Pony Trash is a local super group of sorts, sharing members from notable acts like The Chambermaids, Heavy Deeds, Gospel Gossip and many others (see the flow chart below). As would be assumed by the various side projects that Neil Weir, Chris Bierden, Nate Nelson and Ollie Moltaji play in, the sound of this new project is a very successful mish-mash of ’70s psychedelia and shoegaze.
The City Pages Picked to Click finalists are prepping the release of their debut, self-titled EP, and the band took some time to chat with David Campbell about the release, their influences, recording process and the extensive bandmember cross-pollination among that corner of the Twin Cities music community.
David Campbell: You guys play in tons of other bands, and we’ll probably end up talking about some of that along the way today, but I wanted to ask you first and foremost: what’s special about Pony Trash?
Chris Bierden: The first thing that comes to my mind that’s special about this band to me is just the way we play off each other. Our musical rapport runs very deep and we have a very similar sensibility, and it’s really nice to work with guys you don’t have to give any notes; you don’t need to give them any suggestions — we just kind of get in the room and go.
David: Neil, what about you?
Neil Weir: Yeah, I mean it’s kind of the same sort of thing where I was. I am in a band Chambermaids too and kind of wanted to do something that was a little more mid-tempo and songs fairly structured. And at least have sections where we could become semi-improvisational and have that work and have that be different every time and kind of be a surprise.
David: Some jamming.
Neil: I wouldn’t go as far to say — I wouldn’t go that far.
David: Would you use the J-word?
Neil: I wouldn’t use the J-word on this band. We all kind of had this understanding that formed really quickly as far as playing together goes. Nate and I played together previously and are still doing Chambermaids. I’ve known Ollie and Chris for a long time but hadn’t played with them before. But this sort of collective dynamic came together really quickly — where things just happen and work out really well.
David: Ollie, what about you? Why does Pony Trash work for you?
Ollie Moltaji: It’s really special to me because it was one of the first opportunities I had to play with other musicians on drums.
David: Beyond Gospel Gossip?
Ollie: Beyond Gospel Gossip. And Chris was pretty awesome because he plays different than Justin from Gospel Gossip, and it helped me hone in on different playing styles with drums. Also, the recording process was pretty unique because Neil runs Old Blackberry Way and we didn’t really have those constraints that I would have if I was paying for studio time. It was kind of — we went in and had kind of an idea in mind of how to record, and we just went at it. There were no other limitations.
David: Nate, care to add anything?
Nate Nelson: One of the things I like about playing in this band so much is everyone is very concerned about their tone—the tone and the feel of everything is almost more important than what you’re actually playing, so it’s not even about the notes you’re playing as much as the mood you’re setting. And I feel like everyone is trying to—even from the drums, I’ve never played with a drummer who’s as concerned with how he hits the drums exactly to get the kinds of sound he’s getting out of it and stuff, and everyone is extremely concerned with the actual sound that is being made, and fitting in with everybody, and so instead of just banging away and “Let’s go!”—it’s not quite like that so that’s really interesting because I’ve never done anything like that before.
David: Ollie mentioned that the opportunity you guys had to record may have had some impact on how you approach the recording process. In your opinion, having your own studio in a practical sense, what did that afford you or limit you on making this EP?
Neil: I guess slightly limiting in the sense that I was also recording the music, and in the end I wouldn’t say that it was limiting, but the actual process is a little bit different than recording with someone else recording your band or me recording someone else’s band because I’m so close to it. Sometimes it takes longer, and we have the ability to put stuff aside for a month and come back to it, and then once some time had elapsed, what needed to be done to the songs became very apparent. I guess that was the only limitation, besides that we’re kind of like setting our own limitations as far as like this is how the record is going to be made. We’re not going to run into a situation where we have the record almost done but we’re unhappy with this particular thing but we can’t spend any more money on it to finish it — like, “That’s good enough.”
David: Did any of you guys worry that you may have a Chinese Democracy situation on your hands at some point where you would just keep working because you could—there’s no due date and you had whatever you needed?
Nate: Every project I’ve done with Neil, we could keep working on it forever and sometimes I have. [laughs] And I think with this we weren’t necessarily interested in doing it like that—like getting too over the top with all that stuff. I think we all knew when to say, “This is done.”
Ollie: Yeah, I remember when, at some point we realized that we had about five songs ready to go and we just decided let’s go in for a couple days, track those, and that’s it, so that kind of mentality seeped through the writing process
David: Ollie, was there anything unique about recording that track [“Sad Machines” by Gospel Gossip] for you?
Ollie: Yeah. It marks a new direction for Gospel Gossip with the last batch of songs that we recorded, which will eventually show up on the full-length. But it was one of the first songs where I had guitar parts written and certain ideas that I implemented that ended up on the final version. And I think this helps a lot with bands—especially Pony Trash—not just being the drummer that’s sitting in the back seat, just kind of playing to the parts. I get to help inform how songs are structured and kind of help streamline practices and gels our musicianship together.
David: That seems like it would be a lot more gratifying than the usual, just start-and-stop when we tell you.
Neil: He’s not only a drummer who has good guitar ideas, but he has a really good and similar songwriting sense as far as basic song structure goes. He has a way of kind of—say I come up with a chord progression, a melody or something like that—he has a way of kind of simplifying things and making things more focused and streamlined and isn’t afraid to try whatever idea he has.
Ollie: It helps me empathize with other guitar parts that we’ve written in that I’m not trying to fight over them or with them. I get to accentuate what’s going on or highlight certain things so I’m not overplaying.
David: When I asked you about what was special about this band earlier, you talked about how you play together and that you have sort of similar areas of interest, but I was curious how actually the four of you ended up in this project. How did it take shape at the beginning? And as you were discussing it before you actually maybe sat down to play, what the idea looked like to you at that point and time.
Neil: The kind of seed of it started with me because I had a couple song ideas that didn’t seem like they were right for Chambermaids. They were more mid-tempo, spacey things. And I was wanting to do something with them and wasn’t really sure what and had a few different ideas. And I mentioned it to Nate and Nate said that if I was doing that, he would be interested in doing it.
Nate: It’s true.
Neil: Yeah. And then —
David: You signed on early.
Nate: At the time, Chambermaids was—Martha was in Austria, and we weren’t doing a whole lot of stuff so I still wanted to play music with Neil, so we just decided it was something good to do. Now both bands are going at the same time and maybe it seems kind of weird that it’s the same two people, but I don’t know. I think they’re different enough.
Neil: Then Ollie was the first person I mentioned as far as drums go. And Ollie wanted to do it, so we got together with my roommate at the time Srini who was in France Has The Bomb and started playing together. And kind of worked on that stuff for nine months before Srini moved to Chicago. And then once he moved, we were trying to figure out who to have play bass and we asked Chris.
Nate: Bring in the big guns.
Neil: “What do you think of a super group? Let’s do it.”
David: Super group. You like the blind faith of the Twin Cities. That’s not a bad place to be. So what limitation did you give yourself while recording this EP that you feel really shaped the sonic identity in the end, Neil?
Neil: Well I guess kind of from the beginning we had this idea of us being a somewhat shoegazey band with more of a ‘70s aesthetic to it. Not in a really throwback kind of way but taking these two different styles and putting them together. And so we were pretty adamant about trying to keep things really live sounding. We didn’t do a lot of punching in, a lot of comping, that kind of thing.
David: You were happy with the decisions that you made in the end.
Neil: Yeah. I think it turned out really well. I don’t know. It kind of has the illusion of things happening in real time rather than something that’s been constructed over time which I like a lot, and I think it captures that.
Nate: You can always feel like, “I would like to do this over again.” There’s always that. But I think it’s nice—I don’t want it to sound too overworked or anything. That was very important to me.
David: I wanted to ask you guys what your greatest challenge was in recording this EP.
Nate: Getting us all together at the same time.
David: You’re all very busy people.
Neil: Everybody has a lot of stuff going on and there were definitely times when all four of us weren’t there which works out fine too as far as the overdubbing and mixing process.
David: Was it hard to pick up and put down ideas—get some momentum—you’re working on it hard, and then that’s the end of your time together.
Nate: I think the space was actually good for it all to let it breathe a little because you work on it and then maybe not even think about it for a month. And then when you come back to it, you have a lot more perspective on the whole thing, and then we can make decisions really quickly.
Neil: Yeah, I think it was a challenge that in the end was actually more beneficial. At the time, it seemed like we weren’t getting things done as quickly as I wanted to get them done, but in retrospect and by the time we got done with it, it seemed like the pace was actually really good because it kind of forced us to pull our heads out of it for a while and come back to it and things would be a lot easier. Making a record in reality is a series of decisions and when things are going smoothly, those decisions are easy to make. And when you kind of become desensitized to things, sometimes those decisions—you’ll be presented with a decision and both options seem equally worth perusing. And you can spend a lot of time pursuing every option without one option seeming like it is obviously the best one to pursue. Whereas taking this time and having gaps between sessions kind of made those decisions reveal themselves. Whereas we kind of just listen and, “Oh, this is an obvious thing to do.”
Nate: Yeah, it would be obvious to all of us.
David: Reflection would allow you to see —
Neil: Not necessarily reflection, but just removing ourselves from it and hearing it again with fresher ears.
David: Ollie, have you ever felt like the odd man out in this band because you don’t have curly hair?
Ollie: I thought about that. I’m also the only 20-something in this band.
David: We could get you a perm.
Ollie: We could.
David: We could start a Kickstarter campaign looking for a perm for you.
Ollie: Like a Jheri curl.
David: And have it ready by the 23rd.
Ollie: Yeah, definitely.
David: This record is going to come out on the Old Blackberry Way label. which is a new endeavor for you [Neil]. You’ve been recording stuff for how many years now?
Neil: I’ve been pretty busy recording stuff at my place for about four years. I’ve been doing it there for seven.
David: And then now you are going to enter the label game.
Neil: To some degree.
David: I mean not in that way. That makes it sound like —
Neil: Yeah, I consider myself a mogul.
David: That makes it sound like you have a fax machine. Which you may or may not have. I don’t know if you do.
Neil: I don’t. I gave it to my mom. I don’t know what she does with it.
Chris: You have a beeper though, right?
Neil: No, I guess the intention behind the label was—for one thing, we have these kind of erratic schedules so it’s hard to keep going on a pace that’s going to satisfy an outside person working with us. And so with this, we can kind of determine the pace of what we’re doing without outside pressures. And that is really appealing. Also, as you can tell, in the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of sort of spill over between this fairly large group of people where one band ends and another band stops is a little bit blurry. And there are times where a song idea that may be a Chambermaids song turns into a Pony Trash song and everyone is playing in each other’s bands. And I kind of like the idea of trying to get that stuff together not so much as a label but more of—in some ways kind of like a collective where people from the outside can see that they are connected.
David: It would be really helpful for you guys to put together a Venn diagram of all the bands that you are in for our listeners. I know all this, and I’m sort of confused by it. There’s so many. There’s so much overlap and so many combinations. What else do you got coming out on the Old Blackberry Way label?
Neil: Well, technically the first release was the Gospel Gossip 7” which came out earlier this month. Then the Pony Trash record will be the second one. Then there’s going to be a Heavy Deeds full-length coming out sometime 2013.
David: Well, keep us posted man. And thanks for bringing in all of the new stuff. Congratulations on your Picked To Click title and the new EP and it was great to have you guys in here today.