Pontius CoPilot earns its wings
In their own words ... more or less
By Rob Bricken

It would be easier for a Kentucky schoolchild to find Madagascar on a map than pin down the musical niche of Pontius Copilot.

Ask them their musical orientation, and a few minutes of thoughtful silence ensue. After serious contemplation, Ben Phelan (who comprises the band with Ed Brown and Robby Cosenza) says, "Indie rock."

Further prompting is necessary to get him to elaborate. "Which of course doesn't really describe a sound, but it kinda does. It's guitar based. It's rock and roll that uses a traditional pop structure but is a little bit tweaked. But then we do things that sound unlike what indie rock bands do as well."

"I like to call it rock 'n' roll," states Ed Brown.

Simple, but accurate. They play rock 'n' roll. Each piece has a different drive to it; the lyrics range from soulful introspection or flippant commentary. One minute, Ramones Lite, the next, Radiohead-esque noise jams.

They subscribe to no one musical niche, even though the songs themselves vary wildly to simple rock to frenetic pounding, or acoustic strumming.

"Ben's songs tend to be more something, and my songs tend to be more something," intones Brown cryptically.

Cosenza adds, "Well, I think my songs are probably more late-70s punk rock kinda Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Ramones type of simplicity. I'm limited in my ability anyway."

You can't even pin down their instruments, as they all switch per song (except for Cosenza, who does not play bass).

Hell, you can't even be sure what their CD is named.

Says Cosenza, "It's both. We couldn't really decide. So it's Madagascar on the cover, and In Madagascar on the CD. It's both. We couldn't really decide."

"There's nothing about Madagascar on the album," adds Phelan. "A lot of the songs on the album are about people by themselves. So Madagascar is kind of this island that's by itself."

Cosenza agrees. "I think it sounds cool. It would have been a song title otherwise."

Indecision? Genius? Their lengthy local popularity might indicate the latter.

"We've been a band for about three years," says Phelan. "It was Robby and me and Jason Swank [of the Household Saints] who has since moved on."

Consenza breaks in. "Well, originally it was just you and I. We even had a handful of songs. Ed's been playing for a little over a year. I think it was last spring... we're getting ready to kick him out too."

Brown laughs with the other two, although he may be looking for trapdooors at their upcoming shows. But the band brings this fun and relaxed energy to their music and their shows.

While other bands take the boring route, over-indulging in drugs and violence, CoPilot experiences a world of danger unlike any other rock 'n' roll band.

Take... carpet burn

"Ed gave himself carpet burn on his knees," says Phelan.

Brown is visibly still haunted by the ordeal. "I kneeled down, playing guitar, and I ended up bleeding from the knees because I was wearing shorts."

"We try to discourage Ed from wearing shorts on stage," says Cosenza, a note of melancholy in his voice.

But Pontius CoPilot has its up days as well.

Cosenza remembers. "We went to Detroit for a weekend, had a show where the bands were dreadfully mismatched... Death-metal bands and stuff, the surroundings were lousy... But we ended up staying with this woman, this bartender. She had an immaculate apartment.

"We all got our own beds, and when we woke up we had omelets made for us. She took us to the beach."

Phelan remembers. "When we first got to her apartment she gave us chocolate covered strawberries."

"White chocolate," adds Brown.

"Yeah, white chocolate," agrees Phelan.

Cosenza adds, "It was pretty uncharacteristic of what you might expect. There we were, on her deck, it was 85 degrees and beautiful out, eating white chocolate covered strawberries. It was hell."

"Of course, the next day, we slept in piles of garbage," points out Brown.

"Garbage for our pillows," Phelan shakes his head.

Cosenza sums it up. "Kind of the best and worst in one weekend."

Such experiences have no doubt had a hand in the formation of the band, leading them to pen such numbers as the informative yet chilling "Calcium," as well as the happy paean of Maradonna's knees. But can anyone fathom the entity that is Pontius CoPilot?

Perhaps it is best to leave it to the band themselves. With some heavy-handed prodding, the three musicians express their own takes:

Brown offers, "The name of this band is Pontius CoPilot."

Phelan posits, "We don't let excellent musicianship get in the way writing good songs."

And Cosenza sums it all up with, "Band... good."

Judge for yourself when Pontius CoPilot plays at CD Central, 3pm on Thursday the 24th. Or join them at their CD Release Party at Yat's where they'll be joined by the Blueberries, at 10pm on Friday. You won't leave ambivalent.

Hello Records

Pontius CoPilot’s debut record is a testament to the depth and intelligence of their music. A lyrical and focused piece of work, Madagascar is thick with lovely sonorities.
Mixing punk aesthetics and manic pop-rock majestics, Pontius creates complex compositions that verge on creepy quietude and creak with epic ambition. The measured tempos and tactile layers of vocals and instruments make the modern murder ballad “Hangover Retreat” a thoroughly interesting piece of work. “Slow Star,” another standout track, is rich in buoyant melodicism and meticulous tonalities, as is the stunning “St. Constance Finds a Friend.”
But there’s also a charming informality to this record. Songs like “Maradonna’s Knees,” “On the Pavement,” and “The Landlubber” benefit from quirky, cheery melodies, fuzzy guitars, and brisk backbeats. The irresistible “Get Foxed” is immediately infectious, with an engaging vocal style and clever hooks. Still others, like “Forget to Breathe,” “Girls,” and “Calcium” rely on a much darker tone to stay afloat, each song with its own twists in melody and texture.
Full of great tunes and fun riffs, Madagascar is an impressive release that shows some real sparks of life. The entire record plays like an emotional theater thanks largely to the musical intensity this band brings to anything it touches. These songs will stick with you, and for good reason. Madagascar stands as one of the Lexington’s finest local releases this year. —Chris Webb