Tenement's Amos Pitsch and Jesse Ponkamo on "Predatory Headlights"
The Wisconsin punk band plays July 9 at The Frequency behind an excellent new double album. (Photo: From left to right: Eric Mayer, Jesse Ponkamo, and Amos Pitsch.)
Appleton-formed band Tenement’s new double album, Predatory Headlights, boasts an intimidating bulk of catchy punk songs, but places them in a murky, disorienting landscape. The band takes a variety of approaches to pop, from the shining, Cheap Trick-like harmonies of “The Butcher” to the warm string arrangements of “Keep Your Mouth Shut,” but in between are episodic and less song-oriented tracks of off-kilter piano and sound collage, the longest being the nearly 10-minute “A Frightening Place For Normal People” on the third side. But don’t envision laminated pop-punk songs interspersed with avant-garde forays: In Tenement’s world, the straightforward and the experimental have a way of constantly bleeding together, leaving even the most accessible songs weathered with rugged production, vague yet compelling lyrical imagery, and the occasional weird time signatures or dissonant outburst. Previous Tenement recordings like 2011’s Napalm Dream, and the band’s brutally sharp live sets, make this esoteric mix of tendencies and ideas feel natural, and Predatory Headlights brings that across on a grand scale—the hooks more big and brash, the sonic tinkering more extensive and audacious.
Earlier this year, Tenement also released Bruised Music, Volume 1, a collection of early recordings made after guitarist/singer Amos Pitsch and bassist Jesse Ponkamo formed the band in 2006. Pitsch lives in Appleton (where he also plays in Technicolor Teeth and Dusk), and Ponkamo and drummer Eric Mayer live in Milwaukee.
Madison resident Tyler Ditter (formerly of Pioneer) is currently filling in for Ponkamo live as Ponkamo starts a new job in Milwaukee. Pitsch and Ponkamo talked with me separately ahead of Tenement’s Thursday, July 9 show at The Frequency with Ceremony.
Tone Madison: This record has a sense of time and place but not necessarily a specific narrative. How do you approach those elements in your music?
Amos Pitsch: I don’t think we necessarily tried to create a narrative or a concept, really, on purpose, but I feel like between the artwork and the music itself, we were really trying to create some kind of mood, and really high-contrasted moods between light and dark.
Tone Madison: There’s a cohesion to it even though it’s a double album with a lot of different arrangements, so it’s tempting to see some kind of theme or through-line in there.
Amos Pitsch: I mean, I feel like some of the best double albums aren’t really as cohesive as people think. I mean, look at the White Album—it’s hardly cohesive at all! Cohesiveness, to me at least, when we went into this, wasn’t really something I was really concentrating hard on. When you write a 10-song record, maybe you’d want it to be cohesive, but when we started the idea of a double album, I kind of threw that out the window. But if it comes off that way, that’s cool.
Tone Madison: I’ve definitely read some reviews where people were picking apart the record and didn’t see any overarching thing holding it together, but I kind of feel like there is, whether that’s intentional or just something I’m reading into it.
Amos Pitsch: Yeah, I get what you’re saying. I feel like sometimes when people listen to it, they say, “Well, they tried this thing that isn’t something that they’re known for doing, and it’s silly that they spent so much time doing that.” But I feel like we put our mark on everything we did on there.
Tone Madison: And even on your previous records, there’s still a variety of production and arrangement approaches. Is that something you’ve grown comfortable with over the years?
Amos Pitsch: Yeah, I just kind of feel like we do whatever we want. I don’t like to completely alienate the people that listen to our music, but I try and do whatever I want to a degree, but still keep it vaguely familiar in the end. I’ve always been interested in writing very accessible pop music, but I also am really interested in writing things that aren’t quite accessible. Probably something that maybe turned me on to that idea was the first time I heard a record like Big Star’s 3rd, and how a lot of it is just beautiful pop music, and in the middle of it he just does all these things that completely throw you off. Before that, I’d never heard anything where it seemed like someone who could write pop music so easily just sabotaged what they were doing.
Tone Madison: What were you trying to do with the cover art you made for this record?
Amos Pitsch: I would say the art is based on keeping side 3 of the record in mind, which is the slower songs and the long instrumental. I wanted to have sort of dark imagery and something that could create a narrative for someone but doesn’t necessarily create a narrative for me, a lot of ambiguous imagery. There’s no narrative to me, in my mind, but I wanted other people to be able to create their own narrative.
Tone Madison: You seem to be really genuinely interested in what people have to say about the record and the band, beyond just the promotional aspect of sharing reviews on Facebook. Why is that?
Amos Pitsch: I guess when I read negative things about my own music, it doesn’t really offend me. The reviews, whether they’re good or bad, all serve the same purpose, and introduce people to our music. I am genuinely interested in what people think about this record because I knew it was going to turn a lot of people off completely and maybe get other people excited, and I’m interested to see who reacts to it which way. I don’t really know.
Tone Madison: In your live sets there’s not a lot of banter or acknowledgement of the audience and it’s this very intense, focused thing. Is there a certain presence you’re trying to create with that?
Amos Pitsch: The reason we started doing that is because I’m not very good at speaking in front of audiences, so we just kind of carried it on that way. Jesse used to tell jokes and stuff, but I don’t know. We just kind of lost that. We used to have kind of a juvenile sense of humor with this band, and at some point we just kind of lost it.
Tone Madison: Does living in different cities make it chaotic to put songs together?
Jesse Ponkamo: Amos writes the bulk of the material, and there’s the songs as they are, and then whatever little embellishments we end up putting into it, like a more proper recording, because Amos is constantly demoing things. I’m going to start doing that more. I finally got an 8-track for myself, so that’s going to help a lot actually. The day I got it, it helped me write a song. We’re planning another record, actually, for the end of the summer, and there are probably going to be more songs by the rest of us. But the real-life stuff…we’ve been able to navigate all that stuff in stride really well.
Tone Madison: But as you work on material as a band, do the arrangements become more collaborative?
Jesse Ponkamo: Yeah, sometimes Amos will have an idea about something, just maybe an abstract idea, these last three records, and we’ll just go about realizing them in different ways. Amos is more natural in the setting of recording things, whereas I really thrive playing live music. More recently, I've sort of been coming to terms with that, with being able to think more about how to make an interesting recording, and thinking of that as a good tool to make art. In general, if we have an idea, we’ll sort of just try different things, and whatever happens happens sometimes.
Tone Madison: And the songs often have these left turns, even just brief ones. Does it take a lot of work to make something like that work within the structure of a song?
Jesse Ponkamo: Yes and no. It’s sort of an intuitive thing that we do. There’s definitely things that are really out there and things that aren’t. During one part of “Rock Eating People,” live, for the longest time, Amos and I would pretty much be improvising around a key and making up melodies. Some of that is a little dissonant. We have the luxury that we’ve been playing with each other for so long and our language of playing music is unique to us. It just feels like something we sort of naturally do, in a way.
Tone Madison: And you guys are also really into jazz, and there does seem to be this whole weird brew of influences beyond just punk stuff.
Jesse Ponkamo: I feel like the one common thread that sort of underpins all of our interests is that a lot of the music is solely and particularly of an American origin. It’s music were the idiom has originated in the United States. Jazz, country, R&B—all of those things are very endemic to the United States. I really like the really noisy free-jazz stuff of late, and Amos is more interested in arrangements, like with Mingus and these big orchestrations.
Tone Madison: Are there any songs on the record where you’re particularly proud of your bass parts?
Jesse Ponkamo: Amos will have bass parts in mind and stuff like that, but then when it comes time for me to track those bass parts, he’s very particular. I spent a lot of time getting all the parts right and everything. Whenever I listen to it now, I’m really happy that I didn’t just give up and insist that this sounds fine, like, “Whatever, Amos, it’s fine.” I can’t really think of one particular song… I just can’t remember the track titles. What is it, “Curtains Closed?”
Tone Madison: Yeah.
Jesse Ponkamo: That’s a fun one. They don’t necessarily need to be complicated songs, but I think the songs Amos writes are rhythmically very rich. I’m not necessarily a natural musician, so I’m constantly confronted with having to learn something new or have him really show me something.
Tone Madison: You’re a photographer and Amos does collage work and other visual art. Does that visual component influence the way you make music together?
Jesse Ponkamo: You know, the last few years, I’ve kind of come to feel like Tenement is sort of an extension of all of our creativity, all the facets of our creativity. It’s the embodiment of us wanting to be creative people and actualizing our creativity, in a way. For instance, the photos and the art that are on a lot of our records, we do that ourselves, and Amos does all of the collage work. It all just is an expression of us. Images have sounds too, and I feel like there are certain images that I’m sure all three of us may want to evoke when we’re playing or making sounds together.