Photo courtesy of ATP Ireland
“Obviously, Bardo Pond are the greatest band in the world…”
“Completely! End of discussion, right?”
“…but why doesn’t the world realize that?”
I’m talking to Cory Rayborn, the founder of Three Lobed Recordings. Since its beginnings in the year 2000, the label has released some of the most lysergically out-there music ever pressed onto vinyl, from the deafening noise jams of Heavy Winged to Daniel Bachman’s more delicate solo guitar pieces. Without Bardo Pond, Three Lobed might not even exist. Back in the 90s, when few people knew computer code, Rayborn had been helping to run his favorite group’s website, Hummingbird Mountain. When looking at the discography section of the site, it struck Rayborn that Bardo Pond had never released a 10-inch and he decided to rectify that omission. Cory organised the release of the three-song Slab EP, and his record label was born.
By that time, Bardo Pond had already been going for around a decade. Now, over 25 years since their initial formation, the Philadelphian psych band are still going strong and, as many fans would argue, simply getting better with age. One of the many great things about the ’Pond is that, although their sound is firmly rooted in “psychedelic rock” (whatever that means), within that vague remit they are always changing, mutating and experimenting. “They're never in a rut,” enthuses Rayborn. “It’s not record after record of the exact same thing in the exact same formula. There’s always new stuff. It’s exciting to see people who are that far into their career doing it for themselves but still pushing themselves to do new things. How that’s not caught on beyond the core, I have no idea.”
From 1996 to 2001, Bardo Pond were signed to the eternally hip independent Matador Records. Since then they’ve put out two studio albums for ATP (whose gigs and festivals they’ve also regularly played) and another two on Fire Records, alongside various limited releases, copious side-projects, and other curios for the likes of Three Lobed, Latitudes and Important. Jason Kourkounis (drums) and Clint Takeda (bass) lay down the deep rhythms over which the brothers John and Michael Gibbons paint a myriad of aural textures with their multi-pedalled guitar effects. The band is fronted by Isobel Sollenberger, whose dreamlike vocals and soaring free-flute accompaniment beautifully complement the other pummellingly stoner sonics. Not only has the quintet specialized in providing the heaviest, gloopiest space jams this side of Jupiter, it's even managed to cover the Beatles as well as the Beatles of the 90s (Pavement) and made a brilliant job of both, which is no easy feat.
Their latest Fire release consists entirely of covers, compiling material from their last three Record Store Day LPs onto one handy triple-CD package. Here, BP knead Funkadelic’s classic guitar-solo track "Maggot Brain" into a 22-minute flute-adorned full-band jamathon, Albert Ayler’s evangelic jazz-prayer "Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe" is transformed into a skull-crushing slab of drone rock, and the pretty Velvet Underground lullaby "Ride into the Sun" becomes a cathartic 20-minute psych-rock eulogy to the late Lou Reed. Reed had been a fan of the band, in fact: he and his wife Laurie Anderson invited Bardo Pond to the Vivid Festival they curated at Sydney Opera House back in 2010, an event Bardo Pond guitarist Michael Gibbons cites as “definitely a high point in a long line of high points for us. I saw a couple of things in the press down there, interviews [Reed] did to promote the festival, where he mentions us and really said some amazing things about Bardo Pond. It’s hard to describe what that was like, and also to meet them both and be part of their event.” Invitations from kindred artists haven’t ceased.
In July of this year, Bardo Pond were handpicked to support Scottish alt-rock heroes the Jesus & Mary Chain at London’s Roundhouse as part of Mogwai’s 20th anniversary celebrations. “I first heard Bardo Pond on the John Peel show in the mid-90s,” says Mogwai’s guitarist and occasional vocalist Stuart Braithwaite. “I was really drawn to their music as it was so heavy and psychedelic. On one of our first trips to America we played a couple of shows with them in Philly and New York. It was with their original drummer Joe [Culver, actually the band’s second drummer, after Bob Sentz quit to concentrate on painting]. They were astounding live, and we immediately got on with them. We’ve been friends with them since, and I’ve remained a huge fan of their music.” Braithwaite agrees that Bardo Pond have stayed “remarkably, consistently great." However, because “it just feels like one huge piece of music”, he singles out their 1996 LP Amanita as his favorite of their works. “I think the Gibbons brothers’ guitar playing has been a massive influence on me personally,” says Braithwaite, “and as people, they are folk I look up to immensely.” What could the bright young things of the psych-rock renaissance, such as Tame Impala or Hookworms, learn from Bardo Pond? “I’m sure they could learn plenty,” considers Stuart, “we all could.”
“What could they learn? Don’t try so hard,” quips Andy Duvall of Carlton Melton, one of the many U.S. underground acts that Bardo Pond continues to inspire. The crunchingly psychedelic instrumentals that make up the Californian trio’s latest space-rock odyssey, Out to Sea, owe a significant debt to the sonic paths forged by the ’Pond. “In my opinion, there would be no Carlton Melton if there wasn't Bardo Pond,” Duvall confirms. He’s known the Bardo guys since the early days of playing with his previous outfit, Zen Guerrilla. “I first heard Bardo Pond, I think, in 91. I thought they sounded very much the way Philadelphia felt like in the summertime: hot, thick, sticky, sweaty, dizzy, sloppy, heavy. I remember just how huge they sounded compared to anything else going on at that time. I also remember feeling as though I might have fallen over from their sonic onslaught, had I not been leaning against the warehouse wall.”
Asked to pick a favorite Bardo track, Duvall struggles to narrow it down to three. He plumps for "Champ" from 1995 (“It grinds. It is dizzying. The timing is fucked. I love it. Whenever I see them, I beg them to play it.”), 1996’s "The High Frequency" (“Sounds like it was just a jam they caught on tape, but it is just so damn pretty! It floats. It is full of happiness, and promise. The bass line will stick in your head forever.”) and "FCII" from 2006 (“This is BP at their best. VERY trippy stuff going on in this jam. For some reason, it always makes me think of Fugazi on acid.”). Why have Bardo Pond never really broken out beyond their core cult following unlike other, comparable purveyors of long-form weirdness like Sigur Rós or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. “I honestly don't think BP cares about that sort of thing,” Duvall says. “I think they are completely happy to do what they do, when they want to do it, on their clock. BP are in it for the long haul.”
“Clearly, it’s an acquired taste,” muses Rayborn. “Your average Top-40-orientated person is not ready to sit down for some heavy, effects-driven, 10-minute droney thing. You have a limited audience to begin with. But why it’s never broken past that limited audience is kinda beyond me. Because how someone like Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky or Godspeed can get to their level of popularity… Those aren’t necessarily things that are super similar, sonically, to Bardo but they’ve a lot more in common than not. How those can be legitimately popular crossover-type things [but not Bardo Pond], I don't know. It’s weird.” Rayborn speculates that perhaps Bardo Pond simply haven’t toured regularly enough to build a larger fan base. “They haven't played a show in North Carolina [Rayborn’s home state] in 13 years. They haven’t done a full-on U.S. tour since [2006's] On the Ellipse, which was not yesterday. Most of their U.S. shows are Philly, maybe D.C., maybe New York, maybe Boston. That’s really it. Every now and then they might do some little one-off festival here or there, but by and large it’s a more limited thing.”
Mogwai’s Braithwaite is similarly puzzled by why Bardo Pond haven’t had the greater success and recognition their music deserves: “Everyone I know who has seen or heard them absolutely loves them, so I reckon they just haven’t been heard by enough people.” Braithwaite thinks that more touring may have helped Bardo Pond, but understands “how hard it is for bands to tour a lot when they also have other commitments.” These “other commitments” include the band’s day jobs; its members all work in the art installation business. “Our day jobs have basically turned into careers,” explains Gibbons, “and therefore, we have limited free time to tour, so we have to pick our spots.” Does he think his band could have been more popular if they had toured more frequently? “Maybe, I think we could’ve done that in the beginning, possibly, but it’s expensive for five people to tour, and we were not really in a position to ever completely leave our jobs and go on the road for six months or something like that.” Instead of relentless gigging, did they ever consider penning a breakthrough psychedelic pop song like Animal Collective’s "My Girls" or that Flaming Lips one about Yoshimi? “That’s a tough question,” says Gibbons, “because I don’t think a band ever knows when they write a hit tune that it’s going to break them through into the mainstream. It just happens.”
Luckily for Rayborn, Braithwaite, Duvall, and their other dedicated fans, Bardo Pond never threw in the towel, despite their neglect by the mainstream. They’ve soldiered on, without allowing any restrictions to prevent them from prolifically jamming, recording, and releasing ever-astounding material straight out of their “Lemur House” base in Philly. And, perhaps because they’ve never been meddled with by the manipulative hands of major labels or felt the pressure to pander to the tastes of the masses, the quality of their psych-rock output has never dimmed. When Bardo Pond are granted the opportunity to perform live, in all their mind-expanding and ear-smashing glory, the fact that these kinds of events are relatively rare makes the experience all the more special, for the band and its fans alike. Gibbons says every Bardo track is exciting to perform live, but at recent shows he’s been particularly enjoying their trick of segueing "Don’t Know About You" into "Await the Star (The Stars Behind)," usually at the final climax of their set. Both tracks come from the band’s 2010 self-titled album: “The two of them have many nuances [and] together they kind of present everything that we do in a concise, two-song statement that is really fun to play and has some very ‘outside’ parts.”
The band are currently working on a “proper” new album. “We have the tunes in an early demo form,” says Gibbons. “We are digging deep into the tunes.” Can Gibbons himself explain why the world refuses to realize the brilliance of Bardo Pond? “Well, unfortunately we’re not the ones who decide what the world realizes,” he says. “We can only do what we do. It’s like that for everyone, every band, every artist, etc. We feel very lucky, and there is a lot of luck involved in this thing called showbiz. Personally, I blame Pitchfork and their lack of enthusiasm for our wares. What can you do?” [Although sometimes reviewing them favorably, Pitchfork has also dismissed Bardo Pond for being “driftless” and “tedious”, accusing them of “tiresome excess” and proggish overuse of the flute, when not ignoring their output.] Besides plotting to draw enthusiasm from Pitchfork, what does Gibbons think younger psych-rock groups can learn from Bardo Pond’s career? “Tour more often?” he ponders, but I get the feeling that Gibbons probably doesn’t care about touring strategies or any other professional audience-attracting techniques. Nor, as Duvall suggested earlier, does he really care about critical or commercial success. And if that’s what it takes to create music as majestic as theirs, then long may Bardo Pond continue not to care.
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