INTERVIEW: PONYLAND | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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It seems only fitting that Ponyland began life in less than traditional circumstances; formed in 2017 when guitarist Jordie Cooke and singer Frankie O’Keeffe were living off-grid in a Cumbrian forest with a bunch of creative people, the Newcastle-based band morphed into a psychedelic maelstrom of crashing rhythms from drummers Mark Johnson and Adam Stapleford, the wild brass of Matt Forster and the inventive bass playing of North East collaborator of choice John Pope. Each of the members pull in their own mishmash of influences, from breakbeat to doom, Japanese ambient to dub, while identifying with artists as disparate as Sun Ra, Lightning Bolt and System of a Down.

While their sound may initially feel like a chaotic clashing of limbs, instrumentation and genres, in reality Ponyland’s music is carefully conceived, immaculately performed and utterly joyful; all with just the right amount of pandemonium.

An intrinsic DIY attitude and an approach which encourages kicking against perceived norms and expectations is arguably what drives the band. Hare Brains, their first new release since 2019’s debut Mora Mora, celebrates individuality and a degree of anarchy. “Who wants a ‘normal’ place in a society that’s utterly corrupt, dangerous, bad for the planet and all the people on it except the very wealthy few?” Jordie reasons. “All our favourite people are people who live, to some degree or other, outside of the functional world and that often comes with the label of ‘dysfunctional’, because it challenges that whole scene. We want to celebrate and shout about the weird and wonderful things that make it fun and beautiful to live a different way.”

Likening their first album to “somebody in a post-apocalyptic movie making a car out of junk”, Jordie notes that Hare Brains is a leaner and heavier beast. “We’re stripping down the sound into its pure essence; loud, riffy, strange and colourful. Maybe now this person has ditched their car and found a speedboat that glides through lakes of toxic waste.”

The band proudly proclaim that Hare Brains is a celebration of dysfunction. “Some of the songs were coming to fruition after Covid, and an aspect that hit home was the shit show that was public services after over a decade of austerity, and that community and collective action was so powerful despite this. Another is about getting riled up about something you care about, but burning out of energy, and giving into apathy. One of the tunes is a slow burn theme we’ve dwelled on for a while around consumerism and the relentless, emanating toxicity of advertising.”

We want to celebrate and shout about the weird and wonderful things that make it fun and beautiful to live a different way

Hare Brains is also the sound of a band proudly displaying their eccentricities, and recognising that the live experience is what draws fans to them. “It’s still a wild, hectic thing with plenty of psychedelic energy but now it’s a lot more focused and explosive.” Jordie says. “We’re really leaning into our alt. rock, punk and hardcore influences too, which is so much fun; it’s got a different kind of bounce and groove to it, perfect for sweaty rooms full of people moshing together.”

Riff-heavy opener The Zone sets the tone as chanting vocals and tribal rhythms crash alongside doom-laden guitars; the terrifying Giant Mutant Pigeon is full of ecstatic brass and portentous vibes; Happy Hare Core skirts the edges of pop punk before morphing into a surfy melodic chant-along; the album’s first single, Chum, drips with a dark propulsive energy; while Do It All Again is a rousing cry against self-doubt and the cycle of denial – Please can you change my air and say it’s fine to breathe / Please can you eat this shit and say it’s good for me” – and is typical of the band’s thematic approach which mixes nature and politics. Dysfunctional’s repeated refrain of “Don’t be the same!” and the ensuing psychedelic wig-out closes the album in spectacular fashion.

It seems fitting that these songs have been coming together during the band’s live shows, during which songs might morph into semi-improvised jams with plenty of audience participation. But while spontaneity is still important, Hare Brains is much more tightly conceived, with the recording process begun during the band’s residency at The Glasshouse’s Summer Studios programme. “These days we’re much more about paring it down and making it really tight.” Jordie admits. “Then we go out and play it with full intensity and let the spontaneous feel come from the room and the commitment of the audience.”

A Ponyland show is not a passive experience; two drummers face off in the middle of a circling band of musicians who wield their instruments like they’re fireworks about to go off, singer Frankie’s an excitable ball of energy, everyone’s wearing masks, and at some point someone in the audience will end up wearing a giant rabbit’s head and being encircled in a ritual dance. “We want everyone who comes to a Ponyland show to get a moment where they can strip off their human suit and get in the muck with us!” Enthuses Jordie. “It’s easy to spend so much time in our individualist worlds, in the grind, in the day-to-day. But at our gig, suddenly you and somebody you just met are best mates, skanking together to a song about sharks. You’re definitely going to hear some loud music that’ll blast that other world away for a while.”

Ponyland release Hare Brains on 12th April via Up In Her Room Records. They play The Studio, Hartlepool on Saturday 13th and Newcastle’s Star & Shadow Cinema on Saturday 27th April.


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