Wednesday March 19th, 2003 at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA
Elliot, matt pond PA, Car Crash Show, & Breaking Pangaea

Elliot matt pond PA Car Crash Show Breaking Pangaea [more]

I wolfed down too much pizza too quickly and ran (literally) out the door to catch the bus. Although the #64 got Dana and I to the club a reasonable forty minutes before showtime, the doors were still not open. We learned that even if you’re on the guestlist, you can’t get in early. However, if you tell the door person you’re there to interview a band, they’ll let you in. Just a word of advice, make sure you’re actually prepared to interview the band before tossing out your trump.


As luck would have it, I was making that case to the door staff when the members of the matt pond PA walked by. After quick (and somewhat reluctant) introductions, Dana and I were ushered into a bright, cold, and bare backstage room. For the next thirty minutes I engaged the band in a conversational interview concerning context, culture, scenes, and the responsibilities of bands and fans. I worked all five-members (including the band's namesake, Matt Pond) to understand their views on music that expands outside of its intended audience, and what role intent and integrity play in music. Although each band member had his or her own varying views, there were some surprises and a few overlying themes.

The band introduced me to the notion that an artist may at some point stop being an artist, and become a professional entertainer – that a band may have a responsibility (even legally) to create music they have no interest in. While the players were able to think of numerous examples of stodgy dinosaur bands, they also drew parallels between contemporary acts, and ultimately to themselves. Cellist Eve Miller confessed there were many nights when the stage was the last place she wanted to be, but, because the band is under contract, she plays another show.

Later, I pressed the band to understand the limits of their integrity. We began by discussing how each band must decide how much artistic vision they are willing to forfeit for commercial success, and although each member agreed there is a line bands should not cross, they were unable conceive of where their personal limit might be. It seemed the band felt its popularity so improbable, so distant, that it was difficult for them to answer any questions concerning how success may affect them.

Furthermore, the band wasn’t able to succinctly define what would constitute success. Matt Pond could only offer that although the band isn’t striving for the cover of Rolling Stone, it wouldn’t refuse the press. When I asked how the infusion of Rolling Stone-generated “mainstream” fans might interpret matt pond PA’s music, no one seemed to have strong opinions (if they even found it plausible). Drummer Mike Kennedy quite pointedly remarked that these fans may not understand or connect with the music in the way an exclusionary indie-rock fan from the days of old might, but he that the relationship wasn’t so black & white. His argument asserted a fan’s context wasn’t always directly related to their ability to connect with the music. As an example, he offered his own love of hip-hop. While he may have little in common with the scene that birthed the genre, he still enjoys the music.

Many times during our conversation, the band hinted at a unifying theme that could be simply stated as: “good music is good.” To the band, not only does this excuse the sins of imitation, bandwagon jumping, and profiteering, but it also allows bands to strive for fans that may have no context to our culture, and allows those fans to enjoy the music without understanding where it came from. In fact, indie culture didn’t seem discernable to the band, and the members discounted scenes as local, exclusionary, and petty.

Where does matt pond PA fit into our scene? Into our culture? The band doesn’t seem to care; instead they want to create good music for fans of all sorts to enjoy, and hope their music will someday bring them an indefinable success. Of course, all of this should happen without the band needing to sacrifice their integrity. matt pond PA isn’t a band of dogma, or seemingly even credos, but instead one of sensory dreams. In this way, the members of matt pond PA are exactly like their music.


My interview with the band ended naturally when Breaking Pangaea’s set made it impossible for us to communicate any further. I thanked the matt pond PA (although not audibly) and slipped back amongst the crowd whilst readying my camera. Finding my way to the front of the stage was effortless, as the shy audience had thought to leave an 8’ barrier between band and themselves. Despite the band’s best efforts, that barrier would only be eaten into during their set, not usurped entirely.

Although the scene has already given the band their emo seal of approval, that only scratches the surface. Dig a little deeper and you’ll see that Breaking Pangaea is actually a hardcore band. Admittedly, the band isn’t so binary as to reside in any one sub-genre; along with the obvious emo swells and tumbling rhythms that have earned the band their classification, they incorporate smart elements of tricky indierock, occasional metal guitar leads, and even well constructed pop. More important than the styles they incorporate is the band’s aesthetic and attitude – that ethos is 100% hardcore.

While watching the members of Breaking Pangaea vibrate about the stage, I imagined the band, not under lights but in a living room somewhere in the Midwest. It’s a hot summer day, but all the windows are closed so as to not further aggravate neighbors. This is the band’s element. It was obvious from the glimmer and joy in vocalist/guitarist Fred Mascherino’s eyes. He was thrilled to be playing his music, even if the audience only applauded politely from a safe distance. In a more intimate setting, the band’s performance would have been exponentially better.

The band closed its set with Phoenix, the title-track from its forthcoming EP to be released May 6th on Equal Vision Records. How the song ultimately finds itself on the EP remains to be seen, but live, it was uniquely expansive. Mascherino took the opportunity to highlight his guitar virtuosity (he actually has a degree in jazz guitar from Temple) with finger taps that seem to have been borrowed from Eddie Van Halen. In keeping with the rest of the set, Mascherino’s vocals broke when shifting between a pained howl and a warm, rounded voice. With the subtle fingered bass of interim player Mike Satzinger and co-founder Will Noon’s tumbling percussion, the song and set were powerful, unassuming, and straightforward.

As is the Middle East’s standard, a local band was wedged firmly in the 2nd slot of the night. While this may give remiss to the finicky few, I’m happy to soak up all the local bands I can. Since I know so few, most of my outings tend to involve larger touring acts. Without this slot, I never would have discovered that Car Crash Show is my favourite local band.

The five-piece opened the show with Paper Bag, a low key and keeling indie pop song with tinges of the electronic. Although vocalist/keyboardist Max Stepanuk is the obvious (though certainly reserved) frontman, his counterpart behind the curtain, or Fender Rhodes as it was, completes the necessary duo. For the first several songs of the night, Stepanuk sang into two microphones grasped clumsily in his left hand. One microphone went directly to the soundboard, the other to keyboardist/occasional guitarist Kirstin Bement. For these songs, Bement would play his Fender Rhodes with his left hand, and create and control Stepanuk’s various vocal effects with his right. Additional auxiliary sequences and beats were also triggered from Bement’s control station. Although gimmicky in some cases, the effect never took control of the songs and while definitely apparent, remained tastefully subtle.

It was (unfortunately) only the band’s newer material that relied on the electronic melding. Older material did apply keyboards and synths to great affect; however, after the earlier material, it seemed simply transitional. In this setting, the band brought to mind an early version of American Analog Set or even a sedated Les Savy Fav.

After five years as a band, each member seemed comfortable with their roles and the stage, although the “show” aspect of the performance is somewhat limited. There are no bounding players or spinning drumsticks, only Stepanuk’s closed-eyes vocals into a microphone (or two).

While Elliot was the admitted headliner, matt pond PA seemed to be the reason for the season. The audience surged to the front of the stage, subjecting me to the second row where I’d have to shoot over and between the nuvo-close nodding heads. Proximity is important when seeing matt pond PA as both Matt Pond and Eve Miller sit at the stage’s edge. If you’re not close, you’re likely to only hear Pond’s soothing, clean voice, and acoustic guitar, and miss his knowing smiles, mischievous grins, and a face that is prone to blushing. Similarly, if you weren’t able to see Miller you would still hear her bowed cello work and tentative (if not somewhat sweet) vocals, but you might credit the fingered pluckings to Will Levatino’s bass instead.

While the band had earlier stressed their status as an anomaly in the bills they play, this may have been a case of overacting. The band may be fronted by a cello and acoustic guitar, but the presence of Jim Kehoe’s electric guitar was always felt. Serving in typical second guitar fashion, Kehoe added highlights and textures the way Chris Crisci might in The Appleseed Cast – a band known for loud, if not overbearing, indie rock. Neither Mike Kennedy’s drumming, nor Levatino’s bass work was shy either. While each band member may have reserved in mind, as a five-piece they are certainly encompassing, if not loud.

While indie rockers of yore toting an acoustic guitar and highlighting their sensitive side are now a dime a dozen, Matt Pond’s engaging voice and well-crafted songs have earned him respect. As a further differentiator, the band’s full arrangements push it further from the latest schlock of Chris Carrabba’s Dashboard Confessional and toward the full epiphany of Mark Kozelek’s Red House Painters.

The most sensitive of the audience sighed and left their posts by the stage when matt pond PA completed its long set. Those inclined to motion, however, held their ground for Elliot and I remained relegated to the second row. I turned to Dana and wistfully told her my plan to bring a folding tri-pod chair to shows for these interminable moments when my feet urged me to head home early. Not seeing my dilemma, she simply shrugged, and walked to the side of the club to sit on a bench. Surprisingly, a bench was waiting for her. In fact, all of the benches were empty. The entire club was actually bordering on vacant. I was wedged firmly between rows one and three, but there weren’t more than eight or nine rows in existence. A show I assumed would sell out sold just over a hundred tickets. I still don’t get Boston.

Although Louisville’s Elliot has been through a number of dramatic changes in its 10 year career, it seems that the members are finally at home in their skin. Today the band is neither their original incarnation of Midwestern, post-hardcore emo, nor their later manifestation as an introspective band of loners who built egomaniacal sonic opuses from guitar effects. Now the band has set their sights much lower. They seem to have realized that often less is more. As a result, the band is no longer writing compositions, but songs. Heart has returned to their music replacing what was only a mourning soul.

Though the band’s music may now be more refined and honest, their live show has changed little. Vocalist/guitarist Chris Higdon has always possessed an odd electricity. His shaved head and piercing eyes are nearly menacing, and even when he screams and exorcizes, and the blood vessels swell, teasing to burst, it’s not frightening but somewhat sorrowful. His vibrations never seem borne of anger but pain. In the past Benny Clark’s guitar has fought with that spectacle creating an uneasy tension. Now it seems as though Benny’s guitar supports Higdon. It provides a buffer to keep him from hitting the wall or the floor. Although effects continue to play a role in his sound, the audience is never assaulted by giant, phased, reverberating washes of delay. Higdon is an accomplished player who creates his mood easily; any augmentation has to be delicate to avoid loosing heart. As he writhes, dips, and bends near the back of the stage, it’s obvious his guitar is an effective extension.

The band played a refreshingly short set. It may have been due to necessity; it’s likely that Higdon would risk an aneurysm by continuing any longer, and it’s likely the audience would collapse of empathetic anguish if they remained plugged into Elliot much longer. As Higdon walked off stage, he was privately asked about an encore. He smiled broadly, attempted to mop the sweat from his brow, and with a slight breath and no sound, told his friend that an encore was not only unlikely, it just wasn’t a physical possibility.