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Poi Dog Pondering, Unleashed : Free of Record-Label Control, the Chicago Band Has Emerged With a New Groove-Heavy Beat

September 10, 1996|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You wouldn't expect a musician to be happy about being dumped by his record company. Yet a sense of relief practically rolls off Frank Orrall's tongue when he talks about Columbia Records dropping his eclectic rock-cum-dance band, Poi Dog Pondering.

The group had recorded three albums for the label between 1989 and 1992, during which the members grew tired of working in the impersonal world run by corporate lawyers, executives and managers.

"We had a manager, and a lawyer in New York, and it just became one disorienting, crazy business thing," Orrall said during a recent phone interview. "Columbia dropped us, but we wanted to be out of there anyway. So we took some time off to break everything down . . . [and to make sure] to never let that happen again."

The band, which performs tonight at the Coach House, then went through a lengthy period of reevaluation and personal anxiety. Much of it centered on Brigid Murphy, who is both Orrall's girlfriend and the band's sax player and who fought a two-year bout with cancer, which is now in remission. The group set music aside and shifted its priorities throughout most of the diagnosis, treatment and recovery.

Once they recovered, emotionally and physically, singer-songwriter-guitarist Orrall and his mates decided to grab control of their professional destiny. They formed their own record label--Pomegranate Records, which is distributed nationally through Bar/None Records--and Orrall took over managing the band.

"I'm surrounded by like-minded people," he said, "and I feel fortunate to have such good players [who are] willing to support our independence."

This grass-roots, hands-on operation has led as well to musical changes for the Chicago-based band, which also includes lead guitarist Dag Juhlin, violinist Susan Voeltz, horn player Paul Mertens, multi-instrumentalist Dave Max Crawford, bassist Brent Olds, drummer Steve Goulding, percussionist Leddie Garcia and three backing vocalists.

Poi Dog Pondering's reemergence after a three-year break has yielded not only a new album, "Pomegranate," but a companion EP of dance remixes as well.

Gone is the shimmering, rippling, folk-based instrumentation of its earlier albums. The group's newest songs, particularly the seven remixes on the "Electrique Plummagram" EP, plunge head-first into electronic, groove-heavy house music that features synthesizers, drum loops and sampling.

*

The 36-year-old bandleader said he was first inspired back in the 1980s by the "house" music craze in Manchester, England, which featured such bands as the Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and Charlatans UK. Poi Dog (a slang term for "mutt" in Hawaii, where the band started out) flirted with a groove-oriented style on 1992's "Volo Volo," but Orrall says he's happily now immersed in it.

"Before we even started Poi Dog, I was a drummer, and I've always felt the most comfortable working the beat and keeping time," he said. "Rhythms have always intrigued me, and I think in many ways dance music is very deep and complex.

"For us, there's this sense of discovery when we and our engineers learn things, like what makes a good record breathe or how to integrate a hip-hop drum loop with strings and synthesizers. . . . In rock, people tend to think [in terms of] guitar, bass, drums. . . . It's dance music's endless possibilities that I'm excited about."

Despite his excitement over Poi Dog's present passion, Orrall said he plans to continue experimenting with new styles and sounds of modern music.

"My idea for the next record is to look at how music physically, sonically and emotionally affects us," he said. "I want a vague starting point, where we go into the studio without songs written in advance. I don't want to fall into the trap of writing a verse, and a bridge and then a chorus. I prefer creating the material bit by bit, and let all of the pieces come together."

Happily for Orrall, he doesn't have to persuade any major-label executives that such a hit-or-miss approach is a worthy investment.

"In a way, we're back to the place where we started out," he said. "We were a street band playing wherever and whatever we wanted to. Only now, we can even put out a full-length CD plus a companion disc.

"The only hard thing is we have a 10-piece band and a six-person road crew to support, and no one can afford to devote themselves to Poi Dog full time yet. We'd like to reach a point where we can invest money back into the band. That's one of our goals.

"So far, though, I'm not complaining," he added. "We've been able to earn a little money, make the records we want to make and keep the office running."

* Poi Dog Pondering and Friendly Indians play tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $10-12. (714) 496-8930.

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