Interview with vocalist/guitarist Susie Richardson Ulrey | By Timothy Anderl
On Sept. 7, New Granada Records released Secret Club, Tampa, Florida, band Pohgoh’s first album in 21 years.
With a legacy reaching back to the ‘90s indie emo scene, Pohgoh were one of the era’s frontrunners and one of only a handful of bands featuring a female vocalist. After building a catalog that included several singles; a split 7” with Braid; the closing track on Deep Elm Records’ first The Emo Diaries compilation, Chapter One: What’s Mine Is Yours; and a 1997 LP, In Memory of Bab, they called it quits, only reuniting for the occasional one-off show over the years. The last of those reunions reignited the band’s desire to write and perform together again.
Recorded at The Magpie Cage Recording Studio in Baltimore with the legendary J. Robbins of Jawbox and Burning Airlines, Secret Club consists of 11 tracks detailing Pohgoh’s life as a unit after being apart for two decades, as well as vocalist and guitarist Susie Richardson Ulrey’s nearly 16-year battle with multiple sclerosis.
Below, Richardson Ulrey discusses her battles and her recent wins, which include a fall tour that culminated in a performance at FEST 17 in Gainesville and the creation of one of the year’s best LPs.
Twenty-one years is a long time between albums. There must’ve been some other bands you were performing with during that time?
A year after we broke up, we formed a band called The Maccabees, not to be confused with the U.K. band that came a few years after us. It was basically Pohgoh with a different bassist. We did a couple EPs and one tour.
After that, [guitarist] Matt [Slate] formed his own band, King Of Spain, and released a couple albums. [Drummer] Keith [Ulrey] played for a decade in Tampa band Zillionaire, and for the last 11 years or so, I have been singing and playing guitar [and] keys in a band called Rec Center with Keith and [bassist] Brian [Roberts]. We released an album and EP a few years ago and started working on a new album last year. It’s become more dormant as a result of Pohgoh picking up some speed as of late. It’s a total departure from Pohgoh and really fun to be a part of.
So, long story short, we’ve never really stopped writing, performing, and recording—just at a different pace.
There were also Pohgoh reunions, right?
Yes. For almost 25 years, we’ve hosted an annual Xmas Night show in Tampa. It’s become a fun tradition, as well as the anniversary of the very first New Granada Records release, Pohgoh’s self-titled 7”. In 2005, 2009, and 2014, to celebrate different anniversaries, milestones, etc., the band played either with myself or Kobi [Finley]—the original vocalist—or, in the case of the 2014 show, we played a set with all five of us, which was a blast. It was this 2014 reunion that sparked our getting back together.
I know firsthand how the musical landscape has changed in the last 21 years. I remember writing letters to bands to order their records. Do you miss those days, or does technology afford you an unprecedented ability to connect that is worth the constant noise and distraction of the information superhighway?
I’m definitely nostalgic for those days. I felt like we had these glimpses into local scenes that were thriving. The network we were lucky enough to be a part of, however brief we were, was solid and genuine. Maybe, since we had to dig deeper and be tenacious to find connections, it was more satisfying? Social media is a double-edged sword: an amazing networking platform for DIY bands but also a space completely oversaturated with music. The biggest upside, to us, has been the opportunity to connect with fans in South America, Europe, Asia. We had no idea that our releases had traveled so far. It was a really cool discovery!
Which of the bands and artists who you had a kinship with all those years ago have you stayed in contact with?
We’ve stayed in touch with Bob [Nanna] and Todd [Bell] from Braid [and] Hey Mercedes over the years, Jason Hamacher from Frodus, James Menefee from Fun Size and River City High. It’s been a while, but we also used to talk to Davey von Bohlen [of The Promise Ring]; he and I were pen pals back in the day, and he played acoustic for us a while back in town. Through Facebook, we’ve connected or reconnected with William [Kuehn], Kaia [Fischer], and Cait [De Marrais] from Rainer Maria, Chris [Simpson] from Mineral, and Tracy [Wilson] from Dahlia Seed [and] Positive No.
Is indie rock less of a boys’ club in 2018 versus the environment Jessica Hopper rightfully took issue with all those years ago?
When I first started playing in bands as a teenager, there was definitely an unspoken expectation for women to not only prove themselves as musicians but to also be “the cool girl”—down to laugh at a good fart joke but pretty enough to write a song about. I played that role for a very long time, and in retrospect, I know I kept quiet when I should have spoken up for myself. I felt like a novelty and still believe I am to a certain extent. Making it less of a boys’ club is not up to those who have been excluded. We’re still out here writing and creating despite the lack of platforms or support. It’s not enough for men to acknowledge that past behaviors are reprehensible; there has to be a shift in thinking and behavior: speak up for the women around you and call out the men who perpetuate old ideas. Be an ally.
When did you first realize that you wanted to write another album, and how did that come together?
We realized after our show in December 2014 that we were having too much fun to stop. Matt brought a roughed-out song to practice one night and started playing it. We wrote and arranged it in two hours. The same cues, the same quirks, the same nods of agreement. I took a crappy recording home and wrote lyrics and a melody to it, and just like that, we were at it again. It felt right.
Did you record with J. Robbins previously, or was this a bucket-list item for Pohgoh?
No, and yes! In May of 2017, I suggested to the band that we go to Baltimore to make the record. At first, it seemed like a long shot, and yet, the more we talked about it, the more it took shape as a possibility. Within weeks, we recorded demos, started settling on travel dates, and talked to J. We had seven days blocked [out] in August: one to drive up, five to record, and one to drive home. We worked up until the last minute on Friday night and tracked everything that week. Barring any other outcomes, the experience alone was a dream come true. We’ve never been able to immerse ourselves in making music like that. I’m so, so pleased with this record.
Was it always the intent to release Secret Club on New Granada?
No. We lost distribution several years ago—and a lot of money as a result—and that significantly slowed our active releases. We shopped the record and got tons of great feedback! It was worth the amount of time and effort we put in to it, no doubt. We also realize that we don’t have full-time ambitions, and this allows us to keep things small. Keith scored national distro for just the Secret Club release, and we are partnering with two amazing labels to corelease the record—Barely Regal in the U.K. and Waterslide in Japan—to help us get the record out into the world. It worked out really beautifully.
You’ve been battling M.S. for the last 15 years, and the content of “Business Mode” is a reflection of that on a lot of levels. I imagine it is a terrifying experience. Is it even reasonable to ask about the impact this has had on your life?
Wow, where do I even start? It is terrifying, pride-swallowing, unpredictable, heartbreaking. I could say it changed everything, except that’s not fair to me. I am constantly forced to reroute how I navigate life with M.S. in a way that still allows me to be happy. Whatever ideas I had about how my life would be as an able-bodied woman are gone. I don’t remember how I used to move. I’ve settled in with this low hum of the threat of inevitable disease progression. I think that there has been some grace in all of the ugliness. I’m still trying to figure out what that means to me, and I’m predicting it will continue to morph over the years.
There is a lot of collateral damage with a disease like this, and the one it hurts the most is the one person I love more than anyone in the world. That’s what “Business Mode” is about. Sometimes, there are situations where Keith can’t get to me in time. I’ve had some bad falls over the years. I’ve torn the meniscus in both my knees, broken a rib, sprained ankles and wrists—that’s just a start. He has taken on the role of caregiver over the years, and he’s had a front row seat to every single minute of it. It’s a level of intimacy that you hope you never have to share with anyone. We face it together, it sucks, it happens again—that’s the cycle. We are weathered but stronger than ever.
Despite the heavy nature of the content, Secret Club isn’t really a somber-sounding record. What is “Bunch” about?
Matt came to practice with the song, and when I took it home to write melody and lyrics, I already knew it needed to be something relentlessly positive, because it was so fun and felt so good to play. Jon Bunch had recently passed away, and I’d been listening to a lot Sense Field. [Their 1996 album] Building always gets me pumped—so posi, it’s contagious! The song is about a conscious decision to be happy regardless of the noise around me. It’s pretty much faux-tivation for a good mood. It usually works. I named it for Jon. I never got to meet him, but his voice was so pure.
Venue accessibility is likely an issue that you’ve had to become intimately aware of. It’s heartbreaking that someone might not have access to the life-changing and healing powers of music—or really, any number of other things, including access to adoption, dining, art, etc.—because of accessibility. Now, as a performer, you perhaps have to carefully choose the venues where you can play, and I imagine there is also a looming question as to whether the progress of your M.S. will make performing impossible someday. Is there an urgency to doing this now that is instigated by that fear?
No. If anything, we’re taking advantage of any and all momentum we have because we’re pumped about the record and, quite frankly, we’re not as spry as we used to be. In the back of my mind, there is always a nagging fear that a new symptom or a worsening symptom will pop up. Someday. Maybe? Maybe not. I’ve also learned that it is a waste of my energy to worry about things that A, may never happen, and B, I have no control over. I’m doing the best I can with what I have to work with right now, and if that changes someday, I’ll deal with it when it happens.
There was also a reissue of In Memory of Bab, correct?
Yes. We realized that 2017 was going to be the 20th anniversary of our first and only album, …Bab. It originally only came out on CD on Orlando, Florida, imprint Outback Records, so we thought it would be fun to reissue a 20th anniversary edition on vinyl.
The reissue came out in December of 2017 and includes the song “Friend X,” [which was originally intended for Bab, but it was excluded due to its inclusion on The Emo Diaries: Volume One], and the download code includes five live songs we dug up on cassette via our summer 1996 tour. We were pleasantly surprised to have blown through a limited first pressing within a few months of its release. We are now on the second pressing.
Is there anything that you are most proud of about your work with Pohgoh?
This band is my heart. It brought me my husband. It introduced me to a community that is as passionate about music as I am and has given me the most enduring friendships with openhearted, fiercely loyal, and talented people. It’s allowed Keith and I to mentor young bands and build our own version of a family. I’m a lucky woman.