They’ve got the clothes, the coifs, the producer, the label, the “the”–on paper the Ponys sure look like a garage band. They’ve played with Detroit perennials the Dirtbombs, the Hentchmen, the Go, and the Soledad Brothers, among others, and drawn breathless praise in the pages of the garage bible Horizontal Action.

But put on their forthcoming debut, Laced With Romance (In the Red), and you’ll hear a crackling hybrid of inventive pop and jittery soul. The typical garagista act takes pride in following the formula–primitive song structures, not too many chords, stripped-down arrangements–but the Ponys aren’t interested in playing by the book. “We’ve never, ever set out to write a song that’s supposed to fit into a specific style,” says singer-guitarist Jered Gummere.

Three years ago the hyperactive Gummere was playing guitar in the Guilty Pleasures, an entertaining but combustible punk combo. He admits he was relieved when the group finally called it quits in late 2001, not long after recording a still-unreleased full-length. “It was fun and I liked the songs, but it was really crazy all the time,” he says. “The shows were just messed up. I wanted to start actually playing good, instead of just flailing around and breaking things.”

Before the split Gummere had started writing and singing songs with his girlfriend, Melissa Elias, a dedicated bedroom bassist. The couple eventually hooked up with drummer Nathan Jerde, who was nearing the end of a seven-year run with blue-collar punks the Mushuganas, and for the next year and a half the trio played fairly straight-up junk rock regularly at local garage havens like the Beat Kitchen and Cal’s. The band took a sharp left turn, however, in late 2002 with the addition of singer and multi-instrumentalist Ian Adams, formerly half of the anorak-pop duo Happy Supply, which had sputtered to a halt after releasing the enjoyably quirky Crucial Cuts LP on the now defunct local label Dutch Courage.

“Happy Supply had played with the Guilty Pleasures before–which, looking back on it, was a pretty weird bill,” says Adams. “And we’d also played with the Ponys, so I was always a fan of what they were doing.”

“We really wanted to add something,” says Elias. “With just the three of us there were things we wanted to do but physically couldn’t. When Happy Supply broke up and Ian became available, we made sure to snatch him up before he could start something else.”

Bringing with him a love of both Chuck Berry and the early Rough Trade catalog, as well as a huge pile of gear, Adams gave the band a chattering two-guitar attack, and his organ and synth lines opened the sound up further. “Things changed pretty quickly once Ian started playing with us,” Gummere says.

The band wrote new songs and reconfigured old ones, and by early 2003 they’d put out a pair of well-received singles for southern indies Big Neck and Contaminated. A copy of the second one impressed Larry Hardy, owner of the LA label In the Red, which has in recent years expanded its mostly trad garage/blooze roster to include groups like the Memphis synth mob Lost Sounds and the Scottish avant-rockabilly combo the Country Teasers. Coincidentally, Gummere and Elias were about to leave for a vacation in California when they received an enthusiastic note from Hardy; they met up with him in Hollywood and spent the evening in a succession of karaoke bars. “Larry was like, ‘I love you guys, I want to put your record out!’ as he was feeding us a bunch of tequila,” recalls Elias. The couple woke up with nasty hangovers and a handshake deal.

In June the band went to Detroit to begin tracking a full-length with garage guru Jim Diamond. Gummere knew Diamond–the Guilty Pleasures had made their shelved record with him–and the producer’s hit-and-run style proved a good fit for the Ponys. They blitzed through the material in two weekends of work. “We didn’t even listen to the playbacks,” says Gummere. “After we finished a song Jim would just call out, ‘OK, that’s done!’ The whole thing was kind of hectic because we were playing shows and going out every night while we were recording, but he was a calming influence on us. Somehow it came out OK.”

The 12 tracks they brought home are surprisingly polished. Much of the album’s appeal is in the vocals: Gummere’s burnished wail splits the difference between two great Ians of postpunk–the Bunnymen’s McCulloch and Joy Division’s Curtis–while Adams’s adenoidal turns as lead singer suggest Peter Perrett of the Only Ones. The band veers between anthems of nihilism (“Let’s Kill Ourselves”) and sweet odes to house pets (“Little Friends”), running on the energy of thoroughly metabolized new-wave aesthetics and 60s girl-group riffs. There are moments of soft psychedelia, even occasional glimpses of hardcore, but the songs never hold still long enough to be tagged.

“We’re not trying to reinvent rock ‘n’ roll,” says Jerde. “But at the same time I don’t think that you could exactly compare our stuff to any bands we listen to either.”

With a bunch of new songs written, the Ponys are ready to record again, but that’ll have to wait as they begin promoting a new single (“Prosthetic Head” b/w “How Does It Taste?”) and the soon-to-be-released Laced. Next month the group heads out on its first national tour; they’ll stop at South by Southwest to play an In the Red showcase. There’ll likely be plenty of straggling acts in Austin hoping there’s still room on the garage bandwagon, but the Ponys won’t be sorry to watch it roll away without them.

“Honestly, if you listen to us closely,” Adams says, “I don’t think we’re a garage band at all.”

“None of us even have a garage,” says Gummere, laughing. “Well, actually [Melissa] does, but we don’t play in it. We’re a practice-space band.”

The Ponys play a record-release show Friday, February 13, at the Empty Bottle. We Ragazzi, back from New York for a day, headlines and Volcano, I’m Still Excited!! (see Spot Check) opens.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.