Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Snips and Snails and Ponytails

Written by John Melillo
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Ponytail started out as an art school project (the assignment? “Start a band”) and quickly became favorites in their native Baltimore and throughout the US. The band’s lead singer, Molly Siegel, is not your typical lead woman: rather than singing words, she vocalizes with oohs, aahs, chirps, warbles, and nearly every other crazy mouth sound you can imagine. Her magnetic presence supports a set of bouncy, precise, and always surprising songs that are structured around ripping guitar riffs and off-kilter drums. Despite a distinct strain of Dadaist weirdness, Ponytail’s music actually comes off as exuberant pop, especially in their latest album, Ice Cream Spiritual.
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Ponytail started out as an art school project (the assignment? “Start a band”) and quickly became favorites in their native Baltimore and throughout the US. The band’s lead singer, Molly Siegel, is not your typical lead woman: rather than singing {multithumb blog_mode=popup thumb_proportions=bestfit resize=1 full_height=600}words, she vocalizes with oohs, aahs, chirps, warbles, and nearly every other crazy mouth sound you can imagine. Her magnetic presence supports a set of bouncy, precise, and always surprising songs that are structured around ripping guitar riffs and off-kilter drums. Despite a distinct strain of Dadaist weirdness, Ponytail’s music actually comes off as exuberant pop, especially in their latest album, Ice Cream Spiritual.

I was recently lucky enough to track down guitarist Ken Seeno and Molly via the World Wide Web, and we were able to have a wide-ranging discussion about practice, singing, gender, and the Baltimore-based TV show, The Wire.

John: You guys met as part of an art school project. What kind of work did you do in art school…[and what kind of work do you] still do?

Ken: When we were in school at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) I was part of a Sculptural Studies department that was pretty conceptual. I studied painting, performance art, Fluxus, concrete poetry, video art, etc. I ended up with a show consisting of mainly CGI video loops and 35mm photographs of Charlie Brown and Snoopy! Art school was a blast. I still have some art in my life.

John: A friend of yours helped decide on Ponytail as a name. Beyond the classic, “why Ponytail?” band name question, what kind of response do you hope people have when they come across that name?

Ken: Ha ha. I don't know. I hope they find it to be ambiguous, I guess.

John: What is a Ponytail practice session like? How do you guys write songs?

Ken: We are in a very small room, and it's totally [as] loud as a show… Sometimes we just groove on an idea; other times the practice is 80 percent discussion. Usually we are having the best time writing when we come up with something unexpected and organic that cracks us up, and we don't even have to talk about it; you can just tell we are all loving it. We simultaneously get really excited by this phrase, and we kind of build it from there over a couple [of] weeks…or longer. There aren't really rules, just restrictions: just the four of us and our instruments, pretty much!

John: Molly, this is a question for you specifically. How do you remember what particular sounds to sing? Cuz you’re not only singing old-fashioned tones; you’re also doing all these amazing mouth noises and other vocal pyrotechnics. It seems that words help a lot as mnemonic devices. Is every song exactly precise in its vocal phrasing, or are you improvising a lot in live settings?

Molly: At this point I do have a pretty specific thing I do for each song. The newest song might be up for a little renewing. usually "finish" writing a song and then start performing it live, and it morphs into a permanent state. It usually takes a few shows before I know everything I’m doing. I think music itself is a good way of remembering things you know, like the ABC song and stuff. Once I do it a few times it's stuck in there.

John: I think of you guys as like a pop version of crazy Dadaist sound poets like Hugo Ball and Raoul Hausmann, or later sound poets like Henri Chopin: do you see yourselves in the lineage of nonsense and sound poetry? How did you come to the decision to forego words?

Molly: That's a huge compliment. Yeah I think we were all really influenced by Dada and absurd/nonsensical work. I guess it wasn't really a decision to not use a lot of words; it just seemed more natural that way. I do use some words in the songs, and they serve an important purpose for me, but I'm not a huge word person. I love good lyrics though, and I definitely intend on using more words [in the future].

John: What would you think if more bands began to adopt your no-words-but-still-lead-vocals approach to songwriting?

Molly: I think that would be really exciting. To be honest, uninteresting vocals ruin a lot of music for me.

John: Molly, as you know, this is a magazine devoted mainly to the awesome stuff women do: how do you see your role in the band and your music in general in relation to questions of gender?

Molly: I see most things in relation to questions of gender, so this is a great question. Sometimes I try and put myself in the position of another girl or genderqueer learning about our band, and it helps me stay encouraged about what we're doing. My gender identity is a huge part of who I am, so I feel like a lot of the energy I am drawing upon when I perform is coming from that experience. I just wanna see and play with more women and queer people!

John: What other lead singers do you hold up as models?

Molly: Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, David Byrne but also people that can really get zany like Shirley Bassey, Bette Midler, and Sandra Bernhard.

John: I know that it’s ridiculous to think of some kind of one-to-one political correlation (your music is clearly not “political” in a Dead Kennedy's way), but do you see your music as having political/social implications?

Molly: For me, yes. A lot of my angst and energy when singing comes from feelings I have about social/political things. It always brings me to this place that is so cathartic and reflective, and I can't believe we aren't encouraged [to] experience that stuff more regularly.

John: There’s a lot in the news recently about the word “empathy,” particularly in relation to Obama’s new Supreme Court nominee. How would you define empathy? How does music relate to it?

Molly: Hmmm, yeah that's interesting; music is a really empathic thing. It's interesting how much you can project while empathizing with a singer or band. Music is an introspective place where you can also let it all hang out. That's awesome!

ImageJohn: What kinds of things do you guys like to do when you’re not making music?

Ken: I love hanging out with my girlfriend and my friends at home. I love swimming and skateboarding when I can. I go to a lot of shows. Sometimes I just watch TV. There's always a fun and chill vibe around Baltimore in the summer!

John: I have to ask…how do you guys feel about the HBO show The Wire? What do you think about its portrayal of Baltimore? Which character would you be (collectively, as a band, and individually)?

Molly: Personally, I think it's the best TV show ever made. I know that's a little rash but you kinda can't beat it. I'm not a drug dealer, a cop, or a politician, so I can't testify to its perfect accuracy, but that shit is real. It's a pretty tough call on the character; I guess I'm Snoop even though I feel a little more connected to Omar, to be honest. I think the band is Bubs.

John: Your 2008 Halloween show here in New York was awesome. Molly coming out in the big Kool-Aid Man suit just made everyone so happy. What shows have been your favorites to play?

Ken: Thanks! That show definitely has to be one of my favs. It was SUCH a fun night and just playing that set was a blast! Our first show in London was amazing because we had no idea if anybody over there knew who we were, and the crowd was just so stoked it blew us off our feet. Playing the Baltimore festival Whartscape has always felt gratifying to me, too. So many good shows and good moments...sigh!

John: Any recommendations? Anything...books, new music, old music, art, food, movie, etc., etc.?

Ken: I recommend...Peanuts, Dirty Projectors, Fleetwood Mac's Greatest Hits, Tony Hawk's Twitter, Squeezer, Dan Deacon’s ensemble, Hawaii, jazz guitar, organization.

John: What future plans do you have for Ponytail? What do you guys see as the endgame of the band?

Molly: Dark slide on the moon.

John: Where do you see your lives going after the band? What will you be doing? Where will you be?

Ken: I think I'll definitely end up doing something very normal.

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