Music News

MUTT'S UPPOI DOG PONDERING RIDES THE GRAVY TRAIN

Despite what Sting or Paul Simon might have you think, world music doesn't have to be the pretentious sound of cultural colonialism. Here's Poi Dog Pondering member Dave Crawford's assessment of the form:

"I think the best music comes from clashing cultures together and slamming them against the wall," the multi-instrumentalist says during a recent phone interview from his home in Austin, Texas. He and the band are off the road for a couple of days, just back from an English tour to promote their second Columbia Records release, Wishing Like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea.

From its start four years ago as a street busking band, Poi Dog (Hawaiian slang for mutt) has combined a travelogue of musical influences--from Africa to the islands by way of Nashville--with folk-rock and nuevo-delic lyricism. The Poi Dogs' panculturalism is as free of pomposity as many of their predecessors have been full of it. The group's polyrhythms, African guitar, bluegrassy mandolin and fiddle, and college-radio vocals are a melange born of pure spontaneity--not a self-important anthropology dig.

Bohemian in spirit from day one, the Poi Dogs first worked gigs on what Crawford calls "the sofa circuit," playing for tips and crashing on friends' floors if possible, camping out if not.

"There was a period for about a year when I didn't have an address," remembers Crawford. "And when we'd go out on the road, we'd go and try to find the best Mexican place in town, get a big burrito and split it. And we'd sneak into the college and go to the dorms and take our showers there, one by one. You do what you have to do."

But the band was up to more than just playing in the street. The Poi Dogs eventually got around to recording their first records for the small indie label Texas Hotel. Using the albums (1988's Poi Dog Pondering and 1989's Circle Around the Sun) and self-screened tee shirts as tour support, the Poi Dogs started developing a following, cultivating an industry buzz and defining their sound.

Crawford remembers the moment the band first knew it was on to something special. The Poi Dogs had been scheduled to play at a street fair in Tucson when they were bumped from the bill at the last minute. The band improvised by setting up in a nearby alleyway and attracted a huge crowd by accident when a strolling African dance troupe passed by.

"From selling shirts and tapes and stuff, we ended up making like 350 dollars," marvels Crawford. "We only needed to make thirty to get to San Diego. We were blown away; that really gave us a confidence boost, because it really was the first time we had played in public in this configuration. And we really needed that. We just looked at each other and said, `We've got something here.'"

It was less than a year later that the band played at the prestigious New Music Seminar in New York City. Indie-watching music scouts had been following the Texas Hotel releases, and the audience was full of "all the right people." The Poi Dogs followed up their NMS performance with an appearance at 1989's South by Southwest conference in Austin and finally caught the eye of Columbia. Several other majors had been interested in signing the Poi Dogs, but they generally wanted to tamper with the group's sound.

Nowadays, Texas Hotel continues to advise the band, enabling the Poi Dogs to keep "one foot in the independents and one in the majors" so their style and substance remain intact. And although they still choose to do a good bit of street performing, everyone enjoys not having to sleep on floors or in campgrounds anymore.

"It's becoming more of a job, really, but at the same time, it's a great fuckin' job," Crawford says. "It's like, the other day at the airport, there were a lot of flights being canceled because of the weather. And all these people who worked for the airlines were just getting hassled and stressed, and Frank [Orrall, Poi Dog's lead singer] looks over at me and goes, `We've got a great job, man.' And it's true. Every once in a while, we just look at each other and say, `They pay us for doing this!'"

Poi Dog Pondering will perform at the Mason Jar on Monday, June 18. Show time is 9 p.m.

"When we'd go out on the road, we'd sneak into the dorms and take our showers there, one by one. You do what you have to do.

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Matt Cartsonis