by Jeremy Evans

Matt Pond was ready for a new challenge. After writing, recording and releasing eight albums and more than 110 songs in the past 12 years, the Brooklyn-based musician was contacted by filmmaker Ben Hickernell. The request: To create an original score for Hickernell’s new film, Lebanon, PA.

Now, as filmmaker and composer prepare to travel to Bay City for the Hell’s Half Mile Film and Music Festival—where both men will attend Saturday’s screening of the film and Pond’s group, matt pond PA, will headline the evening concert at the Masonic Temple—360 Main Street spoke to Pond about the film, his new album and tour, and his excitement to be a part of Hell’s Half Mile.

“This is our first film score,” Pond said, noting equal credit is due to co-composer and collaborator Chris Hansen. “I’ve done some scoring for terrible television,” Pond wryly added, “but this was a different experience. There, you have to make bad music. The worse it is, the more they like it; that’s what works.”

Quiet, thoughtful and affable throughout the interview, Pond’s conversation was frequently peppered with such dry humor. Joking aside, though, the singer-songwriter explained how he was pleased to accept Hickernell’s request to score Lebanon, PA. “We have a common thread, both having lived in Philadelphia, and he likes our music,” Pond said, “so he sent us a rough cut of the film.”

When he watched the film, Pond found that Lebanon had already been edited with music included—albeit previous matt pond PA recordings. Pond described the experience as a strange one. “It was like covering yourself,” he mused. “It was also like we were in a competition with ourselves, to outdo ourselves.”

Yet the process went smoothly, Pond said, and he and Hansen proved adept at “outdoing” themselves—except for one memorable disagreement with the filmmakers over a single piece of music. Apparently a composition for the film did not seem to appropriately match the desired mood, one that the filler track (an older matt pond PA song) seemed to capture. “So it was a situation where they [the filmmakers] were kind of saying, ‘Be more like these guys!’ and we were saying, ‘We are these guys,’” Pond laughed. “But I like a good argument—I think that people who agree with me are probably wrong,” he continued. “In the end, we probably came up with something better.”

Overall, Pond had nothing but praise for the experience. “It’s freer than writing your own music for yourself,” Pond said, explaining that this freedom comes as a result of working within defined guidelines and themes established by the filmmakers. “I really enjoyed it,” he said, adding another half-joking, half-serious quip: “If I could do it more, I’d have a lot less stress in my life.”

But the film score is not the only thing keeping Pond busy. As Lebanon, PA and director Hickernell have been traveling the film festival circuit (the South by Southwest Festival and the Traverse City Film Festival both screened the film, the latter awarding Lebanon the Founder’s Prize for Best Fiction Film), Pond has been rocking in clubs and theatres across the continent for most of the year, with both his own band and as guitarist for The Wooden Ships (led by American Analog Set’s Andrew Kenny). In fact, Hell’s Half Mile will be the first film festival Pond has been able to attend with the film.

The hectic touring—which Pond admits is “exhausting,” but he "love[s] the momentum”—is in support of matt pond PA’s latest LP, The Dark Leaves, released this spring on Altitude Records. Recorded in a small cabin in the woods outside of Bearsville in upstate New York—a historic musical region famous for Bearsville Studios, Big Pink and Woodstock—the album continues to highlight Pond’s strengths, such as earnest, literate songwriting; sonorous string arrangements; and melodic guitar riffs. Pond’s casual references to Paul Simon and Harry Nilsson point to some touchstones in the background of his work, a brand of sharp, honest pop where the darker truths of life are woven into the fabric of rich, carefully crafted songs.

Closely working with engineer and co-producer Chris Hansen, Pond described the production as rather ascetic and inexpensive (“We worked with the tools we had”), but aiming for a kind of introspective grandeur within those limited means. “We were going for a lush, but open, self-spiritual thing,” he said, “making these small ideas as wide as possible sonically.”

In fact, the cramped quarters of a remote cabin seem to become a metaphor for the tone of the album, a battle to find that “wideness” within through an intentional isolation from the outside world. “We are basically fighting against that small space,” Pond said of the songs on The Dark Leaves, a punning title of two meanings (one autumnally outdoors-y, one a description of spiritual rebirth). “What we are going for essentially,” Pond said of the album’s themes, “is the idea of convincing yourself not to give up on things—from the small things, to living itself.”

As for the album itself—the musical product—Pond was equally thoughtful. Though the album is readily available in many places for digital download, Pond seemed only grudgingly accepting of the new standard of musical consumption. “I know people download stuff and split it up and treat it like singles, and that’s fine, but I’m an album person,” he said. “I like making albums. If I could make a perfect album, it’d be like a Pink Floyd album—you wouldn’t be able to separate one track from another. But,” he laughed again, “I’m probably not going to make a perfect album.”

As for Hell’s Half Mile this weekend, Pond expressed great enthusiasm, asking a number of questions about what to expect in Bay City. “I’m really looking forward to it,” he said. “If I could ever have done anything else, it would’ve been films.”

“I really like playing smaller towns,” he concluded. “Everyone I’ve talked to [in Bay City] seems decent and genuine, not bitter or angry—believe me, there are a lot of people I meet in music who are bitter or angry about something.”

Part of the Hell's Half Mile Film and Music Festival, Lebanon, PA screens Saturday, October 2nd at 6 pm at the State Theatre (913 Washington Avenue, Bay City); Hickernell and Pond will attend. matt pond PA will perform at Saturday's music night at the Masonic Temple (Madison Avenue and 6th Street, downtown Bay City). Openings acts include Ghost Heart, Kid Coma, and Arts of Life, Arts of Death. Tickets cost $10 in advance or $12 at the door. Doors open at 8 pm. For more information, visit Hell's Half Mile Film and Music Festival.

© Jeremy Evans, 2010