Ever go out on a date and pretend to be something you're not? It's a rather self-defeating move, but not unusual. A similar thing happened to Atlanta rockers Ponderosa when they released Pool Party last year, a very different album than their 2010 debut Moonlight Revival. Sometimes it takes a minute to trust your talent.
"There was this instant where we tried something that was T. Rex and Rolling Stones-esque, and that's the first record," explains guitarist Kris Sampson. "We were going for a raucously genericana sound, but we've always been kind of a space/psychedelic rock band. Before there was Ponderosa, bass player Jonathan "JT" Hall and I were in a shoegaze, psychedelic band, and keyboard player Jon Dance was in an early-Pink Floyd type band."
When they formed five years ago, Ponderosa's manager encouraged them to enlist Joe Chicarelli (Jason Mraz, The Shins), with the idea that working with a big-name producer would help them get the interest of a label. The plan succeeded beautifully, and a couple of years after making the album, Athens, Ga. label New West Records signed the band and re-released their debut. Unfortunately, by then Ponderosa was beginning to believe they'd made a horrible mistake.
"We had toured a lot and seen what bar bands and swampy-tonk bands do, the life for those guys and where the ceiling is. We didn't want to be a part of that. We wanted to do something more creative," Sampson says. "That record is very predictable to the point of being stale and stagnant, like a dentist office. We wanted more music free-falling like waterfalls and not just in a certain direction. Moments of music and less to-the-point kind of stuff."
Of course, it's one thing to feel that way. If Ponderosa possessed a lot of self-assurance, they wouldn't have painted themselves into that corner in the first place. However, they chose to record some of their second album with producer David Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Weezer), a guy who loves heady music and doesn't truck a lot of bullshit.
"We were like, 'Do we have to put on a Southern rock song or will people be mad at us?' and he's like, 'I don't like any of those songs. I like this stuff you're doing,' and he got us in that direction," Sampson says. "Dave believed in us and [New West] believed in Dave, so they're like you have free range. We were like, 'Oh shit, we're doing this.' Once we got locked in, we definitely started writing more psychedelic stuff."
The resulting album drifts, billows, and blooms with psychedelic splendor, guitars strung like Christmas lights across the firmament trailed by keyboard chem trails. Singer Kalen Nash's breathy, slightly husky croon moves with similar dreamy somnambulance as the songs shroud him like a cloud.
The stately exultance of "Navajo" has the bearing of Spiritualized, while other tracks have the reverb-soaked sway of Band of Horses or a more narcotized My Morning Jacket. Indeed, if Ponderosa used any more reverb in the feedback loop — like the guy holding a picture of himself holding a picture of himself holding a picture, etc. — they would surely have ripped the fabric of time and space.
"Yeah, we might've been a little heavy-handed," Sampson says. "It seems the biggest backlash we've gotten from the record was about how much reverb there is on it. We wanted to do something different, and we're all super into psychedelic, moody music. It didn't really seem crazy because bands like Fleet Foxes were out at the time, and they're pretty drenched in reverb."
Ponderosa had a great time recording at Fridmann's studio. "It was fall, upstate New York, a cabin in the woods. It was fantastic. No distractions," Sampson says. But they couldn't afford to do the whole album there, so they self-produced the other half in Asheville, N.C., at Echo Mountain. To their credit, it's difficult to guess which of the 10 tracks belong to Fridmann, as the experience of working with him informs the whole album.
"We definitely meshed really well with Dave. He would come in [the sound room] and he would be, 'I feel that song needs like a giant purple cloud raining mercury. Can you play something that is a giant purple ominous cloud showering the listener with shiny mercury drops?'" Sampson recalls. "And you're like, what key is mercury in? Is that A minor?"
It's been almost a year since Pool Party's release, and the ensuing tours have only gotten Ponderosa more pumped to make this kind of music. Sampson, Nash, and Hall have each written and demoed at least a dozen songs, so one challenge will be winnowing those down. The other is: What next?
"I think we're just going to go for it and go record this next album in Jamaica," Sampson says. The plan would be to head there during January or February and have the album out spring of next year.
But Sampson does express some worry about how they'll make the next transition.
"It seems like there's been a huge move from that Southern rock to neo-psych and now it's on to the two-hot-girls-and-a-drum-machine band," he cracks. "We're kind of SOL on that one, we have no hot girls in our band, so that will be an even harder transition to make."