Mission: Re-Listen-Pomegranate by Poi Dog Pondering

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Pomegranate by Poi Dog Pondering (Released in October of 1995)

The story of Poi Dog Pondering has had many chapters. It started in Hawaii back in 1984 with founder and mainstay Frank Orrall. Using his brother’s cassette 4-track recorder, he made up songs, recorded them and assembled them into homemade cassette albums, and sold them on consignment at a local record store under the name Poi Dog Pondering.

Orrall began playing his music out on the streets of Waikiki, adding multi-instrumentalist Dave “Max” Crawford and violinist/vocalist Susan Voelz. But forming a band in the middle of the Pacific Ocean made it unlikely that Poi Dog Pondering would get the attention of a record label. So the three sold their belongings for airline tickets and flew to California. They bought an old GMC Suburban truck, loaded the instruments and sleeping bags in the back and set off on a trip across the U.S., making gas and food money by street playing.

The trio traveled across the country playing on street corners and in front of college coffee houses. In 1988, they were offered a contract by Texas Hotel Records. They relocated to Austin, Texas to record because they had met some of the best musicians there during their travels and they wanted them in the band. After releasing an EP, they started to create a buzz that interested several record labels. They signed with Columbia and very quickly had a manager, booking agent and a tour van. Poi Dog Pondering criss-crossed the country too many times to count over the next few years. They also released three albums during this period that started to receive airplay on college radio.

After several years of touring, everyone was getting worn down. Sony was also growing disenchanted. PDP was not the next big thing they were hoping for. They released the band from their contract in 1993. Rather than sign with another label, the band decided to go fully independent and start their own.

They also decided to move their home base to Chicago. “I never intended to stay in Austin as long as I did” remembers Frank Orrall. “I really went there to record the first record. But we wound up loving it and stayed for five years. But what I really wanted to experience was living in a big city. An International city. New York and San Francisco were great, but way too expensive for an artist’s wage. Max and I really liked Chicago from visiting there on PDP tours. So we loaded up a U-haul with our instruments and clothes and drove to Chicago. The city was filled with new adventures to unfold. We knew we had arrived in, for us, a shiny new city at the right time for us. We were stoked and ready to go.”

Max moved in with friends he’d made from the band’s performances at the club Lounge Ax. Frank rented a studio on the south side in Pilsen and went to work. He was starting out fresh in Chicago. “I didn’t bring any half-finished songs up from Austin,” he said. “I wrote from scratch. And, I went deep. I’ve always written from personal experience. But, this time, I wanted to explore deeper and reveal more and make the songs more intimate. I was meeting with a Jungian analyst who came out of the music and theater world who was really helping me reach into the subconscious. This was where the lyrics and bare bones for the new songs started to appear.”

Meanwhile, Frank and Max began the work of rebuilding the band. The folks from Lounge Ax introduced the duo to a lot of amazing musicians and artists. Under the title “Frank & Dave”, the two began a monthly residency at Lounge Ax. They used those shows to try out new songs and play with different musicians around town. During this time, they hooked up with guitarist Dag Juhlin and Paul Mertens (sax, flute, clarinet). They hit it off immediately and the core of the new band was forming.

Orrall wanted a tight rhythm section so he began frequenting reggae and jazz clubs where he found percussionist Leddie Garcia and bassist Rob Amster. Dag Juhlin brought in drummer Steve Goulding to round out the rhythm section. It was all coming together according to Juhlin. “Despite delivering a trio of excellent records, Poi Dog was freed from a Sony contract which seemed to bum everyone out for about five minutes”, he recalled. “The do-it-yourself ethos, of which there is no greater champion than Frank Orrall, took hold. The band decided to embrace our newfound independence and unsuckle ourselves from the corporate teat. We had songs, our lineup was gelling, and, dammit, we wanted to record an album. We’d do it ourselves!”

The album that Poi Dog Pondering would go on to record would turn out to be the high point in their career. The process of writing and recording this new batch of songs would change the sound of the band forever.

Enjoy this classic album re-listen of Pomegranate by Poi Dog Pondering

1. Pomegranate
2. Catacombs
3. Complicated
4. The Chain
5. Big Constellation
6. Sandra At The Beach
7. Diamonds And Buttermilk
8. Shu Zulu Za
9. God’s Gallipoli
10. The Shake Of Big Hands
11. Al Le Luia

 

(click player for Pomegranate by Poi Dog Pondering)

 

Pomegranate is the fourth full-length studio album by the group Poi Dog Pondering. It was released on October 25th, 1995 on the band’s own Pomegranate Records. After three records on Columbia/Sony Records, including a promising final album Volo Volo, the group was released from their contract. When this happened, outsiders thought that marked the end of an extraordinarily promising group. However it was just a temporary hiatus as Frank Orrall reinvented his band starting with a new home in Chicago and a new group of musicians.

Orrall’s studio on Chicago’s south side would quickly become the engine room for the new PDP. Several rehearsals at the space started to shape the sound of this new band. Orrall had created a bunch of song ideas that, although evolving, were ready to record. “I wanted to make a personal record”, recalled Orrall. “I had a strong concept for the album’s songs as we went into the studio. Pomegranate-the ‘apple’ of the garden of eden story-as a metaphor. True life and living is what happens outside of the garden of eden. It all happens in the non-perfect world. The world of beauty, sensuality and strife and the impermanence of life that makes it all so wondrous. The idea was that none of life should be taken for granted. Live and love it all. Sensuality. Spirituality.”

Soon after arriving in Chicago, Orrall met producer Martin Stebbing who himself had just relocated from London. After hearing the band at Lounge Ax, Stebbing invited them to Battery Studios on the south side to demo a few songs with the simple invitation “just bring some wine. We’ll light some candles and record some music for the fun of it”. PDP knew they’d found their man to make records with.

 

Orrall didn’t want to go into a traditional recording studio to record this new album. So the band bought some ADAT recorders and Stebbing made up recording cables by hand with a soldering gun and pliers. They rented an empty basketball gym in the Cabrini Green area of central Chicago and moved in. They brought in bed rolls and chairs and set up a make shift kitchen. They plastered pictures, lyrics, song lists and notes all over the walls. “I remember moving some gear and furniture into the derelict gym that would be our studio on Larrabee Street”, recalls Paul Mertens. “Feeling like a kid who was trying to make a race car out of a cardboard box in the rain”.

The band went to work, often running around the clock in shifts with Frank, Max, Stebbing and engineer Scott Ramsayer trading recording duties. “It was an incredible time for the band”, said Dag Juhlin. “We were being fueled by the support and acceptance of the fans while trying to honor the legacy of previous versions of the band while forging our own.”

 

When Frank Orrall first moved to Chicago, he lived with a woman named Brigid Murphy who came out of the performance art world. She proved to be a kindred spirit who became a great sounding board for the performance aspect of the band. She inspired a lot of ideas for stage design and how to convey on stage which would come in handy as the group would begin to play larger venues.

But that was not the only influence she brought to the band. “Brigid had a serious bout with cancer, almost right after we moved in together”, recalled Orrall. “This really intensified life for us in those early 90’s years. It brought a lot of richness and meaning to our lives and our creative work. We felt thankful for life, and simultaneously a bit beat up by it. The song ‘God’s Gallipoli’ came out of this period”.

Pomegranate is a collection of songs that has its roots in sadness and looking death square in the eyes. But ultimately it’s a record about triumph and life. “We hammered those songs out piece by piece in that funky space”, said Paul Mertens describing the recording process. “We knew we had a record and that it was gonna be amazing”.

 

The band was listening to a lot of Nick Drake albums during the recording sessions which inspired them to add more orchestral elements to the emerging sound. They met the Parallax string quartet and had them join Paul, Max and Susan to record the orchestrations on the album. This did more than just deliver a lush and layered quality to the new songs. The band was so pleased with the result that, going forward, this orchestration would become a part of their new trademark sound.

Orrall wanted what he described as “really big vocals” for the new songs. He mentioned the vocals on Talking Heads’ Remain In Light album as an example of what he was going for. Poi Dog had worked with Jerry Harrison for their previous album Volo Volo. During the sessions, Harrison had flown in a friend of his, Arlene Newsom, to record on the song “Jack Ass Ginger”. The band reached out to Newsom and she brought fellow singer Kornell Hargrove to join her. “We recorded them”, said Orrall, “and they sounded great. We asked them join right there. As they are church singers, I was worried that they might not like some of the lyrics like “Diamonds and Buttermilk” and “God’s Gallipoli”. But they were all in”.

Just like the band itself, he recording sessions were unconventional. “I remember the night we were recording ‘Shu Zulu Za’ and we weren’t getting a feel for it”, recalled vocalist Robert Cornelius. “Initially Frank and I were in the sound booth and it wasn’t clicking. Frank and Martin (Stebbing) and I talked about it. There was something primal about this song, and the goal was to get that on the record. So we went into the live room and started singing to each other. We were making progress, but we still weren’t there. So Martin turned off the lights, Frank and I stripped down some and crawled around on the floor in the dark with our microphones in our hands and stalked each other as we sang, and we got the final take we wanted. It is still one of the coolest things I have ever done, and I think it is what made the song. I still get that image in my head when we are performing the song live. I was new to the studio, but that was such a theatrical moment. One if my favorite memories.”

 

When the basic tracks were all recorded, the band moved next door into War Zone Studios to mix it. “We knew we were making something good”, said Orrall. “We gave ourselves lots of time to mix it. We were incorporating electronic elements and nature sounds into the music. We enlisted Dance Music producer Matt Warren to add some synth and loop muscle to ‘Complicated’. Our engineer, Scott Ramsayer, put a nice phat synth solo on ‘Diamonds and Buttermilk’. My love of Manchester bands and visits to Chicago House clubs were adding sparkles to the mix”.

Orrall’s fascination with House Music also had an influence on the band’s stage performance. One night he spotted an amazing dance troop called “House-O-Matics” and was blown away. The band had already booked the legendary Vic Theater for a multi-night release party for the new record. Orrall approached the troop’s leader Ronnie Sloan and asked them if they’d join the band for these shows. This was the start of a collaboration that is still going on today.

When the songs were finally completed, Orrall reflected on the process by saying “I felt we got back that something we lost during the last days of the Sony years. Our autonomy. Self rule. Integrity. We were now free to follow our intuition.” The band opted not to sign with another record label ever again. Instead, they formed their own independent label called Platetectonic Music which they have recorded under ever since. For Pomegranate‘s artwork, the group wanted something special. They mocked up several different designs. But ultimately they went with a hand-pressed vintage print process limited to only 10,000 numbered copies.

 

The album was released on October 25th, 1995. Orrall and the rest of the band were pleased with the results. “Looking back on Pomegranate, it’s a really good record”, he said. There is a blending of a lot of elements on it. Each song is its own thing, but it works as a whole. It was hand made with heart and solid earnest effort”.

Critics agreed. One called it “a collection of groovy, danceable numberes propelled by Orrall’s dramtic voice and overly poetic lyricism. Pomegranate manages to recapture both the fun-loving spirit and accomplished musicianship that made Poi Dog such a delight at the start”. Another described the news sound of the band. “Electronic instruments-including vintage 70s synthesizers-digital samples, lush orchestration and horns flavor the tracks. The sound that results has progressed light years away from the group’s street band days”.

Other reviews noticed the changes as well. “Many bands have been described as ‘organic’ ,” said one, “but Poi Dog wrote the book. The new Poi Dog-the three most crucial original members plus the usual coterie of nine regulars and 18 satellite players-keeps the earthy spirit intact. Orrall has moved to Chicago and discovered sounds more urban and soulful than his former Austin and Honolulu roots afforded him. But those original roots are still deep. The big-city gospel feel of “Complicated” is still buttressed by thick ethnic percussion. The album is still mostly acoustic Poi Dog, from the tender opening tracks “Pomegranate” and “Catacombs” to the wonderment of “Big Constellation”.

Yet another critic noted a change in tone from earlier Poi Dog albums in their review. “Pomegranate, the band’s fourth album, features tunes that probe the heaviest of subjects. Orrall wrote many of the songs while trying to help Brigid Murphy-his girlfriend and a former sax player in the band-survive cancer treatment. Currently, the disease is in remission. But Orrall’s perspective as an artists has been profoundly changed. The song “God’s Gallipoli” is a rambling, techno-fueled romp through the writer’s worried mind. ‘Take me in one swoop God, don’t let me dwindle. It’s hard to think that this is how it ends, stretched out on a bed sheet sorting through a wreckage of regrets’ “.

 

Musically, as well as lyrically, Pomegranate ranks as Poi Dog Pondering’s most daring effort. Although an independent release, the album sold well and ended up on many critics’ best of the year lists. It is arguably Poi Dog Pondering’s most popular album. It contains many of the songs that are still the core of the band’s set lists some twenty-five years later.

The following year, PDP released an EP titled Electrique Plummagram that gravitated even more towards dance music, with several songs from Pomegranate receiving a remix treatment. In 1997, they debuted the live recording Liquid White Light. This release finally demonstrated the power of the band’s live performances featuring many selections from the Pomegranate album.

For the next several years, PDP developed their orchestration skills culminating in collaborations with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Sinfonietta. Band leader Frank Orrall’s interest in electronic music garnered him respect from the Chicago House/Electronic music community and led him to eventually become a member of Thievery Corporation as a percussionist and vocalist.

 

Pomegranate launched a new incarnation of PDP that has since released six more like-minded studio recordings as well as three live albums. Although the lineup may vary, Frank Orrall and his bandmates continues to thrill live audiences with their multi-media concerts that incorporate music, dance, lighting and video projections.

Orrall sums up the Pomegranate period nicely. “We had been in Chicago for 3 years at that point. We wrote this record in this city. We re-built the band in this city; we recorded this record for this city. It was a nice time in Chicago… lot’s of musical energy; the Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt… etc., Local bands pushing each other forward. Honestly… I felt we were better than all of them. I know that sounds cocky, but you have to understand; when you do what you love, you do it with passion, you believe in your work. And I certainly did, and still do. We have proved our staying power. All those bands are gone now. If you are in it for the right reasons, you don’t lose it.”

 

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