Pony ride: Chicago band turns up the volume

By Mark Guarino

Chicago has always had a healthy scene of art pop experimentalists. But volume has typically been the calling card for bands out of New York City. We have Tortoise, they have Sonic Youth. The two veteran bands are vanguards of their respective cities, the main difference between both is their predilection for noise.

The field is becoming more even now that we have the Ponys.

“I like the volume, I like it when it’s loud,” says lead singer and guitarist Jared Gummere.

“Turn the Lights Out,” the Chicago band’s third album, promises to raise their profile this year thanks to a recent signing to Matador, home of Mission of Burma and Cat Power. The Matador alum the Ponys have most in common is Interpol, the neo New Wavers from New York. Shimmering guitar sounds, a cloak of reverb and dark romance is the Ponys’ calling card. Unlike their previous two albums, “Lights” is leaner and more song-oriented. The swirling guitar psychedelics and doom factor owes heavily to Television, Joy Division and other misfit minimalists. The Ponys add needle-sharp pop hooks pared between dueling guitarists Brian Case and Gummere who rotate between glittery effects and bluesy stomps.

The Ponys built a reputation for their live shows these past few years. Despite the casual vibe the band is prone to exhibit, they demand attention on the live stage due to the cutting guitar riffs and Gummere’s wildly teasing lead vocals.

Playing so often here “definitely shaped the band,” said Gummere, 29. “We have a great scene. It’s not like there’s a certain type of music. Everyone I’m friends with is in completely different bands. I don’t know if I would ever want to be in a band in New York. It’s like Hollywood for musicians.”

Gummere arrived in Chicago from Bloomington-Normal where he grew up. His love of reverb came from rockabilly punks the Cramps, who he discovered in high school, a time he used to play “super nasty garage music” with local bands. Skipping college, he went to Chicago to pursue music legitimately. After playing in a few short-lived punk bands, he and girlfriend-bassist Melissa Elias decided they’d start their own band. The Ponys’ first line-up gelled in 2001 with drummer Nathan Jerde and multi-instrumentalist Ian Adams. The band hired former White Stripes producer Jim Diamond to produce their first album, “Laced With Romance” for garage rock indie In the Red, a label they would remain on for the Steve Albini-produced album, “Celebration Castle” in 2005. “In the Red told us we sold “punk rock gold” — 10 thousand,” said Gummere. “I think that’s a pretty good accomplishment for a band whose goal was just to make a record. Maybe we can go for punk rock platinum.”

Those two albums defined The Ponys sound — unusual guitar tones and a love of heavy reverb. Gummere said a prime influence was the little-known Minnesota garage band The Gestures, primarily known for the single “Run, Run, Run” in 1964. “The guitars are so (expletive) gnarly on it, like eating tape,” he said.

“Turn the Lights Out” was recorded in Chicago over a span of two weeks last September and October with John Agnello, the veteran producer known for his work with Dinosaur Jr., Son Volt and the recent Hold Steady breakthrough. “He was super professional,” said Gummere. “We like guitars. He worked with Dinosaur Jr. and they like guitars. That was a big part of it.”

Besides aiming for punk rock platinum, Gummere said a major goal is to play Japan, “the one thing every person in rock wants.” “One step at a time,” he said.

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