Poi Dog Pondering
Poi Dog Pondering
The number of past and current members of Poi Dog Pondering, as well as the diverse and often unconventional instruments used in the band’s recordings, account for the eclectic mix of musical genres found throughout the albums Poi Dog Pondering, Wishing Like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea, Volo Volo, and Pomegranate. From their acoustical folk and bluegrass beginnings, the band has since introduced guitar-laden rock as well as orchestral pieces and synthesizer-influenced disco dance tracks. Elizabeth Wurtzel, reviewing Poi Dog Pondering in New York, applauded this distinctiveness: “Every so often, a band turns up that is so strange, smart, and refreshing that the only way you can respond is smile and be glad that some smart A & R person signed this quirky group even though they don’t look or sound like the next Guns n’ Roses. Poi Dog Pondering is such a band.”
Poi Dog Pondering was founded by singer-songwriter Frank Orrall in a Waikiki airport on August 15, 1986, when he invited a group of musician friends to join him on a flight to Los Angeles. The nine people who showed up and left Hawaii with Orrall became a caravan of sorts, touring the mainland as they played in the streets for food and money. Eventually ending up in Austin, Texas, Poi Dog Pondering independently produced their own albums before recording on Austin’s Texas Hotel Records in 1987; the band was then signed by Columbia Records and released Poi Dog Pondering, a selected compilation of earlier recordings, in 1989. Wurtzel maintained that this first big-label effort “sounds like a backyard party on Labor Day weekend where everyone is drinking Rolling Rock and dancing around in flowered skirts and Bermudas, shivering in their windbreakers while their bare legs get goose bumps as the chilly air of autumn first sets in. This album desperately hangs on to every last bit of fun in the sun.”
After two more albums with Columbia, Wishing Like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea and Volo Volo, Poi Dog Pondering was dropped from the label in 1993. Speaking of the band’s experience with Columbia, Orrall stated in a Billboard interview with Moira McCormick,
For the Record…
Members include Dave Max Crawford, trumpet, organ, piano, and accordion; Leddie Garcia, percussion; Steve Goulding, drums; Dag Juhlin, guitar and vocals; Paul Mertens, saxophone, flute, and clarinet; Brigid Murphy, saxophone; Arlene News-on, Robert Cornelius, and Kornell Hargrove, backing vocals; Brent Olds, bass; Frank Orrall, vocals and guitar; Susan Voelz, violin and vocals. Other members have included Steve Bernal, fretless electric bass; Ted Cho, mandolin, guitar, and banjo; Sean Coffey, drums and wood block; Daren Hess, drum kit; Bruce Hughes, bass, tenor guitar, piano, and vocals; Ingrid Kark-lins, Latvian kokle and virginal; Abra Joy Moore, accordion, chantruse, and hula tita; John Nelson, congas and maracas; Dick Ross, drums and timbale; Adam Sultan, guitar and vocals; Mark Williams, cello and mandocello; and many other satellite members who have played a variety of other instruments.
Group formed in Waikiki, HI, 1986; nine original members traveled to Los Angeles, CA, and toured mainland, playing in streets for food and money, 1986; moved to Austin, TX, and recorded independent albums, 1986-87; recorded on Austin’s Texas Hotel Records, 1987; signed with Columbia, 1988; released Poi Dog Pondering, 1989; moved to Chicago, 1992; several members, under name Palm Fabric Orchestra, recorded and released Vague Gropings in the Slip Stream, Carrot Top Records, 1994; created Pomegranate Records and released Pomegranate, 1995; also owners of a publishing company, Guava Juice Music, 1995.
Addresses: Record company —Poi/Pomegranate Records, P.O. Box 6027, Chicago, 1L 60680-6027.
“I don’t think they did a bad job- -they just had too-high expectations. Our deal was just too big for our shoes, for the type of band we are.” Viewing Poi Dog Pondering as more of a cult band, Orrall went on to add that they have “a large and loyal live following, but… haven’t sold a lot of records or gotten a lot of airplay.”
Finding Poi Dog Pondering on its own again, Orrall conceived the group’s next album as a self-recorded effort that would then be shopped and sold to a major label. In the meantime, though, he picked up and moved from Austin to Chicago in 1992 to be with local performance artist Brigid Murphy. Other bandmembers eventually followed, including keyboard and horn player Dave Max Crawford and violinist Susan Voelz, who has since launched a solo career. However, the band’s new project had to be put on hold by Orrall when Murphy was diagnosed with cancer. Two years later she found herself in remission, and Poi Dog Pondering set to work on their new album. I n order to avoid the entanglements of a big label, the members handled the production themselves. “We loved working on our own, so we thought we’d try our hand at starting our own label and putting the record out ourselves as well,” explained Orrall in Billboard.
Scraping together $10, 000 from family and friends, Poi Dog Pondering found an unused basketball gym and set up their recording equipment there at the beginning of 1995. Seven months later Pomegranatewas completed, and the album was released shortly thereafter on the Pomegranate Records label, whose employees include members of the band and its crew. “Running our own label,” continued Orrall in Billboard, “forces us to make decisions on the photos, write the bios, etc., in a way we feel matches the band…. We’re just operating on a really grass-roots level, and we’re still learning.”
In addition to the group’s new role as record-label owner and operator, Poi Dog Pondering took on their own BMI publishing company—Guava Juice Music. The combination of all these new independent ventures has lent the band a much stronger air of self-determination— their success is in their own hands. “It can be nerve-wracking, but it’s a nice way of working: Everyone feels very involved in their own fate,” observed Orrall in his interview with McCormick.
The album released in the midst of all this independent activity, Pomegranate, also finds Poi Dog Pondering venturing into new musical territory. “Before, we were just falling in love with all these musical genres and trying them on,” Orrall explained in Billboard. “Now, the direction of the band is more in focus.” Orrall described Pomegranate as “more groove-heavy,” noting, “We went a lot farther with dance music than on the last record—we tried to mix it so it would sound good in a disco. On the flip side, we also worked with a string section, building up orchestral pieces on some of the songs.” Another change can be found in the number of members and instruments that appear in each song: “We [realized] that not everyone has to play on every song,” Orrall pointed out.
As far as the content of the songs on Pomegranate is concerned, Orrall wrote in the album’s liner notes: “This record began for me while I was standing in front of a painting in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC titled The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.’ In it, Adam and Eve looked full of shame as they were banished from the beautiful garden into the dark unknown of the lower right hand corner of the canvas. This didn’t seem right to me. I felt that in that darkness is the beginning of life as I know it.” However, Orrall hastened to add in a Bar None Records publicity piece that Pomegranate “is by no means a concept record…. The above emerged as the through line, or spine of the record. Lyrically and musically, we desired to climb down out of the head and into the gut-soul—a far more honest place—to pull out more hues of the intuitive/sexual/sub-conscious.”
Whether their music comes from the head, gut, or soul, Poi Dog Pondering has always intended it to be “soul buoyant, so that it gives strength in the face of strife,” asserted Orrall in the Bar None Records publicity piece. “In the past this directive has led the less astute listener to lazily pass us off as happy music,” he added. “In fact, some of our previous records have contained a small percentage of more playful songs, but we realized they pulled focus from the other songs that carried the themes that were more important to us.” These themes include self-exploration, sensuality, pain, strife, and mortality—and pure enjoyment of every experience life has to offer.
As the members expressed in the liner notes to Volo Volo, music is the tool for relating the band’s interpretations of just such experiences: “music is all sounds at the hands of expression earnest, speak truth / sing loud / strum / beat / and dance vigorously, stand in awe and say so…. cull / muse / elaborate…. fill in the holes with well drawn water pure, and pour all…. into your art so that others will see / hear / touch / taste / smell / sense / feel…. one more outline, shade, hue, sound…”
From Hawaii to Texas, 1987.
Poi Dog Pondering (EP), 1988.
Circle around the Sun (EP), 1989.
Poi Dog Pondering (collection), Columbia, 1989.
Wishing Like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea, Columbia, 1990.
Volo Volo, Columbia, 1992.
POI Energy, Inc., 1992.
Pomegranate, Pomegranate Records, 1995.
Billboard, October 21, 1995, pp. 1, 103.
New York, November 13, 1989, p. 114.
People, December 4, 1989, p. 32; May 28, 1990, p. 17.
Rolling Stone, September 7, 1989, pp. 75-76.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes to the 1992 release Volo Volo and the 1995 release Pomegranate, and from Bar None Records/Poi/Pomegranate Records publicity materials, 1995.
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