Music Editor Emma Gardner sat down with The Romantidote, alter-ego of Ponte Pilas frontman Calum Bolland, to discuss songwriting, the Berlin music scene, and Robert Burns.
For Ponte Pilas fans, or those new to your music, if you had to sum up your new project in three words, what would they be?
Sad, boy, clown. I’m trying to lean into the sad boy thing, always with a little bit of a wink to the audience.
Where did the idea come from? How has it come about?
When I moved to Berlin six and a half years ago, that was to start my band Ponte Pilas, and I had been writing with them for a long time. I also had strange songs that I was writing that didn’t necessarily fit in with that vibe, but they still had some merit. Ponte Pilas is quite a typical indie rock band, it’s a genre I’ve always loved. But I think I needed some sort of yin to that yang to balance it out. The Romantidote emerged to explore that other thing, the more sad, sensitive side. On the other hand, I think there are far too many sad boys with guitars singing about their feelings in the world. I wanted to add a comedy element and comedic tone to lots of the songs. I do some stand up during the sets with some interactive parts. It explores a completely different side of myself and my writing.
What is the song you’ve written for this that you’re most proud of?
It is called ‘Talk and Talk’. It was written about a break up, about six years ago. You can spend a lot of time agonising over songs to make them perfect, but this one came spontaneously, the emotion was already crystallised within me then the song just came out when I put pen to paper. I think that is one that has resonated with audiences over the years. It was a real pleasure to record it and see how it came out. The new one has had a great reception, people are saying really kind things. Those two are the ones that spring to mind straight away.
What is your songwriting process? Where do you get your inspiration from?
My process has changed over the years. I used to record voice notes of half written melodies then would have a terrible time trying to decipher them later on. Nowadays I have a cassette recorder that I do most of my demos on with a much more focused approach. I really try to treat the songs like logic puzzles. It starts with a phrase that pops into my head, it can be triggered by a break up or a family tragedy. The more comedic ones come from something that I find annoying. Or something like Morrissey, where I’m just devastated that one of my heroes has completely lost the plot entirely. The best songs for me are the ones with a little bit of both – something amusing but also talking about something serious. I wrote one recently called ‘Fail Better’ which is basically about my frustration with the musical process, a bit of a rant about Spotify. It’s quite a heartfelt message about learning from failures. Playing that for people was really nice. The best way for me to find out if a song is any good is getting up and performing it in front of an audience. When it’s just in my head, I think it’s a hit, then I have taken stuff to my band before and they think there’s nothing there. It’s humbling, but a good lesson to know when to go back to the drawing board. It’s a good process to share music with people. I used to spend too long with things in my head, but I know try to share stuff a lot more, especially with musician friends.
What are your current plans? Is this something you see long term?
I don’t have a concrete goal for it. I released some music back in 2019/20, but I was really struggling so took a break from it. To get back to it after such a long pause was great. I had a lot of anxiety of how that was going to be, especially after the pandemic. The music is quite niche so I don’t think it has mass mainstream appeal. If you can find people who resonate with it, then that’ something that really interests me. I think I could put three records out this year at a push. I’m also working on writing a TV show that would be soundtracked by my music.
How have you found the reception in Berlin? Do you think the project would be well received in the UK, for example?
I would love to play in Scotland. When I go back home I only go for a short time so I’ve never managed to build a gig around it. For a long time, in Berlin, I felt like the crowd didn’t really buy into the mix of comedy and tragedy that I was singing about. There was always one Brit at the back who thought it was great. There’s always been a native voice that’s helped me through the more difficult gigs. The crowds are much more responsive and international now, but I would be curious to see how it would go in the UK. The nuances of my lyrics are much better understood by native speakers. There is a realist Scottish root to the lyrics that would resonate with people back home.
Do you have any particular British influences?
Funny you should ask, I’m wearing an Avalanche Records t-shirt right now. I worked there in Edinburgh for years. Shout out to Kevin Buckle if he’s reading this! That was my education in terms of music. I liked bog-standard student stuff and came out with a niche knowledge of Edinburgh folk music. Names like Withered Hand, Emma Pollock from the Delgados. These were writers who I felt so inspired by, we had shared experiences. Most of them treat it with a wry, comedic viewpoint. I think indie folk can sometimes lean towards the very serious so it was good to lean towards the more cynical takes.
Is there more of a focus on music, or has poetry played a part?
It took me years to wrap my head around poetry. I just didn’t understand it and dismissed it. I’ve been involved in the Berlin spoken word poetry scene, it is very queer friendly, diverse, there are lots of different voices. Sometimes the singer-songwriter scene can be very heterosexual, cis-male dominated. Seeing poetry live has educated me in the arts. I had nothing to relate to when I studied poetry at school, it scarred me. I do love Robert Burns though, Bob Dylan is a big fan of him and it was great to see an artist I love speak about him.
What is your most influential and favourite album?
Good question! This is my break up album. I always go back to it when I have a break up. I don’t know what that says about my biography! It would probably have to be The Midnight Organ Fight by Frightened Rabbit. I highly recommend it. It’s a beautiful piece of work.
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