Music: Poi Now

Poi Dog Pondering still makes vital music after two decades

Andy Forbes

Poi Dog Pondering

With Frank Orrall, five years away from band work is not a hiatus. After 2003's In Seed Comes Fruit — the sixth album from his amazing experimental Pop/Soul/Jazz/Rock/ Insert-Appropriate-Genre-Here collective Poi Dog Pondering — Orrall and his band embarked on a series of eclectic sonic projects that made PDP's previous two Electronic-tinged albums, Fruit and Natural Thing, seem almost pedestrian by comparison.

"We got involved in a lot of orchestral collaborations," says Orrall. "We did two with the Chicago Sinfonietta. They were interested in doing this process with us where we take Classical works and re-envision them. We did Dvorak's New World Symphony and that one went over really well, so the next year we did Carmen, which we ended up doing like a mini-play. Then we also did this soundtrack for a Brazilian film called Limite by Mario Peixoto. It's like an old Brazilian classic in the style of Cocteau. And I play with Thievery Corporation so I was kind of busy with them as well."

When Orrall finally came up for air, he was ready to put some brain cells into the seventh PDP album.

The songs that emerged from the band's writing sessions were reminiscent of Poi Dog's earliest days, just after Orrall formed the band in Hawaii in 1986. But it was Orrall's Thievery Corporation touring sabbatical that brought him full circle.

"Every night we'd play music in the back of the bus — acoustic guitars and singing songs — and I realized I'd pretty much forgotten how to play guitar," says Orrall with a laugh. "So I brushed up on my guitar before every tour so if my name got called I could sing a song. I found that after putting it down for 10 years, it was really fresh to me again. The songs started coming fast on the guitar, which is a much more familiar way of writing for me, rather than the way I'd been messing around with, like sampling and all that."

Orrall's experiments with Electronica had dominated PDP's sound since the late '90s and even spawned his solo side project, 8fatfat8, all of which made him a formidable presence within Chicago's Electronic scene. Although Orrall had successfully and appropriately incorporated samples and electronic undercurrents into PDP's sound, he found that the songs' rigid structures required the band to play to an audio blueprint that suppressed PDP's natural tendency to swing and jam.

"The songs on In Seed Comes Fruit were really sample-dependent, so they were hard to play live," says Orrall. "If a song has a sample of a harp, we'd have to play the song to that tempo every night and not have the looseness a band has where it can speed up if it feels like it. So with this record, we decided we wanted a record that feels really good to play live."

The result is 7, an amazing compendium of everything Poi Dog Pondering has done well over the past two decades — from the Folk/Swing of their major label days to the rootsy subtext of their Austin, Texas period to the wide open soundscape that defined their move to Chicago in 1992. That's when PDP became completely independent, forming Platetectonic Music to release their own albums.

Because of Poi Dog's numerous outside activities after In Seed Comes Fruit, the creation of 7 took an inordinate amount of time. Between 2004 and 2006, Orrall and PDP wrote around 30 songs and then blocked out studio time in two-month increments over the subsequent year. While tracking the written songs, the band was inspired to write on the spot as well.

"Half the record got written in the studio — in the middle of the night an idea would come, and we would just start to track it," says Orrall. "All the material is super fresh."

With so much material, finding the right balance and number of songs for 7 could have been problematic, but Orrall and PDP are old hands at conceptualizing their albums from the start. When most bands are thinking of finishing individual songs, Orrall and PDP are considering running order, atmosphere and effect of the whole from a nebulous creative mass.

"There may be 30 songs, but they're not super well-formed. You know there's a good idea there, but sometimes you can't find a way to bring them home," says Orrall. "When it got down to the mix, we started looking at which songs were cut of the same cloth and went well with each other. The sequencing of the record starts sometimes when we're recording, like we end up changing keys just knowing that we want a certain song to go after another one and want to make sure they sound well against each other on the record."

For the more organic and soulful sounding 7, Orrall says that the band returned to the recording methods that they employed on their first indie release, 1995's Pomegranate. In an effort to tap into that early vibe, the band lived in the studio to stay fully connected to the creative process.

"It was like a '70s style of recording," says Orrall. "We moved into a big studio with a high ceiling that had a tape machine, and we also recorded to hard disc, too. We just kind of went for a sonic quality and used the studio as another instrument."

The '70s played a role in 7's musical inspiration as well. With the orchestral direction of In Seed Comes Fruit and Poi Dog's subsequent operatic/Classical work, Orrall and the band looked to a simpler time for 7's songs.

"This time the inspiration was more Rock/Soul bands, like Tyrone Davis and the Memphis stuff, where you had a three-piece string section and four-piece horn section," says Orrall. "That was sort of the template for the sound. And for the attitude, the feeling was like letting some swagger come into the music. I definitely felt like I wanted to say whatever was on my mind, not edit myself or my language and let it be as rough as the initial impulse and go for that spark."©

POI DOG PONDERING performs Wednesday at the Southgate House.Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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