You will find few brothers who work together better than Jennings, Van and Lain Carney. You'll also find few bands that work as hard as Pontiak, the lead-heavy Virginia psych rock trio comprised of these siblings. In just five years of existence they've managed five full-lengths and an EP. The pace would suggest a workman-like approach, finding a groove and holding steadfastly to it. Such is not the case with Pontiak. Their output is striking diverse, continually finding new avenues to explore while retaining a core of muscular, Southern-tinged hooks. Where 2010's Living found then indulging in densely metallic sludge, the 2011 EP Comecrudos found them meandering into dark avant-garde detours. The recently released Echo Ono is yet another evolution, a resplendently catchy rock record painted with a restless, psychedelic brush.
The Independent caught up with bassist Jennings Carney before Pontiak's Wednesday show at Raleigh's Kings Barcade to discuss the new album as well as the trio's relentlessly shape-shifting approach.
Independent Weekly: I've read that Echo One was an attempt to make a more impressionistic record — a color project painted through music. Can you explain what you guys were trying to do with that?
Jennings Carney: Specifically Van, the guitar player, sees color in music. I don’t. I contextualize music in a completely different way, which is almost impossible for me to define. It’s almost like shapes. Van (guitar) — and Lain (drums) to a different degree — see music through color. When we started talking about what kind of album we wanted to write, Van said he wanted to make an album that represented or kind of helped to showcase the color that he sees when he plays. We kind of took that a step further.
We like to use specific kinds of media when we record, and we like to use our equipment in a certain way. For instance, not because I am a purist, but the way my bass sounds on this album — I didn’t use any pedals, nor did Van, so any distortion that you hear is a direct result of just using the amp itself. If you think of that in the terms of a painting, you know, an oil painting will have different characteristics than an acrylic or even — if you want to get commercial — like a latex. They all have different textures, and they kind of represent themselves in different ways that are very distinct. Some bands go out there — which is totally cool — and they record on the Pro Tools and it’s all digital and they use amplifiers with a lot of effects. And it will sound a very specific way. Not that we don’t like the way that that sounds, but we wanted to do it in our own very specific way.
So we said, ‘Here are the kinds of media we really like: We like tape. We really like analog. We have our analog board. We have our tube amps. Let’s use those and do it in a way that kind of helps to project this kind of overall image that we want to paint.’ But instead of using paint, it’s using music.
In not using pedals or effects on this record, was it more of a challenge, or were you looking to take the sound in some way out of your hands?
I think of it differently. What do you like to do? Generally, like cooking? Skiing? Hiking?
I like water skiing.
I’ve never done it before. I’ve been a life-long (snow) skier, but I can imagine if you got a new pair of skis that are a specific kind of skis. And you really connect with those skis, and all of a sudden you find that you can do a bunch of things. Or you can perform in a specific way that you hadn’t thought about before.
When we started out to make this album, I didn’t say, ‘I’m going to use just this amp and no pedals.’ Van had been looking through Craigslist and he found this Fender Bassman 100 head in West Virginia, and the guy was selling it with the original cab, like the whole thing for this incredible deal. So Van said, ‘Well, shit, I’m going to get this amp.' He went, and he bought it and brought it back. And we were playing it with the guitar, and it sounded cool. One day I was like, let me try this instead, and so we plugged it up and it sounded amazing. Those old Fender amps are all gain-figured, so your treble, your mid, your bass, your master volume are all volume boosts; they’re all gains. So if you turn them all up to 10 you get this really amazing distortion. So we said, ‘Well, why would I need a distortion pedal if I can just use this amp, and it sounds way better than this extensive but cheesy pedal.' And it opens up all these worlds. I can kind of change my tone just depending on how hard or how soft I hit the string and also I can use my volume on my bass itself. Then we also used different recording techniques to bring out different qualities of the sound. It was more that it just opened up a ton of possibilities than us just saying, ‘We’re just going to do it this way.’
There’s a lot of differences between your records. How much of that has to do with that kind of organic approach?
For this album, we were very specific about what we were doing. Not that we’re never not specific, but in a different way. There is an arch to all of our albums and to the greater creative process. I would say that starting with Sun on Son and on through Comecrudos, which was our EP that we released just before Echo Ono, those were all done with the idea of, ‘Let’s catch the immediacy of going into the studio with very little rehearsal time on the final product.’ Instead, we took a bunch of ideas and played around with them for a while, and then said, ‘Let’s record that.’ So you get this really intense, immediate, dynamic kind of ‘We don’t really know what’s going to happen, but we’re trusting in the process’ kind of thing. We worked through that until we got to a point where we felt that we were really able to grasp that mentally and physically in the studio with each other and then out on the stage. By the time it got on the stage, these things were formed in and of themselves. It became specific parts.
For Echo Ono, what we did is we wrote the songs out. There’s still room in the songs. Like, ‘OK, in this section, Van, you can go off,’ or, ‘In this section, Lain, you can throw in a drum fill,’ or something like that. Echo Ono was a very specific thing.
Why did you guys opt for that more structured approach?
We had been working on a certain approach to working on and recording an album. Once we kind of had internalized that approach, we decided that we were ready to start a new approach. Not that it’s really that new, but it’s still something that kind of is more a refined process. The ultimate goal — and I can’t speak for all musicians — but at least for us the ultimate goal is that there is this kind of dynamic interaction between the three of us when we’re playing. If we can capture that and at the same time capture something that’s relatable to other people, then I think that’s kind of where we want to go.
Pontiak plays Kings on Wednesday with Left Outlet. The show costs $8 and starts at 9:30 p.m.