Continuing our exploration into house concerts, The Little Things and other nuances and exciting elements of live concert culture, here’s an exclusive interview with Frank Orrall of Poi Dog Pondering as he leads the band to return to the Vic Theatre for two WXRT shows this weekend in Chicago.
As a special bonus for each show, we’re told that each ticket buyer will receive Audio Love Letter, an exclusive CD-EP with four Poi originals + covers of Van Morrison, The The and David Bowie.
To get you ready for the show, we asked Orrall a few questions about what’s inspired him over the years to perform and record the eclectic and exotic melding of electronica, folk, rock and world-beat grooves that Poi Dog Pondering fans have enjoyed since the band first formed in 1985 in Hawaii.
Orrall also takes us back to the band’s first days as a live band rocking the streets of Hawaii and then tells us why, as Chef Franc, he loves performing with and cooking for fans at intimate house concerts, what he learned from watching Steve Marriott’s passion-filled live show, and why he thinks making a song is like making a baby that truly comes of age while on tour.
Interview with Frank Orrall
Live Fix:Throughout your career you’ve played on many stages with many different band members in many different cities and environments, and most recently you’ve toured with Thievery Corporation. In what ways have your live concert experiences impacted your studio recordings and your most recent mini-album, Audio Love Letter?
Frank Orrall: Making a song is like making a baby; first, there is the impregnation (the initial spark of the song idea), then the incubation period (where the idea gets slowly fleshed out in your mind), the birth (the demo version), then you raise it up as best you can and get it ready for graduation (recorded version of the song). Then it goes off to college (i.e. tour) on its own…. gets a new haircut, maybe a piercing, experiments with substances & sleeps around a bit. Maybe even goes traveling around Europe for the summer; becomes it’s own thing. When that song comes back from tour it is a different being, more world-wise and confident… slightly cocky, in a good way… [Having] gained a little swagger.
On Audio Love Letter we tried to approach the studio-recorded version with less precious parental fawning, and more rough and ready road companion-impulsive camaraderie & immediacy.
In explaining the inspiration behind Audio Love Letter, you mentioned some very heartfelt remarks about Small Faces singer Steve Marriott, specifically about his commitment to a passionate stage presence. How has Marriott’s stage performance influenced your own approach to live performance?
Steve Marriott had an almost primal passion sometimes. You can see it in the way he wipes the saliva off his jaw with his shirt cuff during the solo in “Song for a Baker” (on the ‘Color Me Pop” show performance). Steve also had beautiful soul electricity in his voice you can hear in tracks like “Whatcha Gonna Do About It.” He recognized that soul had no color line. And, lastly, I also like his mischievous, rascal/playful side. All of those qualities of his speak to me. I consider him a brother in arms. I also like that he was flint rock tough, but could dress to the nines. He was a proper Dandy Thug.
As an artist, what “Little Things” do you look for during a show for real-time insight or inspiration?
When I go on stage, I am looking to get lost. I am looking for the band to start mixing the elixir, and I am looking into the crowd to find the ones who are ready to go with us. I am inviting the whole night to a place of expression before thought. Music is physical to me. It’s like wrestling a big boned girl in bed.
As a concert fan, what “Little Things” have you noticed during some of your favorite concerts?
I mostly look for passion. If I see that a performer is really living in the moment on stage, & really wants to be there, and wants to connect with the people… then I am all theirs. I let everything they do wash over me in a flood of trusting inspiration. It’s like an on/off switch for me… if I sense true passion, the switch is all the way on.
What was your first live concert like as a performing artist and what did you learn from it?
I feel like I’ve had a lot of ‘first live concerts’… the first party I played (high school), the first club gig, the first proper ‘concert’ because I was in bands early on. But, to pick one, I would pick the very first Poi Dog Pondering concert. It was at the Honolulu Art Academy Theater. This was significant because they had 16 mm movie projectors and slide projectors already set up there.
We dreamed hard for that show; really wanted to make it special. The concert film “Stop Making Sense” had recently come out, and raised the bar on live performances and what they could be. We let our imagination run free & made it more of a show than a concert, brought in tap dancers, rented nature films of lava etc., gave all the songs a nature subtext… brought in Balkan folk accordion and bag pipe players. We basically dreamed a big show then figured out how to do it on a tiny, really tiny, budget.
That sort of thinking has stayed with us ever since. Dream big and then make it come true as best you can with whatever means you have available…”best quality under the circumstances” as my friend Kit used to joke. The Old Chicago Vic Theater Crew used to love to kid us saying “what is this the Cecil B. Demille production?!” (when we’d be loading in for a show with sets made of newspaper, duct tape, light bulbs & hand-painted backdrops). The important thing is dreaming the dream, and realizing that dream in some way.
As a chef you have a passion for food and explain the value of eating right and celebrating a good meal with band mates on your tour blog. Did you always have that sort of regime and passion for combining live music and food, or did you develop that gradually throughout your career?
Poi dog Pondering lived as street musicians for the first year of its life as a band. We traveled across the states, living off of what change was thrown in the guitar case. Often we would have to make a meal for 5 people out of 15 dollars (with wine) [smiles]. You learn how to make a good simple pasta with olive oil, onion, garlic & maybe some peas or chopped tomato for color.
And, how to shop for cheap, good wine that won’t rip your guts out. When you are sleeping in a sleeping bag on someone’s floor for a living, the little things like a nice shared meal & and a glass of wine make band life all the more beautiful. ‘Eating right’ for me doesn’t mean healthy necessarily, it just means cooking/living with some Panache.
My mom used to enjoy to cook, and she played the guitar. I used to love it when there would be a party at the house and someone would pull out the guitar and everyone would sing. I used to love to fall asleep to that sound. I also remember some big dinner parties our folks had where everyone had to do something before they got to eat, like sing a song, or recite a poem or a passage from a book, etc. I liked that… I think I have been looking for that ever since.
You also host house concerts where as Chef Franc you prepare meals and perform intimate live shows for fans. What do you love the most about those experiences? What are some of your favorite house concerts and Chef Frank moments, and how have those moments inspired Poi Dog Pondering shows?
I like dinner parties, I like to meet people over food and wine. I like the bohemian, bon vivant Dandy lifestyle. I like what good food and wine does to conversation. A friend of mine (the mighty Chef John Manion) once said “there is a point at a good dinner party where the table just begins to erupt in conversation” and I know what he means, that point where the taste buds are all open, and the food & wine are entering the blood stream, and the care that has gone into the food and the hospitality has made everyone feel looked after and cared for, the conversation rises above the mundane and into the passionate.
I like to try and bring that to every chef night. It is never about ‘foodie’ aspirations, or anything lofty, it’s about good living. It is never about performance. I like to bring the guitar and sing WITH everyone. I like it when people bust out their own guitar or bongo or harmonica or piano, and play or sing along, that’s when it gets good for me. When there are kids around it just gets better.
Along the way, I get to talk with folks and learn what the music PDP has made has meant to them, and that is an amazing thing to hear firsthand. When I step on stage with that knowledge it adds dimension to the songs. Music, Art, Food, People and Nature are just about the main things for me in life.
Thanks again to Frank for taking the time to share his concert stories and live show experiences! If you have any questions for Frank or thoughts on the interview or want to tell us about a Poi Dog live experience that we can add to our other concert fan stories, go ahead and share them in the comments below.
To get a feel for the essence and energy of their live set, we suggest checking out the two PDD live albums both recorded at the Vic Theater (via iTunes): 2000’s Soul Sonic Orchestra and 1997’s Liquid White Light.
- Vic Theater: with special guest DJ Joe Bryl spinning international sounds both nights.
- Friday, Feb 4th & Saturday, Feb 5th (doors are at 8PM).
- Get tickets via Jamusa.com