Good Vibrations: Michael Gibbons Of Bardo Pond Interviewed

J.R. Moores fires up a Bristol cone and talks to Michael Gibbons of Bardo Pond about why psychedelic pop music is the best

If you are reading this, right now, with those sorry bloodshot, half-lidded balls you call eyes, the chances are you’re already familiar with the wonderful world of Bardo Pond. For the uninitiated, I suggest you cancel all immediate plans, take the rest of the day off work, draw your curtains, dust off that old lava-lamp, download as much Bardo Pond as you can legally electronically locate, brew a big old pot of herbal tea (or a stronger relaxant, if that’s your bag) and immerse yourself in the gloopily transcendental pleasures of the world’s finest purveyors of psych-rock magnificence.

Bardo Pond’s latest record Peace On Venus is a heavy one. The riffs are hard, slow and thick, the guitars of Gibbons brothers Michael and John writhe together like two mythically colossal pythons dancing to the tune of Isobel Sollenberger’s snake-charming flute-puffs. The rhythm section, Jason Kourkonis and Clint Takeda, are also on fantastic form but I’ve just run out of legless reptile metaphors. They’re the solid snake basket holding the whole thing together… or something. Peace On Venus is dark, moody, soft, and fuzzy all at the same time. And with just five tracks, it’s shorter than many of the ‘Pond’s previous epically jamathonic LPs.

We caught up with Michael Gibbons to talk past, present, work, art, friends and fun.

For your Rise Above It All 2013 Record Store Day release you covered Funkadelic’s ‘Maggot Brain’ and Pharoah Sanders’ ‘The Creator Has A Master Plain’. Why did you choose these particular tracks?

Michael Gibbons: We recorded the Pharoah Sanders tune first, like a year ago. We were asked to do the song for a video and we were going to have Brother JT [John Terlesky] – a good friend from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania – do vocals and play horn on it. We actually did do the video but I’ve never seen it. It was shot by Marc Brodzik – he’s a great artist and a photographer and a video person here in the city [Philadelphia]. He’s done some fantastic things like Trippin’ Balls With Brother JT. I don’t know if you guys have ever seen this, it’s an interview programme that Brother JT does and you can see it on the interweb. I’ve seen footage of our jams without JT but never the actual footage of us playing that with him. We did practice the tune a lot and came up with an arrangement we really liked which is what we did when we were with him but we also recorded it at practice, so we had a really great live take. Both songs are completely live, recorded in the studio.

With ‘Maggot Brain’, I was looking at some things on the interweb and I got interested in that song. I looked up the chords and next thing I know I was playing it. I thought I had it, but Isobel [Sollenberger] noticed I was playing the chords slightly wrong, she just has a good ear for that kind of thing. After that we did it as the band and it just felt good, it really was natural. Everybody was surprised when I suggested we try do it. So both those songs are really sacred songs, sacred music for us, they have everything that we would like to have in our music as far as emotional… y’know, just the right vibrations and they’re built a lot like the way we build our songs, kind of a minimalism, a repetition, almost mantras. Once we did ‘Maggot Brain’ I remembered we had the Pharoah song and it seemed natural to put them together and it was really kinda an honour that we had them. We contacted Fire Records and James [Nicholls] was really into it and he had the great idea to release it for Record Store Day. It’s just some sacred music and it was just really amazing to do those tunes. Doing them, you learn even more about them, trying to cover them. I think we felt pretty good about doing them. We haven’t played the Pharoah tune [in concert] but we’ve played ‘Maggot Brain’ and had some good reactions.

Apparently when the original ‘Maggot Brain’ was recorded, George Clinton instructed guitarist Eddie Hazel to play “like your momma had just died”. Did you employ any similar psychological motivation techniques when recording your version?

MG: Ha ha. I’ve heard that story. I’ve heard other stories too about them recording that but, yeah, we didn’t really have to do that. If you know that song, you know that song. We’re all pretty familiar with it so everybody knew that was the vibe. I guess that kind of technique is almost built in to what we do… [laughs]… in a way. I don’t know about specific heaviness like the example you gave, but we do relate to that song.

Peace On Venus has quite a distinctive cover, less abstract than most of your releases. Where did this image come from and what does it say about Bardo Pond?

MG: I kinda took over this cover. Time was out so I commandeered this one. I got both those images from the internet. The front cover image was just kinda amazing and I added the star to it just ‘cos they were kinda making a star it just seemed to belong there. I was just doing that for myself as a piece of art, really, a while ago. And then when we had to do this cover, I didn’t have much time. I just had to get it together fast to meet the release date. I just took the artwork that I had made for my own personal imagery collection. Perhaps it says more about me than the band. Everybody kinda dug it.

Peace On Venus is your shortest studio album to date. What was the thinking behind releasing a briefer LP this time round? Is this Bardo’s PUNK ROCK record?

MG: It is like a punk rock record in a way, ha ha, although in our own inimitable way. We’ve done it before, the Lapsed album was a forty minute record and so was Bufo Alvarius before ‘Amen’ was added to it on CD. I think people dig it when we do stuff like that. And when you look back at our string of albums you can see precedents for it.

I’m a little obsessed with phenomenal bands/musicians who work day jobs and with the more humdrum side of their lives. Mark Arm from Mudhoney works in the Subpop warehouse, for example, and apparently the legend that is Jonathan Richman installs pizza ovens for a living. What are Bardo Pond’s jobs?

MG: We’re all in the fine art installation field. We’re kinda installation technicians. We work at museums. John [Gibbons] has got a full-time job at a museum in Delaware. I’m working at a museum in Philadelphia as an installer and Clint [Takeda] does the same thing. He has a gig at the airport actually ‘cos they have a bunch of public art so he’s got a position over there. Isobel is also an artist and is doing this kind of work. Jason [Kourkonis] is as well. So we’re all involved in the art world. Most of us had art backgrounds and stayed in it and we found that niche and strangely enough we all ended up doing that as a day job and it’s turned into our regular jobs. It’s just reality, y’know, it’s just reality.

Although it restricts you in some ways, especially the ability to tour, what kind of creative advantages does working provide?

MG: It doesn’t provide any advantages as far as creativity goes. It’s just we have to work. We’re slaves to this system and that’s what the system wants us to do so we barely have time to do anything else, really. But we try to get it together and we’re lucky people like to put out our records so that inspires us to keep going and keep playing. And we love doing it so it’s all we would do anyway. Working doesn’t do anything but make you have to work. I mean, I like my work but you’re pretty much exhausted after a forty-hour week.

I saw you play at a fairly small club in the UK a couple of years ago. At the end of the set the band asked modestly “Can we do one more?” to which a punter at the front replied “OF COURSE YOU CAN, YOU’RE THE BEST BAND IN THE WORLD!” Fellow musicians are also besotted admirers of yours – from Alexander Tucker, through Thurston Moore and Mogwai, to Lou Reed (RIP) and Laurie Anderson. So why do Bardo Pond, “the best band in the world”, remain such a cult act?

MG: That’s difficult to answer for me, or for us. It’s not like we’re trying to be a cult band. We don’t even think about it. Music is music. You can never know how cult you’re gonna be or how famous you’re gonna be. It’s just not a question we think about, but it’s nice to have people want to put your records out and it’s nice to be admired by all the people you mention and we’ve been lucky that way. That’s the way to get your music heard so that’s definitely a positive experience. But as far as why we remain a cult act, I do not know. I think we might be too strange for the more mainstream kind of listener and maybe just not strange enough for the strange or the heavy people or something. I don’t know… we’re unfamiliar territory for people, in a strange way. But the people that do get it are really into it and get hooked and that’s kept us going.

Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai has said that hearing your music on John Peel changed his life. Is the influence reciprocal? There’s something about the atmospheric tone of new track ‘Chance’ that reminds me a little of Mogwai, particularly their early EP work.

MG: Well we’ve played so much with those guys and we love them. That track comes from one of John’s riffs, I think he would definitely say he admires those guys. They’re definitely one of my favourite things I wanna listen to, especially seeing them live too. Their live thing is just off the hook. So, yes, it is definitely reciprocated.

There seems to be a psychedelic renaissance going on at the moment, from relatively big acts such as MGMT and Tame Impala through hyped newcomers like Hookworms, and even the noise scene has become more mellow and trippy in recent years. Why do you think acts and audiences are attracted to psychedelia at this particular time?

MG: I think psychedelic music is constantly a force cos the music is just the best. When it’s really good it’s just the best pop music there is, you know? I think Tame Impala and MGMT write pop songs in a nice way. And I think that’s why it remains a constant thing. The Flaming Lips have just remained what they are and they’re like a force of psychedelia in the mainstream. Even though I think they should be bigger than they are, they’re still doing pretty well. I think it’s always been the same and it’s always there. I think there are cycles. Thank God it’s coming back now, cos it’s all I want to listen to.

Do you hear your influence in newer bands’ sounds? Do you feel part of a larger movement?

MG: I do occasionally but I have no idea if they’ve ever actually heard us or if they just sound like us. I can’t tell. I’m not really looking. There’s certain bands that I hear [in whose music] I do hear [our influence]. I got no problem with that, we didn’t originate that sound. We’re all part of the same movement. I think it is a movement and when you see it you feel part of it, absolutely. And there’s a lot of great music all over the place. San Francisco’s happening now with a lot of cool bands. Texas is always cool. Philadelphia’s out of control with Birds of Maya and all those bands those guys have are fantastic. It feels good to be part of it. I love the music.

How are the band’s ears holding up? I imagine all the years of riffs and feedback must take their toll. Do you worry about losing your hearing or take precautions to avoid it?

MG: I personally don’t. My belief is that when the music is good or the sounds are good, the vibrations are right, no matter how loud it is – unless it’s just, y’know, really loud. Only when there are bad vibrations can it harm you. Most of the stuff I go see that’s loud is something I wanna see so I’ve never had that problem. When I do hear something that’s that loud my precaution is to avoid it and just get out of the room, if there’s something going wrong or I feel like it’s doing that to me. I know Isobel does [use earplugs]. I think occasionally John does. I know Jason does, our drummer. But me and John and Clint don’t really do it too much. I think Isobel’s had some issues when she was worried about ringing and whatnot but she seems okay. It is something I wouldn’t want to deal with but so far so good…

I hear the marvellous Three Lobed label is working on an extensive Bardo Pond rarities compilation series, the first instalment of which should be out early next year. Can you tell us more about this project?

MG: It’s gonna be a series of three double gatefold albums in beautiful Three Lobed packages, the first of which is coming out in January/February and we’ll see when the other ones come out. We’ve just compiled all of our rare stuff. I didn’t even realise there was that much stuff that would fill up three doubles but, yeah, it’s gonna be beautiful.

I just got the test pressings [for the first one]. The music sounds a lot better than the original releases. I did some tweaking on them and then this guy Patrick Klem did some wonderful mastering on them. It’s two albums and each side is amazing to listen to for me right now, almost twenty years later. It really was fun to go back and hear that stuff. I hadn’t listened to it in a long, long time. It’s really great to hear that stuff sounding better than it ever sounded and all on one album. And then the next one, and the next one. We’re so psyched about it.

You have a long-standing (though not exclusive) relationship with Three Lobed. How did this connection begin and what makes Three Lobed so special?

MG: We go way back. Corey [Rayborn] ran our Hummingbird Mountain website. He didn’t run it from the beginning but he came along soon after it was started by this other guy and took it over and then he kept going with it for years and we knew him and loved him and he was so on the ball that we didn’t even have to do anything. He would just make sure anything going on was posted and he had a lot of great ideas and then when he started doing his releases [as Three Lobed] we were already involved in Matador but we started doing things with him. Cory is just an amazing guy, he’s got great taste and we’re just really honoured that he’s a fan of us, compared with all the other stuff he does. He’s got great ideas for releases and, yeah, he’s one of our oldest friends in the rock & roll business.

Peace On Venus is out now on Fire records

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