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Tireless ex-locals Pontiak slow down to make an album built for live shows

Photo: PJ Sykes, License: N/A

PJ Sykes

Tension was high in the finals of the chris elliott lookalike contest.

The three brothers of Pontiak make up one of the hardest-working and most prolific bands in the business. In addition to their heavy touring schedule, the Blue Ridge Mountains-based band just put out their ninth release, the Thrill Jockey LP INNOCENCE, in just eight years.

But 2013 was a special year for the erstwhile Baltimoreans. It was the first year that the prolific band— which released two albums some years—didn’t release anything.

“We wanted to kind of take a different approach to writing this record. We just took more time and wrote it a different way,” guitarist and lead vocalist Van Carney says over the phone. Fueled by a brunch of steak and eggs and red wine, the brothers are driving from a gig in Nashville. Their road show comes to the Ottobar this Thursday, Feb. 27.

“We kind of sat down and wrote everything from melody first and we just kind of built everything in around that,” Carney continues. “And that just takes a while and that takes being able to sit back and let things kind of marinate for a minute.”

The change in approach is evident upon listening to the album. While previous releases flirted with different styles of heavy, riff-based music, including drone-y doom-metal tracks and neo-psychedelia, INNOCENCE (intentionally stylized in all caps to soften the loaded word, says Carney) is streamlined.

“Everything from Sun on Sun, up to about Living, we did in a very specific way where we got in the studio, we wrote and recorded basically in the first take of each song,” Carney explains. “We knew kind of where we were going, but the whole intention was to have everything on the verge of falling apart, to get that kind of immediacy.”

While this approach yielded some powerful and varied music, the brothers were eager to make an album built more on what worked in their live show.

“Sometimes the stuff we put on a record would not really translate very well into an audience,” says Carney. “Not everybody gives a shit about us just kind of making some noise for 10 minutes. For instance, pretend you’re playing a show one night, you’re in Dallas and it’s cold or whatever, and there’s a bunch of people there and maybe some people don’t even know who you are, and to be able, with every song, to connect with people, for me, is what music is.

“We just got this really resonant feeling that people liked when we played a certain kind of thing, and we really liked that too,” Carney continues. “In a way, if you can engage people, just anybody, in anything, that’s pretty cool, that’s a really special and hard thing to do.”

The band may have rid itself of some of its more indulgent tendencies, but it still made room for its quieter side to shine.

“It might not work for people with short attention spans, having a few songs on there that are I guess a little bit slower,” Carney says. “But generally and overwhelmingly, people have really reacted positively to that. The slower songs really, really work on the record and that’s exactly what we wanted to do.”

INNOCENCE’s punchiness suits the band well with head-banging rockers like the title track and the chugging “Surrounded by Diamonds” hitting hard and never wearing out their welcome, with nary a track over the four-minute mark. Meanwhile, the ballads provide respite from the riffs and showcase the band’s nuances.

“The songs are short, to the point, there’s not a whole lot of bells and whistles, it’s just like bang straight through, which is what we want to do,” Carney says. “We want to be able to write a record that we can play live and it would be all there, but we can see, having done this process, how much fun it was, how cool it was to do it. We can just see where we can go even further with it with the next one.”

That’s right, the band is already thinking about its next album.

“We’re definitely thinking about the next album,” Carney says. “I mean, this is kind of what we do. It’s kind of like this addiction that we have: We just gotta constantly be working. The next record is going to take us longer, and we’re going to give ourselves more time for it, so we’re already thinking about it and processing it.”

With the success of INNOCENCE, one of the band’s strongest and catchiest efforts, we can only look forward to what the band can do with even more time.

Pontiak plays the Ottobar Feb. 27.

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