Ponytail is the sound of ecstasy: tall exclamation points of guitar, mad, rambunctious percussion and wild-eyed ululations, an enormous blast of shocking pink bouncing off the walls and shooting up toward the sun. It’s absolute happiness, a drill boring straight down into the human id and recording everything it finds. You could call it no wave if it wasn’t so bright-eyed and bursting with joy. Old-time noiseniks embraced chaos as a weapon, but Ponytail are more interested in hugging than haranguing. The guitars prick like apostrophes, skipping across the top of songs; the drums are hollow and throbbing, tribal rhythms from some Martian colony. So it’s a pleasant surprise that, in person, the group’s four members are irrepressibly cheery, chatty and — above all else — down-to-earth. Vocalist Molly Siegel — a leaping, shrieking cipher on stage — is as giddy and talkative as a teenager. Guitarist Dustin Wong is all smiles and patient explanations, and all four of them seem genuinely touched and stunned that an interviewer would buy them dinner (at one point, Siegel asked if it was ok that she ordered an iced tea). If to hear them is to develop a crush, to meet them is to fall head-over-heels in love.
On their unusual origins:
Dustin Wong: We met at a parapainting class at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The class was designed by a teacher named Jeremy Sigler — he’s a poet, he lives here in New York. The second week of class he gets everybody in a circle, looks around at everyone’s faces and is like, “OK, you, you and you, you look great together. You guys are a band.” Out of the whole class, we were the last people to get grouped together. We were kind of like the leftovers.
Ken Seeno: Yeah, we were the youngest ones in the class. Some of us already played guitar, so he used that as a baseline. I think he likes to have one or two people in each group who know what they’re doing. The whole idea behind the course is that it’s focused on arts that run parallel to painting. He changes the theme each semester. The semester before us, he put together comedy troupes. Then there was a large play the semester before that.
Wong: At the end of it all, there’s a big festival called Parapalooza, where all of the groups get together and perform. From what we heard, some of those had gone miserably. At the very first class, [the professor] showed us Gimme Shelter — which I think was supposed to say to us, “Don’t make your Parapalooza like this.”
On their unique approach to vocals:
Molly Siegel: I had no idea what I was going to do in the band. Before this, I was really into IDM.
Wong: I didn’t even know what IDM was!
Siegel: Our first few practices, I was thinking about playing the xylophone, mostly because there was a little toy xylophone in our practice space. I eventually mentioned an interest in singing, but I was kind of nervous about it. One day me and Dustin met alone in a practice room, and we just kind jammed with my voice and his guitar. That afternoon gave me a lot of confidence. I’d only ever sung in the shower or with friends. Some days, I thought I couldn’t sing at all. Actually, I think part of the reason I just sing syllables is because I didn’t feel like I had to be a good singer [to do that]. The music that we were coming up with, I was more interested in being able to just jam with my voice than coming up with melodies. Using my voice as an instrument just seemed more fun to me.
I feel like I still don’t fully know what people are going to make of me. My stage demeanor has developed so much since the beginning. I used to be so nervous, but eventually a lot of my anxiety turned into extreme emotion. I still get nervous in front of an audience, but I think I’m interacting a lot more.
On the uneasy marriage between music and other art forms:
Keeno: I don’t want people to shy away if they hear Ponytail is a “conceptual band.” They’ll think it’s not going to be fun. As much as I’m interested in art, and our relationship to the art world, I also want it to be very much about performance and channeling. It’s always about the music at first. The theory or the concept behind the song develops after.
Siegel: I think whatever kind of art or art theory each of us is interested in at the time kind of comes into play when we write. When we write songs, we don’t really talk about it — to me, that’s the conceptual aspect: the unspoken understanding.
Wong: Rather than saying we’re conceptual, we should say, “We think about stuff sometimes, you know?”
On the blowback from the Baltimore scene:
Jeremy Hyman: I moved into the warehouse where [storied Baltimore party] Wham City first started. It felt like an overgrown dorm room — like everybody was out of college, but they just never left. But the shows we used to play, those can’t happen anymore. Those shows kept getting shut down. Because Baltimore is so small, there are really only 2 or 3 warehouses. The Wham City space was off the street; they didn’t have windows facing out — it was kind of like a fortress. I think someone was telling me that the super didn’t go to the apartment for the entire three years they lived there. He’s since been fired, so it’s gotten a lot stricter. It’s just not the same.
Siegel: Having that support back then was major. That was how we really became a band.
On their strange, contrary chemistry:
Seeno: We’re a really lucky band. I mean, we were put together by chance. Some bands start with members who are really like-minded — they listen to the same records and stuff. We’re not like that.
Wong: And when we are, it’ll be like, “Oh, you love the Dirty Projectors? Me too!” Then I’ll put on a song of theirs I love, and someone will go. “Oh. This is my least favorite song.” It’s that certain level of “off-ness” that makes it work.
Siegel: It makes it so much more interesting. I get to try to guess what the other guys might like. It’s like joining four different worlds.