&&& Onward: An Interview with Evan Stephens Hall of Pinegrove

Back in March, I had the chance to chat with Evan Stephens Hall of Pinegrove, the Montclair, New Jersey-based sometimes-sextet that’s slept (in the gradual, quiet success sense) its way to the top of NPR’s “Top 100 Songs of 2016” and to the attention of fans that span alt country, indie rock, folk “emo” (with a hard quote-unquote), Millennial-tested online magazines and the music pub juggernauts still fit to print.

Just getting back from a second European run (they’ve since notched a third), the band was about to do a short tour of the East Coast, which had totally and quickly sold out the Tri-State Area, tickets high on resell sites. For long, satellite radio couldn’t get enough of their superb second studio album, Cardinal (at that point a year old on Run For Cover), the single “Old Friends” in constant rotation.

Today working on a new album documented by a new video series called Command + S directed by Kenna Hynes, the band, with roots in the DIY scene (Evan Stephens Hall and Zack Levine started playing music together when they were seven years old), has one foot in the indelible, irresistible hold of voices past and the other moving with the milieu and leading into it.

Earnest songwriting and lush, situational sounds (the quality and variety of live in-studio exclusives and concert versions of songs have become something to note) make for repeat listening, introspection and nostalgic connection, and an outward culture of inclusivity and statement of positon (see Esquire’s “Don’t Call Me the Girl in the Band”) is at once aspirational and kinetic. A for-the-people, for-the-fans sensibility communicates through the release of the entire Pinegrove catalogue for a ‘pay what you want’ rate, proceeds going to the Southern Poverty Law Center with little fanfare, carrying into warmer, more human prospects.

Good friends let you see into the future. Honest and sincere, Pinegrove, like good friends, are mirrors and role models for the kind of culture many of us want to be a part of.

Where have I reached you today?

Ah, where am I. I’m at home in Montclair, NJ.

Where do the other band members call home nowadays?

Well, I mean we’re all pretty nomadic, we, uh (laughs)…Pinegrove ‘Proper’ is taking a break right now, but the three of us that aren’t home, they’re in a band called Half Waif and they just went down to South by Southwest and are traveling around beyond that, as well. So, there are some members that are even still going. But yeah, for a long while, basically since last March, we were on tour more or less the whole time.

So it’s funny that you start with that question cuz it’s sort of a contentious one. Where home is. What home means. That sort of thing.

That’s why I started with it! And I’d like to get back to that…But how was touring EU and the UK? And what unit, exactly, toured on that run?

So that was everybody but Nandi, um, because Nandi is the leader of Half Waif and they just came out with a new thing called form/a, and she was home playing some shows and promoting that. So she stayed behind, but that would be Zack Levine on drums, Adan Carlo on bass guitar, Sam Skinner on guitar, Josh Marre on slide guitar and guitar and singin’, and myself. So it’s a five-piece, the last time around.

And it was great! Yeah! We had an awesome time. It was shorter than the last time we were other by about half, so this was three weeks. And it was cool to return to some places and see some new places. I loved Brussels, for example, and we’d never been to Cambridge before, and that was a really cool town….I dunno, it was some of the same and some new experiences. And by the way, I think it’s great to revisit places, too. You start to recognize certain street corners, or whatever.

And there was only one venue that we played at that was the same: the Brudenell in Leeds. Brudenell Social Club, and that’s, to our ears, one of the best-sounding venues we’d ever played. So a true pleasure to return.

It’s a rather big place, so this might be a bigger question, but what’s one thing that they have there that we don’t have here that you think is cool? And I guess the inverse of that question is what one thing that we have that they don’t? They being Europe.

There are plenty of subtle differences and some more major ones. I think…Well, okay, so in mainland Europe a lot of the gas stations require a fee to go to the bathroom. It’s like 75 cents, or 50 cents, depending. But, like, all the bathrooms are really clean and functional, so that’s social distribution in direct action and (laughs) I was like kind of happy with that small thing. And at first I was like, “What the heck? Why do I have to pay 50 cents to pee?” But functionally, it sort of makes sense. Cuz of course there are maintenance fees and I bet that the people who are in charge of custodial care are paid better. So that’s one difference.

I recently spoke to a band that just released their new album on vinyl, CD, digital and, wait for it, cassette! What do you think of that?

Well, we have all our materials on those formats, too. I like cassette a lot, especially when we were re-duplicating stuff ourselves, I would dump cassettes and burn CDs. I think it’s great to have something cheap at the merch table. It’s a toy, basically, or a sculpture for a lot of people that represents the music more than it actually plays it (even though, of course, the music is on there). But I like cassette as a format because it forces the listener, from sheer inconvenience, to listen to the whole thing, because it’s really such a pain to skip around. So it emphasizes the album format, which I appreciate.

But, it’s also, you know, like, firmly outmoded. But I think they sound really good, too. Drums sound really good on cassette, they tend to. And the music that I listen to and that a lot of my friends listen to in the DIY community sound a little better on cassette, too, because it emphasizes the kind of crunchy harmonics. So, I’m in favor.

But my one reservation is that it’s just another plastic thing in this world. So I’m not to keen on introducing more plastic. But as a format I think it’s pretty cool. I have a lot of cassettes myself.

You and the members of Pinegrove (as well as myself) grew up in an age of torrent-sites and scouring the internet for MP3s. What do you think about the idea that for other, perhaps slightly older artists, the music industry has changed to alter the way artists sell their music, and the way consumers interact with it?

Well, of course it’s a double-edged sword. There’s wider access for musicians and listeners to interact. It’s facilitated a wider sharing of ideas, which I am in favor of, at the expense of (I use that word advisably) remuneration for the music itself. But it kind of incidentally promotes something I’m on board with, which is the freer sharing of ideas. This is all (at least in my experience, for me as a writer) these are all things that exist in the world, these melodies and rhythms, and I’m just kind of collecting them and collectively arranging them.

I’m so influenced by everything I hear and read, so the digital distribution of music, the impossibility of contain digital files effectively is, I dunno, goes hand in hand with a freer discourse of ideas.

Pinegrove’s song lyrics harken back to days feeling compelled to stay up all night studying the poetry of the words on AZLyrics and SongMeanings and posting them on Deadjournal. What’s your songwriting process like? 

It starts in unpredictable ways, I guess. There’s always something different. Typically I start with a lyric I like, or a melodic fragment, or even a rhythm, and if that gets stuck in my head then I’m just kind of compelled to work on it and think about it a little more and I try to shift it around and see another side of it and maybe that’ll expand the idea. But there’s no one way.

It might even be a word that I hear, it’s like, “Oh! I haven’t thought about that word in a while.” Or, “I’ve never heard that word before.” And it’s just an attractive sound to me. Or frequently I’ll hear a song, and it’s like, “Damn. I really like that song…but I feel like the melody would be a little better like this,” and just pitching it slightly, and thereby make it my own.

When it comes to coming up with the different iterations of songs played during shows and live sessions, where they are often vastly different, would you say that maybe going about writing a song you have multiple versions right off the bat?

There are several collaborators in the Pinegrove and when we arrange songs differently it tends to be where we just try to play to the strength of the group that is present there, and we try to listen to the song itself. Like the capital ‘S’ Song, as opposed to the lower case ‘s’ song, which might be that singular iteration or that arrangement of it. We just try to let the song speak and do our best to facilitate that.

Could you tell us a bit about what it was like getting into music and growing up in North Jersey?

Proximity to New York City was definitely important because, obviously, we could see any national tour that was happening near New York State. That access was huge. I remember on my fifteenth birthday I went to go see The Mars Volta at Roseland, this was on the Francis the Mute tour. Of course I didn’t really need to skip school to go there, it was just part of the adventure. But of course, my parents found out, and I got grounded, etcetera. But my goodness, that show was crazy.

Jerseyans so often have a love-hate with where they’re from, and some of your songs offer a geographical frame of reference. Despite their specificity, why are locations such a relatable character in songwriting?

That’s a good question, because I think that a strong sense of place is an aspect of good narrative art. I think the more details you give, the more persuasive you are, basically, and you want to give the listener that feeling that they’re there, and you want them to believe that they’re there and you want them to feel comfortable enough and trust you enough to follow you. And I think that giving tem a very specific idea about where were starting is sometimes enough to build that trust so that they comes along with you on whatever weird journey you have planned for them.

Did you and your friends ever hit the Bloomfield Ave. cafe in Montclair?

Yeah, I’ve probably played there three times with my high school band Dogwater. Zach Levine played drums in that band, and also our friend Danny Parencki played bass and, yeah, we’ve played there a number of times. That was a cool place. Of course, I had no idea what “pay to play” was at the time, so when they were like, you gotta buy these tickets and then sell them, we were like, “Oh! That’s just the way it works.”

Of course, that sort of ticket sale is not the job of the band, it’s the job of the promoter, but funnily enough that format worked super well for us at a time when we were the only band in our grade, and a lot of people bought tickets. That was the most money we’d ever made as high schoolers, middle schoolers, whatever. But no, that’s obviously a very nefarious practice.

And like, I remember seeing the band Days Away at Bloomfield Ave. Café…(responds to audible response) you like that band, you know them?

I do. I know I know them, I’m trying to place them, but that just brought me back to a place…

Yeah, totally. Mapping an Invisible World is a really good album. It’s this band that was a melodic rock band from the mid-2000s who were put out by Fueled by Ramen, but sounded way more like Death Cab than Panic! At the Disco, or something. That was a great show. Oh man, and I remember we got an invitation, we were like, hanging out with them afterwards, I must’ve been a senior in high school, and we got invited to smoke weed in their tour van with them!

But it turned out that my basement flooded so my mom needed me to go back and apply the sump pump, the ‘wet vac,’ yanno like, something really, way less cool than hanging out with the band we just saw, so that was a bummer, but I’m over it, right? Doesn’t it seem like I’m totally over it? (laughs)

Do you think that the kids that are currently in the formative years of their music education are having experiences that are vastly different than yours?

Well, probably. So, I graduated high school in 2007. I didn’t have a Facebook until the end of my senior year. So most of my public school education I was not on social media. But nowadays that’s mainly the way that I hear about new music. And I mentioned that we had a band, we had Dogwater in middle school and high school, but didn’t really leave the state. We didn’t understand that there was a national scene, at all. And that was a huge revelation, and the internet helped me understand that.

But Zach has a sibling who is four years younger than him, named Nick, who sometimes plays with the band. And Nick and all their friends were, I just felt like, so much cooler than us when we were growing up, and they knew about so many more bands. And that just has to do with the fact that they grew up with Facebook and I didn’t. So, access to culture is so huge. That’s how you start to develop ideas and start to situate yourself in a cultural conversation.

Several influential bands and albums celebrated 10-year anniversaries this past year, cashing in on reunion and anniversary tours that sold out as quickly as they’re announced. What do you think this says about the state of music and the economy of nostalgia?

I think that more than anything it says that tours are still the best way for bands to make money. So when really influential albums still excite fans but maybe aren’t selling well, the best way to monetize that is to go on tour. You gotta do what you gotta do, and I think it’s really cool that people that were too young to see that live 10 years ago or maybe didn’t know about it, I think that’s wonderful.

Quick word to the fans that haven’t seen you play live?

Well, we love playing live because it’s the most direct way to spread our message. And I think that our message is, put simply, an affirmative message about how we can love a little better, and I think that these shows that were doing tend to be the most persuasive case for why we’re an important band to listen to, and why we’re…fun (laughs). I dunno! Can you try to edit that, or something?

Of course! Hah, one more thing: I liked what you said earlier about not wanting to put more plastic into the world. My day job is actually at a recycling company.

Really? Yeah, I worked at a recycling plant in college. That’s what the song “Recycling” is about.

Pinegrove performs July 28 at Xponential Music Festival at Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, NJ and July 29 at Panorama Festival at Randall’s Island Park in New York City. For more information, please visit pinegroveband.com.