Balarama Heller

Talking ’11:11′ – The Album That Turned Pinegrove’s House Into a Home

Another word for a house is habitat, which not only illuminates the fact that the forthcoming Pinegrove record is the most structured and heartfelt, but also puts hope in the world’s habitat, Mother Earth, on display…. And it might just be the name of one of the most telling tracks on the record. (It is.)

“‘Habitat,’ which is kind of like an overture, includes a lot of the themes of the album and introduces them. It’s also may be the most sonically diverse song on the record,” Evan Stephens Hall tells us in conversation about 11:11, which comes out at the end of the week. “Habitat,” one of the 11 songs on the record, is “both the oldest and the newest song on the album,” he explains, and it is all encompassing because of it.

From homegrown, bombastic rock beginnings to alternative folk protest music, Pinegrove has covered a lot of ground… and nothing demonstrates that more than a cover-to-cover listen of 11:11 come Friday. The band is proud of the record, our mutual home state of New Jersey is proud of the record, and fans near and far are surely going to be proud of the record. There are few reasons not to with such cinematic composition, valiant messages, and anecdotal lyrics filling it out. Hall tells us all about it in our new interview with the North Jersey local and thoughtful frontman.

This is your fifth studio album, can you believe it? When you think about how far you’ve come as a band, but also as hard working musicians, does it warm your heart to see your progress and know that you are five whole albums in?

Oh man. What a sweet question. I think maybe the first thing that I’m thinking when I hear that question is that it, although it’s true, it’s also kind of funny to use the word studio in that way, because almost all of our albums have been recorded at home in a home studio. In fact, 11:11 is the very first album that we were recording in a proper studio. I should be clear that the studios we chose to record in are basically big open rooms – they may as well have been living rooms.

Wow, really?

Yeah, so we have a process that we like in that, though we’re always trying to tweak it and improve it. Having had the privilege of making so many albums, we’ve had time to tweak the album process, and I think we’re getting better at making them… or at least we’re having more fun making them.

Hearing your evolution and understanding your process, it seems evident that the way you and the band gel plays a big part in what the end product is and what we, the world, get to experience from Pinegrove.

Definitely. Though this album was recorded like a lot of albums that are being released right around now during 2020 and before the vaccine – even before there was even really widespread testing – we had to be flexible about how we were going to do it. This is the first album that Megan Benavente is playing bass on for a few songs. Of course, she’s on the the Amperland album, but this was the first time where we were developing parts to new songs together. I think that’s one sort of interesting way that that the pandemic kind of forced us to reconsider our process because she lives in LA and we ended up doing it remotely. That meant collaboratively cobbling and compiling bass parts and moving them around digitally. What we came up with is something that probably she wouldn’t have played just on her own. I wouldn’t have played had I elected to do it just on the east coast, either, which I wouldn’t just because she’s a much better player than I am [Laughs]. It was something else entirely. It’s so hard to say that in the midst of so much suffering that there was any benefit to what happened, especially with COVID internationally, but I think you just have to try to make the best of your situation. Working with Megan like that was one way that we tried.

Silver linings like that are important to find, so we’re elated to find out you’re not taking them lightly and we’re getting good bass lines and passion out of the new record. I noted a few stellar things listening to it, too, but most importantly, I felt that 11:11 is the most original sounding Pinegrove album yet. It’s wholeheartedly your own take on indie rock, as what we know and love you for, but it’s on another level of relevance. What was the writing and recording process for this album like as compared to another record, such as 2020’s Marigold?

That’s always the goal: to expand on the prior release and to extend our sound in new ways. You know, after all it’s still just us making the music – and you can’t help but sound like yourself! I think we’re actually getting better and better at sounding like ourselves. I think it’s Miles Davis who you said that it takes a long time to sound like yourself. What a wise comment that is. For listeners familiar with the band’s catalog, they will recognize some sounds on here , but there’s gonna be some new stuff for them, too. That’s all part of the content and new exploration of what we as a group of people can make and what we can share with the world. We’re just trying to push ourselves… and there have been some cool results.

Speaking of coming far and furthering your craft as a local, national, and global band, your sold-out show at The Wellmont Theater this past fall was a massive draw for fans new and old. What was that experience like when seeing this hometown crowd come out for you having evolved right alongside you, too?

It was a dream to play there. It used to be movie theater and I saw Napoleon Dynamite there in middle school. I think Zack [Levine] saw Blue Streak in that theater. That kind of timestamps us a little bit, but still, later on Sam [Skinner] was an usher there – that was his job in high school. Zack’s sibling Nick [Levine] who used to play with the band is and has their own terrific solo project, they were an usher there, too. We interacted with the space as Monclair kids often, so when we were loading into the theater, I was talking to one of the stage hands and he was like, “You went to Glenfield Middle School? So did I!” [Laughs] It was so cool and it really did feel special. I kind of expected it to, but in a certain way I was trying to convince myself that it was just a regular show, because otherwise it might feel too overwhelming. An accumulation of moments made me realize that it really was something special and unordinary. My heart was beating faster than usual the whole time and it was a bigger show than usual for us and we probably did the songs a little bit too fast, but we really enjoyed the audience’s reaction. I hope to do it maybe a little bit more calmly again one day.

With new songs then, too! This will probably heighten the feeling of the Wellmont stage being a very full circle moment.

That’s definitely true. I think that this time it kind of forced me to to remember how we played dozens and dozens of shows in Montclair, but most of them have been in people’s houses. There was a theater that was open only for a brief time and we did a couple of shows there… oh man, I’m even forgetting the name of it! There’s the meat locker there, though, and there’s The Bat Cave, which is a defunct DIY space, but it hosted something like 200 shows over course of the year. We played these local, but really active cultural spaces and I always thought that there was no way that we could have ever reached the peak: the big, big theater in Montclair. I still think that we never would’ve plated The Wellmont Theater without having had all these experiences in Montclair that kind of prepared us for it and had our peers teach us for it and had our parents support us for it.

There’s also something called Serendipity Café, which is a Montclair institution. It is a student run organization that puts on monthly concerts for local performers, but any sort of performance is welcome. There’s an open mic – this is where kids generally learn to book shows, do lights, do sound, set up a PA system, make sure the show runs on time, and stuff like that. Those skills were invaluable for later on when we were taking all of that into our own hands and booking shows and setting up rigs in basements and figuring out that actually like Montclair, there are lots and lots of towns across the United States that have thriving scenes just like this one where high school kids are learning these things. I do think Montclair was a special place to grow up, though, and being able to connect with all these places nationally and meeting other bands and being exposed to different sounds just through living there… that was all just a massive part of the road to Wellmont. It was really kind of special to be able to acknowledge that.

Let’s talk album artwork now. Why the geometric, sort of kaleidoscope, green cover for the record? So much of your visual elements over the years have had meaning and method and messages intertwined, so we know the fans are curious if not already in tune to the possibilities.

Great question! I’ll start broadly and then I’ll try to narrow it. This is actually the first album that is not a primary color. I love the idea of kind of simple geometric shapes and primary colors; part of that for me is that I think that one element of the artist’s job is to acknowledge all the dense stimula in the world, but make some choices and edit it down to a digestible nugget. We’re putting a frame around something which means excluding most of what’s out there. It’s about making something that’s chaotic into something that you can kind of sit with and consider. It’s a process of clarification, so I feel like using primary colors and simple geometric shapes is, in a certain way, a good analogy for what I’m trying to do with the music.

Since I’m a human, when I try to paint a geometric shape I kind of paint over the lines a little bit. It’s a little messy, it’s a little home spun – I think that that’s an interesting intersection, too – showing no matter how hard we try when we’re striving for a goal, there’s going to be personality and flaw in what you are you doing to get there. That is also kind of reflected in our recording style. We love to include incidental sounds like somebody falling out of their chair in the studio or a bird chirping or a dog barking, just because there’s a dog in the house when we’re recording or something like that.

Why I settled on green is actually a really kind of amazing moment in the Pinegrove story because I don’t often go on the Pinegrove Reddit or the fan group stuff. I’m really flattered that it exists, but I’d just rather not read about myself on the Internet. Somebody mentioned to me something about it, though, because I have friends who do look on it and let me know when something when there’s something important there that I should know about. They saw that there was a person who said, “Well, we’ve got red, blue, yellow albums, so green would probably be the next natural step.” I heard that and was just like, “Yeah, that is a good idea. That makes sense. I hear you loud and clear, Pine Nuts. You want a green album? I’ll give you a green album.” I probably wouldn’t have done it if it didn’t work with some of what I was already trying to explore, but it did because I realized that having the focus of the green album energized me to explore the climate crisis in music, which was something that I was already thinking about a lot. On that point, I think in a certain way, it was an intentional move to try to see what I could make if I tried to write something about that.

However, on the other hand, the category of political versus non-political is becoming just way more co-ed. There aren’t really discreet spaces that you talk about politics or don’t talk about politics anymore, and for people roughly our age, we’re looking at a world where, for a lot of people, just simply being alive is a political action and to continue to have a habitable world is a political commitment for some crazy reason. This is the first album that was written on the other side of 2020, which was a really radicalizing year for myself and for a lot of people. The album sort of reflects some of the surreal introspection that you see in earlier Pinegrove albums, but it hopefully gives off a sense of modernity in affirming the listener for who they are and affirming the emotional process through encouraging introspection of the now. I think I maybe was able to broaden what I was talking about a little bit into looking at it like, “If we’re treating ourselves tenderly, how does that actually translate to broader actions and maybe even public policy? Are there ways that the government can enact their responsive ability to to protect community and to help people thrive?”

That’s so mesmerizing to hear. Colors can be much more than a visual, so no matter how green became the essence of 11:11, accidentally or on purpose, it ended up being a really great choice.

Thanks – it was a mix of the two. I think as an artist, I’m always looking for opportunities to connect. I don’t really go into a project knowing what I’m gonna find, but I try to go in with the humility to let the songs speak for themselves. I try to not guide them all too much, but when I see a chance to connect, I take it.

One other thing I’ll say is that the album cover is sort of playing with like symmetry or circularity which was meant to bounce off of the title, 11:11, which is a simple palindrome, but a palindrome nonetheless. The songs and album and art are all trying to talk about, and in certain ways embody, that circularity, as well.

The tracks go in order in the same sort of melodic, but forward-thinking way. Was finding the right songs and right placement for said songs difficult to match up with how you and the band wanted it to sound?

Definitely. When you’ve got a batch of songs that you’re releasing together, inherently these songs are kind of all compared to one another in the context of the record. Ideally they can speak to each other, too, but I think sometimes I like to listen to albums that have apparently no conceptual thread, but even pretty abstract story has a reason. Regardless of intent, there’s just a story that emerges, so knowing that has me thinking: “How can I emphasize that flow and make the songs speak to each other?”

I like to think of an album as a house. Each songs is a room in a house. You want the design of the house to have a certain flow, of course, and a certain livability. The dynamics of the songs make up each room. Say you want to decorate your bathroom pretty and with a loud paint color. You might compensate that by making the living room a little bit more muted. There are plenty of different ways to do it, but as I put together each song for this album, I knew I was setting out to make it, the record, a livable home.