Posted by Jesse Shayne
Pooch, a dance-punk group formed at the beginning of this year by seniors Jon Benbeniste (guitar/vocals), Dan Alpher (bass/guitar/vocals), Wyatt Gordon (drums) and Will Kencel (guitar/bass/keyboard/vocals), isn't your average Skidmore band. Their prolific set of original songs is too deep and unique for them to be considered a party band, despite the fact that the majority of their performances this year were at house shows. So, even while they do enjoy playing for a packed off-campus house, they don't write songs for the sole purpose of entertaining an audience.
"I would hear kids talking about the ideal kind of band to play at a party...they're like: 'you play this many covers and this many original songs,'" said Benbeniste, who created Pooch last summer while at home in Los Angeles. "I don't want to say we're less of a college band because that's such a pretentious thing to say when you are a college band. But it was more like I wanted to start a band and I'm in college...I still want to form it to what the audience likes, but that becomes secondary."
Despite Pooch's sound being tagged as "minimalist" on their Bandcamp page, their music is anything but simple. As an avid Radiohead fan, Benbeniste became interested in combining electronic and analog instruments last year after playing a few solo shows using a keyboard, a loop pedal and a guitar, under the moniker "Ben Ben."
"I remember I played a Tom Yorke (of Radiohead) song, and I...noticed how it starts out completely electronic but ends completely analog...That seemed pretty cool...the chords are the same, the melody is the same, but it sounds different because it started with guitars, bass and drums, and ends with keyboards, drum pads and samples," he said.
With his drum pad, synths and guitar, Benbeniste wrote the band's debut single, "Nothin' at all," last summer. The song starts out electronic, with a 4/4 drum-pad backing and some syncopated keyboard chords, but then quickly takes its multi-dimensional form as Benbeniste's voice and bass enter the mix.
In the song Benbeniste triumphantly sings about and captures the sense of ironic apathy harbored by Generation Y, with a chorus that simply repeats: "I don't care bout nothin at all." Contrasting the upbeat tempo and bright, high-end major chords, the song alludes to the dark side effects of self-medication and overstimulation: "Happy Birthday! Dude that was last Thursday, you should ease up on that stuff / I don't blame you in fact I'd do the same if I had it just as rough." In his charmingly indifferent cadence, Benbeniste sings about his experience as part of a generation that, despite it's self-proclaimed importance and uniqueness, really has nothing new to offer: "Every morning feels like I'm conforming to somebody else's plan / Am I too young, too dumb, too high, or too drunk for me to understand?" Ironically, while Benbeniste's song alludes to the lack of originality found in today's youth, his musical sensibilities lie within the echelon of new-age electronic music, a style hasn't been around long enough to lose its novelty.
About two-and-a-half minutes into "Nothin' At All" comes a fiery guitar interlude that breaks up the dominant electronic harmonies. Distorted to sound like an 8-bit videogame melody, Benbeniste's guitar solo wreaks havoc for a solid minute, paying homage to all of the 90's kids who recognize and long for the days when video game music (and life) was that simple. Here the core aspect of Pooch shines through--complication hidden in layers of simplicity.
"I think, or at least hope it seems really simple, but actually a lot thought goes into the music," Benbeniste said.
Pooch's music can't be categorized into any one label, and in simplest terms it still combines at least two genres. Benbeniste refers to Pooch as "dance-punk" and "electronic-rock," which brings to mind some of the great acts that pioneered new-age electronic rock in the late 90's and early 2000's--groups such as LCD Soundsystem that remain timeless and have inspired albums as recent and as acclaimed as Arcade Fire's Reflektor.
Benbeniste said that the most distinctive characteristic of Pooch is the personal nature of the lyrics: "I just feel like after HAP (a group featuring members of Skidmore's class of 2013) left there weren't any other bands singing about themselves... I wanted to start a band and play these songs I write about my life and have a group of people who would be down to play them with me," he said.
Kencel praises Benbeniste for his ability to offer coherent songs to the group, laying out his vision for his bandmates while still granting them freedom to improvise. "I have never worked with someone who has such a full concept of a song before bringing it to the band," he said.
Kencel and Benbeniste are both music majors--although Kencel doesn't consider himself to be a typical music major given his bass performance concentration--and claim that their classroom knowledge of music theory allows them to better communicate parts, which certainly might explain how the band is so prolific despite only existing for a few months.
"My style is better suited for bands than for ensembles," said Kencel. His music resume certainly backs that claim; Kencel has been in six bands at Skidmore and has become somewhat of a campus celebrity as a result.
Gordon is an unselfish and well-composed drummer, but when it's his time for a fill he knows how to lay one down. Given the electronic elements of Pooch, Gordon's kit is not always the only source of percussion; some songs start out with or end with a drum-pad backing, but as in the style that Benbeniste prefers, Gordon carries the bulk of the rhythm.
Alpher's bass is what makes Pooch songs danceable. In most Pooch songs Alpher's parts are solid--nothing too fancy--but at the end of every measure Alpher lets loose a funky fill, on which he self-reportedly thrives.
"His fills are my favorite part of the music," said Kencel.
Pooch has a plethora of shows left over the last month of college following their recent release, the Talk Too Much/Telephone EP that Benbeniste recorded in Los Angeles over spring break. The band wants to stay together after college, and Benbeniste hopes that Pooch will deliver him success in the music world, either as it continues performing or when it ultimately provides a solid addition to his resume. As the band rides the coattails of modern electronic equipment into the next generation of music, they take with them a bit of Punk's past and offer a bit of Pop's future; whether they're playing Pixies covers or synth arpeggiator-backed originals, Pooch is sure to make its audience happy from the main-stage in Zankel to the darkest and grungiest of basements.
You can see Pooch play tonight at Putnam Den, at 8 p.m. along with some other local (non-Skidmore affiliated) bands.