Art rock band
Bardo Pond can literally be considered an “art rock” band, given the fact that the members of this Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based group all graduated from art school and continued to work odd jobs at museums and galleries as their musical career escalated. Bass player Clint Takeda and brothers Michael and John Gibbons, who both play guitar (the latter plays occasional saxophone as well), dedicated time at institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art, the Moore College of Art and Design, and Goldie Paley Gallery; Takeda, a painter and sculptor who regularly showed work at Philadelphia art galleries, created the illustration for the band’s 1996 album, Amanita. Vocalist, flutist, and violinist Isobel Sollenberger worked as a finisher for a local furniture company, while drummer Joe Culver took a break from touring from 1998 until 1999 when his doctorate work and research duties precluded a regular performance schedule. Drummer Ed Farnsworth stepped up in Culver’s absence for live shows. Although inspired by several classic and contemporary artists, including Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, sculptor and Sonic Youth cohort Mike Kelly, psychedelic painter Sigmar Pole, and the late Fluxus member Joseph Boyce, Bardo Pond found the music world more accepting than the art community. “The art world is smaller than the music world—it’s very intense, and critics get all over everything you do,” Michael Gibbons told Teresa Gubbins of the Dallas Morning News in June of 1998. “Music criticism isn’t quite as vicious, maybe because of the nature of music. It’s more open-ended.”
Despite earning a reputation for constructing rock songs rather than for creating paintings and sculptures, Bardo Pond nonetheless maintained a connection to the art world. “Our friends are more artists than musicians,” guitarists Michael Gibbons acknowledged to Teresa Gubbins in a September 1996 profile for the Dallas Morning News. Gibbons, along with brother John, turned to music when they realized that pursuing a career in art seemed just as much about the hustle as about creativity. “I was so burned out, and I loved music,” Michael Gibbons acknowledged. “We started playing noise—just making sounds. We didn’t know how to play, but it didn’t matter. We didn’t want to know—we were almost dogmatic about not knowing how to play our instruments.” However, they relented after jamming with some skilled musicians. “This one guy, [Dave] Nolski, was a great guitar player, not flashy, but good—he had a soulful sound,” recalled Michael Gibbons. “‘You should learn how to play,’ he said, and he showed me some things. We always thank him on our records.” For both brothers, the transition from art to music felt natural. “Everything I learned from painting is in our music,” said Michael Gibbons. “It’s more about the process. The art I was interested in was about the process of making a painting. And our sound is more about how it’s made. It’s more about the sound than a song—but the song is there.”
Since forming in Philadelphia in 1992, Bardo Pond—the name taken from the Tibetan Book of the Dead—have released more than a dozen singles and full-length albums, composed of mostly drawn-out, undulating tracks that hold the listener’s attention with ravishing flute melodies and crashing guitars and drums. Critics described their sound as wispy and experimental, much like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, but with the added metal influence of Black Sabbath. “It is this wide crevasse between the ethereally light and the heavily distorted muck that this band thrives,” wrote Brendan Doherty in Weekly Wire, available through the band’s unofficial website. “Lilting over the murk of bashed bass and smashing drums is Isobel Sollenberger’s voice, a siren amongst a swirling gale force of guitar storms. Plenty of guitar-based bands have tried the heavily group-oriented song improvisations, only to end their super-ego super-distorted post-hippie rock
For the Record…
Members include Joe Culver, drums; Ed Farnsworth, drums; brothers John Gibbons, guitar, and Michael Gibbons, guitar; Isobel Sollenberger, vocals, flute, violin; Clint Takeda, bass.
Formed band in Philadelphia, PA, 1992; released debut album, Bufo Alvarius, Amen 29:15, 1995; released Amanita, 1996; performed at Terrastock music festival, 1997 (in Providence, RI) and 1998 (in San Francisco, CA); released Lapsed, 1997; released Set and Setting, 1999.
Addresses: Home —Bardo Pond, 1801 N. Howard St., Philadelphia, PA 19122. Record company —Matador Records, 625 Broadway, 12th Fl., New York City, NY 10012, phone (212) 995-5882, fax (212) 995-5883. Website —Bardo Pond at Matador Records: http://www.matador.recs.com. The Unofficial Bardo Pond Homepage: http://www.mindspring.com/~threelobed/bardo/bardo.htm.
love-ins for something more glam. Not this band. This is where rock is interesting—on its margins.”
Armed with their passionate outlook on making music and a blend of vintage hard rock and psychedelic bliss, Bardo Pond quickly made a name for themselves around their hometown. They regularly opened at a popular Philadelphia punk-rock club, Khyber Pass, long before they earned critical acclaim and gained a huge cult following in the United States and Europe. “We’ve opened for the Grifters, Guided By Voices—we were immediately getting high-profile gigs when nobody knew who we were,” said Gibbons, as quoted by Gubbins. “Or else everybody thought we were nuts.”
Throughout their time together as a band, Bardo Pond have remained committed to a united goal that Takeda described as “a backward approach” to making music, as quoted by Fred Mills of Magnet magazine, and have preferred not to strive for commercial success or celebrity status. “In a sense, we’re purely driven by the making of sounds,” he said, “of getting into this neighborhood of the music we’d all been listening to that really got us off. Instead of approaching it in terms of what’s gonna sell, what’s gonna get played on the radio, we think if we do the best we can artistically, then that might lend itself to people—maybe that group of people isn’t huge—who want to hear us.”
The band’s first album, Bufo Alvarius, Amen 29:15, was released on the independent label Drunken Fish in 1995. Known for endorsing the use of illicit substances, as well as for displaying an unpretentious, easygoing nature, Bardo Pond borrowed the album’s title from the Latin name of the hallucinogen-secreting Colorado River toad. One of the tracks, “Amen 29:15,” clocks in at close to 30 minutes long, as the title implies. However, Sollenberger provided a buffer to the lengthy onslaught of hard-rock aggression and psychedelic references with herflowing vocals and skillful flute. Her vocals, asserted David Sprague in the Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, “bear a passing resemblance to those of renaissance art-rock songbird Annie Haslam,” while Sollenberger’s flute playing “is so striking that it just about absolves the flute for the sins of Ian Anderson.” 1995 also saw the release of the group’s second effort, the EP Big Laughing Jym, a seven-song collection of album outtakes and homestudio work which showcased the Gibbons’ guitar rumblings, especially in “Dispersion” and “Clearhead.”
In 1996, Bardo Pond returned with a double album that spanned more than 70 minutes, entitled Amanita, produced and engineered by Jason Cox and named after an obscure hallucinogenic mushroom. With the album, the group illustrated their increasing dimensionality. Psychedelic rock tracks included “Sentence,” “Tantric Porno,” and “Be A Fish,” while references to the blues resonated through “Wank,” “Yellow Turban,” and “Rumination.” Although the songs were more concise than those on the band’s debut release, “Limerick,” “The High Frequency,” and “RM” gave way to Bufo Alvarius, Amen 29:15’ s spaciousness and improvised quality.
Bardo Pond’s next album, 1997’s Lapsed, also produced by Cox, saw additional influences creeping into the band’s overall sound and featured more focused, less sprawling songs. According to Michael Gibbons, Japanese bands such as Mainliner and High Rise, as well as avant-garde jazz artists like Alice Coltrane and Archie Schepp, provided substantial inspiration in the recording of Lapsed. “Those bands just sort of crept into what we were doing,” he told Sara Sherr in an interview for the band’s unofficial website, explaining the gentleness of tracks like “Pick My Brain” and “Aldrin.” Another highlight included the song “Tommy Gun Angel,” which begins with intensity instead of building up to a climax. “We were just really interested in pure, distorted sound, with Isobel’s voice on top of it, or in it,” recalled Gibbons in an interview with Addicted To Noise writer Chris Nelson, available through the band’s unofficial website. “A lot of our songs peak, but this one cuts to the chase. I was interested in starting a song at that point. Let’s get that dense sound of us peaking on a jam and start with that, then mix it with less of an improv thing so that it’s a tight all around sound.”
Two years later in 1999, Bardo Pond released Set and Setting, marking yet another stage in the band’s development. The band worked on the entirely self-produced album (the title taken from a line in Timothy Leary’s classic The Psychedelic Experience) for more than a year at their home studio in Philadelphia. After recording numerous improvisational jam sessions, they sifted through the resulting collage to pick the most pertinent moments to include on Set and Setting. “One thing is that we were interested in making a 40- to 45-minute statement this time,” Michael Gibbons recalled to Mills, revealing the group’s initial plan for the record. “We did Amanita, which is a double album, and shit, we’ve got enough to put out three albums. But when it’s shorter, you tend to get all the differences and you’re thinking about [what you’ve heard] more. If it’s longer, you tend to forget about the first things on it.”
In addition to recording music as Bardo Pond, the band has also released two albums with guitarist Roy Montgomery (of the band New Zealand) as Hash Jar Tempo. Bardo Pond’s collaboration with Montgomery began in 1994 when Drunken Fish owner Darren Mock urged Montgomery to attend a Bardo Pond show at the Cooler in New York City. “I think they have a delicacy and subtlety that isn’t contrived, and (they) trust in their intuitions,” Montgomery told Mills. Recalling the first time he saw Bardo Pond on stage, Montgomery further noted, “It was great to see and hear something as ‘resinous’ as they, going against the grain of tempo and speed as was the norm at the time.” Montgomery and Bardo Pond’s efforts as Hash Jar Tempo, Well Oiled and Under the Glass, were issued in 1996 and 1999 respectively by Drunken Fish.
In 1997, Bardo Pond participated for the first time in Terrastock, a spring music festival sponsored by the psychedelic music magazine Terrastock. That year, the concert was held in Providence, Rhode Island, and Bardo Pond returned in 1998 for the festival in San Francisco, California. “That whole scene is so important, and the vibe is so warm,” Gibbons informed Gubbins. “Ghost played, Damon and Naomi, Alistair Galbraith from New Zealand, Nick Saloman (the Bevis Frond), the Deviants, Cul De Sac, Roy Montgomery, who did a set and did a song with us. It was like three days of being in a dream. When it was happening I realized: We’re in the right place at the right time. It’s a rush every time I think about it.”
Although critics noted Bardo Pond’s musical progression over the course of their albums, the band members themselves insisted that they have not changed much since 1992. “I swear, it seems like we’re the same as we were back then,” Michael Gibbons told Mills. “I mean, there have been things we’ve done, touring the country a couple of times, meeting so many cool people and being part of that world. Just the fact that we’ve been able to keep going.” Sollenberger further added, “To be able to record music, that’s the most gratifying process. I want to keep doing it for the rest of my life.”
Big Laughing Jym, Compulsiv, 1995.
Bufo Alvarius, Amen 25:15, Drunken Fish, 1995.
Amanita, Drunken Fish/Matador, 1996.
Tests for New Swords, (EP), Siltbreeze, 1996.
Well Oiled, (as Hash Jar Tempo), Drunken Fish, 1996.
Lapsed, Matador, 1997.
Set and Setting, Matador, 1999.
Under the Glass, (as Hash Jar Tempo), Drunken Fish, 1999.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Dallas Morning News, September 13, 1996, p. 40; June 12, 1998, p. 63.
Gannett News Service, November 19, 1999.
Magnet, October/November 1999, pp. 45-49.
Bardo Pond at Matador Records, http://www.matador.recs.com (December 22, 1999).
The Unofficial Bardo Pond Homepage, http://www.mindspring.com/~threelobed/bardo/bardo.htm (December 22, 1999).
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