A couple of years ago, Pollen Rx’s own Ben Hirsch and Maud Morgan were staring down what was a small dilemma. The couple’s short term residency in Toronto was soon reaching its expiration date and they needed to choose where they would be living next. While talking over the phone, Hirsch stated that neither wanted to move to respective hometowns; he grew up in suburbs of Boston, while Morgan grew up at the Mission District in San Francisco. With essentially both coasts being marked off their list, Austin emerged as the city to be chosen. “When we moved here, we signed a six month lease,” Hirsch says during our conversation. “Now…this is where we’re from.”
The couple had played in a folky, acoustic act titled Good Clean Feeling while residing in Toronto. Primarily due to a lack of focus, unsure how they wanted the product to sound, and not having the ability to settle a lineup, the project was quickly disbanded. For the short period of time that Hirsch and Morgan have been calling Austin home, the duo has seen just how advanced the music scene is, compared to other cities. With a fresh perspective in front of them, Hirsch and Morgan started to play around with arrangements, ranging in distortion and riffs that were more on the pop side. “We definitely draw on different scenes here (Austin) for inspiration,” Hirsch says.
Along with Maggie Exner, another factor that helped fueled Pollen Rx was the addition of guitarist Caroline Sallee. Known primarily for her role in Caroline Says, Sallee joining the band shortly after SXSW in 2016 was a blessing. “(Caroline) is pretty awesome with adding dynamics to the song: making the loud parts really loud and the beautiful parts extra shiny,” says Hirsch. Pollen Rx had a handful of other musicians come out, jam a little bit and play keys during shows. Nothing seemed to be the fit with the band; Sallee come forward to offer up her skills after speaking with Hirsch. “Adding another guitar allowed us to slow things down a little bit,” Hirsch mentions.
Throughout Sunbelt Emptiness (released in late January), Pollen Rx reflect on the landscape of adulthood: difficulties of the American way of consumerism, trials/tribulations, and living within a city that’s rapidly growing. The opening track “Billboard Promises” according to Hirsch was inspired by a billboard sign he saw advertising persuading participants to go get liposuction within town. The lyrics to “Sand In the Well” blasts through big corporations like Nestle and farmers. As water was continued to be either bottled or mixed with pesticides and sprayed onto produce fields, the devastating toll of the California drought seen by the band during a tour raged on. Some tracks, including “AR AK”, tackle to a lesser degree today’s political climate and media coverage surrounding it. The recent string of protests and marches in Washington, D.C. brought back memories of their participation in the Occupy movement in Toronto. “How much press did those fifty anarchists get compared to the five million nationwide that marched?” Hirsch says. “If you look at the administration did the first few weeks-its way violent and crazy. How come taking away healthcare from twenty million people isn’t considered violent, but throwing a rock through a bank window is? That doesn’t make sense to me.”
In the course of writing Sunbelt Emptiness, Pollen Rx remained steadfast on creating an album that would be fun to dance to and balance out Hirsch’s pop-tinged sensibilities along with Morgan’s darker delivery. “You are trying to write music that is fun to listen; you don’t want make this really preachy thing,” Hirsch says. “I don’t want to be Bob Dylan. I much rather be Talking Heads.” The band alone understood that there was a fine line between standing up for something and potentially going too far with the message being sent. “One of the things (Maud) and I talk about a lot is how direct are we supposed to be,” Hirsch says. “Say you say your message a little bit more softly and that means twice as many people listen to it. Or maybe you rather have twice as many people listen to a soft message and half as many people listen to a hard message-that constant balance. I hope the album is more descriptive than preachy.”
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