NEW YORK — “Joyful noise” is a term most often associated with Christian music. But I can’t think of a better shorthand summation for one of the most exhilarating, exuberant bands to emerge in 2008, the art-school-project-turned-indie-sensation that is Ponytail, who are set to appear on [url id=”http://www.mtv.com/ontv/dyn/detox/series.jhtml”]”MTV Detox”[/url] on Tuesday (January 27) at 11 p.m. on MTV.com.
With the release of their second album, Ice Cream Spiritual, the Baltimore foursome — whose sonic assault includes primal drums, double-barreled guitars and a bouncing banshee of a vocalist who must be seen to be believed — has become one of the most exciting acts around.
And who do we have to thank for that? Well, Jeremy Siegler. Siegler is a poet and professor who several years back was teaching a class at MICA — the Maryland Institute College of Art — and it was he who somewhat intuitively put students Dustin Wong, Jeremy Hyman, Ken Seeno and Molly Siegel together and said “start a band.”
“The class was called ’Parapainting,’ ” Seeno explained. “The idea of the main project was to focus on something outside a traditional art form. In some semesters, it would be poetry or being in a play or stand-up comedy, but for ours it was being in a band.” The Ponytail lineup came about, he said, “with the whole class standing in a semicircle, and [Siegler] just put people in bands based on first impressions.”
What a first impression. When I caught up with Ponytail at Royal Oak, a bar in the band’s second home of Brooklyn, it was immediately clear that the bond they’ve developed in only a few years may be remarkable considering their disparate pasts.
In fact, part of the beauty of Ponytail comes from the patchwork of backgrounds and training — or not — that each member brings to their kaleidoscopic musical mix. “I think we all had separate visions,” said drummer Hyman, a onetime hardcore and punk kid who discovered for himself a way more fulfilling path with the improvisational approach of Ponytail. “And at first we were too cautious to unfold our plans to each other. So it got weird, but then it turned out really good.”
There’s also Wong, the senior member of the band, a guitarist with formidable chops who grew up in Japan (Ponytail owe more than a little to Nihongo noisemakers Boredoms) and spent time as one-half of an earlier incarnation of the experimental band Ecstatic Sunshine. His foil and partner in guitar heroics is jazzbo Deadhead Seeno, who along with Hyman has recently been playing in Dan Deacon’s live ensemble. The pair’s interplay, which swoops and soars and takes flight, is in full effect on album closer “Die Allman Bruder” and most dynamically as they face off, stage left/ stage right, in the band’s live shows. Seeno, the “jammier” of the two players, says it’s their very differences that make it work. “Dustin’s self-taught, and so he comes up with these amazing riffs that I don’t think somebody who was more institutionalized in scales would think of. And so I’m just playing off a lot of that. I’m actually better at responding than generating.”
As signature a sound as the dual guitars provide, Ponytail would not be Ponytail if it weren’t for one of the most remarkable frontwomen you’ve ever seen. The diminutive dynamo that is Molly Siegel is an unforgettable presence, a wail of fresh air who never stops moving from the moment she hits a stage, bouncing, bobbing, grinning and grimacing.
Siegel never thought about being a singer before Ponytail, and even now one could argue she doesn’t so much sing as vocalize.
“Brrrrrr-yeah!” “Hah!” “Whee!” That’s as far as Ponytail “lyrics” usually go, apart from a chant of “One soul! Two souls!” in the rousing track “7 Souls” and a cheer of “Away we go now!” in the album centerpiece “Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came From an Angel).” Other than that, Siegel delivers an assortment of shrieks, whirs and howls that feel improvised, even possessed. She says that there is most certainly an element of channeling to her performance, and she knew from the band’s inception that any sort of traditional vocals weren’t likely for her.
“I didn’t even know if I could sing,” she recalled. “And then Dustin invited me to come over and jam, just me and him. It was just kind of improv, and I did this weird operatic thing, and from there it got crazier. The music we were making just wasn’t really suited to normal singing.”
Molly and her guys have won a ton of rightly deserved love from fellow musicians, including Deerhunter, White Williams and High Places, who told me Ponytail was “the most unpretentious band on the planet.” And nothing is more entertaining than watching uninitiated fans discover this band and its rush of sound — the kind of energy you might witness at Matt and Kim, Battles or Dan Deacon shows in recent years. Newbies seem to leave Ponytail shows helplessly converted, having succumbed to the band’s formula: primitive meets primary school.
Nothing illustrates that better than their current album’s title. They toyed with other names, among them Painted Rocks, Chocolate Egypt and Spiritual Milkshake. But it was Siegel who one day blurted out Ice Cream Spiritual, which Wong says appealed to them all because it captured the contradiction at the heart of the group, “the mundane and the spiritual.” Likewise, the cover art — a piece of art created in high school by Seeno that features brightly colored strokes and a black handprint smack in the middle — seemed to fit. “It just became a part of us,” the guitarist said. “I felt attached to the hands — it’s that idea of basic and childlike, but also tribal.”
Childlike. Tribal. And a lot of fun. If for whatever reason you’ve got the seasonal blues, check yourself out some Ponytail. It works for me.