tight-knit group, best friends beyond their family bonds. Their chemistry comes easy. Van says that they argue, but only about silly things, like who gets the lion’s share when they split a steak.
For most of their career, this ease of communication coupled with the freedom granted them by their rural setting has pushed Pontiak to make music in a somewhat esoteric fashion. For efforts such as 2009’s lithe but leaden Maker and 2012’s more swaggering Echo Ono, they focused on texture more than songwriting, ripping through ideas with an emphasis on getting the sound right, then quickly hitting record and letting the songs emerge in the moment. The best results from this process balance precise aesthetics with off-the-cuff immediacy, capturing semi-improvisatory bursts with meticulously layered sonics.
“We focused on sonic texture and immediacy,” Van explains. “Most of our records we write and record in the same first take, so we’d rehearse something, and then we’d be like, ‘OK, now we’re going to record the song, but we don’t really know what we’re going to do, but this is going to be a fucking song.’ You’re focused on just aesthetics, just sonic aesthetics and the color of that. But this record’s different. It still has all those elements, but it’s just a little bit more engaging I think, hopefully in a different way.”
Innocence lives up to this ambition. It’s Pontiak’s most accessible offering to date but also one of their weirdest, gravitating to two seemingly antithetical poles and balancing them with surprising finesse. The rockers are lean and raw, injecting Black Sabbath ominence with buzzsaw distortion and doubling — if not tripling — the tempos. “Lack Lustre Rush” roars with fuzz-scorched bass and strung-out guitar fills, lending a sense of angry intimidation to Van, who sings with simmering sincerity — “Hey, wait a minute/ Can’t you go with it?”
On the other side of the aisle are bruised ballads that take stock of things when such brutish insistence goes unrewarded. On the beautiful “Noble Heads,” Van is backed only by amiable acoustic strums and a touch of reverb, crooning with bittersweet buoyancy: “If patience is a virtue/ Then why is it so easy for you?/ Maybe it’s just your way/ Of silently leaving here today.” Bass, drums and an agitated solo enter soon thereafter, undercutting the brave face that Van reaches for in his vocals, an earnest and unguarded foil to the burly bluster of songs like “Lack Lustre Rush.” This dichotomy is, of course, nothing new when it comes to rock records, but Pontiak play with enough conviction to make their subtle tweaks feel appealingly fresh.
And while the album’s structure might be conventional, Pontiak’s creative process was still unique. Changing up their usual routine, the brothers wrote all but a few of the acoustic-leaning numbers by singing their parts a cappella in their van while on tour, mapping out how they would work before they ever picked up a guitar or drumstick, a stark shift from the sound-first emphasis of their other records. More important, though, was Pontiak’s decision to make a record that their fans would really like, putting aside momentarily their weirder psychedelic detours and having fun with the approachable fare that seems to rile their audiences the most.
“We’d never set up to write an album where we were like, ‘Hey man, let’s write a record that we think our fans will like,’” Van says. “We’d never thought about that. And it was a really cool thing to do because it made us look at what we do in a completely different way. We came up with this batch of songs that when we get up there and play, it’s so much fun. It’s just awesome.”
“It’s a different experience for us,” he adds, making his own assessment of Pontiak’s present genre: “It’s less bullshit and more just fucking rock ‘n’ roll.”
Pontiak is currently in the middle of an extensive North American tour. Dates can be found at the band’s Thrill Jockey page.