January 24, 2011

Interview: Pomegranates

A few weeks back, I again crossed paths with the Cincinnati-based pop rock band Pomegranates as they played the second annual Cabin Fever Festival at Stuart's Opera House in Nelsonville, Ohio. The group's reverb-drenched guitars sounded appropriately gigantic filling the cavernous venue, enveloping the crowd in the warm embrace of their latest record's title track, "One of Us." It was immediately apparent that the band has only become more polished in the short time since I saw them at this past year's CMJ festival, turning the dreamy "Create Yr Own Reality" into a seemingly effortless showcase of the each member's talents. Shifting from the pronounced rhythms of "50's" to the tropical shoegaze of "Beachcomber," I found myself basking in the atmosphere of each variation of the quartet's unique sound. The overwhelming jubilance of their closing song "Everybody Come Outside" was enough to win over even the staunchest curmudgeon—not that I noticed any.

Prior to taking the stage, lead singer Joey Cook, drummer Jacob Merritt and guitarist Daniel Lyons were kind enough to sit down with me to talk about their latest record, the songwriting practices of Huey Lewis and the News, as well as their purported celestial inspirations.

Tapes: This band has been amazingly prolific in its relatively short existence—as a group you've released an album a year for the past three years. What has kept you producing records so rapidly?

Joey: I think that we try to have band practice a lot, and then when we're at band practice we tend to not be able to NOT write songs. I think that's just what happens—we sometimes, accidentally write a lot.

Jacob: We'll just have a little idea, and we'll kind of go with it spontaneously. Unlike a lot of bands, there's not one person who writes the songs—and sometimes bands work that way, where there's one mastermind.

Joey: Like Huey Lewis and his News.

Jacob: Yeah, Huey Lewis and the News comes to mind. (laughs)

Joey: I don't actually know how they write... sorry.

Jacob: With us it's completely collaborative, so we don't have to wait on one person to have an idea, because if any of us have an idea, there's four-times as much likelihood that something might happen.

Joey: And a lot of times, Jacob from his drumming chair will say 'What if you play something that's like...' (hums melody)

Daniel: Or just clicks his sticks against the drum...

Joey: 'What if you do this kind of rhythm?' (slaps leg) 'Was somebody just doing...' (hums melody)

Jacob: But they actually weren't...

Joey: Jacob has a producer's ear. He would say that, but he won't say that right now, because I just said it. (laughs)

Tapes: Let's talk a little bit about your latest record One of Us—without a doubt one of my favorite records of the year. You achieved this very atmospheric sound and I was wondering what you thought informed that mood?

Joey: The stars. (laughs) Nah—I mean, kind of. In a little way...

Jacob: I think when we set out to start writing it we knew we wanted to make it a little bit more... drone-y? In the past, we would put four or five random parts together and just pack them all into a song. Our attention spans seemed very short and we had a fear of conventional song structures. This time we were like, 'Let's just groove.' And so, with the grooving came lots of reverb it seems—more reverb than usual.

Joey: Yeah, I think we were—maybe collectively, and definitely individually—listening to more ambient music and wanted to do an album that felt more like an album and less like a collection of songs.

Tapes: One of the things I really enjoyed on this new record were the string arrangements that you used on tracks like "Prouncer" and "The Positive Light". I felt that it fit into—as you were saying—a more cohesive feel for the record. I was wondering how you went about implementing that—oftentimes bands are acquainted with string-arrangers, was that the case here?

Joey: It was the guy we were recording with, who owns The Monastery studio, his name is Ric Hordinski. He said, 'What do you want on the album? Don't worry about budget, just what would you want?' And we said, 'Well, it'd be cool to have strings on an album—we've never had real instrumentation like that.' And he said, 'Yeah, I know a guy who helps me sometimes,' and he [Paul Patterson] was this guy who plays in the Cincinnati orchestra and is incredible—apparently he's a great banjo player as well.

Jacob: He plays every stringed instrument very well—a virtuoso.

Joey: So some of the parts, like in "The Positive Light," for the first half of the song he just replicated keyboard parts that were already written. And for the outro, he just went nuts and wrote an arrangement by himself in a few minutes. It was really awesome to see him work.

Tapes: Speaking of people you worked with on this record, you enlisted T.J. Lipple from Aloha to produce. What was it like working with another artist who's very much in the same sphere as you, being a fellow Ohio-based musician? I know you've worked with him in the past, but what did he bring to the table for this record?

Jacob: It seemed like he had a pretty good idea of what we were trying to accomplish. We did a tour with Aloha for a few weeks before we recorded, so he was really able to hear the songs for a while and get an idea of parts that could be improved or different ways to arrange them. He just had an ear for what we were going for as far as dreamy, reverb-y sounds go.

Joey: Yeah, he's a wizard. (laughs)

Tapes: Well, Aloha has definitely dabbled in the same sort of sound—I think I even heard some of T.J.'s marimba on a couple of your tracks?

Joey: That's correct—we were honored!

Tapes: Another thing I'd like to touch on is the song "50's"—this extremely solid pop-rock song that you have towards the beginning of the record. I understand there's a bit of a story behind this track?

Joey: Unfortunately Issac is not here, but I'll tell it as best I know it. He wrote that and recorded it on his own, and there's a friend of ours in Cincinnati named Andrew Clarke who also recorded a song and did a split single for our blog. Issac did that and I couldn't stop listening to the demo he had done, so I texted him while I was at work or something, I was like, "Will you let us play this song? Can we do something with this?" And we did it at practice and right away it felt so good—we changed it a little bit, but for the most part it was what he had written.

Daniel: I remember the first time I heard it, I was in the van and Issac just played it—I didn't even know it was him. (laughs)

Tapes: As a guy who has spent a good part of his life in Ohio, one of the things I really admire about this group is that you've stuck around the state. What about Cincinnati and Ohio in general has kept you making music here?

Joey: It feels like most of the people that we're closest to are in Cincinnati and still doing really cool things there, so there's not a real reason to leave. It also makes it easy that touring from Cincinnati is a piece of cake—it's pretty close to everything. It's a day's drive from most major cities you'd want to play in.

Daniel: To me, people in Ohio—and this isn't true for everyone—they seem more humble. They're not as concerned as people in New York or LA are with status and how much money you make.

Joey: I will say, I've always been surprised in New York about how nice everyone is. (laughs)

Daniel: Not saying that people are jerks or anything, but yeah...

Jacob: Cincinnati is very affordable too, which is a big plus.

Tapes: Well, that seems pretty important when you're in a band. So, what's next for Pomegranates this year? Are you headed to SXSW this March?

Joey: We actually were just talking about that a couple of days ago...

Jacob: We'll know in the next few days what our plans are.

Joey: It's just so hot [in Austin], you know?

Tapes: Well, I think you'll be ready for a break from the Ohio winter by then. One more question for you—one of you recently posted online about creating some sort of studio in Cincinnati and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.

Jacob: I probably put that up there, because I've had a hankering to do a recording studio for many a moon. At this point in my life being 26—I'll be 27 in March—I'm not a grandpa necessarily, but I'm starting to feel the clock tick a little bit and so I thought maybe there's some other way I could potentially supplement my income by recording bands. I like touring, but I think all of us really enjoy the recording process. And as a band that's toured and recorded a few times, I know recording can be very stressful or it can be very cathartic and rewarding and memorable. I feel like once you're in a band and tour a lot, you might have a different dynamic that you can bring to the table for bands that want to record, where you can create a really good environment for them. So, hopefully I get to the point where I can do that and create a recording environment that's very conducive to making good music and thinking about life and what's important and why people even want to make music in the first place, if that makes sense?

Thanks to Pomegranates for graciously agreeing to chat with me. Look for my interview with co-headliners Maps & Atlases later this week!

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