GOOD luck nailing down who plays what in POND.
The Western Australian ensemble shrug off such restrictive roles as easily as the stubborn boundaries between glam-damaged psych rock and synth-steeped electronic vistas.
Founded in the most open spirit of collaboration a decade ago, POND have since released a stack of very different, yet reliably saturated and satisfying, albums.
Their eighth, Tasmania, is once again released through Spinning Top, the in-house label for the tangled web of mates and musicians that spreads across POND, Tame Impala, and a great many solo and side projects.
On first pass, Tasmania sounds more brightly produced and maybe even more pop than previous outings, thanks in part to the simmering shimmer of opener ‘Daisy’. But this being POND, things get crusty and distorted soon enough, with Tame Impala guru Kevin Parker returning to his regular producer’s role.
It’s surprising just how well all the album’s would-be warring aspects play together – strings (arranged by Melbourne-based classical artist Francesca Mountfort) and synth, bass and synth bass, drums and drum machine – while deepening the wide-screen “wow” factor.
“We put Nick’s lyrics in the liner notes, because we think they’re quite good these days – they used to be pretty rubbish.”
POND have never taken themselves too seriously – witness the vocodered Prince offspring ‘Sixteen Days’, the title track’s sumptuous R&B and the gravity-defying eight-minute suite ‘Burnt Out Star’ – but Tasmania actually builds on the globally minded environmental themes of 2017’s The Weather.
“I wanna breathe real air again,” wishes Nick Allbrook on the title track, while ‘The Boys Are Killing Me’ was co-written with Aboriginal elders John Watson and Annie Milgun and mentions not knowing whether you can trust your own country. In other words, anchoring the free-wheeling excess are some very down-to-earth anxieties.
Across five separate interviews, each member of POND examines the band’s unique mind-meld of a collaboration process. For the ease of communication, we’ve cited their most common role behind their names.
But in the topsy-turvy world of POND, every individual element is quickly surrendered to the mutating whole – a thrumming ecosystem of contradictions both nurtured and defied.
After living in Melbourne for two years and dabbling in solo work, Nick is now based in London. Although he’s on tour so much that it’s like “I barely live anywhere”, he says. Asked about the environmental themes on the new album – in addition to naming it Tasmania, he mentions Australia in three songs – he downplays the idea of some newfound scope.
It’s just what we know. It’s our environment and our culture, and it’s inescapable when you write lyrics that are honest and personal. It has to reflect these immediate concerns and the scenery around you. Being away [in London and on tour] has made me aware of how much a part of me this place is, for better or worse. It’s made me a lot more aware of my national identity.
Working again with Kevin Parker, who has recorded every POND album, the band benefited from that deep familiarity when envisioning Tasmania.
We talk about it a lot [ahead of time]. But the stuff we talk about will often be completely different from what it’s gonna end up as. We’ve had very ambitious, far-removed ideas for the last bunch of albums, and it ends up in some completely different sphere altogether.
You could have never predicted it, but we have just gotten older and more mature and better at communicating with each other. Things just flow a lot easier. When you get older, the ego part of things drifts away, which makes collaboration a lot easier. And all those things like ego and fear and sensitivity, [which] can be real blocks against creativity, drift away.
Near the start of ‘Hand Mouth Dancer’, Nick sings, “I didn’t get political, I just faced the facts.” It’s a reference to the reaction in some corners to the previous album’s preoccupation with the environment.
I mean, I’m as ignorant as the next person. I don’t even know where the official line is for something being defined as a political statement. It seems very fucking confusing to me. I guess I was just talking about that. I feel like I’m just expressing my own reality, instead of framing myself as someone who is in any way more tapped into a moral, political right that people should be listening to. It’s just personal and honest. It’s all said with the utmost acceptance of my own stupidity.
‘Shiny’ Joe Ryan
POND’s guitarist is finally finishing off the follow-up to his 2014 solo debut as Shiny Joe Ryan, tentatively titled Shiny’s Democracy (get it?) because of the outsized delay. He’s responsible for bringing to the table the new album’s closing track ‘Doctor’s In’, a surreal and distorted dirge that actually evokes
It just found its place at the end. That was the last song left. [Laughs] It’s been knocking around my brain for a couple years now. I wrote it on my laptop and used [its] keyboard as a piano when we were driving on a POND tour through the Midwest of America. It was oddly like these chords flyin’ off my brain. The guys got on there and knocked out bass, and even Kevin jumped on drums.
When I brought it to the guys, it was pretty innocent. Then Jay [Watson] got that chugging overdrive bass going, and someone plugged in the drum machine and fried that through some distortion as well. Then it became fairly ominous. But the end was the big payoff for me, so I just wanted to get there as quick as possible.
Finishing each other song’s is par for the course with POND: Nick helped complete Jay’s ‘Burnt Out Star’ as well as Joe’s lyrics on ‘Goodnight, P.C.C.’.
We’ve learnt that you can’t be precious if you bring in something to the band, because there’s so way it’s going to get through unscathed in its original form. Which is nice, because you get to choose what songs you bring to POND – which are usually the best ones.
Working across four weeks at Kevin Parker’s studio next to the beach in Fremantle, the five band members were able to resume their almost unspoken communication with Kevin and each other.
He makes sense of the abstract language we might use. Like, “Can you make it more schwing?” [Laughs] From when we used to live together and he was just using an eight-track, he’s always just been really tasty. He’s got a good head on his shoulders about making things sound great. It’s a process that never stops evolving.
A lot of the songs had a backbone [as solo demos], but you get all of the boys together and weird things happen. Songs develop and people add in parts. And James [Ireland] and Jay would play off each other on synth, going deeper. There was an incident where we thought we lost the album, because the hard drive got wiped. It turned out to be okay – we figured it out. But it was a scary moment, that’s for sure. It was the first time we got to the end of the album. [Laughs] It was a bit of a pain to redo vocals, but for the most part the [music] was still there.
Jamie ‘Terret’ Terry
Co-founder of hibernating Perth psych band The Silents, Terry calls himself “the swing man” in POND, jumping between instruments as needed. But these days he sticks mostly to bass and synth. Asked about Tasmania’s balance between the clean and crusty, he says that’s nothing new.
There’s always been a desire to subvert anything that becomes too big and too clean. So as we’ve had access to higher quality equipment and better recording techniques, it’s easier to make these bigger, cleaner sounds. But [we] try to fuck them up a bit after that to keep more in tune with some of our favourite rock music, which definitely came from a fair while back, when things were more gritty.
Just to stop it becoming too much like modern, digital pop music. That mid-range crustiness seems to be missing a lot in the digital realm.
Another identifying trait for POND are suite-like song structures, often with sudden shifts and rug-pulling outros.
You get a little bored if it’s just verse-chorus-verse-chorus. Throwing in these little extra parts is a chance for the other guys to have an involvement in the songs and turn it into something bigger than it was before. So that can definitely end up in a few curveballs.
But we did also try, on this one and the last one, to have a bit more linearity, where you can put on a song and you’ve got the same beat for a bit longer – especially on ones that we thought were a bit more danceable or groovy. [Previously] certain songs would launch into a whole different song for the outro. Which was fun, but it really broke them up a lot. They’re a bit more straightforward now.
That speaks to the members’ shared ownership of songs and roles alike.
In the studio there’s no set role. It doesn’t matter what you play live – if you want to play anything that you have an idea for, it’s very open. Everyone’s getting involved on everything, and it’s just a good collaborative atmosphere. Everyone has their solo stuff, where they can play it out exactly like they like. So when it comes to POND, they never want it to be exactly what they envisioned in the beginning. They want it to feel like a POND song.
James ‘Gin’ Ireland
The newest recruit to POND, James has been a member for two years now, though he’s been friends with them for much longer. He took over on live drums so Jay could swap between bass and synth with Terry. And yet he doesn’t touch the kit at all on Tasmania.
I didn’t play any drums on this record. I played mostly keys. There were so many different synths and keyboards at the studio, so it was good fun doing it that way. You’d jump on all these different toys and go for it. That’s how a lot of the record was written – we were all in the studio throwing ideas together.
We’re trying to share the load a little bit. When it’s a more rock song and calls for an electric bass, Jay plays that. Which is most of them. But some of the newer songs, like ‘Sixteen Days’ and [the last album’s] ‘Sweep Me Off My Feet’, they’re on synth bass. So Jamie did that.
The funky drum sound opening ‘Sixteen Days’ is one of the album’s grabbiest moments, recalling the vintage-style soul of The Dap-Kings. But that’s just scratching the surface of the record’s integrated percussive voice.
We were thinking about that for ages, because it’s an integral part of the song. A common theme on this record is that we’ve [often] got a drum machine playing something underneath the acoustic kit, so it’s hard to replicate that live. Live we’ve got an 808 track pumping the whole way through, and I play [drums] over top.
Outside of POND, James comprises half of bedroom pop duo Hamjam and crafts marathon dance music as Ginoli. He also records bands, mixes “lots of East Coast house and techno records” and even helped Kevin with a bit of production that ended up on the Kanye track
Me and Kevin did that in his studio like six months ago. It was sick. It was late one night, and Kevin was in contact with Kanye’s team. We didn’t think anything of it at the time, but what we did made [it onto] the record. [Laughs] It was a very small contribution to the song, but it was still good. That blew my mind a little bit.
Jay ‘GUM’ Watson
Still playing in Tame Impala as well as releasing solo material as GUM, Jay lives in Deaconsville, one suburb outside of Fremantle. That said, he spent most of last year touring the States, staying in LA between tours. He’s no longer POND’s live drummer, but played drums on every song on the new album, except for the closing ‘Doctor’s In’.
Some songs it’s one person on the whole song. A lot of ‘Burnt Out Star’ would be me, and a lot of ‘Daisy’ would be Nick. A lot of the stems we keep are from people’s demos. We’ll re-record the bits that sound crappy, but if they sound fine on the demo we keep them. So you end up having songs where at least half the instruments were all recorded by one member at their house.
I’ve been playing bass guitar live, but when Jamie plays synth bass, I go to the keyboards. Him and I basically have the same two roles – we just swap. Sometimes within the same song. This album has a lot of that, because the bass guitar is a bit more rhythmic and has more character to it in the verse, and then the chorus goes all epic and lush and the synth bass comes in. Some of my favourite bass lines are Stevie Wonder’s quite melodic, over-the-top synth bass.
It’s also not thinking about it in terms of a guitar or a keyboard song. We haven’t thought like that in a while. It’s just whatever sounds best. I weirdly take offense to being [considered just] a rock band [or a] synth/electronic band. It doesn’t feel like [either] to us, because it’s somewhere in between. And I think of people like
As for deciding which of his songs go to POND and which go to GUM, Jay says it varies from case to case.
Sometimes it’s because I think the other guys will like it. Because it’s always more fun working on stuff with other people. I had ‘Burnt Out Star’ for my solo album, but I couldn’t write any decent lyrics to it. I really liked the chords [but] there was no point chucking it on with an average lyric. So I gave it to Nick to write a melody lyric. Sometimes we save the best ones for POND, but sometimes they’re the offcuts. [Laughs]
Told that Shiny Joe said you can’t be too precious about what you bring to POND, Jay points out that the initial writer still gets final say on their songs.
I think whoever’s initial song idea it is, they get to sign off on it. If they’re not happy with it, we tend to not put it out. We also write a lot of songs that don’t fit on each record, so they often go on solo things. We try to have the whole album be somewhat coherent, even in our own weird way where every song sounds different. It’s got an overall feel to it.
The same goes for the album’s constant blend of digital and physical instruments, which manages to be unexpectedly coherent.
We’ve just always found it hard not to put all our ideas in at once. If it’s just real drum kit, it sounds too rock-band to me. And if it’s just drum machine, there’s no fills. And that’s kind of the personality with drums. I think it ends up sounding like that: the feel of electronic music [with] the fun of random drum fills.
Asked if Nick discusses songs’ overlapping lyrical themes with the rest of the band, Jay says they trust him to just do what he does best.
We don’t really sit at the pub and talk about it, but I think we’ve listened to Nick write lyrics long enough that we know what the references are and we understand the metaphors. We know what the literal bits are, and we get the esoteric shit. So we don’t need it to be broken down [for us]. Also, I don’t like to know [too much] what the artist is thinking. I don’t need to know the minutia that goes into a song.
We put Nick’s lyrics in the liner notes, because we think they’re quite good these days – they used to be pretty rubbish. [Laughter] With my solo stuff I don’t even print the lyrics, because the gibberish that people hear might be better than what I came up with. But there are so many terrible, wrong lyrics of mine on the internet that I’m thinking about writing them all on a Google Doc and putting it on Facebook, just to rectify all the misheard garbage.
As for each member often being fluid about what he might play in POND, Jay observes that nobody is being judged for how well he plays.
Instrumentalism is really low on our list of priorities. Most of us have probably gotten a lot worse at our instrument, just from not caring how good we are. It’s purely to get the gist of the song across – to the point where Kevin can barely play guitar, and I’m like that with drums. I’m worse than I was in high school, just because you’re thinking all the time about the songwriting and the production. You only have to be technical enough to play what you come up with. I guess that’s why we swap – because we don’t really care about the sound of people overachieving on their instrument. You need a bit of struggle in the sound.