THE PONS…Making Music That Matters
by Marsha Mann
A few months ago, I went to INsite Night at The Parish to check out a couple of bands I’d heard good things about–Your Kisses Cause Crashes (their Dear in Headlights CD was a local favorite), and Whitman (who my editor had been raving about for weeks). Sandwiched between the two was a group called The Pons, a name I found intriguing as it refers to the connective tissue of the brain that regulates breathing and heart rhythms, as well as arousal. Seemed like a good name for a rock band.
When The Pons took the stage at 11pm, I was pleased to see they were a simple trio: a lean, handsome drummer, a petite female bass player, and a charismatic lead singer/guitarist, who I thought might be Indian (he’s actually Sicilian). As they launched into their opening song “Giant”, an explosive anthem about the overwhelming nature of love (with a syncopated attack reminiscent of The Pixies), my spine straightened and my heart began pounding…The Pons had taken over. This was followed by “Wherever You Are”, a poignant anti-war ballad, with a slow, processional rhythm and soaring melancholy harmonies that gave me goose bumps…the same ones I get listening to the art band, Low. I was witnessing a band performing with every fiber of their being.
At one point during the show, some annoying audience members were talking over the music. Without hesitating, the lead singer commanded them to “show a little respect”. They did, along with everyone else in the room. I felt like cheering but didn’t want to break the spell. With the audience now in the palm of their hands, The Pons introduced a new song called “Impossible Love”–a big, beautiful melody with a clever hook–as good as anything by The Shins and done with half as many players.
I left the show with a copy of their CD, In the Belly of a Giant (which I’ve now listened to dozens of times and have been hearing in my sleep), and made plans to see their next gig, just to check my first impression. They played at The Mohawk in early December on one of the coldest nights of the year, following the righteously dissonant Monahans. Once again, The Pons delivered. The following Tuesday, I interviewed the group in their East Austin rehearsal space. Andrew Stearns took the photos the night of the show.
Marsha Mann: Let’s start with some history. I understand you used to call yourselves LaLaLand. Why the name change?
Tommy Mazzi (singer/guitarist): Well I guess it was just too ‘pop’ sounding. We didn’t want to get labeled a ‘power pop band’...I think we’re so much more. The door over there is covered with all the names we were considering (in 2008), and The Pons finally won out.
MM: How did you all meet?
Ruby Painter (bass/back-up vocals): Tommy and I were in another band with my cousins (from 1999-2002), and eventually realized we just wanted to work with each other. We were a duo for a couple of years and used pre-recorded drum tracks and lots of other instruments, along with the bass and guitar. We had a pretty big sound when we played live.
MM: When did Steve join you?
Tommy: We had started recording Ready? Ready! in 2004 (as LaLaLand) and the owner of Low Light (recording studio) recommended him.
MM: What was your background, Steve?
Steve Sanders (drums/back-up vocals): I had been playing for several years in a local band called Antman B, and then later in a group that actually got signed to a major label, Wan Santo Condo…but I wasn’t really into either of them. When I did the studio work with Tommy and Ruby, I finally felt a real connection…a project I could totally commit to.
Tommy: After that, he started playing some gigs with us and by the time we recorded the Mumbo Jumbo EP (in 2006), he was a full member.
MM: You seem like a ‘real band’, which is rare these days. Is there an acknowledged leader or do you all contribute equally?
Ruby: Well Tommy writes all the lyrics and he is the lead singer…I never sang at all until a few years ago, but I play trumpet, so I guess I approach singing in the same way.
Tommy: Our creative process is becoming more and more collaborative as time goes on. We’ll start out jamming and when we hit on an interesting melody, we begin to structure a verse, chorus, and bridge. Once the structure is there, I look through all the scraps of paper I’ve written lyrics or ideas on over the years and see if I can find something that matches the feel of the song. I think a song should sound and feel like what it’s about.
MM: Especially since the audience only gets about 25% of the lyrics (in a live show) anyway! Who have you each been influenced by?
Ruby: I guess I’d have to say my trumpet and French horn-–they were my first instruments. I’ve been playing bass for 8 years now. I like Paul McCartney’s melodic approach and I also listen to The Shins.
Steve: I started playing pots & pans when I was about 10. I guess the first drummers I really paid attention to were power drummers like John Bonham and Keith Moon, but I don’t play anything like them. I like Stewart Copeland a lot (who is more of a colorist).
Tommy: My biggest influence as a kid was the car radio…listening to it for hours on end while my parents drove between San Antonio and Houston.
MM: Is that where you’re from?
MM: What about you two?
Ruby: Oh, I’m from Austin…born and raised. I lived in San Francisco a few years back when I was studying sound engineering, but I like Austin much better…it’s not too big, not too small, the people are friendly and they look you in the eye.
Steve: Yeah, I’m from Austin too. I tried L.A. for a while but I missed my friends and family…they’re all here.
MM: Getting back to your influences, Tommy, what about guitarists?
Tommy: Well, probably Johnny Marr (of The Smiths). And I really appreciate Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth). I like experimenting with guitar techniques instead of just using effects pedals. When it comes to writers, definitely John Lennon, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan…they’re so honest. I also recently discovered David Gedge of The Wedding Present, who’s done some great work over the last 20 years, but slipped under my radar.
MM: Some of your lyrics are quite political.
Tommy: I can’t tolerate injustice, so sometimes I write about it.
MM: Do you have an overall vision for the band? What do you want the audience to take away with them?
Tommy: I want people to see a true band…three people who actually like each other and really care about what they’re doing and saying…it’s important to us.
MM: What’s your idea of a perfect show?
Ruby: You know that scene in the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? The guys have a hit on the radio, but they’ve never played in front of a live audience. So, when they get on stage and start singing and hordes of fans appear out of nowhere, it blows them away. That would be perfect.
MM: Your last album was very well produced…it has a great flow to it. Can you tell me about your producer, Erik Wofford?
Tommy: Yeah, Erik’s great. We met him at the Scoot Inn when he was doing live sound for The Crystal Skulls. He has his own studio here on the east side–Cacophony. He’s done records with Vox Trot, The Black Angels, and What Made Milwaukee Famous. There’s a lot of trust in our relationship…we feel really comfortable with him.
MM: What’s the next step for the band?
Tommy: Finishing the new album we’ve been working on. It’s going to be called The Blackest Shine. There’s also a fellow in New York who’s going to be using our music for an animated series based on the ‘giant’ character from our album cover. And we’re planning another tour of the Midwest in the spring, up to Chicago and back.
MM: With the music industry in such a strange state (due to the internet), are you even interested in being on a major label?
Tommy: Yeah, I am. In fact we’ve had an offer that’s supposed to happen in January or February. I can’t talk about it too much, but I promise to call you as soon as we know for sure.
MM: O.K…just for fun, what’s your favorite color, sound, and food?
Ruby: This is like those questions they ask on Inside the Actor’s Studio. Baby blue, laughter, and tacos.
Tommy: Midnight blue, the long fade out on a great song (it makes me feel like I’m floating), and pizza…you know I’m actually related to the Mandola Family, but I’ve never had one of their pizzas.
Steve: All shades of blue, silence (since I do live sound for the Alamo Drafthouse and play the drums, I don’t get much of it). And I always say if I had to eat one kind of food for the rest of my life, it would be Indian.
The Pons will be performing live on January 9th at Stubb’s (11pm), with Leatherbag and Danny Malone– part of this year’s FREE WEEK on Red River.
(B&W Photos by Andrew Stearns. Color photo and video by Sean Claes)