Interview with Virgina rockers Pontiak

The three brothers in Pontiak log heavy miles, play heavy music.

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Imagine you're one of three brothers four years apart who ride around the country in a van that's tricked out with a sleeping loft. Most nights you stay at campgrounds and cook out. You pull the van over on a whim for a hike or to check out whatever catches your attention, be it the Grand Canyon or a roadside taco stand. Now imagine that most nights you get to turn your instruments up real loud and play your own heavy music in front of people who paid to see you.

That's touring the Pontiak way, and doesn't it sound like a pretty good time?

Somehow van tours have become synonymous with misery, but the three Carney brothers — drummer Lain, 26, (aptly named) guitarist Van, 29, and bassist Jennings, 30 — see it more as a chance for nonstop discovery. And fun.

"We get along really well," says Lain by cell phone while driving the van. "There's the usual bickering. Any time you get three men in a moving capsule, you might fight over the last four Cheetos. But we get on real well. And we smell pretty good."

A similar sense of openness and discovery informs Pontiak's music, which dodges classification. The trio's second album, Maker (Thrill Jockey), is built around big, doomy guitars and sludgy grooves — like a stoner rock record made by a band that routinely discards the genre rulebook. The music alternates between monster-riff instrumentals and songs with droning melodies and unruly unison vocals. (Toss in a few noise freakouts for good measure.) It seethes with a dark psychedelia, bursting with moments of distortion and feedback — but, just when you think you've got it, the trio slides into a spacey acoustic song. There are nods to Sabbath, Hendrix, Pink Floyd and others, but Maker is anything but a rehashed classic-rock mélange. If anything, Pontiak music sounds otherworldly, made by men insulated from pop culture and rock history.

Which is largely true. The brothers were raised in the Virginia hills west of Washington, D.C. "I went to a small school and music wasn't a big part of our social scene," Lain says. "We'd run around, play in the river. My mom listened to a lot of classical music, so I did too. We heard country music. We had an Elton John Greatest Hits in the house. My brother had U2's Achtung, Baby."

Neither Lain nor Van can concretely explain where Pontiak's penchant for heaviness comes from. "You just feel younger, feel more vitality playing heavy and loud," Van says. "It's a more physical feeling."

The Carneys all started on guitar around the same time in their teens. They added a drum set, but didn't set their sights on becoming pros. Pontiak got revved up in earnest when Lain graduated from Goucher College in Baltimore four years ago. The sibling trio gathered in that city and started writing and performing. When Van moved to Brooklyn, his brothers visited a couple times a month, but the separation slowed their musical progress. So they all joined relocated to Warrenton, Va., about halfway between their hometown and D.C. They set up a small studio and started developing material.

Because they're not on the clock, the brothers spend lot of time there writing and recording. "Most of our songs have been collaborations," Lain explains. "We bring in some ideas, work it out, then we'll hit 'record.' We'll throw out more ideas. We've come up with our own language to describe different parts."

Sounds like fun.

"It is fun," Lain confirms. "We set our own deadlines; we don't pay anybody. I love microphones. I love cables. I love recording techniques, mixing in the studio. Writing and recording in the studio is my favorite part of all this."

The Carney guys know, however, that they're not going to make it by hanging around Warrenton and releasing records. Although their label, Thrill Jockey, brings plenty of hipster cache, Pontiak's path to success will come via touring. They're currently about eight weeks into a 10-week national trek that's their longest ever. It's the 12th time they've hit the highway, each one more successful than the last.

"It used to be that we would have to personally save up X amount of dollars in order to go on tour," Lain says. "It would cost us money. But we have a good booking agent, and we play more and more cities where people like our music. We've sold more merchandise on this tour than we ever have, and the audiences are bigger than ever. Now the tours sustain themselves. We don't need to save up."

Apparently, Pontiak's hard-to-pin-down sound even flummoxes folks that have paid for tickets. "I get people asking me to describe our music just before we play," Lain says, bemused. "I tell 'em it's kind of a tricky question: It's pretty loud, sometimes fast, sometimes slow; there's a rock flavor to it, it's sometimes psychedelic. 'But we're going on in a second, if you'd like to find out for yourself.'"

If fans have a tough time understanding the Pontiak milieu, imagine trying to market it. This is in-between music, too arty for radio, too freeform and kinetic for metal, too far-reaching to slot into a mini-genre like stoner rock. This artistic elusiveness makes the music all the more interesting, but it does raise questions about the band's commercial potential. Lain says that at the moment Pontiak as a business enterprise does not cover the members' bills. When he's not on the road, he works at a bar.

The Carneys concede, maybe a bit reluctantly, that it's unlikely they'll suddenly break out with a hit record. "We're not going to blow up within a scene," Lain allows. "I wouldn't want to blow up in a scene. It's meteoric. You can burn out fast. We like a slow burn."

But how slow is too slow? Will the Carney Brothers eventually tire of van tours, will being in Pontiak at some point become an untenable lifestyle?

Van chuckles. "We've had many nights of conversation about that, but we realized it's counterproductive," he says. "I try not to think about that anymore."

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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