It could be argued that Vancouver, Canada’s Black Pontiac has come out of the garage and emerged in the sunshine. But what’s probably more apropos is the group spends a bit of time in both.
In truth, Black Pontiac’s compositions are a generous sonic mashup of several popular music styles. And despite the music being derivative, it also contains a proprietary uniqueness. You might hear Red Hot Chili Peppers references, even Sugar Ray could be a comparison, or New Zealand’s Steriogram from back in the ‘2000s. But BP’s music is, well, their own.
However, it’s clear, for reasons that are deliberate or subconsciously motivated, that Black Pontiac’s sound is becoming dispositionally pop.
“I think in the grand scheme of our discography thus far, there’s been this pendulum that swings back and forth between the far more exciting rock and garage rock type sounds that we enjoy and the pop stuff because it’s mostly pop-song writing,” band vocalist and lyricist, Matt Purkiss, told For The Love Of Bands. “It’s just a matter of how that’s articulated. And I think moving forward…the in-between is really where the Black Pontiac Sound is going to be.”
A variety of flavors
But the garage is still within earshot of their musical explorations. Purkiss is emphatic that an edgier sound resides in Black Pontiac’s creativity. The big sound of “Pink Eye,” their garage tune that epically channels the ’60s English garage unit The Troggs under a head-nodding hip-hop flow, and latest singles, “Tsunami,” and Ultravox-invoked “People Pleaser,” illustrate the Black Pontiac dichotomy.
“I like the stuff we did…the singles we put out this summer,” he said. “I think we were all really happy with them. But I think the Black Pontiac sound is going to be something with a little bit more attitude.”
But on “From Bad to Worse (And Back Again),” the quartet’s debut outstandingly produced by Matt Di Pomponio, it seemed the guys brought in a suitcase of influences and styles, unpacked them, and proceeded without a script, resulting in a pleasing album that simultaneously sounds familiar and original. However, that really wasn’t the case.
“Yeah, we definitely knew what we were doing when we went into that one,” said guitarist and songwriting collaborator Mack Riddell. “I mean, we wrote some songs last second to go into it, but I think that one was just all about getting down the songs that we’ve been working on for years. And, I mean some of the things we did last second, you know, playing around with guitar tones and whatnot and playing around with different techniques. But in terms of just getting down the songs, it was all pretty premeditated.”
A variety of flavors are offered on the record, which boasts an impressive full sound: The Hivesesque “Soda Pop Rock,” the “Creep” feel of “Slow Dance at the Disco,” the rockabilly kissed “Crummy” and the garage/hip-hop hybrid of the aforementioned “Pink Eye” and “Crackhawk Down.”
“I think the pool was only like 12 songs, and then 10 made the album,” added bassist Avery John Shoesmith. “So it was just holding the material we already had for the most part.”
In the circle
The members of Black Pontiac were acquainted before the band’s formation, the whole circle of friends thing, and one liked to sing, and one played the guitar. Someone in the circle suggested the singer and guitar player collab and see what happens.
“And we started hanging out and writing songs, and most of them bad…as is usually the case,” Purkiss admitted. “And so Sam (Riddell) here is Mack’s brother. So he was destined to play the drums. Avery joined the mix a little bit later after we kind of cycled through some bassists, and we just felt like…he was the right fit.”
Well, shit, like we’re pretty goodPurkiss
The personalities gelled organically, and they were soon playing together. “We just thought to ourselves, ‘Well, shit, like we’re pretty good’…And here we are,” Purkiss said.
As for the band’s appellation, Mack owned a beat-up 2002 hooptie of a black Pontiac Sunfire in high school that was the de facto cruising vessel.
“We all used to ride around in on weekends,” Purkiss said. “We took it to some of our very first gigs years later until it eventually broke down, and he had to sell it for parts.”
With the “bad song” composition period well behind them, Black Pontiac has perhaps found the formula for crafting exceptional songs ? lyrically and melodically. Purkiss went through various phases of writing to determine what he really wanted to say.
“I’ve always liked telling stories,” he said. “Sometimes those stories were about me, and sometimes they weren’t…that I think came from my love of hip hop…just how visual it was, the imagery that you could conjure up from something like that.”
On the album, Purkiss intentionally created an atmosphere, a playground so to speak, where characters reside, and personal experiences and humorous episodes occur.
“With the album specifically, I feel like a lot of the songs kind of had a bit of a that world-building element where I attempted it. Some of them were just party rock bangers. Like I just wanted to have fun and talk about, you know, some crazy thing that happened that I saw one time. And then sometimes they’re a little bit more personal. The personal ones are a lot easier.”
As for a new album, one isn’t planned right now. The material is there but the guys are using that time to develop the fanbase through the release of singles. Purkiss said the newer songs have moved into more personal conveyances or sentiments but aren’t a deliberate change of direction.
“I don’t want it all to necessarily be like that because there’s so much more out there than just what’s going on,” Purkiss said.
Angling for a melody
Then there’s the actual music. Mack’s domain. Driven by Shoesmith and Sam. Mack said finding the cool riff/melody is more about perspective rather than keen dexterity and technical ingredients.
“Um, it’s kind of like going fishing, you just kind of play or you [sic] just sitting around, and the melody goes in your head, and you see if it translates to the guitar,” he explained.
Hooking an epic riff is really about mind and matter, Mack connoted. It’s the ability to judge how catchy a riff is or the construction of a solid chord progression.
“And there’s a lot of frustrating times where a riff isn’t as good as you think it is, or you’ll record something and then listen to it later, and you’ll go, ‘Whoa, that was really cool. I didn’t even realize how cool that that riff was,’” he said.
The rhythm section of Shoesmith and Sam completes the Black Pontiac sound, or as implied by the two musicians, complements it.
“I mean it’s all about restraint in the rhythm section for like 99% of the time…And then also knowing how to really give room for that 1% because so much energy can be, you know, conveyed in the rhythm section…It’s holding back and then not holding back,” Sam noted.
Shoesmith likens the creation of music from the rhythm section to that of the late Tom Petty’s inexact song-crafting methodology.
“When Tom Petty wrote music, he’d get a melody, and then for him, there was kind of an intuitive lyric or phrase that would go along with that melody and would kind of like come from the sky,” Shoesmith said. “And it would just make sense to him. It’s kind of the same for like bass or drums. If there’s a chord progression, there’s a melody on top or something. Ninety percent of the time, the most intuitive arrangement adds the most to the song, I feel anyway.”
And what about melody in today’s music? It doesn’t always seem present, a front-and-center missing element. Mack and Purkiss don’t really see it that way. Mack still hears songs that can draw people in.
“So a lot of the music nowadays that is breaking through has these great hooks, or at least these great parts, but most of the time great, great melodies and hooks that break through and get stuck in people’s heads,” he said.
Purkiss was hesitant to provide comments, stalling for time to consider a question I asked about the current state of music.
The vocalist ? wondering if he is leaning into optimism and idealism too much ? thinks the time is ripe for something epic to emerge, a major disruption in popular music. Music that speaks to the frustrations people feel in 2023.
“I like to think of it as a Nirvana moment, right?…and it’s going to totally change the cultural zeitgeist that we’re living in…I feel like the music that comes out on the top 40 specifically is kind of stale. I love Drake, but he like kind of has a formula that he’s been using since 2015, you know?”
Black Pontiac’s music formula is definitely working. The band has an evolving fanbase of passionate listeners, regionally speaking. Purkiss said their fans are all in on the Black Pontiac experience, but adding their fervent Canadian supporters isn’t enough to draw major attention.
“And so we’re not at a point yet where we have enough listeners to garner the attention of managers, booking agents, whoever, I guess, right? We feel like we’ve been looked over in that regard for a while now,” Purkiss said. “But I feel like the people that do listen to us, it’s small, but we have a really loyal, really awesome fanbase who they come out to the shows in Vancouver, Victoria, in droves…I guess the problem comes when you try to leave, you know, the lower mainland and nobody cares about who you are.”
So now it’s a matter of marketing the product, the art, the brand, and finding ways to engage a broader spectrum of listeners nationally and globally. That‘s challenging in a time where a plethora of bands are attempting to appeal to a gazillion ears.
“Constantly trying to figure out new ways to get it out and get people’s attention,” Purkiss said. “And I don’t know, like there’s been a lot of conversations between us recently about how to do that on TikTok. Platforms like that…I don’t know, I always feel like you have to give away so much. And part of me likes that air of mystery. I don’t want everybody to know exactly how we do everything…It creates more of an interest that I think is so much more interesting than whatever the TikTok demands. So trying to find a happy medium there.”