People who pay attention to the local indie-rock scene can be forgiven for thinking The Ponys have lived a charmed life. When the local group debuted in 2004 with Laced With Romance, a healthy buzz seemingly followed right behind it; that only grew louder with Celebration Castle in 2005 and The Ponys’ appearance at Lollapalooza that summer. Big things continually lurk on the horizon for the quartet, and this month, it takes one step closer with Turn The Lights Out, its first for taste-making indie label Matador Records. The move to a bigger label gave The Ponys more time in the studio—two weeks instead of a few days—though Lights Out still has plenty of the agitated rock that makes the group so ingratiating. While on the road during a post-South By Southwest tour, singer-guitarist Jered Gummere talked to The A.V. Club about The Ponys’ gradual ascent, living in Chicago, and gunfights in Humboldt Park.
The A.V. Club: The Ponys have always seemed popular, but that perception certainly doesn’t equate to reality. There have to have been plenty of times when you’ve felt the opposite of big, even recently.
Jered Gummere: Yeah, a couple of days ago.
JG: Houston? Jackson, Mississippi? It’ll keep going. Jackson was cool though, because people were really appreciative and passionate. The 70 people who came were like, “Thanks for coming to Jackson!” and bought a bunch of merchandise, so that was really cool. It was nice because people really appreciated it. It wasn’t just like, “Oh, look, I’m at the cool show.” They were like, “We’re going to the show! We won’t have another show for a month or two!”
AVC: When did you first notice that you were starting to catch on in Chicago?
JG: I don’t know. When you start out, you just kind of go by venue. You start out playing, like, Beat Kitchen and Cal’s. Once we got a show at the Empty Bottle, we were like, “Cool, the Empty Bottle.” It kind of builds, I guess. Then we did the Double Door, our own show at the Double Door. We were like, “Fuck, this is big!” So I guess the next step would be a big one at the Metro or something. We’ve played there, but we’ve never headlined.
AVC: How do you think living here affects both how you function as a band and how you write as a band?
JG: I think it’s all really influential. It’s part of our daily lives. Right now, we’re not there, but when we’re there, it’s loud and noisy and kind of violent, but working-class. I like it. It’s so much more affordable to live in and be productive as a band than L.A. or New York. It’s a great city to play music in.
AVC: You and bassist Melissa Elias are married. Where do you live?
JG: We live in Humboldt Park.
AVC: Speaking of violent.
JG: Yeah, speaking of violence, I’ve seen a couple of guns this year. The last time was right before we signed to Matador. I was walking down the street one day. We were with the Gris Gris, and they were just walking down the street when, all of a sudden, fucking gunshots started firing off everywhere. It was close to the Fourth of July. Matador called. I was like, “What’s up?” and just talking. I turn around, everyone’s running back to the house. I looked over, and fucking guns are blazing everywhere. I was like, “Fuck!” I was just strolling through this fucking gunfight. You can’t even tell over there in the summer. We play “Fireworks Or Gunshots?”—it’s our game at night. We’ll be on the couch like “Fireworks? No, I think that was a gunshot.”
AVC: Speaking of Matador, did you talk to a lot of labels besides them after Celebration Castle?
JG: We talked to a few. We totally ruled out basically any major-label interest, and decided that we wanted to actually put out records—and not have our records sit on their fucking desks for years, when they decided to put it out or give it back to us. I think we were all pretty excited about Matador. It seemed like a good fit for our band, and we had a good grace period where we hung out with them to see if it was going to work out or not.
AVC: Was there anything you wanted to avoid or do with the new album?
JG: I think we were pretty prepared. We just wanted to have fun. If we wanted to experiment with some stuff, like different effects or different vocal patches, we made a little extra time this time. Basically, we got to take a lunch break and stuff. We had a little bit of time to relax and do our thing. The first record we recorded in like four days, tracked and mixed. So it’s like, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. We gotta go now!” Taking different takes that maybe we could have done better, but didn’t really have a choice.