Toggling between blistering rock ’n’ roll, no-frills Southern boogie, hook-laden power pop, contemplative Americana and whatever else suits their mood, Ponderosa stopped worrying a long time ago about where they fit in.
“That was a big problem with some of our old bands,” says keyboardist John Dance, who, along with Ponderosa guitarist Kris Sampson, used to play in Atlanta indie-rock outfit Ski Club. “We were always trying to fit into some mold.”
“There’s a point,” adds singer/guitarist Kalen Nash, “where you decide if you want to do it for the right reasons, whatever those may be. And we just want to make music that we enjoy playing. It doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks. It comes from the inside. We’re gonna be happy with what we write, and the set list, and what we play on stage before anyone else will be, you know?”
After over two years in label limbo, Ponderosa’s debut, Moonlight Revival, has finally seen daylight with its February release by New West. Even with all the struggles and false starts, the band never lost faith. “We knew that we’d put the record out somehow,” says Sampson. “We were gonna make it happen by any means. We just tried to do it in a way that a lot of people would hear it, as opposed to just my parents
“It is a relief to finally have it out,” he continues. “That was probably the fourth or fifth time those songs have been recorded, so it’s nice to have ’em catalogued and done.”
For Moonlight Revival, Ponderosa tapped sought-after producer Joe Chiccarelli, whose résumé includes Frank Zappa, My Morning Jacket and The Strokes. The band also spared no expense when it came to recording, booking sessions at state-of-the-art Nashville studio Blackbird, which, in recent years, has been frequented by artists such as Bob Dylan and The White Stripes. As amazing as the experience was, the band says the process was often overwhelming.
“Recording at Blackbird was a little daunting because we had way too many choices,” says Nash. “We probably went through 30 or 40 kick drums—really, we only needed one kit.”
“At first, I thought, ‘What a great thing,’” says drummer Darren Dodd, “but every song, we’d spend at least a few hours trying kick drums, and Joe was very thorough with his ear disease.” The rest of the band chuckles. “I only say ‘disease’ because Joe really thinks about stuff like, ‘This ride cymbal will only work on the second half of the first verse. We’ll use this other ride cymbal on the first half.’ I’m not exaggerating. I thought it was brilliant, but by the end of it, I was just like, ‘This is … ridiculous.’ There are times on the record where I play four different ride cymbals—in the same song.”
All this attention to minute detail was inhibiting for the band, who would have been perfectly content to just plug in, crank up and chase the vibe. Still, they see the making of Moonlight Revival as a valuable learning experience. “It was like boot camp for us,” Nash says. “We did 20, 25 takes of every song, and tried different stuff every single time, so it really helped us, as a band, become more refined and really understand what we’ll need next time we go into the studio, just to knock it out on our own. We’re all happy doing minimal takes, but being well prepared. Everybody tracking in the room together is what makes us happy. And whenever you go into an element where you have to get everything perfect—we spent more time tuning our guitars on this record than we spent actually recording.”
Trial and error
“[We learned not to] spend that much money on a producer and a studio,” says Sampson. “There’s no ‘passion’ button in any of those studios, and that’s what makes a great recording—it’s not the microphone; it’s the passion you put into the performance.”
The band has recently put this hard-earned knowledge to use, cutting 20 new songs in an appropriately humble, bare bones setting. “We’re just going into the woods, staying in a cabin [in Danielsville, Ga.] and trying to make some magic happen,” Dodd says.
“We’re just writing amazing stuff,” adds Sampson. “It’s really turning and becoming something new—very organic and warm and inviting. We love to record live. We don’t wanna use a lot of studio trickery. We really want to do something for real, so the more we play it live, obviously, once you get in the recording studio, you can play it live. And a live recording will always sound better.”
This more free-and-easy, let-it-bleed approach Ponderosa is taking—as it lays down new material in preparation for its sophomore album—fits much more comfortably with the band’s unpretentious aesthetic. Instead of laboring for hours over subtle variations in cymbal tone, they’re more able to turn on a dime, nimbly following their muse wherever it leads.
“We want to capture lighting,” says Sampson. “Something original and unique and passionate, straight from the heart. Not like we’re trying to make a hit song to be on the radio, we’re really just trying to bring the art back to it.”