Zen and the art of Real Ponchos

For the Vancouver band, creating music is a way of making sense of the world

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      In an information-overloaded world that increasingly seems to be nothing but roaring white noise and chaos, sometimes it helps to know you aren’t alone.

      Ben Arsenault of Vancouver’s Real Ponchos gets that. When the singer and guitarist talks about what he loves about playing music, it’s the feeling that he’s a small part of something bigger and more important.

      “More than anything, I love the band as a way to connect with others,” Arsenault says, on the line from a downtown office job. “I really see that as being the main, special thing about the band. I think that the other guys would agree with me that we’ve been able to connect with a whole bunch of people—people who like our music, like coming out to shows, and like having a good time with others.”

      Over four full-lengths, including the new Sunshine, Real Ponchos—which includes singer-guitarist Emile Scott, bassist Michael Wagler, and recently enlisted drummer Adrian St. Louis—has positioned itself in cosmic country territory. That’s a rich tradition that starts with pioneers Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and runs right through new blood like Hiss Golden Messenger and Sturgill Simpson.

      True to the spirit of the genre, Sunshine finds main songwriters Scott and Arsenault trying to make sense of the world without painting things in black and white. Songs are often built around lines that seem like snippets of a bigger conversation, such as “Reality waits for no man/Reality—try to let it be” from “No Man”.

      “The lyrics are definitely kind of abstract,” Arsenault acknowledges. “The process starts with an idea, but not in terms of a story—more like an observation of my life, or life in general. Or something to do with spirituality maybe. I guess it’s more about trying to convey a feeling. In terms of art, I like abstract art.”

      When they were ready to begin work on Sunshine, Arsenault and Scott were forced into doing something different from past outings. After last year’s To the Dusty World, original drummer Emlyn Scherk left Real Ponchos, hauling up stakes and moving to Scotland with his wife. So instead of going into the studio this time with a batch of well-rehearsed and often road-tested songs, the co-frontmen built things from the ground up, setting up in a Gulf Islands home.

      “That definitely changed our approach on this record,” Arsenault says. “Instead of having a full band where we’d rehearse the songs and then go into the studio to record with prearranged tunes, this time it was just Emile and me. We had some ideas for songs so we did demos, just the two of us, at his house. It kind of just grew from there.”

      Working with a friend, Aiden Ayers—who stepped up as both a producer and engineer—Arsenault and Scott weren’t faced with the time and creative constraints that come with booking a studio. Sometimes Real Ponchos ended up playing things close to straight up, with Sunshine’s easygoing “Wake Up (Who’s There)” and “Slow Touch” marked by lazy-river guitars and golden-dawn vocals. And just as often the band lights out for trippy frontiers; the gorgeous “Bright and Early” starts out sounding like an old-timey transmission from deep space and then mixes ghost-town violin with incandescent bursts of six-string majesty.

      “We did most of the record in the living room and basement—kind of like a guerrilla studio setup,” Arsenault says. “Some stuff we did live, with either Aiden playing the drums or Adrian, who came in for a couple of tunes. Other stuff we’d build up, starting with guitar and vocals or even a beat and then going from there. It was a much more fluid process than in the past, and not as preplanned.”

      That ability to explore every idea that surfaced not only energized Real Ponchos during the recording process, but is paying off now that the group is gearing up to perform the songs live.

      “It was fun to take a fresh look at things,” Arsenault offers. “I think we felt that with the last record [To the Dusty World] we’d been playing the songs for so long together as a band, by the time we put the record out we weren’t as excited about playing the songs for everybody. This time we’re kind of learning the songs as a band at the same time the record is coming out, which is kind of exciting for us.”

      Reflecting on the new songs, Arsen­ault sees a thread running through them—one that folks trying to make sense of the world in 2018 might be able to grasp onto. He uses, again, the word spiritual, but it’s not in a way—white clapboard churches, Christian hymnals, drinking beer with Jesus—normally associated with country music. Instead, stop and seriously think about Sunshine lyrics like “Just fake it ’til it feels good,” in the codeined-jazz comedown that is “Stranger Days”.

      “In the past few years, I’ve been practising Zen Buddhism, and getting more and more serious about it,” Arsenault says. “That’s creeping into the themes on the record. I think Emile, too, would agree that the songs on this one are, at the risk of sounding pretentious, a little more mature, maybe. They are more about looking within, and seeing how there’s a connection between the little me and the world. There’s a bigger picture than just the small self. I can’t speak for Emile—I don’t know what his spirituality is, although he’s definitely a spiritual guy. But for me I became interested in meditation because I figured there has to be something else besides this constant story going on in my head—the same old thoughts, the feeling that there’s something more to life.”

      If that’s something you can relate to, consider yourself already connected to Real Ponchos. It’s good to know you aren’t alone.

      Real Ponchos plays a Sunshine release party at the Rickshaw on Saturday (October 13).