Sunday, January 01, 2006

POD

Don’t get me wrong -— he’s still heavy -— but Sonny Sandoval coaches his daughter’s baseball team. There he stands at third base, an imposing man with shocks of corded hair, waving runners home or to stay as the case may be (but more often, he says, he’s keeping the seven-year-olds focused on the game and not the flowers). Occasionally a girl will recognize him and ask, “Aren’t you POD?”

“Well,” he responds, “I’m in POD.”

Forget that POD stands for Payable On Death. That just confuses the image, not to mention the little baseball girl. What’s important here is that the hip-hop hard-rocker mixes so seamlessly with the suburban caste. What matters is that despite his own hard-rock past, Sonny has developed a disposition that suits both a bunch of kids yukking it up with America’s pastime, and a day in the sun with a bunch of records and a big, big microphone. It’s testament to his humility that he keeps his family and his fans at the forefront of his interviews. He loves the people; no wonder the people love him.

And the people love POD a lot. But with seven million (and counting) records sold, major soundtrack slots, rabid Warrior fans, and a Google listing above the iPod (even when you simply search “pod,” sans punctuation), Sonny has still to consider himself a rock star. Along with being able to support his family, however, he appreciates the bonuses that come with his success—you know, the free vacations spent at palatial mansions and that kind of thing. “It’s hard to be in the business of rock stars and not be considered a rock star,” he tells me. “It’s like if you sell a ton of houses you’re going to be thought of as a realtor. Don’t get me wrong, I love free stuff—“ and here he’s off and musing about how nice it is to get comped— “If people want to give me free rims for my wife’s truck, shoot, I’ll take ‘em . . . but the celebrity mentality, that’s not me.”

Which is evident from how fondly he remembers the band’s early years, when POD was young and just starting to see a response in clubs around San Diego. He misses the times when they could play in small rooms with passionate fans. They would change a place, he says. “You see the people that raise their hands and you remember them from the old days.” The way he describes POD’s launch sounds so uplifting that it makes perfect sense for him to want to play those small venues again. He says in turn that he’d like to organize some free shows as sort of a fan appreciation thing.

But that would be a massive undertaking, considering just how many POD Warriors that are out there. That’s exciting for Sonny, too. Now that they are playing arena shows all over the world, he’s excited that POD’s message can go so far. “I want to get into that more intimate setting like it used to be, but we’ve got into the arenas and we’re worldwide now. So why not let people come out and worship with us?” Now with tens of thousands of attendees, they can change the bigger places with their voice of hope. And that’s important.

When he was asked how POD is different today than they were a decade ago, Sonny remembers that when they were starting out they wanted people to know that they were a band that believed in Jesus. Today, he says, they know that. Now, with everyone watching, they have to live it. And their testimony is spreading; when he was interviewed by MTV recently he mentioned something about his family. The reporter laughed and said, “Oh that’s right—you’re the married rocker.” He tells me that story and then says, “You know, I don’t want people to remember me because I played rock music, but because I love God with all of my heart, mind, soul and strength.” His conversation overflowed with scripture references like that one. He related every new song he mentioned to how it aligns itself with his faith, and that’s a radically different message than the one being delivered by Korn or Limp Bizkit or any of their other mates in the genre.

POD’s message is important to them, but it’s also important to the fans who hear it. On their web site they have posted a letter from a girl who was contemplating suicide when she first heard their music. You can find Kytti’s letter linked under the heading, “What we’re about,” where the band affirms, “Understand that this is why POD exists. This is what the Warrior family is all about. Love one another . . . it’s a wasteland out there.” Kytti writes:

I don’t know if Sonny will ever see this or if anyone even bothers to read these things, but if you do, please tell Sonny that he saved a life. I was about to slash my wrist, but felt that I had to go on the net one last time. I clicked on POD’s [sic] and read it over and over for almost an hour. Then I put the blade away and got help. I would not be here today if it weren’t for POD.

Presumably, all the ways that message honors POD eclipses the pressure they’re facing as they work on their new record. The lyrics they’re writing cover the same subject matter, though. Sonny describes the set as “songs of struggle, songs for a better tomorrow, songs of hope—the POD formula.” It’s a formula that works, as fans like Kytti can testify. “One song,” Sonny says, “we stepped out of bounds a bit; it’s a song about suicide. Tomorrow’s too soon to quit.” He’s shaken up by the thought, reflecting that “even in a home that loves God and follows him, people are thinking about that.” His notion that POD’s music can actually help people is another way Sonny has distanced himself from the rock star mentality.

Although the new record has been described as heavier, not all of it is death and despair. Even the song about suicide, called “New Wave,” was born of anthemic riffing. “We were like, that sounds kinda new wave. It ended up being about suicide, though, so it’s kind of ironic.” (If it makes the final cut, however, don’t go looking for a Clash tribute. Sonny says that after adding more tracks, the song has taken on a new feel.) They’re working on another tune called “Teachers,” which he is excited to perform. “I want to write songs that are fun to play live. We can do new stuff [musically], but I’m always like ‘let’s do what we do’. What I know best is the hip hop stuff, the reggae stuff.”

POD has been working on the album for several months now. They started writing songs last year, spent the first part of this year recording rhythm tracks and have recently started doing rough vocal work. At this point, they expect a late fall release. Sonny emphasizes how patiently the band is working. “We’ve been taking our time, taking a step back to see if the songs are coming out the way they are meant to be.” He focuses a lot on making sure they’re in the right place emotionally and spiritually as they record. “Now it’s like we want to make sure everything is right in our hearts. We surround ourselves with good company. We work with the record label, but what’s really important is that we have to put our trust in God.”

Indeed they do. POD stands at a make-or-break point in their career. They’re investing big money on this record, hoping it will be a breakthrough achievement. Although with multi-platinum status they aren’t sweating the small stuff, it’s clear that they’re expected to go farther with their latest effort—anything less than really, really massive will be a devastating step backward. To ensure top-notch results, they’ve enlisted the help of Glenn Ballard, producer extraordinaire. The Grammy award winner has worked with a long list of hot shots: Alanis Morisette, No Doubt, Aerosmith. Amy Grant. Perhaps that list hints at what POD’s manager meant when he said, “No one else in HM will have worked with Glenn Ballard,” although what he probably meant was simply “the guy is big.”

Sonny is excited to have the opportunity to work with Ballard. “It’s a complete honor, a total honor for us,” he said. When POD started serious work on the new record, they realized they were just duplicating the demos they had already done, Sonny says. They needed an outsider to come in and give the criticism of an objective ear. “We played him four songs and he was like, ‘Before we go any further I want to say that I want to do this’.” The band was thrilled. Ballard has worked with the old school rockers, notes Sonny, and now he has the opportunity to do harder stuff. Of course, given Ballard’s repertory, Sonny was a little hesitant to play him all of POD’s music: “I was just going to play some soft stuff and [Ballard] said, ‘Naw, man, I want to hear it all’.”

He heard it, and he liked it.

Aside from the magnitude of working with an industry powerhouse like Glenn Ballard, there is another relevant detail to consider with the new record; with this release, POD has been playing with guitarist Jason Truby for a much more considerable amount of time. When they recorded Payable On Death, Truby had just joined the band. Now they’ve toured together and, as Sonny put it, “He’s gotten the crash course.” As they’ve been working, Truby has already expanded the sound further, using a seven-string guitar for the first time in POD history. Of course, true gearheadz will be able to appreciate the depth of that instrument.

For industry people, one of the most interesting details of the POD story was when their records were refused by Christian bookstores. Savvy Christian rock fans are used to such offenses and are able to recognize the inanity inherent in the occasion. It’s backward thinking to disown a band of Christians once they achieve border-crossing success. It’s a speed bump on the road to credibility, but what’s more, it ignores the most fundamental thing about the band. POD is acclaimed for being honest and positive, for being inspirational and motivational. You know, salt and light.

The backstory is indicative of that point. I asked Sonny whether or not they planned to release their new record in Christian bookstores; “It’s whether they want us or not,” he said. It’s never, ever, ever been an issue for us. When we did Fundamentals, Atlantic didn’t have any distribution with Christian outlets, but we felt strongly that our records should be there.” So out of good faith in the band, Atlantic records started a department to handle that. “People were given jobs” to open up that distribution channel, Sonny notes, but then the Christian bookstores rejected them.

And so wherever the record comes out in the late fall, you can expect a heavier effort from the band. You can listen for their chugging anthems and catchy reggae. Sonny will rock the hip hop, certainly. But it seems the reason POD will always be loved is for how well they love everyone else. It’s telling that during an excruciatingly busy time as they continue work on their most important and ambitious album ever, and when they are doing very few interviews (and those only for the big time outlets like MTV), Sonny doubled the time we had allotted for an HM chat. And he stayed on his silver V-Tech phone with me because he wanted to, because he appreciates HM and Doug Van Pelt and the readers. HM subscribers were some of the first POD fans—the first ones with the T-shirts—and like Sonny has said, he wants to give back. He knows it’s a compliment to be on the cover of the 20th anniversary edition of the magazine. His wish for the occasion is that HM will be the next Rolling Stone. Then he sort of suggested that it was already better.

No comments:

The blog of Adam Robinson and Publishing Genius Press