|Interview THE PONES
March 2004 (by E-mail) www.thepones.com
When I was seven years old, we had a teacher who was obsessed with masks. We were drawing masks, sculpting masks from clay, painting masks. It drove me nuts, finally a whole series of painted paper masks blew out of the classroom window... But still, when I see a mask, it grabs my attention. That happens at a store in the French Quarter of New Orleans and that happens when I pull CD's from an envelope to review them. One has a girl with a mask on the cover, what could this be? The Pones, never heard of, four guys from Charlottesville, Virginia. Let's spin the disc. Great intro, followed by one of these voices I can listen to for hours, probably even when he just talks about any given subject. How was this done technically? Inventive mix, it sounds like something that's recorded live in the studio... Cool lyrics, about real life: not having a paycheck for seven months, wanting to go to Mexico: "Mexico Is Better Than Suicide". O.K., I admit, I'm sold! And I want to do an interview.
So we did an interview, I talked with George C. Riser, the singer-songwriter and with Al Sim, who played bass and several guitars on the CD. Al donned his producers hat again and told an exclusive story about arranging, recording and mixing the songs. George showed me the background of his interesting lyrics. We didn't forget what I always call "the human factor", we talked about the poverty in Virginia but also about funny opening lines, sleeping on the beach and hitch-hiking to Guatamala! Please, meet The Pones...
Johanna: Hello, George & Al & Ed & Brian, also known as The Pones. Please, tell us something about the name of the band? How long are you playing together? Did you know each other already or was there some recruiting done by an ad in the paper for instance?
George: Johanna-- We wanted a name that didn't lend itself to too many comparisons. Pone is an ancient Algonquin Native American word meaning corn meal and it was from a branch of the Algonquins that lived in Virginia. We liked the idea that the word was native Virginian and ancient, though we don't really think of ourselves as 'corn meal'. We worked on the cd for about a year or so and then started getting together to work on playing out last summer. We started playing in clubs around Charlottesville last October. Brian and I have known each other for over 20 years, we grew up together, Ed and I have known each other for 15, and Al and I live next to each other out in the country, outside of Charlottesville. Luckily, we didn't have to put ads in papers etc.
J: Could you please introduce yourself, with your name, what instrument(s) you play, how you started out in music and if you've played in other bands before?
G: George Riser -- guitar, vocals. Ed Lyle -- mandolin. Brian Forsman -- fiddle. Brian and I played in a band years ago in Washington DC called The Secret Mammals-- it was more of a garage band with electric guitars and drums. I think we played in DC for five years or so. Other than high school bands, this is the first band for Ed. It was his interest in mandolin that got this thing going though.
Al: Al Sim. On the CD I play bass, all the lead guitar parts (both electric and acoustic), all the slide guitar, and the baritone guitar. I started playing guitar when I was ten. I wanted to be a Beatle. I've been in a number of other bands, none of which were any good.
J: You're living in Charlottesville, Virginia. Born and raised there or import?
A: Import. I was born in Michigan, grew up mostly in Pennsylvania.
G: Ed, Brian and I all came from the Washington DC suburbs. That area is so built up and frenetic I think we all migrated south to get out of the traffic. Al came from Pennsylvania via New York.
A: I went to college in New York City and lived there for another six years after graduation. Since then, I've spent nine months in central Massachusetts, another two years back in NYC, then eighteen months in New Mexico, and another eighteen months on Cape Cod (also in Massachusetts), before moving here. So I've moved around quite a bit.
J: What are the good and beautiful things in Charlottesville and the surrounding area? You're close to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachian Trail, right?
G: Charlottesville has a population of about 35,000, so a small town that is the home of Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia, so it has a cultural edge over some small towns. The surrounding area is very beautiful, we are at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and probably about 20 miles from the Appalachian Trail. You can drive 5 minutes out of Charlottesville and be in the beautiful countryside.
J: You mentioned you live out in the country?
G: We live on a small farm.
J: That must be so cool! Do you have animals there? A dog and chickens and lambs and a potbellied pig?
G: We have two horses, 11 cows, chickens, cats and dogs. We had two goats, they were elderly brothers and they both died this past winter, so we hope to get a couple in the spring. We call it a 'pretend' farm, since we don't do any real farming, but it is nice to have animals. No potbellied pig, but I hear they make nice pets.
J: We got the impression here that some parts of Virginia and West-Virginia are very poor. The magazine National Enquirer found a village they said was poorest in all the USA and brought Christmaspresents there some years ago. Are there really such poor villages with many people out of work?
G: Charlottesville is in Albemarle County which is somewhat affluent due to the University of Virginia, but the surrounding counties are very rural and there is somewhat high unemployment and poverty. Southern Virginia and places in West-Virginia are often poorer with worse unemployment, trailer parks, illiteracy etc, small communities in hollows still often pretty remote from the outside world. There are great rural traditions still flourishing around here and I think that's why so much good music comes from the South. Don't want to get political, but though Bush does nothing to help the rural and impoverished, they usually vote for him.
J: The Hackensaw Boys first put Charlottesville on the map for us, now we get to know The Pones, so there's definitely a music-scene... More interesting artists that we should check out? Are there many places you can play, clubs, coffeehouses, festivals, etc.? Are the well-known names stopping by in Charlottesville on their tours and how about the singer-songwriters? Who have you seen during the last year for example?
G: Charlottesville and the surrounding area is pretty good musically. The biggest group out of here is of course Dave Matthews Band, but other groups like The Hackensaw Boys (and hopefully The Pones) are making their mark. Corey Harris is another performer who is doing very well. He was tapped by Martin Scorsese for his documentary on the Blues and Corey has been in great demand ever since. He's well worth checking out. There are a number of clubs to play, Charlottesville is not on the level with Austin Texas, but there is a good live music scene here. I would think with the University of Virginia here there would be more national acts coming by, but usually you have to go to Richmond or Washington DC to see the bigger acts. We saw Jonathan Richman here recently and Ani DeFranco, but to see Bob Dylan you have to drive a couple of hours, but he's worth it.
J: Your album "Dwell", was that a live-in-the-studio recording?
G: I'm sure Al likes to answer this one. The fact that it sounds so good is all a tribute to his work.
A: The CD was recorded one track at a time. We didn't have the equipment or the manpower to record live in the studio. I worked hard to create a live sound, both in how I recorded the instruments and how I mixed them. (I produced, engineered, mixed, and mastered the CD.)
J: I really like the funny name "Broken Sun Studios", which makes me think it might be situated in somebody's garage or basement. Please, tell us more?
A: The name comes from the road George and I live on. It was named by a little girl who saw a branch of a tree across the sun and said, "look daddy, the sun is broken". The studio is in one corner of my shed. The shed is about 70 square meters, so the studio is about 17 square meters. The shed is rough, with bare plywood floors, and is heated by a wood stove.
J: How do you work on the songs? George, you write everything, do you bring a song in when it's finished or do you communicate about it in an earlier stage? Then an arrangement is worked out together or otherwise?
G: I usually bring the song to rehearsal pretty much finished. At first everyone just plays as they like, while Al works out a bass line. Over the next few weeks we start working out arrangements. We also use practice cd's where Ed and Brian can work on parts at home.
A: George generally knew what order he wanted a song to be in, meaning how many verses and how many choruses and where the verses and choruses should go. But he and I would tinker with that a bit to accomodate the instrumentals. Sometimes we would add a solo, other times we would remove one. The instrumental arrangements were my job. George didn't usually know what he wanted or what would sound best. Here's a break down of what I did with each song:
"Mexico Proper" started out as just acoustic guitar, mandolin, and bass. That didn't work, and George wasn't sure what to do with it, so I revamped it. I wrote and played the instrumental introduction, and I rearranged the song's verses and choruses. I added electric guitar, some more acoustic guitar, and slide dobro. I removed a mandolin solo after the first chorus. I created the ending, when the instrumentals come back in after the last chorus, by editing together material from other sections of the song, then adding some more tracks.
On "Rolling Clouds", I suggested slide guitar, and I helped Ed write his solo. I suggested the descending line at the end of his solo, which I play harmony to on slide.
The first time I heard "Cypress Stump", I said "that's a fiddle song". George was surprised that I thought so. He couldn't imagine that. Then when he heard Brian's playing on it, he agreed I was right. So we gave Brian two solos and really built the song around his playing. Ed and George weren't sure about my bass line at first; they thought it was too much, with too many notes. So I tried playing less and they agreed that the song lost all its energy. Ed wasn't sure what to play, so I helped him work out how he should chop the beats to add the right emphasis.
On "You And Me", I suggested featuring Brian. To me, this song sounds like it could have been on Dylan's Desire album. If you listen closely, I added a little bit of electric guitar in the background that helps glue everything together.
George wasn't sure about making "Mean To Be Mean" a slide song. Then when he heard what I did, he loved it and wanted me to add more slide. But if I added more, it would have competed too much with his vocals, and the vocals are always most important.
It was my idea to keep "Mexico Is Better Than Suicide" so spare. I think having the fiddle come in so far along adds unexpected drama. George loved it but was worried that people would think it didn't sound finished. In the end, we all agreed that adding anything more would ruin the feeling.
"Desiree" is recorded exactly how we played it live. I didn't do a thing to it.
We almost didn't put "If You Don't Look Back" on the CD. We tried it with mandolin all the way through and it was just too jangly, too sappy. So we forgot about it for awhile. Then I went back and added the lead guitar doing counterpoint, which built up the tension, and I suggested that Ed and I add those little licks in the chorus.
"Dwell" is recorded almost exactly how we played it live. I ran the mandolin through an amp simulator to rough it up a little. I got that idea from "Chicken Shack" (see below).
The boogie beat to "Rolling" is my handiwork. I always heard it that way and played the bass that way. Ed started out playing a part that is something like the acoustic lead guitar part that I play throughout the song. It didn't work on mandolin, it stood out too much, was too high and sweet. I wrote his rhythm part, which is a boogie guitar part, like Chuck Berry, adapted to mandolin. Then I wrote my lead guitar part, stealing some of Ed's original ideas. On the first instrumental break, I wrote and play all the various guitar and slide parts, and I wrote the second half of Ed's part.
On "Uzbekistan", George asked me to play acoustic lead. I added the lead part that appears throughout, and the current opening solo, but a different ending solo. Neither of us liked my ending solo. He said he always imagined a chorded solo there, like George Harrison in the Beatles' early stuff. So I went back and wrote the solo that's on there now.
"Chicken Shack" is my Frankenstein monster. We recorded the basic rhythm tracks and I was the only one who liked them. Ed and George thought it was probably too slow. They couldn't imagine how to fill up all the spaces. They voted to can it, so we did. But one night I was going though our old stuff, cleaning up the computer. And I listened to those basic tracks and still liked them. But I always thought Ed's mandolin part sounded like a guitar part, so I decided to try and make it sound more like a guitar. I also wanted to make it sound rougher, meaner, swampier. It occured to me that running his mandolin track through an amp simulator might sound right. (An amp simulator is software that simulates the sound of a guitar amp, designed for recording electric guitar straight into a computer.) So I tried it, and it sounded pretty great, so I made it the intro for the song. Then I added slide dobro for the first solo, and slide electric for the second, multitracking both solos to make them big and messy. And I added the electric guitar squeals and fills throughout the song; many listeners think those are slide guitar, but it's just electric guitar with lots of reverb. Last, I took a few fiddle squeals from some outtakes on "Cypress Stump", reverbed them to death, and added them in behind my solos.
J: Looking at the songtitles on the CD, I noticed immediately two times "Mexico" there, "Mexico Proper" and "Mexico Is Better Than Suicide". George, I got curious if you have something with Mexico? Is it your favorite country or do you use the name more as a metaphor?
G: Mexico was always a place to go when you had no money and no future. Brian and I took a two month hitch-hiking trip through Mexico and all of Central America some years back. And I've been back a number of other times. That song title "Mexico Is Better Than Suicide"-- if things weren't looking too good, we would just borrow some money and head south. It is such a great country for adventure, beauty, people and it doesn't take much money if you can sleep on the beach and eat cheap. And it's warm there. Great for perspective-- here in the US you can get such a feeling for entitlement, so if you take a trip to Mexico, it can put your whole little life in perspective. There is a line in "Mexico/Suicide" from a time Brian and I walked out from our hotel room in Villahermosa and there in the alley were 6 or 8 men, construction workers, sleeping on burlap bags, their shovels and hoes lying around, wheel barrows, and there lying by one man was a small boy. Scenes like that stay with you. We also loved Guatamala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize and especially Costa Rica. We met a nice couple from Amsterdam in Guatamala --Hans and Hedwig-- so if you happen to read this-- Hello.
J: "Uzbekistan" is a cool song, with a wink at gospel and what parents tell their kids: to empty their plate and think of children in poor countries. Did you have that in mind too when you wrote it?
G: Yes that is the idea. Also the tendency (for me anyway) to find myself saying... well, I'm not so bad off as someone in say Uzbekistan-- and the tendency not to remember to be grateful for things that are good. Mostly I liked rhyming words like please (stretch it out) and knees and release with Jesus.
J: "If You Don't Look Back" is a favorite of mine, please tell us something about that song?
G: "If You Don't Look Back" is a song about a relationship breaking up, final exchange by the side of a road and there by the road is an old newspaper lying there with some headline about a major conflict, like the Bosnian conflict... and the narrator is suddenly comparing his little misery (that seems so huge) with a situation that is truly dire... and then the last line -- 'If you don't look back, when you're walking away, you won't hear what I say.' We can leave it to the listener to decide what the final words are -- either 'I love you' or 'fuck off!'
J: Do you have your own favorite song on the album?
G: I think my favorite song on the cd is "Cypress Stump". I was born in Mississippi, so I like the feel of it.
J: I always loved Mississippi, that state has something mysterious...
G: You are right, there is something really peculiar about it, exotic in a commonplace way, all the heat and humidity and poverty and ignorance and beauty all rolled up. My family would go to Mississippi for three weeks every summer and we'd stay with both of our grandmothers. One lived in a small town, one lived in the country with two ponds, a few cows, chickens and guinea hens. The song is about going to a small country church on Sundays, with the preacher shouting, exhorting us to pray for eternal salvation and instead, I'd always always pray for a ten pound bass. At the time, it seemed more important than praying for my soul. My father would take me to a big lake after church (in the song it's my grandmother) and we'd fish among the cypress trees... they live in the black swampy water, and we'd use cane poles, red wrigglers and porcupine quills for bobbers. We'd fish for perch that circled the cypress stumps, but once in awhile a big bass would come by and that was always my prayer, that I would catch one, though that prayer was never answered. Hopefully, I'll have better luck with the eternal salvation.
J: I should have started with the title track of course, what's "Dwell" about?
G: The title song "Dwell" is just about the place we dwell... that torrential mix of thoughts meted out by fear and desire.
J: The cover of a CD needs to attract attention, so people pick the thing up and check it out. The photograph of the girl with the mask definitely succeeds in doing that, I think it's a little scary even, but that's only my opinion. Is it taken by a professional photographer?
G: That photograph sure grabbed my attention when I first saw it. It is done by a professional photographer named Jesse Andrews. He is a documentary photographer who has lately been touring with his show called Thirteen-Month Crop.
J: This is one of the usual questions, what are your plans with The Pones in the near future?
G: We hope to attract management soon, so we won't have to book our own shows and maybe get sent to Europe to do a small tour. We'd really love to do that. Of course, we have plans for our next cd and we have someone in Washington DC working on getting some dates at some of the clubs there.
J: They say there's life outside the music... What else are you doing, day jobs, other creative things?
G: We all have day jobs, unfortunately. I work in Rare Books and Manuscripts at the UVA library. Ed works in the construction business and Brian makes a living as a Colonial fiddler in Williamsburg. We all like music, movies, and outdoor things-- lots of rivers and mountains around here. Oh, Ed makes very beautiful watercolors.
A: I make my living doing technical writing. I'm married and have two children, a boy who's ten and a daughter who's twenty months. I write fiction and have had nineteen short stories accepted for publication. I'm also going back into the studio to record my own material.
J: This is the fun-question to close off: What was the best line a stranger ever said to you, to start a conversation?
G: Oddest line I remember is at a party once a woman came up to me and said 'You look just like my brother... are we related?'
A: The first thing my wife ever said to me was "I'm glad we finally got a chance to talk". It was a strange and funny thing to say because we weren't going to talk -- I was saying goodbye to a group of people, and she was staying behind. But I knew exactly what she meant because we had spent much of the night staring at each other from opposite ends of a long table. About seven weeks later we were living together, and a month after that we were engaged. So with her funny opening line, my wife started a conversation that became our entire life.
J: Thanks for the great interview!
A: My pleasure, and thanks for everything.
G: Many thanks for this and all your support.
Interview by Johanna J. Bodde, previously published on Real Roots Cafe, The Netherlands.