By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Pontiak.
Milk, eggs, greens – many things come to mind when one considers goods generated by a farm, but psychedelic rock is certainly not among of them. However, Pontiak, a band comprised of brothers Jennings Carney (bass and vocals), Van Carney (guitar and vocals), and Lain Carney (drums and vocals), prove that sounds much more interesting than any cowbell are coming from their farm. The three of them hail from the Blue Ridge Mountain of Virginia. They record in a studio on their homestead and inhabit a lifestyle where a walk to the barn can afford crucial creative meditation, just as slaughtering a chicken can provide cosmic insight into the universe. They’ve been making melodic psych rock for close to 10 years and have 10 releases under their belt, 2014’s Innocence being the most recent. Innocence, released on January 28th by Thrill Jockey, sees the Carney brothers incorporating more of an organic, return-to-roots approach. It’s replete with new melodic sensibilities that bring light to the folksy side of the band’s typically hard-edged palette. Imagine if Black Sabbath gave Ozzie Osbourne the boot and pulled Neil Young along for the ride and you might be getting close. Or, just go listen to the album. Guitar player and lead vocalist Van Carney reflects with BTR on the making of Innocence, and shares a host of inspirations and visions.
The three of you are brothers – how does that affect the songwriting process?
It makes us work through problems without ever entertaining the idea that someone might get kicked out of the band. All problems must be solved knowing there is no other solution than to find a solution.
Tell us a little about your musical backgrounds.
We all grew up playing guitar, bass, and a little bit of piano. We have a fairly musical family. We are all self- taught.
How does living on a farm in Virginia play into your music?
My daily commute consists of walking out my front door with my dog, walking past the barn, down the driveway, around the bend, down the hill, and through a field to our studio. It’s a good walk and it influences me more than I could ever say. I don’t think I could put into words how it influences me, but it sure does.
Your new record, Innocence, was recorded without the aid of computers. What prompted that decision, and how did this organic approach feel compared to past recordings?
It allowed the recording process to be purely aural. There was nothing to look at on a computer screen. I love that. Analog is also our preferred medium, it’s warm and colorful and life giving. Analog is infinite, digital is finite.
You design your own album artwork (which is amazing, by the way). What inspired you to take this hands-on approach, and what are some of your artistic influences?
Thanks for the kind words. I love doing the artwork. I first went to college to study painting (I subsequently went on to study philosophy) and doing the artwork for the albums has given me a great outlet for it. I take influence from many places but a few that have really inspired me visually, in terms of color and composition, are Titian, Ingres, Durer, Turner, Courbet, Zurbaran, Rivera, Siquieros, De Kooning, George Bellows, Clyfford Still, Lucien Frued, Francis Bacon, Richard Prince, Luc Tuymans, Genevieve Figgis and the list goes on and on.
Innocence album art.
This record sounds more concentrated on vocal harmonies than past releases. Ballads like “Wildfires” have a softer, richer and more melodic sound. Was this a conscious effort, or did the tunes just turn out that way?
We definitely wanted the harmonies on the whole record to come through clearly. I wrote Wildfires sitting in my living room, so by the time we got it in the studio, we had the harmonies all worked out.
What are some of your biggest non-musical creative influences as songwriters?
For me, anything that reveals is artistic. Revelation also tends be uncomfortable, unsettling or outside of experience. Lots of things can do this for me and often times they are things I would have never expected. For instance my wife and I have been keeping chickens for eggs. And as chickens are prone to do, they have more chickens. But you can only keep one rooster, more or less, when they reach a certain age because they start to fight and can seriously hurt or kill each other. So what do you do with these other roosters? We eat them. But killing a chicken is not an easy or enjoyable thing to do. It doesn’t get easier the more you slaughter, and the weight of taking a life doesn’t diminish. It becomes a deeper, less logical process that becomes part of you. It teaches you things cosmically. Being open to the world in this way is an incredibly powerful artistic experience. Shit’s not all logic and process, every opportunity and experience has a cliff’s edge.
You also direct your own music videos. Are all three of you interested in film?
[Lain answering] I’d say so. I’ve sort of spearheaded our video projects though they are very collaborative. I love movies and the medium of film. I like the idea that even with minimal studio tech, you can still make a compelling video. That’s what I try to get better at every time we make one.
How did it feel to have your film Heat Leisure premiere as an official selection at the Chicago International Music and Movies Festival?
[Lain answering] It felt awesome. Though, our screening was sold out and we were late to it so they almost didn’t let us in. We ended up standing in the doorway in order to watch it. But hey, I’m not complaining!
Can we expect more collaboration between you and Greg Fox (of Guardian Alien) in the near future?
Absolutely, we just finished recording Heat Leisure III & IV a few weeks ago. We had Greg, Alex Drewchin, Steve Strohmeier, Bobby Otten come down to our studio for a few days and we had a blast. We have a very special guest performing some spoken word on it; he is one of the original Merry Pranksters. It’s going to be awesome.
How about another studio album – any plans for recording again this year?
Yes, it will take us a while and will be the best thing we have ever done.
Who would win in a sludge-metal showdown – The Melvins or Neurosis?
They are joined together in a civil union and have quadruplets.
What’s one of the craziest stories that happened to the three of you while on the road?
We got stuck in a tornado in northern Georgia and saw houses leveled to the ground, semis wrapped around oak trees and a bank, totally destroyed with nothing left but the safe and the employees huddled inside it. That was a frightening, humbling day.
Or check them out at one of these dates:
February 16 – Highline – Seattle, WA
February 20 – 7th Street Entry – Minneapolis, MN
February 22 – Hideout – Chicago, IL
February 23 – Lisa’s Oak Street Lounge – Louisville, KY
February 24 – Rumba Cafe – Columbus, OH
February 25 – The Ninth Ward at Babeville – Buffalo, NY
April 8 – Rote Fabrik – Zurich, Switzerland
April 10 – Circolo degli Artisti – Rome, Italy