When I spoke to Poemss they were just waking up. It was 4PM so I figured they must be in a different timezone, but then they confirmed they were in Winnipeg, Canada. They confessed that they had to set an alarm in order to wake up in time for our interview. Artists, am I right?
This nocturnal duo is composed of best friends and occasional roommates Joanne Pollock and Aaron Funk, who you may know as Venetian Snares, the hard-edged splattercore enthusiast known for albums like Eat Shit and Die, Meathole, and Winnipeg is a Frozen Shithole. Aaron was the type of dude who once made an IDM/glitch album out of sex sounds and squelches he, erm, produced with then-girlfriend Hecate. Now he's making delicate, dreamy, and ethereal electronic songs about magic flutes and ancient ponies. Go figure.
Poemss met in Belgium last year, when Joanne appeared at his shows two nights in a row (because he apparently never plays in Canada). "I felt bad telling her I was about to do a show in Montreal," he told me over Skype. The two hit it off immediately—they're both Canadian, they're both total weirdos—so they decided to hole up in a basement in the hinterlands and make a record. They subsequently mind-melded into "one person with two heads," as Joanne put it. Their debut record is out today, February 11, on Planet Mu.
When asked what it's like to work together in the studio, Aaron told me it felt like "finishing each others' sentences." Joanne recounts that, listening back to the mastered recordings, it's often difficult to remember exactly who did what. "It's not like I'm doing the verse and the chorus and Aaron's doing the drums. I'll add a line and Aaron will modify it, or I'll write a verse that will inspire Aaron to do the next one." Indeed, their rapport is so lucid and chummy that I was tempted to ask them to interview each other.
When working together, Joanne prefers to take the train from her home in Toronto to Winnipeg—where the duo composed their self-titled debut album over three months—although it takes about 36 hours to get there. "It makes me feel like I'm on vacation because there's no Internet and no cell phone reception," says Joanne. "But it takes just as long to get to Miami." Perhaps when your closest neighboring city is Fargo, North Dakota, it's easy to get swept up in the single-minded trance of the creative project. No distractions here (except for the four cats that live with Aaron).
The duo often writes and records through the middle of the night and into the morning when everyone else is asleep—this allows them to establish their own weird energy fields, cultivating the kind of artistic and emotional connection that often leads to works of true collaborative genius. "You can make a space for yourself in the nighttime," Joanne muses. "Everything else kind of dies down, and that's when you can swoop in."
The only problem, Aaron tells me, is that it's hard to get decent groceries when you're keeping those kinds of hours. You sometimes have to settle for frozen tater tots from the 24-hour Walmart.
Poemss' debut record is a psychedelic excursion into childlike fantasylands, with lyrics about "the hair follicles of an ancient pony who was once known to save children in distress," and warped lullaby bells that would do well soundtracking something like Pan's Labyrinth. There are woozy, detuned synthesizer bursts, languid drums that move at dreamspeed—like when you're trying to run but your legs feel like they're knee-deep in water—and music box twinkles arpeggiating over Aaron and Joanne's deadpan duets.
The name is simple: when the two first started corresponding after their meeting in Belgium, Joanne was working on her own poetry projects as a way of coping with a particularly tumultuous moment in her life. They began sending poems back and forth to each other; Joanne says this allowed them to communicate their stories in ways that ordinary language wouldn't. The prose they had accumulated—along with off-the-cuff whimsical imagery they dreamed up during woozy nights and morning in the studio—shaped the album's lyrical content.
"Not much is known about the ancient pony," Aaron told me when I asked him to explain some of the album's themes. "But in lore, the pony did help save children in distress, probably because centaurs were throwing spears at them—and the pony would take a spear for the children. We tried to get some of his follicles so we could maybe clone a pony from its ancient DNA. Also the pony had a Paracas skull." Joanne has an equally active imagination.
I asked them what their favorite mythical creatures might be, and we got off onto a tangent about the "reverse centaur," which sounds like a sex position but is actually the lower half of a human, plus two hooved arms and a horse head. "You can't, like, manipulate anything with hooves," Joanne interjects. Aaron elaborates: "He has to carry his bus fare around in its teeth, and then he'd drop it half the time and have to pick it up off the ground, with peoples' used gum and flies floating around pieces of rotten hot dog and stuff." The reverse centaur figures heavily in Aaron's unreleased comic series (which he said was not ready to be seen by the public).
If you're a longtime fan of Venetian Snares you might be surprised at the absence of 200 beat-per-minute blastbeats or algorithmically controlled datamoshing, though Poemss' moments of dissonance and awkward slippage make it a Planet Mu record par excellence. "It's too dense to be considered minimalist," says writer Danny Wadeson in a recent review. "A little too energetic to be ambient, and there's enough variance of timbre combined with Pollock's drawled, sweet vocals to really elevate this above peers such as Raffertie and FRIENDZONE." Poemss' warped take on pop songwriting also sets it apart from much of the Planet Mu catalog—and it might be the only only one with a recorder solo—or "magic flute" solo, as Aaron refers to it.
Poemss are preparing to take their show on the road, but they want to keep it off the beaten path. "We want to do shows in weird spaces," says Aaron, "as opposed to just some club where shows always happen. I want to play a show in the basement of a church with all the lights off." I told them they could come play at my house and I'd make them a casserole and received an enthusiastic "Yes." I guess I'll have to confirm with their manager.
"If you go into a space where music isn't usually played, you come with no expectations—and you have no idea what's gonna happen," Joanne elaborates. "Anything can happen if you don't think about what's going to happen." I think we could all learn a little bit from the Poemss manifesto.
Purchase Poemss from the Planet Mu online store now.
Max Pearl wishes all of his interviews were this fun, and is serious about making that casserole. -@maxpearl