Scattered across the Northerh Hemisphere, country-rock outfit Real Ponchos will be assembling on Friday night (Feb 10th) for a good old fashioned night of live music celebrating their same-day release To the Dusty World. Though they've been playing together since at least 2013, the last few years have seen Emlyn move internationally to Scotland, and Emile to the quiet coastal Maine Island, but the musical chemistry is a strong enough thread to keep the band tied together despite the distance. If you haven't heard Real Ponchos before, check out their new single & album on Bandcamp below. They straddle the modern frontier of country music and the tradition of the genre in perfect balance. The music evokes the beautiful landscape and mood of the geography for which it's named - way out in the rolling hills and big sky of the country side.
I had a chance to talk to Emile Scott of Real Ponchos the weekend before the album dropped and the party began. On a bright & cold afternoon, with snow falling outside and warm coffee in hand inside of a bare-walled cafe on The Drive, I listened to the stories behind the music, which bring to light different aspects worth appreciating about the music.
Jess: How much of the album did you write?
Emile: I think two songs on the album, but then we split the music credits a little bit. The music and the melody is usually written by Ben or myself. There's a couple of instrumental songs, that mostly came from Ben except that we kind of expanded it when we got into the studio. That's generally the way it works - we [Ben and I] split the writing things and bring it to the band. We used to write together more and we're trying to do it again more, we'll see what happens.
Jess: Is that hard now that you're not living in the same spot?
Emile: I mean, he works full time, but we try to make it work as much as possible. Maine Island's not that far away.
Jess: It's been over a year since the album was recorded, have the songs morphed over time or are you going to stay true to the album when you play live?
Emile: They sound pretty similar to what they did, we're going to probably draw them out a little bit live. To be honest, we're already kind of done with those. We recorded them at the end of 2015 but most of them were written in the middle of 2014, so even earlier than that. We spent the tour in 2014 sort of fleshing them up, playing them on the road and getting them a little more solidified. When we went into the studio they were pretty much ready to go. By this point we have a new batch, we want to play some new stuff.
Jess: Is it going to be 50/50?
Emile: Probably be 75/25. We'll play 3 or 4 new songs. I'm still proud of the record, I still enjoy playing it, it's just that whatever space we were in when the songs were written and we recorded it, we're definitely not in it anymore. It's hard to kind of put a new energy towards that.
Jess: What was that space and what was it influenced by?
Emile: I can't speak for Ben... it was a bit more introspective on both of our accounts. A bit more internal meditating, breathing and seeing what matters and what doesn't. Some of it was kind of leftover from what we came up with in our first batch of songs, at this point now the space we're in is totally different...
Some of the stuff is older though, it sort of swirled around and when we go to record it all comes together. This is almost an accidental record, actually. We always wanted to record again but we weren't really planning on it, and our drummer Emlyn, decided to move to Scotland. He gave us like 6 months notice but we were like 'well, we have all of this material we'd like to record,' and we got a little bit of money from FACTOR, we might as well go into the studio. It turns into a huge project. At some point after a few days, we were like 'Oh, guess we're making another album!' We ended up taking it more seriously than I think we had intended to. I think we were just thinking it might be like four days in the studio, trying to get stuff down.
Jess: How many was it in the end?
Emile: Probably like 10-12 I think? Mixing included, maybe 15. Over the course of four months.
Jess: What was the biggest challenge when you were making it? Any setbacks?
Emile: It was pretty easy going, pretty chill. We went in there and found out what we wanted pretty quick. John Raham was the engineer & coproducer on it. He knows his stuff and equipment so we were really happy with how it sounded right away. We got lucky. It's always wondering whether or not it's worth it, having enough money to drop a few thousand dollars in it, [wondering if] we're just kind of ding this for some sort of vanity project at this point. Actually, here's something - we kind of made the whole record with vinyl in mind. We recorded the whole thing with vinyl, we sequenced it so that it would fit on vinyl, all of the song selections and mixing so that it would sound good on vinyl, but it's just too expensive. We're like 'are we going to make that back?' I'd love to have it, but we're paying for everything ourselves, that was a bit of a disappointment.
Jess: Why is the song "Cherchez Les Femmes" titled in French, what's that about?
Emile: That's a good question. I actually checked with my French relatives in Quebec...
Jess: Did you write the song?
Emile: Yes. I checked to see if what I was trying to say with that title was grammatically sound and whether or not it would come across well. The play on words is cherche la femme which is an old film noire term which is offensive. It came from one of the 19th century French writers originally and then got re-appropriated by film people. It's kind of like 'where's the problem? well, find the woman - that'll be the problem.' It became kind of this semi-offensive thing. I thought it would be funny if it was like 'find the women' - the song is about evolution or something, I don't know. The whole thing is that I didn't want people to take it offensively... actually what it translates to literally is 'look for the woman.' It's kind of tongue in cheek. It's about introspection and figuring out what it is about yourself that drives you, and in most cases for most men, women do. I intentionally left out the 'find the problem' part, I didn't want it to have that connotation. I'm trying to flip it. What do men do? They've got to find the women... heterosexual men do. Almost everything is about love.
Jess: What about "Passing Through", how did that get written?
Emile: I don't know, that's Ben. It is a meditative song, it's very expansive.
Jess: The whole album is very wide-open feeling.
Emile: It's good for driving through the prairies... that song especially, I think. That was a song that kind of came together, Ben just had the idea with the guitar part and the melody but that was it... we started playing all together on that one but it was sounding a bit too busy so we took a deep breath and took a step back. When Ben did the guitar part, the rest of us could sort of come in and add little bits here and there. Sort of more improvisation.
Jess: It's a little jazzy almost
Emile: Well, Emlyn and Michael are both studied jazz musicians. In "Stillness", the first two minutes of that song is like a bass solo.
Jess: What is the sound in the middle of "Flatline Rose"?
Emile: You heard that, eh? That was made by Emlyn's younger brother. He recorded our first album actually, he's a cool guy he mostly does electronic music. We get along with him really well and we always try to incorporate, after we finish laying down all of the tracks, we pick some songs that we think would be fun for him to add some synth sort of samples, soundscape sort of stuff. We try to find a way to fit it in.
Jess: It kind of made a reprise of the song.
Emile: Yes, well I conceive that song as kind of two parts. We even thought of making it two different songs. It ends up being a seven minute song almost, but it's a better idea with an intermission in the middle that takes it up a notch. I will say that it was a little bit challenging to get that the way it was. We spent some time and a bunch of different ways to do it. It's a weird thing. At one point, someone in the room when we were making it, we were brainstorming how to make it happen and someone said "I don't know what's going on here, I don't understand this.'
Jess: Those discussions about communicating musical ideas always amaze me... how did you communicate what you wanted the record to feel like to the engineer?
Emile: Well, we self-produced the record, so we were all responsible for our own instruments. We had our own ideas about how we wanted our own instruments to sound and we pretty much went with that. I didn't really have any opinion about the drums or the bass, I mean I did but it's lucky that we can work that way and the results are good. It can very easily not worth that way and lead to frustration.
Jess: There must be good band chemistry.
Emile: There is. Actually, I would like to work with a producer at some point who comes in and is someone we trust, and goes 'here's how it's going to sound'. I like having control and I have a pretty good idea of how I want things to sound usually, but after making three records that way I think it's time. I just want to play, I want to have someone who tells me what to do and I just want to play. It takes a lot of mental energy and spending a 10 hour days inside focusing on all of those minute details and sound, you're exhausted for sure.
Jess: What's the picture?
Emile: That's Iceland.
Jess: Who took it?
Emile: Our friend Tayu Hayward. He does websites and stuff. He's a good friend of ours, we like using his work.
Jess: Say in 20 years you're looking back on this record, what is the thing you think you're going to remember?
Emile: To be honest, I'm really happy with the way the acoustic guitar ended up sounding. Tat was the ideal... I think I'll probably be like 'oh yeah, that acoustic guitar, how did we get that sound? Let's get that again!' It was a few different factors, there was a tape, a machine, it went through some really nice equipment, and there's also Mark Jenkins, who played pedal steel on the record... this is great, this contributed to the sound a lot. He lives in Victoria, and he does a lot of session recording himself and he'll edit it in. The last record we did with him, he wasn't in the room with us. He recorded it in Victoria and added it later. This record we brought him across to Vancouver to actually play with us in the room. That was really cool, if you listen to him and Ben on the lead guitar, the two of them have excellent musical chemistry and it was excellent to have that kind of energy in the room. Anyways, he works at a music store and he has these picks that are like $12 each, and I was focusing on my guitar sound right when we started and he's like 'Oh, here, I've got some magic for you,' and he lent me this pick, which I went on to steal, I think I paid him back for it eventually, but first strum - was a pivotal moment. Doesn't work for everybody, depends on the guitar and everything, you've just got to try those kind of different things when you're recording, it makes all the difference.