Pontiak are an immensely talented and prolific American neo-psychedelic rock band of three brothers from Virginia: Jennings Carney (bass, organ, vocals), Van Carney (lead vocals, guitar) and Lain Carney (drums, vocals). They are one of a slew of notable and entertaining acts on the Thrill Jockey roster who have been touring Europe of late. Ian Fraser caught up with them on the penultimate date of their tour, a storming gig with the peerless White Hills at Birmingham’s Custard Factory in March 2012, and here’s what they had to say. A word of warning, dear reader, the conversation took place at 2 a.m. on St Patrick’s night which made for a somewhat unconventional and informal (not to mention good humoured) discussion, a flavour of which is captured here.

Terrascope: Well, you’re coming to the end of your tour...

VAN - Yeah just one more night, we’re in Hastings tomorrow, then home.

So what’s been the highlight, where and what?

VAN –[Pause] Interesting question. I’d say Prague. Prague, and possibly Rome.

Would that be the gigs or the places themselves?

VAN - Oh the gig

LAIN – And the goulash. The goulash in Prague was pretty good, and in the Czech Republic in general.

Do you find in those sorts of places the crowds are especially appreciative of you?

VAN –Yes, certainly. In Paris they were too.

LAIN – I’d say everywhere was appreciative of us.

VAN - The funniest thing is that in Paris there is an extreme decibel limit, well in all of France it’s like that. We played this show in Paris and had a really intense exchange with the sound engineer and then the manager. They didn’t want us to play how we play. Finally when we did play, the crowd went absolutely wild. People just got on stage and turned up all of our amplifiers. We started playing and people just started losing their minds. It was cool, it was a good show.

You’re a hard band to categorise. I mean tonight you played it hard and loud which is what the crowd wanted, it was great. If you think of your records, though, you go through a variety of styles. Echo Ono for example is a return to a harder sound following last year’s EP, “Comercrudos” which sounded a lot like Pink Floyd, but still manages to convey a range of emotions.

VAN – I can explain that. If you just pound away at one style of music all of the time, that one idea over and over again that’s all you’ll do and that’s all that it is. If you take your time and try to develop your sound in general then you just play it without really trying, you just hit that trail and it’ll take you where it’ll take you.

How would you categorise yourself – pick a genre

VAN – It’s a difficult thing trying to categorise what we do. Do you garden? You do? If you garden then you know every year is experimentation.


VAN – Done!

Good answer


The new album has a very organic feel to it because it was recorded on analogue equipment. What did you use to get that sound?

VAN – Tapes and valve amps. We’ve never use solid state amps. The valves make for a very organic sound, like a living and breathing thing.

You’re extremely prolific – Echo Ono is something like your 9th release in seven years. What motivates and inspires you?

VAN – Well the thing is you can have more than one child in one year. It’s a strange analogy maybe but it’s true.

So who, then, inspires you?

VAN - Well there’s a lot of old blues players that are pretty cool, like Blind Lemon Jefferson, which is awesome, Blind Blake which is really cool. Then there are the complete 1920s recordings of Mississippi John Hurt which are truly awesome, you know, completely powerful. Then on the other side of that you have Amon Duul which is quite mind blowing, and then you can go back and watch Elvis Presley dancing and singing Jailhouse Rock. It’s all completely encompassing, so it’s everything from then, and then you’re sitting around having a barbecue and then it’s like whatever it could be and it doesn’t have to be any of that.

We talked about how prolific your output is. Phil McMullen and myself were at a festival last weekend called All Tomorrow’s Parties, I’m sure you’ve heard of those (nods all round). There were a few bands there playing one of their seminal albums in their entirety. If you were asked to do this which one of your would you pick?

LAIN – “Maker”

VAN – “Sea Voids”

LAIN – “Maker”

VAN  - “Sea Voids”

I’m enjoying this. Jennings?

JENNINGS – I think ”Sea Voids”.

LAIN – I think “Sea Voids” is actually one of our best albums that we built on this idea of don’t play until I say play

JENNINGS – Yeah, it’s pretty cool

Do you know what? I’d choose either one of those you’ve just chosen. Actually you could do what Sebadoh did last weekend which was to squeeze two albums into the same set (“Bakesale” and another one which escapes me for the moment, “Harmacy” I think) so there would be a diplomatic way around all of this, boys.

It’s interesting to hear you having these discussions because I’m struck by the fact that you’re literally a band of brothers, a sort of a psychedelic Kings of Leon. How does the dynamic work between you.

LAIN Well we’re a triumvirate so everything has to be split a third, a third, a third.

So there’s no older brother, middle brother, younger brother pecking order?


JENNINGS – No there’s nothing like that. I mean splitting a bottle of wine or a last bottle of beer, or whatever is last, that’s the hardest thing. Being in a band is not hard. Putting egos aside is one thing, but splitting a bottle of beer...how do you do that, you just get in there before anyone else does!

Which brings me to the issue of song writing – how do you usually approach that?

JENNINGS - It’s a collaborative process. It’s one of those things where we get in there and we think about what it is we want and where we want to go towards but really it’s pretty hard to sum up.

So do you tend to start with a riff or with lyrics or how does it work?

VAN – No we never start with lyrics. It’s pretty much like how you approach an interview, it’s like when you sit down and ask these questions, you think “where am I going”, “what am I asking”? Do you know?

Sometimes not


VAN – And then at the end you have a concept at the end where you’re, like, feeling it. You go through the process of – because we get asked these questions a lot – and it’s like gardening again, every year is different, and it would cheapen then process to sum it up. Honestly if you do, you’re like Monsanto, no you really are, you delineate a process to the extent that you say “this is how it’s done”. You then risk doing what you don’t want to do. Just do what you want to do. It’s like gardening, you just feel it, in a good way, you have to work with the plants to get them to do what they can do for themselves. And that’s the best anyone can do for themselves.

That’s a very good analogy. You’re a very keen gardener I can tell

VAN – I love gardening. It’s my favourite thing to do.

You self-produce?

VAN - Yeah, absolutely.

Are you tempted or pressured even into going for some record label producer or to bring in some Rubin/Albini figure?

No, no, no.

So no message from Bettina[Richards, label boss] on high saying I want you guys to do this and this?

VAN – No! That would be amazing! Like “you guys should do THIS”. (laughs)

LAIN – It would be like “show me the dollar signs”.

[Lots of laughter]

You’re signed to Thrill Jockey, probably the coolest label on the planet. Most of our favourite bands are on there, you think of White Hills, yourselves, Barn Owl, Eternal Tapestry, Skull Defekts...

VAN – That last Skull Defekts album was just awesome

Wasn’t it just! In fact the label is in danger of being referred to the monopolies commission it’s got so much good stuff on it. How did your signing come about?

VAN – Well we lived in Baltimore at the time, and Arbouretum, another Thrill Jockey band also lived in Baltimore. I asked Dave Heumann [Arbouretum’s songwriter/vocalist/guitarist] if he wanted to do a split record and that we would put it out. And he said oh, yeah, that would be awesome man, let’s do it. We had this record we’d put out before we signed to Thrill Jockey called “Sun on Sun”. Unbeknownst to us Dave sent it to Bettina, who then called me and...well, here we are.

Speaking with White Hills earlier they were saying that Bettina never puts anything out that she doesn’t like herself. Is that your experience?

VAN - Certainly

Well that’s a wonderful testimony for what you do

LAIN - Well, we’d like to think so

Is there much camaraderie between the TJ acts or do you keep yourselves very much apart?

VAN/JENNINGS - I think there is quite a bit of camaraderie actually when you think of how much we’ve toured with White Hills and Arbouretum and we’re really great friends with both bands and with Barn Owl. We actually played with Barn Owl before they signed for Thrill Jockey, it was our first West Coast tour. They’re such awesome dudes. Yeah we did San Francisco and Sacramento and some other places. It was great, they were cool.

So what’s next for you guys anyway?

VAN - Well we go home we have about two weeks off and then we strike out on an American tour. It’s going to be about a month long.

How many gigs is that?

JENNINGS – Twenty plus, maybe twenty eight, something like that.

You think of the travelling distance over in the States, it’s immense. From Frisco to New York it’s about the same distance as it is from New York to here.

VAN - Yeah it’s totally massive. I mean coming over here it’s like a total treat. The longest drive is like seven or eight hours. No it’s cool

Whereas we make a massive thing of it if we have to drive for more than an hour, it’s like “oh god”.


But there again some of you guys must be used to our little idiosyncrasies over here because am I right that two of you lived and studied over here?

VAN – Yeah Lain and I studied over here. I studied at Oxford and he studied at King’s College, London. We both studied Philosophy

I should have known. There’s been something of a philosophical bent about this whole conversation. [Laughter] My son is just finishing his fourth year up in Oxford.

VAN - Oh right, what’s he doing?

He’s studying Osteopathy at Brookes. He’s had four very good years I must say.

VAN - Cool, awesome

So obviously then you must be used to the warm beer and the schizophrenic climate we get over here and which I’m sure keeps drawing you back


LAIN – Warm beer’s weird, but it’s really good (raising a bottle).

Well I say warm beer, it’s really room temperature.

LAIN - It’s drinkable!

You talk of the upcoming American tour and presumably there’ll be more to follow in terms of recordings as a Pontiak unit...


”sorry boys, has anyone here got a lighter?”

No I don’t/sorry man/unfortunately not.

“No –one’s got a lighter in this place” mumbles interjector adorned in Guinness leprechaun hat before moving off.

Well for a St Patrick’s Day reveller that guy’s got a stronger Welsh accent than mine. Anyway, have you ever been tempted to do any solo projects, any thoughts of going “fuck you guys, I’m going doing something of my own”?


JENNINGS – No I can’t think where I’d find the time to do it even if I wanted to.

LAIN – I can’t think of any project which I wouldn’t want to involve my brothers.

Well as a total unit tonight that was really good. I enjoyed it immensely I have to say and I think the crowd did as well. Small venue though you couldn’t fit that many people in.

JENNINGS –It was a good gig and an appreciative crowd. Yeah it was good.

Boys it’s getting late, well past my bed time, anyway. Are there any questions that you’d like me to ask you?

VAN - Er..no..I don’t think so. But I’d like to ask you something. Where you from?

I’m from Wales

VAN – Really? Do you speak Welsh?

Yes I do

VAN – How do you say, “iechyd da”?

“Yeah – chid-dar” – the “ch” comes from the back of the throat, a bit like if you’re hawking to spit. It means “good health”.

[Band members have a go at pronunciation]

VAN – Do you speak Welsh natively? Is it your first language?

It’s my joint first language. My mother is Welsh speaking my father wasn’t, but he was Welsh.

VAN – We’re Welsh!

JENNINGS – There is Welsh, yes

So where have you traced your family back to, then?

VAN/JENNINGS – Er many places, Winchester, Wales, Corsica, Ireland, Czech Republic, Dutch,

VAN – What is the longest train station...

LAIN – No, no, no. Why would you want to ask us if we had any questions to ask you?




LAIN - Why did you want to ask us if we wanted to ask you if you wanted to ask you if you wanted any questions to ask us?

Oh, erm, It’s a reciprocal thing, I suppose. Plus the fact I really appreciate being in the company of philosophers


Anyway that longest named train station? You mean “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllandysiliogogogoch”. How’s that?

(Laughter) There you go!

It’s a wrap, good night Pontiak and God bless.

For information about Pontiak releases and activities go to www.thrilljockey.com

Feature interview: Ian Fraser. Artwork & layout: Phil McMullen
© Terrascope Online 2012