Between March and early November, tourists flock to the town of Broome in far north Western Australia to ride camels, visit crocodile farms, and clink glasses of champagne as the moon rises over tidal mudflats – a famous natural phenomenon known as the Staircase to the Moon.
“I remember my parents would take me when I was a kid,” says Pond frontman Nick Allbrook, who grew up nearby. “I was expecting [the moon] to suddenly illuminate this stairway and they’re like, ‘That’s it, see! It looks kind of like stairs!’
“I was like ‘this is shit, it’s a shit stairway’.”
For Allbrook, the Staircase to the Moon and the well-heeled tourists bussed in to watch it are more than just an underwhelming childhood memory: They’re a stark symbol of wealth inequality in his home state, an upside-down mirror to the nearby Male footy oval, where he remembers seeing people sleeping rough on the grass.
That dichotomy plays out on ‘Toast’, the closing track on Pond’s new album ‘9’ – an album filled with imagery of haves and have nots, and of Perth and Fremantle’s shifts from industrial ports to gentrified harbour towns. They are heavy themes, but wrapped up, in typical Pond style, in a wild, idiosyncratic package.
What’s new, though, is the raw sonic material the band worked with. Rather than climbing the staircase, they descended into the mines, away from their sprawling prog rock and psych and into a vein of late-’80s Australian post-punk, funk and electro – bands like Severed Heads and The Metronomes, or INXS and Big Pig. On opener ‘Songs For Agnes’, synths grind like the chug of heavy machinery against wave-cresting saxophones, before Allbrook comes tearing in with a desperate snarl on ‘Human Touch’.
“It was just a need to get out some frustration in a socially acceptable way, instead of what we should be doing, which is setting fire to buildings or something”
‘9’ is the band’s first album without Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker behind the mixing desk since 2010’s ‘Frond’, and it shows. There’s a looseness to the proceedings, like the band has been unshackled from Parker’s manicured psychedelia. (At the time of NME’s conversation with Allbrook, several of Pond’s members were on tour, playing in Tame Impala in the US.)
But Parker’s absence had little to do with the switch, Allbrook says: Pond had independently decided to step into chaotic jam sessions after feeling like they’d gotten too comfortable both in the studio and on stage.
Allbrook recalls feeling a “latent aggression” prior to recording that drew him to bands including Death Grips and Rage Against The Machine. “The world’s getting real fucking scary,” he says. “Maybe it was just a need to get out some frustration in a socially acceptable way, instead of what we should be doing, which is setting fire to buildings or something. I don’t know,” he hedges, before backpedaling: “Don’t go do that, don’t set fire to buildings. There’s gonna be enough fire.”
Allbrook began experimenting with tape loops, cutting up tracks by jazz clarinetist Acker Bilk and a ‘Business Essentials’ cassette tape of ’80s financial advice. Those early experiments didn’t make the album, though Allbrook did haphazardly cut and paste his own synth lines into the tracks ‘Czech Locomotive’ and ‘Rambo’.
“I’m not as precise as some people,” Allbrook says, remembering his chaotic dedication to the fantasy strategy game he played as a kid: “I was never good at painting my Warhammer [figurines] when I was little, I wanted to dunk them all. I [played as] the Blood Angels… I can’t believe I wasn’t into the elves. Like, it seems so crazy that I wasn’t an elf person.”
Allbrook lives in London now, where he spends his time going on urban hikes, clocking the great metropolis’s absurdities, like Crystal Palace Park’s scientifically inaccurate dinosaur sculptures – ironic totems of extinction created just as the Industrial Revolution was setting humanity off on our own path of destruction.
“They’re like, these enormous great big lizard monsters, this sort of Victorian idea of dinosaurs. Some of the statues are really funny, they’ve got these sort of menacing expressions, ‘Raarrgghhhhh!’” says Allbrook.
There’s humour and playfulness all over ‘9’. With its jaunty percussion and tropical flourishes, ‘Rambo’ wouldn’t be out of place on an Architecture in Helsinki record, and ‘America’s Cup’ offers literal yacht rock. But don’t let the funk licks of the latter fool you into thinking Pond have climbed aboard a corporate disco cruise liner.
The track stakes out the 1987 America’s Cup sailing regatta, held in Fremantle following Royal Perth Yacht Club’s 1983 win in Rhode Island, at the historical moment both cities were hauled from their industrial roots onto a road of gentrification, craft breweries and beach resorts.
On Pond’s last two albums, ‘Tasmania’ and ‘The Weather’, the band despaired at humanity’s mistreatment of the natural world. But on ‘9’, they direct brutal ire at the economic, generational and societal forces seemingly hurtling us into oblivion.
“‘America’s Cup’ is blatant romanticising. There can be no truth behind it because I wasn’t there”
On ‘America’s Cup’ Allbrook rues the disappearance of Fremantle’s working class vagabonds and eccentrics. “Before the America’s Cup it was sailors and junkies / Pescatores and bikies,” goes the track’s euphoric, bittersweet chorus.
Nostalgia can feel hollow from someone like Allbrook, who was born the same year as the Cup defence. It’s easy to long for a decade other than your own when the world’s seemingly gone to pot.
“That song is blatant romanticising. There can be no truth behind it because I wasn’t there,” he agrees. “I was just kind of imagining it. And I was also imagining what it was like for these crusty old ghosts walking around Fremantle, bewildered and lost, still playing bad jazz guitar outside Gino’s cafe. What must that memory be like for them now that they’re in a shelter home and not like, you know, doing funky beat poetry?”
Looking back on the time when Perth and Fremantle were beginning to market themselves as cosmopolitan outposts on the edge of the world feels ironic at this moment. Their distance from Australia’s major east coast cities, coupled with hard-line border closures, has meant Western Australia has escaped the worst of the pandemic so far, and edged even closer to the separatist hermit kingdom fringe elements of its citizenry have long called for.
Allbrook describes how Western Australia’s overtures of secession, a recurring murmur since Federation in 1901, have gone from a curiosity in school history textbooks to placards for the secessionist WAxit political party in local grocery stores.
“You see the Premier’s interaction with the rest of the country… it’s easy to flex this sort of strong-man policy when there’s a threat,” muses Allbrook on the soaring popularity of Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan, built off the back of the state’s COVID-19 response.
“Maybe it’s just because we’ve got like, what is it, 5 per cent of Australia’s GDP from raising manganese and iron ore from the Pilbara? Maybe we’re just waving it in [the other states’] faces, waving this great big iron cock at the rest of Australia like: ‘Yeah, just you try [and make us open the borders]’.”
Between isolationist political movements, rampant gentrification, wealth inequality and the world leaning ever closer to what Albrook calls a “Phillip K. Dick apocalyptic hellscape”, it’s a wonder how he sleeps at night, or at the very least finds a way to enjoy life. But he says it’s quite simple, really:
“Netflix, bro! Netflix and a big doobie!”
Pond’s ‘9′ is out now via Spinning Top Records