Body Music:
Pocahaunted’s Funky Afterlife

After Amanda Brown lost her partner in Pocahaunted to college and a solo project, rebuilding the droney tribal dub duo as a funky bass-driven five piece did not seem like the most likely course for her to take. Bethany Cosentino, the other half of the pair, left their Los Angeles base of operations to attend college in New York and started making music on her own as Best Coast in 2009. (She has since returned to L.A.) At the time, abandoning the project seemed much more likely. “It took me a long time to figure out what I was going to do after Bethany left. She told me to keep doing Pocahaunted if I felt like it. I didn’t know if that was the right thing to do,” says the lead singer and lyricist.

But Pocahaunted found its way to a new incarnation seemingly through a will of its own. Brown started talking about the band with her friend Diva Dompe of San Francisco’s quirky, poppy BlackBlack. “She asked me what kind of music I wanted to make and we had long conversations about dance music, and soul music and funk music and about things I had never gotten the opportunity to try with Bethany.” They soon started building new Pocahaunted songs around Dompe’s bass lines. “As soon as she started playing some funky bass parts I knew that I had made the right decision and that I needed to give her a full band behind her,” she remembers. With her husband Britt Brown, with whom she runs Pocahaunted’s label Not Not Fun and psyches out in Topaz Rags, on guitar, Ged Gengras (who drones alone as M. Geddes Gengras) on drums, and, now, Leyna Noel (solo drone: Psychic Reality) on keys they formed a new union with a new, danceable mandate and seriously considered changing the name. They released the full-length Make It Real in January of this year, with Sun Araw’s Cameron Stallones on keys but they quickly lost him to a solo-project and added Noel whose keyboard style Brown describes as more synthy and progressive than the vintage organ sound on the album. Noel, with Brown and Dompe, also brings the total number of vocalists up to three.

Listening to Make It Real, one can still perceive the outline of the former Pocahaunted’s haunted dub drum circle like the buried foundations of an ancient settlement, but the chaotic tendencies have been tamed and channeled by Dompe’s insistent bass lines. The new world they have constructed on top of the old is in some ways more ordered but in other ways it is wilder and more vibrant. People are probably going to stop calling Pocahaunted spooky now. The quintet has succeeded in marrying bass hooks and the accompanying rhythms to their noise roots (Britt Brown’s own project, Robedoor, is pretty noisy), producing an accentless world-funk as full of echoes of dub and tropicalia as much as it explores bits of Afro-funk and the more instinctual corners of American musical experimentation and jazz. Brown’s feral-soul vocals ride seemingly endless, steamy hooks.

It is of necessity that Pocahaunted has left the tenebrous shadow world shared by Brown and Cosentino. Songwriting has become a fully communal experience with Brown, as the only original member of Pocahaunted, in the role of a somewhat reluctant bandleader. She explains that though she sees the new band as a collective, the other members often look to her as an authority. The old songwriting process, which often resulted in reverberating meditations reaching a full twenty minutes in length, was far less structured. “When Bethany and I started it was so raw and we were trying to just chant and just find any emotion in it. We would shut the lights off and close our eyes,” Brown says. Though things are more formal now that five people need to get together and write songs with a beginning and an end, there is still a bit of the band-as-vision-quest in their methodology. “We’re still trying really hard to get out of our skin for a minute and let loose in a way that’s really visceral,” she says.

One way the five accomplish this is through dancing and costumes (not unlike the old Pocahaunted) and a kind of yard-sale shamanism – loading the stage with power objects like crystals and Garfield dolls. “We try to transform the space, so when we get in it it’s welcoming us and it’s not just some blank club stage with no personality. And we paint our faces just to get into character and get out of ourselves and pull up some bit of our soul that we aren’t easily able to tap into on a daily basis,” she explains. This is a necessity too, because, while the new band writes more focused songs, they are not focused in an easily reproducible, verse-chorus-verse kind of way. “We haven’t written traditional songs that we can stand up and just play. We have to breathe life into the songs,” she adds.

Brown cites the Congo’s Konono-1 and its trance inducing, electric thumb piano-driven music as a kind of spiritual beacon. “We opened for them in Portugal and saw them play, and they’re smiling and their rhythm is just going, and everybody is just loving it and dancing and it’s a breaking down of barriers, and I think that’s what we want, but we’re not those kinds of tight musicians. We’re a little bit sloppy. We come from, if not a rock background, then at least a pop background,” she laments.

Their musical backgrounds are indeed in the droney and experimental end of indie music, but, with the exception of Remain in Light-era Talking Heads (“I don’t think there’s a member of our band that can watch Stop Making Sense and not cry.”) most of their current inspirations hail, like Konono-1, from outside of North America. “We’re all really interested in non-western music, what I guess you would call world music. But some of us are more interested in the poppier side of that and the disco side and some of us are more interested in the funk or soul side. And some of us are more interested in the tribal side.” For her part, Brown says she’s been getting down with some of disco’s international ambassadors lately, and mentions a newly purchased album by Boney M. The frontwoman is particularly enchanted by the flamboyant West-Indian-by-way-of-Germany singing group’s three female vocalists. “They’re amazing and they’re weird and if you go on YouTube they have these videos that are just insane and they’re acting crazy and they have these costumes and it’s over the top. It’s a huge influence because I like to think of Diva and Leyna and I as being these sort of strong, strange sirens,” the singer gushes.

Incidentally, Brown finds the term “world music” generally condescending. As she points out, a phrase that can be applied to the sounds of Namibian tribal drums as easily as it can be applied to Polynesian ukuleles is not an outstandingly useful descriptor. Pocahaunted has solved this problem by adopting the term “body music”: “If you’re being guided by drum and bass, you’re basically listening to body music.”

The comparisons they draw are more reflective of the members’ musical resumes than their current inspirations; at one show someone told them they sounded like a “kraut-rock Slits.” Considering the members’ previous projects, that description makes plenty of sense and Brown accepts it with good grace – perhaps because she recognizes the challenge Pocahaunted has always presented to anyone trying to describe it. “No one’s ever going to call us a funk band really because we’re not strictly funk,” she concedes.

Body music might really be the best term to accurately describe Pocahaunted’s second act. Few other words can safely cover all the angles and twists possible with a crew that’s into everything from Afro-pop to house music, but which doesn’t actually play any of those things. Even Brown hesitates to predict or describe where this new program is headed. “Because we all come from different places and we all want to sound like a bit of a different thing. Even if we all get really great at our instruments we may never end up sounding like any of us imagines or wants,” she says. For a lot of bands, this kind of creative tension leads to an inevitable implosion. For five musicians with roots and connections in California’s arty-punky-freaky-folky-scene (catch it almost any night at The Smell in Los Angeles where Pocahaunted cut its teeth) this is the beginning of something rich and fertile. For Brown, the give and take amounts to a spiritual practice: “It’s about getting your instruments out and then whatever comes out, it’s sort of magic, it’s not predictable. We have on many occasions said ‘okay, we’re going to make a song like this particular song’ and then it’s come out sounding nothing like that. And I’ve been mystified.”