Pony Up—it’s advice, it’s a threat, it’s a challenge. It’s a band.
A band that played its first show in a Vermont pizza joint. A band whose first recorded track demanded “shut up and kiss me.” A band that was dragged along, into glossy magazines, by Montreal hype. And, most importantly, a band that followed up its rickety, self-titled, DIY EP with a full-length album of markedly more mature, pointed, precise indie pop.
Make Love to the Judges with Your Eyes, Pony Up’s 11-song debut LP, was recorded one year after the release of the then-quintet’s Pony Up!, whose half-dozen songs took three times as long to compile.
“We spent a year figuring out how to play together and how to write songs, and you know, just writing enough to play a set,” says straight-talking keyboardist and co-vocalist Laura Wills from her home on a cold, rainy Montreal afternoon. “Then we actually started playing live. And then it was almost a year after that before we had reason or any inkling that we could actually release something. So that’s when we went into the studio.”
That scrappy EP got the girls—Wills, her sister Lindsay on drums, Lisa Smith on bass and guitarist/co-vocalist Sarah Moundroukas—pegged as sassy but immature, competent but not capable, even imitation Liz Phair (the Matrix era). But it found a fan in Australian singer-songwriter Ben Lee—himself due in Halifax, in December—and puts Pony Up at the centre of a story every band dreams of starring in.
“When I was 16, Lisa introduced me to Grandpaw Would and I loved it,” says Wills of Lee’s debut, released on Grand Royal when he was 13. “But I hadn’t really paid too much attention to his career after that. And a friend of mine was like ‘I’m playing a show at Metropolis, opening for this guy Ben Lee.’ And I was like, ‘Ben Lee?! I love Ben Lee!’ It was such a blast from the past.”
The girls headed en masse to Metropolis on May 12, 2003 and proceeded to knock a few back, without a plan in the world. But then things changed.
“We got pretty drunk and he was so responsive to the audience, you know, he was playing everything we wanted to play. And he’s one of those performers who really looks, really connects with the audience,” says Wills. “And I really felt a few times that he was looking right at me and like smiling at me. I felt like he could see me, and you usually can’t see the audience when you’re on stage. I felt really…in touch with him during the performance. But afterwards I would’ve just walked away. I don’t usually go up and talk to people after shows, at all. But Lisa and Sarah, I guess they were a little drunk, but they’re much more into taking advantage of those situations and talking to people, they don’t care as much. They went up to the merch table and started chatting. I don’t even know how it happened because I was so embarrassed I was like hiding in the corner. They were like, ‘Hey we’re going up the street for a beer, like a block away, if you wanna join us.’ And I don’t know what possessed him to actually do it, but he showed up like half an hour later. We were sitting at this bar and he walked in and just, jaws to the floor, we couldn’t believe it. And he sat down and had a salad.”
The next day the girls took Lee for a hike and gave him their EP. A few months later, he called with the news that he was starting his own label, Ten Fingers—distributed via Dim Mak, home to Bloc Party and Pretty Girls Make Graves—and wanted Pony Up to be its first signatory.
“I don’t think we’d really ever done that before,” says Wills of the demo shilling. “And I don’t remember doing it after that, it wasn’t a common practice for us. I do it now, with our actual album, because we’re in more situations where I meet people that I would really love to work with. So I’ve tried to get in the habit of being able to give records to people. But we didn’t do that very often. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it was a huge shock to have him actually call us back.”
Pony Up has been together for four years. Smith and Moundroukas, co-workers (still) at a hair salon, joined forces with the Wills sisters officially on New Year’s Eve, 2002. Laura, for her part, didn’t even play her chosen instrument.
“We figured if I could figure out the keyboard I could figure out anything,” she says. “Years before that, Lindsay, Lisa and I were living together at the time and we talked about forming a band with me on bass. So I’d learned a few rap songs on bass. But that’s about it. So I’d touched a few instruments before, but I’d never learned anything. I didn’t worry about it because all we’d agreed to do was kind of fuck around and see what happened.”
As the band was catching ears outside of its hometown, Montreal was experiencing a musical renaissance, led by the Arcade Fire, that exploded into mainstream consciousness when it was positioned as a new hotbed by American publications like Spin and the New York Times.
“There was a bit of a shift in attitude, I guess,” says Wills. “It was just a topic of conversation all the time. Like, ‘Do you buy into this whole Montreal scene thing?’ People were very skeptical about it. It seemed like a lot of media attention that was going to ruin the scene. And there was a lot of discussion, a lot of bitterness over what bands made it into certain articles, what bands didn’t, you know, what bands got attention. I mean, there’s a billion bands in this town now, and that probably has something to do with it.”
Make Love to the Judges with Your Eyes was released in April of this year. Wills and Moundroukas split both songwriting and singing duties and it’s hard to tell, sometimes, who’s singing on the record, but each gets a star moment, and a bookend. Wills opens the album with the glum, keyboard-heavy, half-heartedly sultry “Dance for Me,” while Moundroukas closes it with “Lines Bleed,” a guitar heartbreaker of epic proportions.
“We have very different taste in other people’s music, but Sarah and I have similar taste in writing,” says Wills. “We both don’t really like to write happy songs, and we both tend to write really slow songs. So it’s not really clear-cut when we write it who’s gonna sing it, it’s whoever writes a melody first, or whoever calls it.”
It appears neither called it on Pony Up’s notorious single “Matthew Modine,” sung by both vocalists in unison. Sample lyric: “We could live in New York State/we could go on lots of dates/you could bring along Phoebe Cates/(please bring along Phoebe Cates!)/oh Matthew Modine/we want to be your blow job queens.”
“His manager got in touch with us and was like, ‘If you’re ever in the New York area, let us know. He’d like to meet you,’” says Wills. “But that never happened. But he definitely heard it and apparently thought it was funny.”
He couldn’t be anything but flattered, really.
“Yeah,” she says. “Or creeped out.”
Tara Thorne attended the same fateful Ben Lee show as Pony Up. She also talked to Mr. Lee, but did not get a record deal. She is arts editor of The Coast.
Pony Up w/Lighthouse Choir AND Sylvie, October 19 at The Marquee Club, 10pm, $10 adv/$12 door.