Pond’s Journey from psych-rock to polished pop
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  • Post published:12/10/2021
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Pond is a band of two halves. Usually lumped into the ever-enigmatic category of psychedelic rock – what with their extended guitar jams, cosmic riffs, and acid aesthetic – the term doesn’t quite capture the group’s full sonic palette. It’s tempting to see the band as having changed direction, but that’s not something frontman Nick Allbrook would recognise too hastily.

“I can’t see any pivots,” Allbrook says about Pond’s musical style. “Every time we try and make something drastically different from the last thing, it goes through this long filtration system, through every member of Pond and our collective sensibilities, and ends up sounding like Pond, just slightly altered, rather than the really different direction we’d planned.”

“That’s almost become part of our process. Making a really ambitious plan for a great stylistic pivot, and then it just sort of does whatever it wants. It gets lost. We might occasionally throw it around, but it’s still just us, really.”

When I chatted to Allbrook this September, it’s to discuss just this: how Pond have changed. Sitting on the floor, slouched over his laptop in a cluttered room, he invites every question with a slight smirk, as if amused that anyone would be interested in knowing his answer. He’s easygoing but considered in his response, and is never afraid to contradict a previous thought with a fresh insight. He’s also sure to suffix every response with the obligatory “man” or “dude”.

Since releasing their home-recorded debut, Psychedelic Mango, over a decade ago, Pond have charted a similar course to their sister group, Tame Impala. Both from Perth, both sharing a handful of members, and both seeing growing success over the last five or so years, they’ve landed in the territory of explosively upbeat psych-pop that’s further explored on their upcoming record, 9.

It’s familiar territory for the band. Not stretching far from their last record, 2019’s environmentally-charged Tasmania, nor 2017’s The Weather before that, it’s a repository of funky bass plucks and cyclical drums squeezed into songs of a radio-friendly length. A natural fit for a band that seems most at home among sequenced synthesisers and studio effects. The abrasive anarchism of past records has been struck down, leaving a band that’s changed, but not altogether divorced from their prior work.

After all, Pond’s always been a band of haphazard creation. Originally formed as a side-project by Allbrook, Joseph “Shiny Joe” Ryan, and Jay Waston while housemates, they’d later be joined by Jamie Terry and James Ireland after a string of replacement drummers. Pond was never really considered a serious proposition by its members, but an excuse to muck around with instruments during the daytime. Its members, who still switch instrumentation song-to-song, simply wanted to play lots of music, with lots of people, all of the time.

“We went through listening to lot’s of classic rock,” Allbrook says with a wry smile. “We were slowly discovering more psych things – Hawkwind, Guru Guru, and Amon Düül – and I noticed this link between them, that they’re all these great big sprawling groups of many people, just sort of dancing and doing these long wigged out things.”

“But we’d also started seeing the Mighty Boosh. So we wanted to make something a bit silly. Just something really fun, for us, where we could wig out on our instruments in a free way, laugh, and spit out psychedelic whimsy like a geyser.”

For their first few records, that intention was well met. Debut Psychedelic Mango was an eccentric collection of disparate psych freak-outs, follow-up Corridors of Blisterday leant even further into indulgent space rock jamming, while third album Frond reined in the track length but eschewed none of the band’s esoteric appeal. All were a little excessive, and all were a stoner’s delight – perfect for a band that were making music at home for nothing more than their own enjoyment. These early records weren’t intended to reach the ears of many, and they largely didn’t outside of the Perth circuit and the odd psych devotee abroad. Not hugely surprising when you listen back.

“I really like that stuff because I wanted it to be as eccentric as possible,” Allbrook says. “The start of ‘Psychedelic Mango Vision’ is this silly little one-and-a-half-minute song and then a five-minute bongo oscillator freak-out. And then the second song is a tropicalia thing that then descends into another oscillator-bongo wig out. We really liked it.”

Their fourth album – 2012’s Beard, Wives, Denim – represented the first whiff of a more serious band. Sharper and less improvisational, it reflected a recognition of their own potential and would be their first semblance of real success. But the album didn’t emerge in a vacuum and owed much of its reception to a similar record that was released only two years prior: Tame Impala’s 2010 debut, Innerspeaker. Parker’s album opened the floodgates for the surge of modern psych that followed and quickly received international acclaim for its modern spin on a classic ‘60s sound. Allbrook describes Innerspeaker almost like a proof of concept for Pond; the first step on their path.

“We saw that there were people listening, which was an absolute unattainable fantasy before. Innerspeaker taught us the power of home recording.”

“We saw that there were people listening,” Allbrook says, “which was an absolute unattainable fantasy before. We knew people around Perth and we’d be listening at local shows, but [Innerspeaker] taught us the power of home recording. None of us was as good as Kev [Kevin Parker of Tame Impala] was, or is, but it was still like, ‘Oh shit, you can make stuff in your room, like that guy in the next room’, which was so cool.

“Amazing, amazing album. I listened to it back a while ago and I was so shocked at how original it was. I don’t think I really thought about it too much at the time, but looking back, that was so, so creative.”

They weren’t the ones to follow in the wake of Tame Impala’s success. Bands like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Babe Rainbow, Psychedelic Porn Crumpets, Bananagun, and The Murlocs are often taken to represent an Australian psych-rock renaissance that emerged in the early 2010s and has continued to gain momentum since. Glance at the contemporary psychedelic space, and it’s not too hard to pick out several Aussie bands from Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney.

Not that Allbrook sees it that way. He says he wasn’t aware of any strong psychedelic presence at the time and suggests it’s often easier to retrospectively draw patterns between disparate groups than see such connections in the present. Reeling off a list of Pond’s early-day contemporaries, he describes those years that followed the surge in psychedelic popularity as a “long distant age”, when Pond was “actually going for psychedelia”.

Just when they did stop ‘going for psychedelia’ Allbrook can’t say – after all, he doesn’t see any pivots in the band – but it’s hardly surprising a shift occurred. For a band as prolific and, it must be said, silly as Pond, deliberate experimentation is part and parcel of their mentality. Whenever a member of the band has fancied taking a stab at an oddball idea, Allbrook says the rest of the band have always welcomed it.

“Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, go on. Give it a try,’” Allbrook says. “Even if you’re a bit sceptical, we’ll try it. Usually, if you’ve come up with a really wild experimental idea and it sounds shit, there’s a point you get on board anyway. I think we generally humour each other for as long as it takes for everyone to agree.”

It’s tempting to see the band as having undergone some form of maturation. Their ditching scuzzy guitars and self-indulgent jams for radio-friendly song structures might be an indication of musical growth. After all, as enjoyable as it can be to write music for no one outside the four walls of your bedroom, surely Pond have superseded that low bar. Or, perhaps they’ve had nothing more than a change of heart? Allbrook’s a little uncertain himself.

“I’m not sure if it’s more mature. I guess it’s just us learning about the craft; about practice and experience. But I guess that is maturation, actually,” he says with a resigned laugh. “I do look back on my old lyrics and think ‘By god, they’re shit’, and listen back to my singing and think ‘God, that was also shit’.

“But everyone’s gotten better at achieving the sort of sound that we all like, and getting closer to where we want to be. A bit more ‘on it’ melodically, chordally, and tonally. Not going too far trying to ‘flash it’ too much.”

This kind of toing and froing is common with Allbrook. He speaks with a permanent air of quizzical introspection as if he’s continually doubting his own words. Curling his hair or glancing up at the ceiling, he’ll spend minutes searching for the right answer, before suddenly finding the central thread with such acuity you wonder if he’s been stringing you along for fun the whole time.

His idiosyncrasies won’t surprise anyone who’s seen Allbrook perform in person. All slapdash make-up, angular jerking, and meandering between-song chat, he’s a theatrical performer who stands at the focal point of Pond’s on-stage presence. Offstage, too, he looks to be the bandleader. He’s taken over singing duties that were previously distributed across the group, his lyricism has formed the thematic focus of recent albums and he stands as frontman in the group’s photos. While Shiny Joe Ryan is releasing new solo music, and Watson puts out records under his moniker GUM, might Pond be developing into something of a Nick Allbrook project?

“No, not at all,” he says. “Maybe it looks that way because I’m singing all the songs. We’ve all grown into our particular roles in the band, in a way. James as producer and Ableton guy, GUM as the other side of that duo, and me wearing platforms and a sparkly suit. I’m a dancing monkey, but the monkey is not the sole leader. It’s a flowing governorship. I think on Tasmania took slightly more [control]. The Weather, maybe Jay. But it’s all remained pretty equal.”

With Pond, the central aim was to always have fun. As the older portions of their discography aged, the band grew tired of replaying the same tracks live. As they discovered the experimental powers of synthesisers – and, crucially, how much fun could be had programming and playing them – they were incorporated into the mix. But it’s not as if their older psyche songs have been struck from setlists entirely. Recorded on their debut album, “Don’t Look at the Sun (or You’ll Go Blind)” has been a mainstay of their live performances for years, and recently made an appearance on their 2019 live album, Sessions.

“It was always fun when we very first did it, and we’ve managed to add on enough new elements to keep it feeling really good. It’s always such an easy raver live. For some reason, we haven’t gotten sick of it – god knows why. Maybe it’s adding the bit in the middle, where we can just throw in different covers, adding in a sort of house beat that comes in. It’s just continued to be interesting.

“We’ve been planning a version of ‘Moth Wings’ for ages because it always gets requested, and we haven’t played it since the very early days. We’ve been planning a fucking fun version that sounds like Parliament, Daft Punk, or Yeezus – something more angular, and robotic, and enormous. But we never get around to it. We always get stuck doing some other stupid shit, like making another album.”

Many of these fleeting interests bleed through from Tame Impala. Even now, over a decade since Parker’s solo project kicked Pond into action, the groups are still intertwined. Not merely friends keen to lend a hand in the studio, they share a broad appetite for musical exploration, collectively flitting between genres, artists, and eras, while pulling each other along for the ride.

“We all hang out,” he says, “and share music. It kind of amazes me sometimes how similar our shifting tastes can be – our broadening of taste with music, art, sound and our aesthetic sensibilities. For me, at least, it was quite narrow for the very beginning, where it was just like, ‘I want to be a tribute band man, wanna be a tribute bunch of clowns’. But now there’s this great encyclopaedia of interests over 33 years of consuming culture, and a lot of that is not just Zeppelin, and Baby Grandmothers, and Dungen, but it’s Primitive Calculators, and Chemical Brothers, and shit – everything else.”

As to where that ever-expanding taste has led them on 9, Allbrook is cryptically poetic: “That’s very hard because nothing can describe the intention as much as the product. That’s the intention: the album.”

While he squints into the distance and reels off a few hyperbolic descriptors of his early ideas for the record, it’s difficult to discern whether Allbrook genuinely views the band in the comical light with which he often talks of it or is led to that position through a sense of embarrassment – preferring to hide under the protective sheen of exaggeration than open himself up to the vulnerable position of profundity.

“I wanted some more aggressive and fast things; some things with real fucking bounce and lift that make people want to kick people.”

“I wanted some more aggressive and fast things; some things with real fucking bounce and lift that make people want to kick people,” he says. “Over the last little bit, I’ve been listening to stuff with a lot of energy, but also at the same time lots of groovy stuff that isn’t that anthemic.

“We had a different place we were coming from. I’m not sure what it is, more monochromatic hellscape than a wonderland. I know that’s a long way from what the album sounds like. We did have more of a grey, industrial image in our head and we kept on threatening to call the album ‘Full Reznor’ [in reference to Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails] and wanted to make the whole colour scheme Matrix Green. We had some sort of Philip K Dick thing in our mind, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into the sound. It still comes out pretty Pond-ie, even though we were like ‘full Blade soundtrack, man.’”

That process of taking a silly idea and shoving it through the band’s ‘filtration system’, before ditching the harebrained premise entirely for something more feasible (and palatable) is common to all of Pond’s work. Allbrook says they’ve worked the same modus operandi across their albums, and are quite happy riffing off a tongue-in-cheek idea to get them started, only to leave it behind soon after.

“We’ve had so many fucking stupid ideas thrown around for different records over the last 12 years,” Allbrook says. “We wanted The Weather to be really like J Dilla, but through sampling Pond and snippets from our back catalogue. We started doing it, then realised our samples don’t sound very good because the only reason you sample stuff is because of the inimitable sonic quality of it, which is why everyone samples ‘Studio One’ and these dusty old nuggets. So we sampled Todd Rundgren’s utopia and made ‘Paint Me Silver,’ then sort of just forgot a bit about the sampling thing.”

Pond’s lyrical development might be the starkest change of all. While much of their discography features near-nonsense wordplay that sits somewhere between a stoner’s diary and ambiguous, abstract angst, 2017’s The Weather and 2019’s Tasmania touched on more sobering topics: environmental injustice, unfettered industrialisation, and global insecurity, all wrapped up in a generous dollop of pained anxiety. It’s all still very theatrical, mind, but a little more grounded in the here-and-now than the imaginary world of edible-munching fiction. You’d struggle to find a lyric like “I need the ground when I shake my brain / I must have felt the sound / You were travelling on, following Zond” in recent records. What encouraged Allbrook to start penning more topical lyrics?

“Maybe pretension? Delusions of grandeur? Messiah syndrome?” he jokes. “If I had been alive in the ’70s I should have been saying this then. It just became unavoidable, unignorable. I feel like I’ve been saying this buzzword too much recently, but ‘doomscrolling’. The environmental cataclysm’s just sort of a daily anxiety, and a massively existentially challenging anxiety as well, which inspires writing shit down. Complicated messy thoughts require writing as a therapy, just the same as people journaling for therapy, which I still do because there’s a lot to get out.

“I tried to think about other stuff in this album. I tried to think about more personal, manageable-sized things in my own field of vision, in my own life.”

“I tried to think about other stuff in this album. I tried to think about more personal, manageable-sized things in my own field of vision, in my own life. Maybe that was a pandemic thing; your world shrinks a lot. But in the end, the lyrics always come back to the whole world setting on fire.

“God, the ‘90s were an incredible time. Ross, Chandler, wanton pollution and expansion, and capitalism – love it. Silly bastards. Took us long enough. But now that everyone’s slowly blinking open, including myself, it’s hard to think about anything else except the end of your gene pool.”

In many ways, Pond’s earlier, abrasive guitar-driven sounds are better suited to the existential dread of this lyricism than their current, polished, cosmic pop. Allbrook proffers it’s a result of the band’s collective songwriting. As instrumentation and melodies are picked up and manipulated by other members of the band, thematic mismatches will naturally occur. He sees it as a hallmark of Pond. But he’s not sure if that’s really true, or whether an attempt to analyse the band’s music in such a way is even valid.

“Sometimes I forget what I’m singing about by the time it comes to doing it, and then when interviewers asked me what a song’s about, I go through the lyrics and go, ‘Well, I guess it’s about the fucking great wealth divide in the Kimberley’, or something. Is America’s Cup even about gentrification? I dunno, but I let it get into a publication and now it’s the official story. It’s very hard when the lyrics you write and the sounds that you make are the best answer. It’s like explaining a colour.”

9 is out October 1st via Spinning Top Records.

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