Smashmouth Entertainment artist shows growth, maturity on latest project Acid Reign

DillanPonders works behind the counter of a marijuana dispensary nestled in a block of condos in downtown Toronto. The 25-year old, also a rapper, is nearing the end of his closing shift. He heads into the back room, where he’s playing some new, unreleased music. It’s the sound of a dreary piano loop carried along by a steady barrage of heavy kicks and 808s. “I can’t wait to be off,” he says under his breath. At the same time, a few of his friends pile in, including Brenden Hewko, Ponders’ manager and CEO of Toronto-based entertainment enterprise, Smashmouth Entertainment Inc., which Dillan is signed to.

After the last customer leaves, Dillan locks up and then goes back to counting weed. Soon after, all his friends, except Hewko, leave. Ponders sits down on a white three-seater leather couch and puts his feet up on a black table, his dark combat boots clunking on impact. Hewko sits at a desk tucked into the corner of the room on his laptop, chiming in on occasion. They both simultaneously spark hefty joints, as if choreographed.

Rather than memoirs of sex and hard partying, Acid Reign shows a mature, more vulnerable side of DillanPonders.

These last eight months have been a pivotal turning point for Ponders, who refers to himself as a “psychedelic warlord.” For one, he’s found a job that he can hold down.

“He’s always had jobs, but he f*ckin’ hates them, he never wants to get to them, he’ll get f*cked up the night [before work] and sleep in [and] miss his shift and the next day he gets fired or he quits and he’s like f*ck it,” says Hewko. “But to see him come into an establishment with something that he believes in and even outside of the music, just on a personal level, like holding a job down, bills are paid, like he’s living, he’s not [just] getting by.”

“I’m a big kid, now,” adds Ponders, laughing.

More importantly, he’s worked himself out of a cocaine, MDMA and opiate problem. In terms of drugs, smoking weed, and the occasional dose of magic mushrooms and LSD, is just about all Dillan does these days. Fittingly he’s also shed the shell that was his old music — which focused on substance and hard drug abuse — and replaced it with a new one comprised of forethought and introspection. Ponders’ latest album, Acid Reign, is a stark contrast from his past work. Rather than memoirs of sex and hard partying, Acid Reign shows a mature, more vulnerable side of DillanPonders.

On the album’s “Mandem,” Ponders raps, “Wake up every day like I’m becoming who I want to be / Found the right ting so I ain’t stressin’ about monogamy.” As Ponders explains, he’s slowly becoming the person that he wants to be. Getting close to a goal like that is difficult, he says, but he wakes up every day feeling good about himself.

“There were moments where I just felt like a big piece of sh*t, but I always had faith in myself,” says Ponders.

Even Hewko notes the change. Ponders has been more patient with this album, he says, and has been more than willing to put in any extra time or effort needed to make it something special. From helping finance the project, to waiting an extra month to get the music just right, Hewko says Ponders didn’t settle for anything less than perfection. The proud pair agree that this project is the embodiment of Ponders’ last four years.

“I turned into the guy who got out of that abuse and got his own house and his own studio and got healthy.”

“I went from just being a downtown cat who wanted to talk about whatever he wanted to talk about, to a guy who fell too deep into some drug abuse and some substance abuse, and then I turned into the guy who got out of that abuse and got his own house and his own studio and got healthy, you know,” says Ponders.

“When you’re really high all of the time, having set goals that you want to accomplish is next to impossible because you don’t give a f*ck. You’re just kind of in the moment all the time.”

***

A few days later, on an unusually warm, spring-like night in December, Hewko and friends are setting up for the Acid Reign listening party inside the Drake Underground, an event venue in the basement of Toronto’s iconic Drake Hotel. Mirrors rim the room. Clusters of silver disco balls hang down from the ceiling like Christmas ornaments. A floor-to-ceiling projector with Ponders’ face amid a backdrop of melting colours sits centre-stage. A big, old-timey sign reads “DECEMBER! ACID REIGN! YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!” Hewko lays out stickers of Ponders’ face on each table, then rolls a blunt. Ponders’ longtime friend and DJ, Cream, plays a few songs while waiting for Ponders to arrive.

“Wisdom beyond his years, you know what I mean? And he’s a nice guy, but he just has a tough exterior,” says Cream of Ponders, in between bouts of DJing.

“He’s a breeze to work with. For how young he is, to know everything he knows about the music industry and mastering and mixing and everything like that, you wouldn’t expect that, but he definitely brings a professional side to working. On his own terms, though,” he adds, laughing.

Dillan arrives with his girlfriend around 8 p.m. Wearing black and grey checkered joggers, a denim jacket and red circular sunglasses, he glides over to his friends, hugging them and effortlessly picking each of them up as he greets them. He starts pretending to breakdance and within seconds he’s on the floor spinning around. Everybody laughs and Ponders stands up. He jokes with Cream that he should play the album at a low volume so nobody can hear it, adding, “If you wanna hear it, download it!”

“SeT! My album is done!” says Dillan, to his best-friend and label mate, SeT, while hugging him. The two laugh. They met in Grade 11 and connected through athletics and art, but SeT says they really clicked while working together painting houses in Forest Hill, an affluent Toronto neighbourhood.

“Dillan is one of the nicest people in the world, you know what I mean?” he says.

Over the course of the night, Ponders floats from friend to friend, mingling. He occasionally dips to a nearby alleyway to drink vodka and smoke joints with friends. Ponders is drunk, albeit not as drunk as he used to get a couple of years back when he would perform “sh*tfaced” while “slurring his words.” Things are different. Now, he takes his time, doesn’t get too drunk and rehearses.

“You’re in charge of every f*cking decision in your life. It just depends on what choices you make. It’s really that simple,” says Ponders.

“You’re in charge of every f*cking decision in your life. It just depends on what choices you make.”

He looks down at a red and white bracelet on his wrist that reads “this is my time.”

“I wear this bracelet all of the time to remind myself that this is my time. Always,” he says. “What time is it? Mine.”

Ponders is starting 2017 strong. His album is out; he’s already speaking of releasing new music and he’s got a growing team of fans and collaborators behind him. But as he confidently plunders full speed ahead into the coming year, Ponders remains unsure of what his future holds.

“It’s hard to say. Where will I be in my mind? Super-duper happy. Musically? So much can happen in three days, who the f*ck knows what’ll happen in five years. Let’s do this interview again when I’m 30 and let’s see wha-pop.”

Photos © Anthony Ameyaw + Urbanology Magazine