“I think there are countries where people literally do not dance at shows.”
As a total music nerd, I almost never get to say this, but this time it's true: no other band sounds like Ponytail. Sure, there are points of reference you could throw out -- maybe Deerhoof, maybe Boredoms -- but Ponytail is about as unique as a rock band gets these days. Their music takes all sorts of outlandish twists and turns, and Molly Siegel's yelps and exclamations are both impish and frightening, depending on the moment. Their live show is kind of like being a 12-year-old boy at a birthday party playing laser tag for the first time. Which is to say, totally exhilarating. There are plenty of intellectually stimulating avant-rock bands out there, but Ponytail really have heart, and it shows. I once brought a friend who had never heard Ponytail to one of their shows in Baltimore; halfway through the first song, he turned to me with a wonderstruck grin and said, "I believe in music again."
I managed to catch up with Molly Siegel on the phone shortly after she left work. We talked about a late-night touring experience, meeting John Norris from MTV, and the band's origin and songwriting techniques. Siegel also talked about the unique challenges and rewards of playing a hometown show after touring elsewhere.
So, you're just getting home from work -- do you mind saying where exactly you work?
This is my second day; I just started working where my roommate works at an art-handling place near DC. It's called HMB Art Transfer. It's actually pretty nice.
The band isn't self-sustaining just yet?
Not quite yet. I think we're close, but not yet.
Well, you're on the road a lot. What's the craziest experience you've had on tour so far?
I was just telling a SXSW story, but it's kind of a complaining story. I feel like I should tell something more positive. Things usually go kind of smoothly, but I'll tell the story. When we toured down to SXSW the first time, which was pretty rough. We were in Athens, and we actually played two shows over two days -- I don't really know why, but we just kind of did. We played the Secret Squirrell, which is a great place, but I think it was kind of insane because of SXSW. We were pretty exhausted, but they were kind of hoping we would go on at 4:00 AM.
Do people actually watch music at 4:00 AM?
Yeah, dude. Athens, GA is crazy. They love to start shows at 1:00 AM. Their shows are like afterparties to other shows. It's insane; they're like marathons. We were at a show at this theater -- it was a cool, old theater -- and Dark Meat played and a few other bands. It was a good show, a long show, and maybe at the end of the night you'd be done and have a beer. But everyone from that show went to this other show at the Secret Squirrell, and they were ready to go. I think it was a six-band bill that was starting at 1:00 AM. We were like, "Well, I think we'll go on at four in the morning." We were debating whether or not to play, but we did, which I think was a good move. The funny thing is that we were supposed to sleep at the warehouse, and White Mice was the last band, and they're like the loudest band on the planet. It was just funny to have White Mice playing at five in the morning, or near six in the morning.
Living near DC, where the bars close around 2:00 AM, that's pretty late.
Yeah, it really is late, and that's their style.
Have you met anyone on the road that you never expected to meet?
Yes. We just did an interview with John Norris, from MTV news, from like my childhood. We were all really, really psyched about it, and he's just a really nice guy and really down to earth. Now he comes to our shows and is a huge supporter. That was a total surprise, and it was really nice.
Going back a little, how did Ponytail come together? How did it all begin?
Well, all the stories are true. We were put together in a class at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, by a professor named Jeremy Seegler. The main assignment of the class was to create a band. The professor stood among the students on the second day of class and just eyeballed the bands together -- you with you, you with you -- kind of intuitive grouping. He had things up his sleeve, like "This would make make a really good girl band; this is going to make a really good weird, noise band." It didn't have anything to do with your musical talent; it just happened to be that our band had three members that played their instruments really well, which wasn't really the same situation as the other bands. So, we somehow kept going after that.
"It's almost easier for me to perform to an anonymous crowd."
I read somewhere that the original intention of the band was to write pop music, is that true?
Well, how does a Ponytail song get written? Is it entirely collaborative or does someone come in with a chunk of a song?
We've actually been writing a lot lately, so I feel I can answer that question well. I think it changes over time, but we definitely do write collaboratively. Every song is collaborative, it's not like someone has an idea for a song and then we play their song. But people come up with riffs alone, or sometimes Ken and Dustin will write alone and come up with stuff, or Jeremy will have ideas, and I'll have things I write outside, but in the end every song is a collaborative effort.
How do you come up with the vocalizations you use in particular?
Lately, I've been doing a little bit more coming up with stuff beforehand, or at least kind of coming up with stuff that is more like melodies. Usually, we're writing the parts together, and I just kind of jam on it in practice, and I just come up with or improvise whatever. Certain things I like, and I'll stick to them. I've noticed that on Ice Cream Spiritual, a lot of those songs got finished on the road. By the end of our first U.S. tour, I really felt done, like I would do certain things in every song. I didn't really feel like that in the beginning. Things at least got honed, and I felt really good about it by the end.
Do the parts remain fairly consistent, or are they changing a lot from show to show?
Yeah, what I do is fairly consistent. It's not always the same, but none of the instruments really depend on my voice, so I have a lot of freedom. We do have a song on Kamehameha that I have to do something on time like a hold on Bermuda Triangle, but that's like the only thing I have to do on time. Even then, it doesn't really depend on me. I mean, it's never exactly the same, because I do allow myself to improvise a little bit every time.
Do you ever wish people could sing along?
I do, actually, and I notice that people do kind of sing along when they can. I'm psyched about that, and I want to create more stuff that's a little bit easier to sing along to. That's definitely a goal of all of ours.
You guys are getting ready to tour Europe next. Have you been there before?
Yes, we were there a few months ago. It was really awesome; we were really fortunate. We were there for like three weeks.
Do people respond in the same way overseas? Do they dance as much, or are they more sedate?
It totally depends on the show and the place. I feel like it's easy to play a city and say, "No one in Paris dances." But I don't think that's a good way of judging things. I think we definitely got more dancing -- similar to America -- when the vibe is right, people dance. I think there are countries where people literally do not dance at shows. Well, people have told me that; I don't know if it's actually true. We had a few dancing crowds. Paris was really awesome; people were dancing and going nuts -- also London. Those two really stick out in my mind.
Does it compare to playing a hometown show in Baltimore? Is that something that's really special and different than playing elsewhere?
It definitely is really different-feeling for me. It actually always feels different too. It started out where I felt more comfortable playing at home -- I used to just be a lot more nervous playing when we began. Playing in Baltimore now is definitely really good and we have incredible shows; it's really wonderful all the support. But it is a totally different feeling playing to all your friends that I always have to adjust to. You get really used to playing to a lot more anonymous crowd, and it's almost easier for me to perform to an anonymous crowd. But it can be more fun to perform to friends because they're friends; I can see their faces and know what they're thinking.
I know you're not in the city very much now, but is there anything fresh that you've heard or seen coming out of Baltimore now?
Definitely. The band Thank You -- they're such newbies, but I think they're a great band. Unfortunately, their drummer broke his hand. Double Dagger is a great band, and their drummer has a project called Smart Growth that's really good. Our friends have a project called Google Eyez, and there's a new project called Dodgers that's real new but pretty cool.
You said you've been writing new material, so when should we expect the next Ponytail record?
Don't expect, don't expect! We really don't want to force it. We want it to come out as soon as possible, but right now we have two songs written and not a lot of time to write.
Aside from the European tour in general, is there anything else you're excited about that's coming up in Ponytail's near future?
We are going to Primavera in Spain, which I'm super psyched about. And I was actually just talking about how I've never been to Atlanta, GA. I'm kinda psyched about that; I might see some hip-hop.