By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's complicated, but it's all right.
Getting the sprawling musical family that is Poi Dog Pondering together for a reunion weekend is a Herculean task. Frank Orrall, the band's pater familias and grand poobah, says the time is right.
"It's the 25th anniversary of the band," he says. Then he starts worrying me. "It just feels like the time to do it," he adds. "People are having kids, their work or other projects are taking them in different directions, they're going through different things in life. It seemed like an important time to document who we are while everyone is still here. It's getting harder to go out on the road. People have commitments."
This isn't a swan song, is it?
"No, we're still totally vitally strong and present as a band. But we don't move like the gypsies we once were. We just need to sit for a musical portrait while we can."
So Friday and Saturday the band reassembles for two reunions — the band's Austin lineup (1987-1992) on Dec. 2 and various incarnations of its Chicago existence (1993-present) on Dec. 3. The shows will be recorded and filmed for CD and DVD.
Austin-era bassist Bruce Hughes agrees about now being the right time for this reunion.
"Everybody is still extremely active in music," he says. "It's not like it was a little blip in college rock and now we're a bunch of accountants, paunchy and dejected, saying, "Hey we should get the band back together again."
The members from Austin have been rehearsing — they haven't played together in 18 years — and getting nostalgic.
"People are losing weight, growing mullets back out," violinist Susan Voelz says. "I was gonna get a perm."
We spoke with four members from throughout the band's lifespan for this brief oral history of how the band gelled in Austin and eventually transported to and transformed itself in Chicago:
Poi Dog Pondering originally came together in 1986 as a small nucleus of buskers and film enthusiasts in Honolulu, including Orrall, singer-songwriter Abra Moore, guitarist Ted Cho and drummer Sean Coffey.
Frank Orrall (singer): We started meeting in Hawaii and traveling, spending a year going across the mainland in sleeping bags, busking our way from Los Angeles to New York. That was the original gypsy creed of the band. ... The dance thing that came out in our music in Chicago — that was something always in me, even back in Hawaii. I cut my teeth in Hawaii going to these two clubs, one of which was a gay disco that kicked in at one in the morning. But punk and new wave bands played before that and would hang out. So there was this big mixture of new wave and dance music, and even in Austin that started coming back out, especially later. You can hear it in "Get Me On" and "Lackluster," on the same record with some full-on Hawaiian sounds.
Deep in the heart
As the band traveled the mainland, they started to stick — musically and physically — in Austin, Texas. A few local players were attracted to their spirit and sound.
Bruce Hughes (Austin-era bassist): The Austin origin story verges on mythology. I know I saw Frank and Abra and Sean come through and play. The way I remember it: At the time, I was hanging with a bunch of musicians that included Alejandro Escovedo, hanging out on Avenue D [near the Univ. of Texas campus], making barbecue and playing music. Ronnie Lane of the Small Faces had moved to town. He was sick with multiple sclerosis and wanted to get away from L.A.. Alejandro put a band together to help Ronnie play music and got me involved. Susan Voelz, too — I already knew her from a band we were in together with Arthur Brown. The Ronnie Lane band was the Seven Samurai, and one night at the Continental Club this little band opened up for us.
Susan Voelz (violinist): It was a Tuesday at the Continental Club. It was raining. I didn't even dress up. I just wandered over and played the gig. But that was a transformative show. I was playing with good musicians, plus Poi Dog — they were coming through and I happened to see their show, and I remember meeting Frank that night.
Hughes: They had a little wooden marimba and acoustic guitar and a snare with brushes, and accordion and penny whistle — Frank, Abra and Sean. I remember listening to them and seeing all this joy on stage. I thought, "I love these guys! It looks like so much fun!" They had so much spirit and joy and freedom. I ended up meeting Frank through another friend of mine, and we kept in touch.
Voelz: Later, they called and said, "Come play violin!" ... I hadn't intended to join the band. They were very open in the studio, and I liked that. They invited me to play live with them at the Texas Union ballroom. I walk in, and it's already this big Poi Dog show, lots of energy and enthusiasm in the room. I was like, "Oh, that's what this is about." I liked the fire.
Hughes: That fall — I think, 1987 — Frank called and said, "Hey, I'm out in Oakland, and me and Abra want to start putting together demos for a record. Come help me." I caught a ride with Frank's girlfriend, and we spent several days in this cold, warehouse space cooking food and making music, and we had a residency in the [Mission] district. I came home for the holidays and convinced Frank to come down to Austin. Half of Poi Dog was already here, and San Francisco was so expensive. "Just come to Austin," I said.
Orrall: I said, "OK, let's go to Austin and track this record." I meant to stay there a month and I stayed four years. Austin has a nice lifestyle, a strong self-identity. People are proud to be from Austin. In that period, also, there was a real spirit of collaboration, not just among Austin musicians but every kind of art. That movie "Slacker" [Richard Linklater's classic, in which Orrall appears for one brief, hapless segment] is all about that — that thing made by everyone contributing.
Poi Dog Pondering's self-titled debut appeared in 1989 on the independent Texas Hotel label.
Hughes: We finished the record, and we were still busking on campus. We slowly set up shows at clubs and on campus and around, close to the university youth culture. More songs were added, more fans were added, more excitement. Soon there were seven, eight, nine, 10 people on stage. It definitely gelled and found the nutrients it needed.
Voelz: Part of it, I think, is that the camaraderie in the band is real, was from the beginning in Austin. It's ridiculous — we really do like each other. We enjoy each other. I enjoy when Ted or Max hits high notes, or when Dag plays something I've never heard before. It's a hurricane, or an ocean. We want to get into that realm. It's big. I never know where everything's going, but I follow it.
The debut album includes the song "Aloha, Honolulu," written by Hughes, who was not part of the band's Hawaiian beginnings.
Hughes: My family were musical. My grandfather was a Dixieland cornet player from Chicago. I grew up listening to a lot of music from the '30s and '40s, so it wasn't foreign to me, that Hawaiian style of music. Not traditional, of course, but that Hawaiian style — Bing Crosby, etc. I developed a deep love for it, and after I got to know Frank and his friends from Hawaii I wrote that song in L.A. as we were getting ready to go to Hawaii, my first trip. It was my way of saying, "Hey, welcome me."
PDP released two more albums in a contentious relationship with Columbia Records — 1990's "Wishing Like a Mountain, Thinking Like the Sea" and 1992's "Volo Volo."
North to Chicago
Restless spirits all, the band began contemplating a move north. Maybe New York? Maybe Chicago? Only three core members make the move: Orrall, Voelz and multi-instrumentalist Dave Max Crawford.
Orrall: I enjoyed Austin, but I didn't plan on living there. I really had a strong interest in urban music and dance that wasn't in the forefront in Austin, or even happening at all. I wanted to live in a bigger city, either Chicago or New York. I planned to go to New York, but I had a lot of friends in Chicago so I stopped to visit on the way. I ended up staying, and it was the totally right choice.
Voelz: I was tired of the heat and really missed the snow. I grew up in Wisconsin. And I wasn't ready to be done with Poi. It was musically rich for me. Right away, we met really great players and went into this whole other dimension.
Hughes: Family ties — I had a lot of reasons to stay in Austin. ... One of the reasons the band moved there was because we had so many fans there already. The groove thing had already started happening in Poi Dog, and Chicago picked up on it immediately and embraced it like no one else.
PDP began picking up new players to round out the now Chicago-based collective.
Dag Juhlin (Chicago-era guitarist): I had been working the door at Lounge Ax back in the late '80s-early '90s, so I'd seen Poi Dog and the rather respectable hysteria they inspired in town. Long lines, multi-night stands, etc. ... Frank, Dave Max and I were already working together at Milly's Orchid Show to back up noted chanteuse Syd Straw, and they very casually asked me if I wanted to be part of their first Lounge Ax show. I said yes. The shows went on for months, and there was always a rotating cast of players, but I kept on getting invited back. Somewhere along the line, Frank and Dave Max had decided to put together a new Poi Dog made of Chicago players.
Into the groove
In Chicago, in the early-1990s, house music was literally booming. Orrall began steering the band in that direction. PDP's next album, 1995's "Pomegranate," shows the clubby influence on their otherwise earthy sound.
Orrall: I didn't realize how strong the Chicago house community was. I started realizing the impact it had on everything I liked, including the Manchester stuff, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays. They were all inspired by Chicago.
Voelz: I loved what we were doing [in Chicago] from the get-go. Thinking back around "Pomegranate," you can really hear Chicago in that record. Austin is hot, you wear less clothes, it's a smaller city. Chicago was winter and there were mittens and pasta in the studio. "Pomegranate" is super song-based, but I knew Frank was into that whole other dimension of house music, less structure and more groove. I love a good song, but when the songwriting opened around the grooves — it felt more orchestral to me right away. There were more places for strings and orchestration, so we added more strings and horns. It was super fun, and I knew how to write for that. Then came the Sinfonietta and "Carmen."
Orrall: In Chicago, the full-on house stuff became part of Poi Dog Pondering — to the chagrin of some fans and even band members. We went through a shakedown. Some people weren't happy with the incorporation of that. ... It was too jarring a change.
Juhlin: I had resisted the stuff like "U-Li-La-Lu" [from "Wishing Like a Mountain"], but I fell immediately for "Pulling Touch" [from the debut]. It had this insistent, four-on-the-floor kick drum and sidestick that absolutely hypnotized me. Once I started getting further into the catalog, I realized how much heart was in the music. Chicago was a town of punk snobbery, and [Juhlin's band] the Slugs, god bless/help us, were standing in the fringes of that nonsense. I let go of the posturing and was proud to be part of Poi Dog and the type of honest, soul-searching music they were making. I think the "hippie" tag that the band got slapped with is just really dumb, cooler-than-thou shorthand.
Hughes: When I heard Poi Dog getting into real deep house culture there, I was not surprised. I knew Frank was heading there. There's a lot of that stuff going down on "Volo Volo." ... There's a lot of equatorial influence, not necessarily Hawaiian, in Frank's music. It's music from all over the Caribbean, from zouk to some deep Samoan stuff going on. Anything that was exciting and energetic and spiky, African pop, Caribbean pop. The groove was there, even if you couldn't hear it right away.
Juhlin: As far as the groovy stuff goes, well, that was a learning curve for me, as well. I always secretly fancied myself as versatile, and actually loved retro-fitting my sort of power chord style into something more supportive, colorful and textural. I still was/am able to add the grit when appropriate, and Susan Voelz, bless her heart (and eardrums), will tell you that I have yet to truly learn to turn my amp volume down onstage, but playing with Poi Dog forced me to listen and adapt, and to be aware of the sound as a whole. I've had some of the most thrilling musical interactions of my life with my PDP bandmates, and it's almost shocking how routinely and effortlessly they can occur.
The band that eats together
Rehearsals, performances, any occasion with Orrall is one for food, as well. (He sings, he feasts — how many living puns will he spin from his name?) Every conversation with a PDP member mentions grand dining as part of the experience. Today, Orrall hires himself out as Chef Franc (cheffranc.com); he'll come to your house, cook a dinner party and bring his guitar.
Voelz: Frank and food — he has appetite for life. Touring and traveling, our compass of curiosity included food, music, bookstores, record stores, nothing was left out. It was never "Oh, that restaurant is too swanky for us," it was always "No, we're going for it!" Max used to say, "Hold on to your per diems, we're going to dinner with Frankie!"
Hughes: We were traveling carnival auteurs, with a deep familial sense. No matter what we had, we could get together and make a big party, a big supper. ... [Orrall] is a master chef, as fun to cook for as to cook with. It's a lot of fun to sit back and let him take over the kitchen. It's almost exactly the way he approaches music, too.
Orrall: I've always loved the dinner party. I love what happens when a group comes together to drink wine and talk story. It relates to when I was a kid. My family had parties, and Mom would bust out the guitar. People brought instruments, and at the end of the night all these adults are playing Roy Rogers and Carter Family songs. ... In the early days of Poi Dog, as street musicians, we'd make 12 dollars some days. We always had to fiure out how to make that work. So it was always about being creative, buying pasta and frozen peas an making our own meal, and it eventually became this social thing for all of us in the studio. My cooking has always been combined with music, and the other way around.
Pondering the future
Orrall: Would I move again? I'm originally from Hawaii, and I've been trying to make more of an effort to be in Hawaii more. I'm always going to be in Chicago. It's my creative home. But I'm becoming more of a gypsy now, like I used to be.
Orrall is working on his first solo album, likely a set of instrumental, Brazilian-inspired tunes. Voelz has completed a 50-minute orchestrated suite for Thai yoga. She also promises to finish a long-delayed record of Prince covers.
Voelz: I'll never put that out. No, I think I will next year. That's such a lie. I've been saying that for four years. Maybe a show with Robbie Fulks. He's got his Michael Jackson covers record out. OK, that for sure will happen next year.
Hughes has played with numerous others (Cracker, Bob Schneider, Jason Mraz). He is currently finishing his third solo album and leading his own band, Bruce Hughes & the All Nude Army.
Juhlin reunited the Slugs for one show last year. He now leads an inventive local covers band, Expo '76.
Juhlin: I like to say that we're not a cover band, but a band that does covers. It's one of the most fun musical experiences I've ever had in my life. ... Don't count out those Slugs, though. I think we may end up doing a show before too long.
POI DOG PONDERING'S "TALE OF TWO CITIES"
• 9 p.m. Dec. 2 — The Austin Years
• 9 p.m. Dec. 3 — The Chicago Years
• Metro, 3730 N. Clark
• Tickets: $26, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.