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The Ponys Ride Again

Why did one of Chicago’s best-loved garage bands disappear at their peak? And after two years, what’s bringing them back?

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On December 7, 2007, the Ponys played at the Primavera Club festival in Barcelona, in front of a crowd that guitarist and front man Jered Gummere and his wife, bassist Melissa Elias, figure was about 500 strong. They'd had the kind of year that most bands can only dream about. They'd taken four American tours with A-list indie bands like Spoon, Deerhunter, and the Black Lips, plus another full tour in Europe and a short jaunt to London. Their third album (and debut for Matador), Turn the Lights Out, had dropped in March, and the song "Double Vision" had appeared on the soundtrack to Knocked Up, one of the biggest hits of that summer's movie season. By the band's estimate, the record's sold 16,000-20,000 copies.

The Ponys' star had risen steadily since their humble beginnings in 2001, when they played the Beat Kitchen and Fireside Bowl for a few dozen people. By summer 2005 they were warming up for Dinosaur Jr. and the Drive-By Truckers on one of the main stages at Lollapalooza. By all appearances they were still riding that upward trajectory in late 2007.

But the Ponys haven't played a show since that night in Barcelona, or rather they won't have until tonight, October 29, when they're slated to hit the Cactus Club in Milwaukee. Their Web site, theponys.com, disappeared after they stopped paying for the domain. Their Halloween show at the Empty Bottle will be their first Chicago date in more than two years—they haven't played for a hometown crowd since opening for Spoon at the Riviera on October 12, 2007.

What happened?

The answer may come as something of a letdown to the Guitar Center flunkies for whom "making it big" is the highest possible human aspiration. The Ponys say they got off the merry-go-round because they'd been starved of the joy and satisfaction of songwriting—the part of being in a band that's the most fun for them. In the spirit of the garage-punk scene from which they came, they put self-expression ahead of careerism and the hurry-up-and-wait grind of constant touring that comes with it.

"We play in bands to write songs," says guitarist Brian Case, "and we were reaching a point where all the touring and work that went into it was getting in the way of that.

"We were just gone all the time, and touring is . . . it's not what I think most people imagine it being—this, like, great party, where you're out every night having fun," he explains. "It is those things, but it's also getting up in the morning and driving ten hours to a show and maybe no one's there, and trying to figure out where you're gonna stay. Touring is really hard on you, personally, and it's really hard on your relationship with your friends because you're constantly stuck together in a small space."

Nathan Jerde, the band's drummer, puts it another way. "If you are in a band, and you're able to do this for a certain length of time and everything's working out for you, you start to realize there's more important things than playing music," he says. "Once you're in the middle of playing all the time, other things kinda come into perspective."

"We were burned out and needed a break before we actually took one," says Gummere, the band's main songwriter. "Basically, we were busy all the time. When Turn the Lights Out came out, we were on tour for a long time. It would be a month, then we'd get home for a week, then we'd go out for another month, then home for a week, then out for another month. We were still sleeping on people's floors, and you're waiting for the party to end to go to sleep, and things like that were starting to take a toll on everybody."

During their hiatus, the Ponys stayed close to home. Case has been spending more time with his wife Amy and their son Asher, who's about to turn four. Gummere and Elias, who celebrated their three-year anniversary on October 21, bought a house on the northwest side. And everybody went back to a job of one sort or another: Gummere does woodworking for Mode Carpentry, Case tends bar at Nightwood, and Elias is a freelance producer and stylist for photo shoots. Jerde has been freelancing too, mostly as a screen printer, and working on his own art—he does mixed-media drawings, where he's fond of using Post-It notes, ballpoint pens, and correction fluid.

All the Ponys have continued to play music in other settings. Case fronts Disappears, which got off the ground shortly before the hiatus began. Jerde started Mother of Tears with Ross Fisher, formerly of the Brides and the Dirges, and in January of this year joined Tyler Jon Tyler on bass. Gummere has been relatively quiet—his side project White Savage called it quits while the Ponys were still a going concern, and he describes his only other current group, Boystown, as more a men's club than a band. He and Elias have taken the stage again only recently to play in the Dutchess & the Duke's backing band (on keyboards and bass), first at this year's Pitchfork fest and a few surrounding dates and then on a midwestern and Canadian tour where the group supported Modest Mouse.

Last winter, Gummere started writing songs again—slowly. "It was a weird thing," he says. "I didn't feel like playing music for awhile, and I had never had that happen. I just woke up and didn't feel like doing anything, and then one day I woke up and started playing guitar, and I really enjoyed it again."

By April he felt like it was time to get the rest of the band back on board. "He just told me one day, 'I'm thinking of having Ponys practice,' and I was like, 'Awesome, I'm down,'" says Elias. "He made the call that he was ready again, and we said, 'Yeah, sure, let's do it and see how it goes.' It clicked right away, so we kept going."

This summer the Ponys started thinking about when and where to make their grand re-entrance. "We thought about maybe trying to push it and see if we could do a really big place," Gummere says, "but we decided that the Bottle was someplace where we're really comfortable. We hang out there all the time, and I think it'll be a great environment for a Halloween party. We wanted to have more of a good-time fun show, not like 'Hey, look at us, we're fuckin' playing again.' We wanted people to come and have fun and wear costumes and dance.

"Dan the Fan better be in attendance," he adds, referring to scene fixture Dan Urban, who can be seen pogoing joyously at three or four Chicago rock shows in any given week. "We're giving you a warning now."

In keeping with the fun-first approach to their hometown comeback, the Ponys are sharing the bill with friends. Srini Radhakrishna, who grew up with Gummere in Bloomington, Illinois, and played bass in his old band the Guilty Pleasures, fronts France Has the Bomb, and A/V Murder guitarist Jim McCann, formerly of the Tyrades and Baseball Furies, was part of the tight social circle that gave birth to White Savage. "We wanted to play with all friends. That was a high prerequisite," Gummere says. "We wanted to play with people we fucking know really fucking well."

The Ponys say they'll be taking it slow when it comes to being a full-fledged band again, but they haven't wasted any time getting back to the things that attracted them to music in the first place—they've already got a decent chunk of new material in the pipeline. On November 1 they'll start work on a five-song EP at Clava with engineer Graeme Gibson, who drums in Disappears; they plan to put the record out on Matador. Two of the new tunes will be in the Ponys' Halloween set. Gummere describes them as "darker, slower, more midtempo, with the bass and drums more in the front. In our earlier records, we tended to bury the rhythm section in the mixes."

"Hey!" says Elias, pretending to be offended. Everybody laughs.

"It's moving in the direction of the last album, with the energy of the earlier albums," Case adds.

"I definitely want to do something in the studio," Gummere says. "But I want it to sound raw and live without sounding like we went to a studio to make it sound like we recorded it in our attic."

For at least the next couple days, though, the band's focus is on making their public Halloween party at the Bottle fun. He won't say what the Ponys are dressing up as. But, he adds, "I told every band that if they don't wear a costume they can't play.

"I hope they're getting their shit together. Otherwise, it might just be us."

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