The Creative Anarchy of the Snake Oil Medicine Show
Labor day weekend brought Boone N.C.’s Snake Oil Medicine Show through North Central West Virginia, as Morgantown teemed with the newly returned college students. They played two shows that weekend, one on Friday night, in Morgantown, and on Sunday, forty five miles away in Weston, a seven-set glass festival performance that started at ten in the morning. It gave those who came out to see them an eclectic dose of all things Snake Oil. This time the ever shifting line-up was composed of George Pond, Snake Oil founder and mastermind, on the upright bass, his lovely wife Caroline on fiddle, along with brother Andy on the banjo. Also along with the Pond family was Sean Foley on the keyboards and accordion, and Snake Oil Medicine Show’s artist in residence, Phil Cheney. You see, Snake Oil is the only band that has a full time painter in the band.
Friday night’s show, at the West Virginia Brewing Company in support of local favorites, The Davisson Brothers, was typical a typical supporting set. The band played for just over an hour, while the song selection mixed hot bluegrass, steeped in old time melody and feel, with everything from swing to klezmer to ragtime. They ran through Snake Oil staples such as “Lotus Queen”, “Individuality”, and “Josef” all the while, Phil Cheney worked away on his newest artistic explosion “Treats Mike’s Trick Bike”. Though Friday night’s set was brief, Sunday’s glass festival gig more than made up for it length.
The Glass Festival is not a festival in the sense that many who are reading this may think. Every year the Weston Glass Works offers a tour of its facilities while many local artisans gather together to promote the lost art of glass working, and peddle their wares in a swap-meet type environment. Someone with some music savvy decided that this year’s Glass Festival wouldn’t be complete without seven sets of Snake Oil Medicine Show starting before church had even let out. The scene conjured up the type of gig that many bands on the rise play to pay the bills, providing music to an atypical and sometimes even uninterested audience. A few hearty music lovers made the trip to Weston to take in some good Snake Oil vibes, but most were there to shop and tour the glass factory (blow your own glass!). The band responded in the only way they seemed to know how, with their gregarious, laid back and absolutely happy go lucky spin on things. So they started just after breakfast, to little to no audience, and delivered seven one-hour long sets of covers and originals, traditionals and Snake Oil Farce. The show even included a walk-through of the Glass Factory Gift Shop and parking lot, the band toting acoustic instruments, like pied pipers of bluegrass. In between one of their many Sunday afternoon sets, I got a chance to talk with George and Caroline Pond, Snake Oil founders, and painter extraordinare Phil Cheny.
Aaron Hawley: What is the Snake Oil Medicine Show story from inception to glass festival?
George Pond: Whoa, we could probably fill up this tape. Lets see, my dad got a banjo, and my little brother Andy decided that he wanted to play it. So I picked up my dad’s guitar, he picked up the banjo, and we started to learn. That’s how we learned how to play. Then we met Caroline at a party in Atlanta. She was a renowned violinist, who hadn’t played in a couple of years, so we decided that she should come over, learn how to pick with us, hillbilly style. Which she did, every Tuesday for several weeks, until it was just natural, and we knew a lot of songs. And then we did a gig, in Atlanta, it was very fun and we got hooked. And then years went by, and Caroline and I got married and moved to Boone, and met up with a bunch of other pickers. It started to get a little bit crazy there at that point, and the music began to morph and change as we got more proficient. Then we had Jehosafest, which was our festival, Jehosafest 1, and that’s when Phil came up and painted with us for the first time. Can’t really remember much of the late nineties, but, then we began this tour and here we are, at the glass festival. And we’ve had a lot of pickers come be a part of the show, and painters be a part of the show, and a sculptor was a part of the show anybody else
Phil Cheney: Jugglers
GP: Jugglers, garglers, breathers, dancers, puppeteers, break-dancers, rappers
PC: Body painters
AH: You guys push the artistic envelope, more than just music is concerned. When did you decide you needed a painter? Was that a spontaneous occurrence at Jehosafest?
GP: The details are all hazy, we remember liking Phil right off the bat.
PC: George is a painter also, so there sort of an artistic bond there.
GP: We used to decorate. We would decorate the stage before we had Phil with us. I don’t know if we ever really consciously decided then that we needed anything, really, other than it just sort of was really super good and made the show super interesting and felt really nice. I’m sure there was times when we would think, “Hey, Phil’s in the band, that’s so cool”, because people would ask, “Hey, is Phil in the band?”, and we would say YES!
PC: It’s a weird concept because I just paint.
GP: He absolutely does more than paint, he makes all these fine things that we have here (gesturing to the band’s merchandise table at which we are sitting) and he does all the artwork for the CDs, and he does other people’s CDs, he makes these things, and he does a crap-load of all the office work back home, the e-mailings, and web design, and web related things, and he does a lot of singing now in the background, he sings a lot.
PC: I do all that background singing, but fully inspired by the music, it’s like a bubble in which creativity is very powerful.
GP: Phil’s also a songwriter too, we’ve co-written songs like “Triangle Mountains”, and he writes raps.
AH: You guys definitely blend a lot of different sounds
GP: Bluegrass, ragtime, klezmer old time music. I like pop music. I like it all. I like world sounds, I defiantly like the world influence, all the different countries, and other the different traditional sounds, and not so traditional sounds. I like P.Diddy.
AH: The last time I saw you guys the standout song was “Suzy & Gus”, which definitely had that white boys rappin’ without drums feel.
GP: There’s some of that. We’re bringing on a sweet little drumming guy on Monday. We’ve toured with a drummer, Steve, for like six years. Back in those days we went through crazy eras of like trance hip-hop, trip hop, freak out.
AH: I noticed the sounds on “High Speed Highway Parade”, your last album, are a lot different than what I’m seeing.
GP: It constantly changes.
AH: Is that a conscious shift or is it simply a product of people coming and going?
GP: I think it’s conscious like we say we want to keep our creative license, you know? We want to be able to change at will, however we want, we like it to be good. Usually changes with different flavors, different pickers, coming on, and in the mix. They’ll add and bring different things. So, I think it’s going to continue to do that, yeah, maybe it’s pretty conscious even though at times we don’t really direct what we’re going to do.
AH: You guys are working on a new album?
GP: Yeah, the music’s done, mixed, it’s The Love Album, it’s a creative anarchy program, it’s all live in the studio. At a party inside this great studio in Atlanta called Tree Sound, it’s gonna be so good, I’m super stoked for that one.
Caroline Pond: It’s a little bit of a different album, because it was recorded in the studio where there was a live audience there. And basically, not very many originals are on it. There’s a lot of the swing stuff that we love, and some of the old timey tunes that we love. My new tune, “The Lotus Queen” is gonna be on it, so it only has two or three original tunes that are going to be on this particular album.
AH: So are you drawing on a lot of your influences?
CP: A lot of the swing stuff definitely will be showing up on the album, definitely a high-energy sound. There are only two of the instrumentals, I sing on four of the songs. We do “I’ll See you in my Dreams,” it’s by Gus Kahn, that’s one of the guys, he’s from, I believe the early 30’s, as well as “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby”, also a Gus Kahn tune. It should be interesting.
AH: It seems to be a step away from previous albums, will this one focus more on the string band sound?
GP: Yeah. You’ll note a crazy change in every one, sounds different
AH: Now tell me about the songwriting process, your lyrics don’t deal with run of the mill subject matter.
GP: Right, maybe that’s on purpose, but maybe not, it just sort of happens, it just sort of comes out like that. I’ve always written poetry, for a long time. And then, when I started playing music with Andy, just a lot of things I had written in books came out and they had a good rhythm to work inside of songs. The same lately, it flows.
PC: There’s a lot of themes too that come up and swirl around
AH: There seems to be a consciousness theme to a lot of your music.
GP: That’s a big part of our plan, you know, awareness, consciousness. Which is kind of weird to present in this format, it seems like we should be rubbing crystal balls and the like.
PC: We’re trying to bring that to people who might not necessarily be as aware as the people who would be affected by the rubbing of the crystal balls.
GP: Right, people might tune into the hillbilly thing.
PC: So we bring the art and the music to these places where people haven’t been exposed to that necessarily before. And some people who have of course, and come back to see us, but new people who get affected by it
AH: Where do you guys find yourselves touring the most?
CP: A lot of the Eastern seaboard, we went to Maine recently and that was one of our golden moments for us. We went to Colorado last week, so we’ve just been going sort of all over recently. The three of us, the Pond family, went to California for the High Sierra Music Festival, which was a hoot. That was fun. We have been to Europe, and I do see ourselves traveling more, just kind of keep moving the scene along and do the best we can. My whole goal, was to do mostly theatres and festivals, get out of the smoky bar scene. Get more into that edge.
AH: Like the glass festival?
CP: (laughs) Yeah, that works, the glass festival works, I love it, I love all festivals. Also, I think it would be fun to play for kids. You know, just to get them involved in that fun music scene. But I love playing for the music lovers, big crowds those are my favorite.
AH: From your perspective what are some of the biggest and best Snake Oil shows?
CP: That we’ve done? You know, really recently, the festivals, I know I keep going back to that, but I really love Magnolia Festival in Florida, and I love the Harvest Fest in Atlanta. We’ve played some colleges, but I’m trying to think, my favorite show? You know what’s weird, it’s probably the one we just did in New York City. We were just coming out of an Indian restaurant; we love Indian food that’s our favorite kind of fare. I had my fiddle on my back, and I was just walking and these people stopped me and said, “Where’re you playin’? Where’re you playin’?” I said “Well, we’re really not, we’re just kind of visiting New York City for the day.” They said, “Well, can you play for us right now?” So we just played on the streets and we had a great time and they said “Can you come to our restaurant?” This vegetarian restaurant, there was a cool stage and an awesome piano for Sean Foley to play on, and that right there was so neat. Playing for an intimate setting in the middle of thousands of people strong. You know? I loved that. That might have been one of my favorites.
AH: Do you guys have anyplace you want to go with your music?
GP: Yes! Carnegie Hall. That’s a little miniature goal to hit. We’d like to go back to Europe.
AH: What was it like touring Europe?
GP: A highlight, an absolute highlight, we were so well received and it was so super fun
PC: People were very nice
GP: They loved the art
PC: A high level of inspiration over there, we were all just buzzing with new ideas, and visions and tunes.
GP: They didn’t blink, they didn’t think it was anything extraordinarily strange. Maybe it was strange but maybe it was just the right amount of strangeness. We did two week’s in England and two weeks in Holland. Good choices.
GP: Yeah, Fish n’ chips? Europe. Japan.
PC: We want to go to Japan, although I’m not to keen on flying to Japan.
GP: Phil wants to boat there.
PC: I’ll boat.
GP: Ideally South America, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia
AH: So pretty much Snake Oil Medicine Show wants to take over the world.
GP: Yeah! Well, we’d like to go to the world, yeah.
PC: We’d like to go to the world, bringing peace and love and art, and some imagery.
GP: Don’t necessarily want to take over. Anarchy is the deal. You know, we would like to see the world take over the world
PC: Creative anarchy.
GP: Get it out of the hands of those chumps, or just be aware that it’s in the hands of chumps.
PC: Become well aware.
GP: and aware of whales.
PC: Yeah, we want to spread whale awareness.
GP: That too. With all the environmental issues that are mounting and mounting
PC: Tibet awareness.
GP: Yep, and the sociological issues. I’d like to bring awareness to have people treat children intelligently, you know? So we got all kinds of little messages out there and not judgmental issues at all. Not saying, do this or do that, just saying be aware. Think about it. Do whatever the heck you want to do man.
AH: Do you have anything else that you feel that people would miss out on the Snake Oil picture that they do not know?
GP: No, I think that with the beauty of that picture is that it’s definitely flavored by your own perception of how you view it, it is that, and nothing really much else
AH: What do you try to do with Snake Oil Medicine Show, for someone who comes to the show?
CP: Try and make them have a better day, and try and get them happy and positive and just let them escape. You know, what I like to do is just go to the movies when I’m down and blue, and think the world is just crazy, to kinda take me away. That’s what I like for Snake Oil Medicine Show to do is just take you away for a little bit, and then maybe leave you with a positive message.
PC: and a large popcorn.