One of my favorite bands in the entire universe is Ponoka, coming from the Netherlands. I found them because of a reader tip one day a while back and after downloading all the free songs they had up on their website I had to head over and buy the whole album at YouMakeMusic because I was hooked.
The songs are sweet pop melodies with great vocals and really tight music. The first time I listened to a Ponoka song, I loved it, which is rare for me. Usually it takes a while before a band grows on me, but these guys from Holland won me over right away.
I did a post on the band way back in October (here), and today I finally have a free slot so I can post an interview that lead singer and lyricist Rick de Gier was kind enough to do for me.
Like most of my interviews, it’s probably way too long, but I think you’ll enjoy Rick’s responses on starting a band, life in the Netherlands, and Christian music.
The Blah Blah: Who are you, in as many words and descriptives as you’d like to use?
Rick de Gier: My name is Rick de Gier, I’m 28 years old and live in the city of Utrecht in The Netherlands.
TBB: Describe the music Ponoka makes?
RdG: I guess ‘indie’ would be the most obvious description; our songs are quite poppy, straight-forward, up-beat, with a melancholic undertone, especially in the lyrics, I suppose. Live we tend to rock a bit more than on the album.
TBB: How did Ponoka start as a band?
RdG: I used to play drums in a few bands as a teenager and in college, till I decided I wanted to write my own songs. So I downloaded some shareware music software on my computer and started recording songs at home; very lo-fi and simple. When I had about ten songs I liked, I sent them to a Dutch indie label I liked (Volkoren), and they were quite enthusiastic. After I sent them some more songs in the following months, the label-boss (Minco Eggersman, who is also in Dutch bands like At The Close Of Every Day and The Spirit That Guides Us) suggested we record a CD. So we did, with me singing and playing guitar and bringing along some samples from my demos, and Minco drumming, and René, the engineer (who also plays drums in This Beautiful Mess), playing all other instruments (he can basically play any instrument he touches).
So after that I had an album with my own songs, but no band, and no live experience whatsoever. I knew I’d be expected to play this stuff onstage, but I wasn’t really looking forward to it. It was weird. Through Minco I was introduced to some musicians who wanted to be in the band, and now, after about a year and a half, I think Ponoka has turned from my personal project into a real band. I still write the songs, but we approach the music as a band, and we’ve become good friends, which is cool because when we started I didn’t know any of them (except my friend Jon, who plays bass).
TBB: What’s the hardest thing about being in a band?
RdG: Traveling late at night, waiting around, hardly making any money and so not being able to do it for a living.
TBB: What do you do when you’re not making music?
RdG: I’m a journalist. I write movie, TV and rock reviews for magazines.
TBB: Describe your process of writing songs. Where do most of your lyrics come from?
RdG: Whenever I sit around with a guitar, something usually comes up. I think up music first, chords, a melody, and then lyrics last. Lyrics are always pretty personal, because I find I don’t believe stuff I write that I don’t know from experience, if you know what I mean. It takes a while before I’m satisfied with lyrics, because I try to avoid clichés, although of course to a certain extent that’s impossible in rock music – which is okay because it doesn’t have to be the most profound poetry. Sometimes ‘yeah yeah yeah’ will do.
TBB: What do the songs “Back by Midnight” and “September” mean?
RdG: “Back by Midnight” is me being introspective, saying I may come across pretty much in control, but often I’m not. Besides that there’s some simple love song elements and some religious elements.
“September” stems from some years back when I’d just moved to a town I didn’t know and didn’t really like. (I don’t live there anymore now.) There was a lot of water there and I’d bike around having memories of other places and feeling kind of blue, wondering if I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. But in the song I’m also saying: don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine in awhile. Again, it’s kind of a love song and kind of about life.
I like writing lyrics where you don’t need to know the back story. I’ve heard people interpret songs a lot differently than how I meant them, which I think is great, because that’s what art does, I think, it becomes something you can make your own. Like the artist made it, but then it takes on a life of its own.
TBB: I’ve heard that many in the band might be Christians. Either way, can you describe what you think about God, spirituality, and all that deep stuff? Have you always thought this way?
RdG: We’re all Christians, actually. But it’s quite coincidental, there’s not a rule or anything; I think the band would work fine if some of us weren’t Christians. It’s not something we discuss a lot in relation to the music, because we feel we’re just a rock band, not missionaries or anything. On the other hand, for me, my faith is not something I turn on or off, so it’s in the music, if subtly.
TBB: What’s your goal with Ponoka? What would you guys like to accomplish?
RdG: Personally my goal is just being able to do this for a living. It’s the thing I love to do best, and I would like to do it all the time and not have to worry about other work-related stuff.
TBB: If you could have any one of your songs heard throughout the world, which would you pick?
RdG: I’m hoping we’re still going to record the ultimate Ponoka-song. We’ll be recording a second album this year, and I hope it will turn out better than the fist. For now, I don’t really have a favourite. Maybe ‘September’ or ‘See You Around’. (You can listen to the whole album here by the way.) Live we have the most fun with ‘Back by Midnight’.
TBB: Any plans to come to the US for a few shows?
RdG: That would be nice. But we’d have to be invited; it’s not something we can afford right now.
TBB: What’s life like in the little town of Ponoka?
RdG: Not very exciting. It’s a farming town in Alberta, Canada, where I lived from age five till ten. I’m more of a city person.
TBB: What’s the best thing about living in Holland?
RdG: Well, it’s crowded and we don’t have spectacular nature or anything. But it’s got old cities and a lot of culture, and it’s quite relaxed.
TBB: What artists are you currently listening to?
RdG: I think the new Radiohead album is excellent, and this last year I also really liked The Arcade Fire and this Swedish artist called Loney, Dear. For the rest I’m always listening to a lot of favourites from the 80’s and up: Sparklehorse, Sufjan Stevens, The Cure, Pavement, Placebo, The Pixies, LCD Sound System, Eels, Smashing Pumpkins (the early stuff), etc.
TBB: What books are you reading?
RdG: I’ve read pretty much everything by the British writer Ian McEwan. Some other favourites: ‘The Corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen, ‘Gilead’ by Marylinne Robinson, ‘Life After God’ by Douglas Coupland, stuff by Nick Hornby, some Dutch books.
TBB: What’s your favorite movie?
RdG: Tons. I’m a part-time movie critic, so I watch a lot. Some of my favourite directors are Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia), Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums), Martin Scorsese (mostly his early movies), The Coen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch, etc.
TBB: The way I got hooked on Ponoka was from free MP3s hosted on your website. What do you think of the MP3 downloading revolution? Bad for artists or good?
RdG: I’m not sure yet. If CDs disappear in the long run, that’s fine I suppose. I also can’t mind too much if someone just downloads the album somewhere for free – at least they’re listening to it. I do know an artist has got to make some money somehow, so I hope the music industry will come up with a system that makes everybody happy. Personally I like CDs because I enjoy entire albums, not just songs, and also artwork.
TBB: I’ve been trying to figure out what to make of this whole “Christian music” thing lately. See my posts here for more on that. Anyway, what does the term “Christian music” mean to you? Like it, hate it, or don’t even think about it?
RdG: I can live with a term like ‘Christian music’ if it refers to church music, weather it’s traditional hymns or worship music like Hillsong or whatever, or anything in between. In other words: when it’s music by Christians for Christians, in an explicitly Christian context. Anything else, I don’t think the term is relevant. I always think it’s interesting to know an artist’s background – for instance, U2’s or Sufjan Stevens’ songs mean even more to me because of their deeper spiritual levels. But I really don’t think you need to be Christian to be able to communicate beauty and truth – I think creation would be pretty limited if that were the case. Moreover I don’t know a lot of Christian artists who actually do communicate beauty and truth, because they’re often too scared of not obeying their traditions, or too concerned with shoving their message down people’s throats. For me, music is not about being an evangelist; it’s just about making something beautiful and being honest about every part of life.
There you have it. Thank you, Rick de Gier! Now go and buy all their MP3s and CDs, everybody, and start saving your money so I can fly them over here to do a concert. One day, when I’m rich and famous (or maybe just rich), I want to put together a massive festival where I have in all the bands that I love. Until that day, I can play them on my MP3 player and dream about seeing them all live in my backyard.