On balance, the Ponys have had a pretty good year. The LA label In the Red released their debut album, Laced With Romance, in February, and since then critical praise has been pouring in--garage-rock zines like Horizontal Action, countercultural tastemakers like Arthur and Pitchfork, and mainstream music publications like NME and Rolling Stone have all joined the chorus. Even Maxim and Entertainment Weekly have taken note of the band. Abetted by this buzz, the Ponys' album has sold around 10,000 copies, more than respectable for an indie release.
"The reviews that came out were pretty insane," says front man Jered Gummere. "But I didn't realize--I don't think any of us did--what it took to keep up with all that."
To push the record, the Ponys hit the road in March and visited Europe and the UK in May and June. They spent most of the rest of the year crisscrossing the States, and all told played nearly 120 shows in nine months. They toured in support of the Blues Explosion, the Dirtbombs, the Unicorns, and the Hot Snakes, and in Chicago they opened for the Fiery Furnaces and the Fall. In September they recorded a new LP with Steve Albini. When they play the Empty Bottle on New Year's Eve, they'll be capping an impressive ten months. So what's in the debits column? Friday's show will be the last for guitarist, organist, and vocalist Ian Adams.
Adams joined the Ponys in late 2002, when the original trio--Gummere and his girlfriend, bassist Melissa Elias, and drummer Nathan Jerde--had been gigging for more than a year. A veteran of twee drum-machine-driven duo Happy Supply, he had a fondness for left-field English art pop that alchemically transformed the group's primitive, anguished garage noise. The Ponys signed to In the Red shortly after Adams came aboard. "I became a lot more committed to it just to see how far it could go," he says. "I'd never been in a band that was being paid attention to."
The group didn't have much trouble winning over crowds on tour, but all the traveling took a toll. Everyone in the band was used to weekend jaunts around the midwest, but nobody had put in any serious time on the road. That changed when the CD came out. "The tours haven't been any longer than three and a half weeks at a time, but as soon as we get home we're there long enough to do laundry and then we're back out again," says Gummere. In April all the Ponys' guitars--including Adams's prized Rickenbacker 12-string--were stolen out of their van after a gig in Brooklyn. (Some of the gear was found three weeks later, being auctioned on eBay by a pawnshop, but police didn't recover it till last month.)
Another problem was that, despite all the glowing press, the Ponys weren't earning enough money on the road to cover what they were losing by missing work. "We were doing all right, better than breaking even," says Adams, "but of course not what you'd be making at a regular job." Touring wasn't even as much fun as it might've been: Adams is wry and laconic, Gummere boyish and boisterous, and the long hours cooped up in a van exacerbated those differences. "It's funny, people are always like, 'Congratulations on the band,'" says Adams. "But you're more stressed-out and sick and broke than you've ever been."
Despite the frustrations, the Ponys stayed on track. The bulk of the new album, slated for a spring release on In the Red, was finished in four days. Most of the ten tunes were written this year, but there are also new versions of old songs like "Get Black" and "Discoteca," recorded as demos before Adams joined the group. Gummere handles lead vocals on seven tracks, Adams on two, and Elias sings the standout "She's Broken."
The new album sounds cleaner than Laced With Romance but retains much of the debut's live-in-the-studio feel. "They're a straightforward band, and they're satisfied with what they sound like organically," says Albini. "It's not like it requires special Spielberg moments to sell it."
Albini didn't notice any creative clashes during the sessions. "I didn't get the impression that part of the band was trying to make Zeppelin II and part of the band was trying to make the White Album," he says. "It seemed like everybody had a similar perspective on everything. Everybody was getting along and was comfortable."
The group made a west-coast trip in October and another short tour in November, returning to Chicago on Thanksgiving. A few days later Adams announced he was leaving. The Ponys had a month off before the New Year's Eve gig and three more before the release of the new record, and Adams figured he'd minimize the damage if he broke the news as soon as possible. "The way I was feeling about touring anyway, I didn't want to flake out right before the record came out or before we were supposed to go to Europe or something," he says.
Though he seems to have reasons for quitting besides road burnout, Adams is circumspect about them. "I guess there are some dynamics that are going on with the band that I don't understand and that I don't want to be involved with," says Adams. "It's probably more like personalities than anything. Ultimately, it's Jered's band; I walked into it. There really isn't any drama other than me quitting. I don't hate them or even dislike them. I really do like those guys. And I've had a great time playing with them."
Gummere thinks touring was tougher for Adams than for the rest of the group. "My girlfriend is on the road with me," he says, "so I don't miss her. But I can understand why being gone that long would be hard personally."
The Ponys have yet to begin seeking a replacement, but Gummere isn't wasting time trying to persuade Adams to stay. "I just want to have a fun show on New Year's, have a good time, and get back to business after that," he says. He hasn't ruled out letting the Ponys be a trio again, but knows he'll miss having two guitarists. "It's just so much fuller and bigger sounding. So we'll probably have to get someone else eventually. We probably won't start touring again until the record comes out. So we have some time to figure that out, I guess."
For his part, Adams is anticipating a return to a poppier sound. He's already got a handful of songs he wrote during his time with the Ponys but set aside, knowing they wouldn't fit the band's aesthetic. "I want to do something a bit lighter," he says. "It seems like there was a certain formula that was happening [with the Ponys], and I want to work with my own formula again.
"I don't have a band right now out of the gate, but I've been playing with people, just messing around. So we'll see what happens."
90 Day Men, Ponys, and Pit Er Pat
WHEN: Fri 12/31, 10 PM
WHERE: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
INFO: 773-276-3600 or 800-594-8499
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Anderson.