Orrall comes back to where Poi Dog Pondering began
Frank Orrall lives by the credo of “Have music, will travel.”
The Hawaii-born singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist brings his journey full circle when he performs what he calls “acoustronic troubadour music” at the Honolulu Academy of Arts theater, the very venue where he launched the eclectic Poi Dog Pondering about 25 years ago.
Back then, Orrall and his large group of musicians were making their name as entertaining buskers on Kalakaua Avenue in front of the old Woolworth building.
Orrall had already built a reputation on the Honolulu alternative music scene as a drummer for, first, the new-wave band the Squids, then the rocking Hat Makes the Man, splitting time with world music band Pagan Babies.
Around that time, Orrall says, he received a key piece of advice from Kit Ebersbach, the Squids’ keyboard player and now a noted writer and arranger: “After I gave him a song that we both thought was well constructed, he said, ‘Great, now go and write from actual experience or from a dream state,’ and I’ve always taken that to heart.”
Orrall took the directive to write from innocence or experience to Poi Dog Pondering. The ragtag group embodied an acoustic bohemian folk-rock vibe that Orrall was beginning to formulate.
One of Poi Dog’s first shows was at the academy, where the band began incorporating films and slides into its stage shows — a technique it would become known for.
Orrall looked back on that early show during a sunny afternoon visit to the museum on Sunday.
“The theater had two 16-millimeter film projectors, and Jim Furstenberg, who ran the place then, said we could use them,” Orrall said. “I was into the Velvet Underground at that time, who were famous in the 1960s for their Exploding Plastic Inevitable stage shows that used projected images. So I went over to the main library and borrowed some nature films that would be shown while we’re playing.
“I’m always wanting to play with different toys.”
He makes that statement with a gleam in his eye and smile on his face.
FRANK ORRALL IN CONCERT
Presented by Friends of Film Friday
Where: Doris Duke Theatre, Honolulu Academy of Arts
When: 7:30 p.m. today
Cost: $15; $12 seniors, military and students; $10 academy members
Info: 532-8700 or www.honoluluacademy.org
ORRALL, now 50, has always been an affable guy, and he’s proved extremely adaptable, leaving Hawaii to travel the mainland (where the band became a favorite with the college crowd). He now lives in Chicago, after stopovers in Austin, Texas. “I’ve always tried to develop a vagabond-hobo lifestyle.”
Although Poi Dog’s heyday is long past, the band has become a staple in the Windy City. Every once in a while, Orrall goes on the road with a quartet version of the band — himself, fellow former islander Ted Cho, Susan Voelz and Max Crawford.
He started experimenting 2 1/2 years ago with what he calls his “traveling suitcase show,” the one he’ll present at the museum.
“I’ve been editing a lot of video, where some of it will act as musical accompaniment to what I m playing on stage,” he noted. “I always felt that just doing a solo acoustic show feels a bit claustrophobic, so it’s always been my intention to add different instruments and project images. I feel that’s more interesting for myself and the audience, when something else is going on around me.”
Orrall says he’ll do a lot of Poi Dog Pondering material at his show while occasionally blending in electronic elements from his stage setup and playing instruments other than guitar, such as the guzheng (Chinese zither) and the “super tarana” (an East Indian stringed instrument akin to an autoharp).
He’s even throwing in some poetry and well-chosen covers, like a Smiths song done bossa nova style.
“I admit I’m a total dabbler,” he said. “Ever since I was a kid, I go through stages of total obsession over different activities and art until I feel I’ve gotten what I want out of it, I incorporate it into what I do, and then I move on to something else.”
Besides Poi Dog Pondering, Orrall has found road work with the Washington, D.C., DJ duo the Thievery Corporation. One half of that duo, Robert Garza, was a Poi Dog fan and, through a mutual friend, approached Orrall to ask whether he would join them on tour.
“I’ve played every show with them since 2000,” Orrall said. “They have a big tour group as well, taking 22 people on the road, with 16 of them in the band.”
It was Thievery that got him back into playing acoustic guitar, whether on stage or jamming with others on the tour bus.
POI DOG Pondering remains Orrall’s primary outfit, he said, no matter the size of the band or number of his side projects.
“Over the years I think we’ve done good work, lyrically, orchestrally. The concept of the band’s sound has changed from its original purpose, taking in electronica and then gospel, R&B, but I’m used to the hubbub that criticized those changes,” he said. “I’m always reinventing the sound, but regardless of it, it always draws the line back to Poi Dog Pondering. It’s always been a mutt.”
And now this “mutt” is ready to come home.
“I’m working on moving back out here,” he said. “I miss surfing and the whole island lifestyle. Since I’ll still play with Thievery on tour and go out with Poi Dog two, three times a year, I’d rather be based out here than in Chicago.”
The islands are integral to his character.
“I’ve always carried Hawaii with me wherever I’ve gone,” Orrall said. “It represents a formative period of my creative side that’s always been important to me.”
—Gary Chun / firstname.lastname@example.org