By EVAN MILLAR
With today’s music industry saturated with over-produced pop, a small-time band finding mainstream success might seem an unlikely story. But according to local act Pony Island, their eclectic-yet-familiar brand of independent rock music is a surefire hit. Although they are currently playing the local bar circuit, they believe that performing under-attended shows is an important stepping stone onto bigger and better things. Last night the band played an intimate set at The Beer Hole, opening for recently reformed local once-legends The Semi-Conductors to an exclusive crowd of 31.
“Its important to pay your dues. Radiohead didn’t just blow up overnight, you know”, noted guitarist Wade Badja, 27, before loading his Peavey 4/10 into the band’s 1985 Dodge Ram.
Some acts maintain an impeccably coiffed image, but for Pony Island, an edgily-off-kilter yet smartly conventional appearance lets fans know that for this group, music is a primary concern.
“We are just in it for fun,” continued the guitarist. “We play for ourselves, not other people. A lot of bands these days are forming just to get big, and we think thats bullshit. We don’t care how many people see us play. As long as we have fun, its worth it.” It is this relaxed attitude towards success, Badja believes, that sets his band apart from the emerging pack of money-hungry rock bands, and thus guarantees Pony Island‘s success in the near-future.
“You’re never going to get big trying to get big. People want music with passion, and we have that.”
“I really think this is our calling” adds vocalist Brendan Michaelson, 26, whose previous callings have included card
collecting, comic book collecting, football, rugby, high school theater, independent film-making and graphic design.
“When you look at all the really great bands– Joy Division, Beck, Foo Fighters— none of them ever gave a shit about what other people call ‘being successful’. They just did what they loved. Just like we do.”
“Which is exactly why we have it in us to reach the level that they did”
The band is not alone in predicting their success. Over the past two years their enthusiastic dedication to songwriting coupled with a competent business sense has attracted the attention of many area music fans.
“Pony Island fucking rule,” says Dave Hallsley, local scene somebody who divides his time between playing bass in the post-rock outfit Elevator: Nowhere and managing the local independent record store The Vinyl Countdown. “They are totally like 60s psych-punk meets 80s power-pop. Its the real deal.”
Dave has also embarked on the ambitious project of financing their new record. “Tremendous Tigerlillies”, the album that will “DEFINITELY break them”, will be released in February through his own label No More Records. Although aware of the risks, Hallsley is convinced he is making a sound financial decision.
“People tell me that its a gamble throwing a lot of money around on local artists, but these guys aren’t just some new band that’s materialized out of thin air. They know what they are doing, they’ve been around the block, and the new record sounds big.”
Pony Island formed in Oshawa Ontario in the spring of 1997, after the four founding members (completed by drummer Aaron Rogers and bassist Shane Grant) met at an OPP Barbecue
luncheon. After realizing that the four shared an interest in punk music as well as a high school math class, they started practicing together under the name One Trick Pony. They played local gymnasiums and community centers before making several several short tours of all-ages bars across Ontario in Michaelson’s father’s minivan. In December of that year they released their first album “Fart Knocker”, earning much praise from close friends and younger acquaintances.
After undergoing some “artistic renovations” in 2001 due to creative maturity and market demands, the band traded in their trademark alternative-punk sound for a fresh retro-rock vibe, reinventing themselves as The Ponys and releasing their third album “Modern Evolution”. In 2004, they relocated to Montreal, whereupon they changed their name once more and recruited multi-instrumentalists Mia Chung and Zwid Yackle to add a “fresh twist” to the “ensemble”.
“We’ve never been afraid to be different. When a lot of bands were incorporating violins and cellos into their rock sound, we got an oboe. People get bored of hearing the same thing over and over. Its important to take some calculated risks. ”
While Michaelson agrees it would be a stretch to say that his band is always one step ahead of the times, he insists that his band is at least always one step with the times, which he believes is also “important”.
“Public tastes change, and bands needed to be attuned to these things. While the most important thing is to always love what you are doing, the second most important thing is to make sure that the thing you love to do is what other people love to hear.”
Despite the selfless dedication to their art, all members agree “it would be pretty nice to get some recognition for what we are doing”, emphatically adding that they are “all pretty sick” of their jobs at Nordia. The sextet is convinced that they need not wait long, because the challenging-yet-accessible “Tremendous Tigerlillies” is a musical time-bomb waiting to detonate its slightly-dissonant-yet-generally-melodious explosion on unsuspecting listeners.
“We want people to understand it, but we want people to feel smart for understanding it.”