After 21 years and a life-altering illness, Tampa band Pohgoh returns

Posted September 15, 2018 12:06 p.m. EDT

Susie Ulrey squints and points across her stable of switchel and chips.

"You know like when a flash shines in your eye, and you have that little floater?" she says. "I have this little floater in my right eye. Like, I can see it. When I'm looking at you, I see it."

This was one of the first symptoms, back before the official diagnosis in 2001. She also had double vision. Balance problems. Pockets of numbness that kept her from playing her guitar. She'd strum a chord, and the pick would fall right out of her hands.

"Some symptoms come back," she says. "Some never really go away."

In a way, the same is true of Ulrey's Tampa indie band, Pohgoh. This month Pohgoh released Secret Club, their first album in 21 years; they'll celebrate it Today with a hometown record release show, followed by an East Coast tour.

Secret Club is Pohgoh's first album since Ulrey, 41, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, leaving her unable to walk and, for years, play guitar. The impact, to say the least, was profound. Whereas 1997's In Memory of Bab was all about "teenage love and being so stressed out," Secret Club is largely about Ulrey's battle with M.S., from medication that feels like "poison in my veins" to the shame of falling and frightening her loved ones.

Secret Club also -- emphatically and on its own terms -- rocks. Produced by Jawbox singer J. Robbins, it doesn't wallow in sorrow or meandering atmospherics, like some other emo albums. It's upbeat, loud and full of big, direct melodies.

"We wanted it to sound fat and crisp," she says. "We wanted a big record. And that's what we got."

There was no guarantee Pohgoh would play again. The band started in 1994 with a different lineup around guitarist Matt Slate. Ulrey's future husband, Keith Ulrey -- a longtime scene curator who now runs Microgroove and the New Granada label and promo house -- joined on drums. When their first vocalist left a couple of years in, they recruited a teenage Susie Richardson to write and sing.

They were popular, and almost signed a record deal before splitting in early 1998. Susie and Keith started dating a year later, and married the year after that. Then came Susie's diagnosis. Gone, like that, was her ability to play the guitar.

"I had a coup in my body about 2001, and it has been a dictator in my body for the past 17 years," she says.

She started another band, Rec Center, in which she sang and played piano. When Pohgoh reunited for one-off shows in 2006 and 2009, a friend played her parts. It wasn't until a more permanent reformation in 2014 that she picked up the guitar again. She had to relearn how to play sitting down, and practiced every day to reinforce her muscle memory so she could feel "back in my element."

"That's probably the happiest I've ever been," she says of Pohgoh's first go-around. "I'm not going to go all The Secret/Oprah/posi bulls---; I don't think you can make anything happen. Obviously, I'm not going to walk again. Let's face facts, I have spinal cord atrophy. And that's fine. But I set my sights on something, and I'm persistent to the point where it's annoying, and I wanted to go for it and I did it."

Ulrey's condition is, understandably, a major factor in Pohgoh's existence. Not all clubs are fully accessible -- there are times when Keith has to carry her on stage -- but she takes the opportunity to educate them on how they can do better. The prospect of playing 10 straight nights on this tour is daunting. She plans to sleep a lot.

And then there are the themes of Secret Club. Rarely do rock bands make albums about their singer's struggles with a debilitating disease (although, as Ulrey puts it, "What else would I write about?"). It's a viewpoint not often seen in pop culture.

But it was Ulrey's design to make Secret Club open to interpretation by the listener. Take the closing track Easterburg. On the surface, it sounds like a lament for all those years lost between Pohgoh albums: "Ten years of my life treading water / a decade's worth of time out from under me / who will help me figure out what I'm supposed to do?"

Turns out it's not about M.S. at all. It's about Ulrey's day job working for a recruitment firm, and the existential crisis that hits anyone in their 30s when they realize they've spent the last decade working in one place.

"That's the thing: I have M.S., but I also fight with my husband, and I hate my job, and I get into arguments with my family," she says. "When you break it down to its core, these songs are about struggles, the grief and uncertainty and fear that I felt. And everybody goes through that to varying degrees, for different reasons. That doesn't make it less relevant for the person who's going through what they're going through. So when I'm vocalizing my struggles, I hope that someone can say, 'Wow, she knows what I feel like.'"

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.