There exists a netherworld of rabid musicians and fans whose penchant for soaring guitar lines, coupled with an unhealthy love of ’60s “out music,” created the space rock phenomenon of the end of last century. These days, only a few superior, stalwart groups remain after the genre’s heyday. But since their inception in the mid-’90s, the heavenly guitar sludge of Bardo Pond has set the band in a class by themselves. Somewhere between the stratospheric drone of British group Spacemen 3 and the shredded riffs of early Black Sabbath is where this quintet likes to set up and go fishing. Yeah, it’s stoner rock, but you won’t find many baseball cap-wearing dudes at their shows, although you may see a few people gettin’ their freak on. Working furiously through a bank of distortion pedals as impressive as that of their musical elders, Sonic Youth, the dueling guitars of brothers Michael and John Gibbons have enough feedback and noisy squall to drive away any curious hippies, leaving the real heads to stick around.
The band’s beginning is a familiar one in the music world; they were friends who’d met studying art in graduate school and later asked each other to jam. Alongside the Brothers Gibbons is Clint Takeda, who provides a healthy bass-throb launching pad for the group; Isobel Sollenberger, who provides the group’s ethereal vocals as well as flute and violin; and Ed Farnsworth, whose driving percussion pushes the group’s progressive, long-form improvisations forward.
What’s most amazing about the chemistry between band members is the fact that it’s been sustained, more-or-less uninterrupted (Farnsworth replaced drummer Joe Culver a few years back) for over 10 years, an eon in a genre that’s been proven to drive bands apart. Bardo Pond today is a far cry from the band in its early days when they first started shyly playing shows around their home base of Philly. They’ve evolved from shoe-gazing hometown folks to touring machines, covering the expanse of the states a few times over.
Many fans trace their love affair with the group to the mid-’90s, when the Bardos distinguished themselves from the many transparent clones in the scene and aligned with such notables as Flying Saucer Attack and Jessamine. For the genre’s devoted and somewhat nostalgic folks, the Terrastock festival, an esoteric music event started by British psych-rock zine The Ptolemaic Terrascope, continues to be a consistent gathering place. The fest continues to include such old fogey psychedelic and punk heroes as Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine and The Deviants’ Mick Farren in their lineups. Bardo Pond continues this relationship with its fans via the modern version of the tape underground, where instead of 15th generation “San Francisco ’97” tapes being bartered, it’s limited-edition CDRs and vinyl that you can find only on the Internet and at their live performances. For example, on a recent tour with Scottish rockers Mogwai, the two bands split a 10-inch record that was sold only at gigs. The disc has since been known to sell for $50 bucks and up on eBay. (Funny isn’t it, since a 10-inch record is a wee bit small to clean your weed on.)
Jokes aside, the group inevitably generates allusions to the sweet leaf. In 1999, noted critic and aesthete (and former North Carolina homeboy) Fred Mills declared, “In truth, mind-expanding substances and Bardo Pond go together like silicone breasts and a stripper.” What really let the cat out of the bag was when the pot smoker’s bible High Times gave them an approving nod. While it’s a reputation the band doesn’t shun, they’re not using it to call attention to themselves either. Guitarist Michael Gibbons, when asked by a High Times editor, “What’s your preferred method of smoking?” at a music conference on the subject of hemp, responded uncomfortably: “It depends on the situation.” The band’s humility in the face of being (in)famous in such a corny way is part of what makes them so likeable and resilient to nitpicking and critical write-offs.
Over the years, the group has joined up with New Zealand guitarist Roy Montgomery for their most notable collaborations. Recording under the name Hash Jar Tempo, the Bardos locked horns with Montgomery for two albums, much to the delight of guitar heads. Some Bardo members have side projects (Third Troll and Prairie Dog Flesh, for example), but Bardo Pond is what keeps them doing what they’re doing. And it’s brought them a devoted following: They recently hit Los Angeles to perform at the Sonic Youth-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival and will once again do the Terrastock fest, which will be held this fall in Boston. (They’ve been asked to play every one, if you’re keeping track.)
Naturally, live is where it’s at for bands like this so catch them here on this go-’round. Joining the Bardos will be Koester (out of Brooklyn, N.Y. and Richmond, Va.). With a roster that includes Alan Weatherhead of Sparklehorse and studio honcho/former Tweaker member Miguel Urbiztondo (who lived in Chapel Hill for a spell), it’s definitely a night when you want to show up early.