An Interview with Pinegrove’s Evan Stephens Hall

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Pinegrove playing at The Old Mogul Theatre in Montclair, NJ.

Montclair NJ holds a lot of memories me. A childhood friend grew up there, so I know the town well. They converted an old movie theatre into a music venue called the Wellmont Theatre  With a capacity of 2,600 it felt like the (now defunct) Roseland Theatre or Hammerstein Ballroom got airlifted and plopped into suburban NJ, plus some of the old-timey movie theatre flourishes.

What I was not aware of was that Montclair was home to one of the most catchy, melodic, introspective indie-rock bands called Pinegrove.  They reminded me of the Decemberists, though frontman, lyricist, and guitarist Evan Stephens Hall would disagree.

I caught them live at a basement show in New Brunswick last October. I self-consciously walked through the neighborhood in Rutgers where students lived, paid my $5 cover and made my way to the basement of a college house party.

Once Pinegrove played, I realized the room was filled with fans singing along to every word.

Pinegrove are signed with Boston based indie-record label Run For Cover . 

I caught up with Hall last January at Egan and Sons in Montclair.

Godfrey Chan: One of my best friends is from Montclair, so I’m really familiar with the town. I was never aware of any bands that came from here until I discovered Pinegrove. Can you tell me of some other bands?

Evan Stephens Hall: Fourth Wanderers, Tawny Peaks who are now defunct, but one of my favorites. Cold Foamers — three of them are from Montclair.

Did you meet these guys while you were in Montclair?

I’ve lived in Montclair for a while. I grew up here, went to college for four years, then back since more or less. Most of the people in these bands are a few years younger than me. There were a lot of really good bands after I left and before me there were good bands too. But while I was in high school, there wasn’t so strong of a scene — it was not especially the cool thing to be doing music, and there were not that many bands. There were a few that we played with that were our friends, but in our year, pretty much no one besides us.

I was in a band called Dogwater early on and that also involved drummer Zack Levine who also plays in Pinegrove. And that was with our friend Danny who went on to study classical music. He plays bassoon and piano, a really talented musician also.

The Princeton Review was one band, the Redwood School District another good one that comes to mind.

Can you tell me about your experience at Kenyon?

I had a great experience at Kenyon — I learned to be a songwriter there. And there were really good bands that came from there, but I wasn’t interacting with too many other serious songwriters there. In a way, I’m grateful for that. It forced me to develop in isolation. I think I’ve got some idiosyncrasies as a songwriter that if I had a lot of co-evolution with peers, then maybe I would’ve been more influenced by what people were doing.

When you write music, do you come up with the lyrics or melody first?

Usually it’ll be a melodic phrase with phonetic elements, then I try to fill in the gaps. Certain notes will have certain sounds associated with them — like vowels especially. So I try to figure out words that contain those sounds and move from there. And it’s especially satisfying when I can make them make sense, but it can’t always.

But usually there’s a mood embedded in that too. And I try to listen to what the song is trying to tell me what it’s about.

This lyric is from the song Problems. “This is how I spend my life. Singing old songs.” I’m interpreting a sense of regret.

There are a few things going on. I’m a slow writer. Often, just like circumstantially, I end up singing songs that are to me really old. We’re coming out with a new album in February. The album’s [Cardinal, released on  February 12, eight songs total]  been done for seven months. I wrote the songs two and half years ago.

I wish I could write faster.

“Old songs” is a fragment I stole from Joanna Newsome. There’s a line from her song Sadie.

[Hall sings the line from the Newsom song] “These are old songs, these are old blues, this is not my tune, but it’s mine to use”

So basically it’s mine to use. It’s like, “Oh yeah? I’ll use it.”

I respect her a ton as a songwriter.

You know I’m realizing [sings again] “spend my life up..”

That little swoop there, and that lyric is in a song by the band Thanksgiving. They’re affiliates with Mount Erie  — Pacific Northwest low-fi experimental musicians.

I had a very intense relationship with someone and this was a very important song to her. I wanted to include that clue or leitmotif to let it know that it was dedicated to her. “Singing old songs” was a built in justification for anyone that’s accused me of stealing that first line.

This is probably the most densely intertextual I’ve ever gotten. I’m really interested in those types of strategies. If I find I’m using a melody —  I think every songwriter has that fear that they’re re-writing the same song. “I just rewrote a Green Day song”. Or even worse if you’ve written a song and you don’t realize it’s out in the public that’s massively ripping off this well known song that somehow you didn’t figure it out. But including the defense of it in advance of the accusation… that’s one strategy I guess.

I think you sound like Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. Are they an influence of yours?

I hear why you say that and I respect him as a lyricist. I don’t listen to them much. I’ve seen them live once, I was really impressed. Basically they don’t speak to me because they’re not really moody enough. He’s a songwriter with a capital ‘S.’ But they’re not one of my favorites.

I really like Gillian Welch. I like Mount Eerie (Phil Elvrum of the Microphones). No Flashlight to me is his best record or Lost Wisdom. He’s a special artist because his universe is totally its own thing. He’s a really skilled photographer, so all the images work towards this mood. He lyrically deals really repetitively with the same types of questions involving “What does it mean to be a  f__ human being” like any good artist. Introspection, the textures of nature (oh that’s a good rhyme).

Beyond all those topics that speak to me, stylistically his approach is very referential. He creates these systems of internal reference. Because he’s repeating the same types of things. Sometimes he’ll say the same phrase. He’ll totally repeat a lyric. And that reminds you of the other song and it sort of isolates the two and forces you to consider them in contrast to each other, or he’ll repeat melodic fragments too.

Basically he has his own melodic lexicon and a very specific lyrical focus that just strengthens this whole universe. And I think for an artist to make a world for it’s listener to live in is an admirable goal, and he does it pretty much better than anyone else.

Two other artists that does that very well is Porches and Frankie Cosmos.

Oh yeah, I just saw Frankie Cosmos. They know each other, right?

Yeah, biblically. They’re romantic! At least that’s their public persona. But a lot of the songs seem to be little notes to each other. And they’ll reference each other’s characters.

Is this public or is this under the radar?

If you’re listening it’s there. But also including this idea of melodic lexicon. They seem to share lyrics sometimes and share melodies or at least intervals. It’s tough to say whether it’s these two people with similar sensibilities, or if they’re co-evolutionary, or if they’re using this melodic language to sing to each other.

Is there an existing band that you’re looking to have that synergy with?

No I wouldn’t say so. But I do strive to at least within records to make things internally referential in a fun way. I want leave little plumbs for people to discover. I think the most serious puzzle that I’ve written is the Ampersand EP. There’s a lot of interlocking lines and connections.

And also with [the new album] Cardinal, there are certain symmetries that I tried to accomplish.

Was there a childhood moment that you knew you wanted to be a musician?

My dad is a composer. My mom’s an interior designer. Both have really mattered in my artistic maturation. But obviously since my dad’s a musician, there was music around the house. My mom’s a really avid music fan too, like really well-listened and cares about contemporary music. Both exposed me to all sorts of stuff. But my dad more explicitly. There were instruments available for me to pluck around with.

I remember as young kid my dad would be playing guitar in the living room and I would go up to the tuning pegs and just sabotage his playing by de-tuning his guitar, “Pay attention to me, dad!”

I also remember watching his fingers and thinking, “There is no way I’m ever going to remember this.” It just seemed impossibly complex. Eventually less complex. It’s still terrifying to look at the neck of a guitar.

Did you get lessons, or did he teach you?

I got lessons at Montclair Music Studio. Drums was actually my first instrument. Then I went to bass, then guitar. But I basically never practiced. I would play, but just whatever I wanted, not what they were teaching me. That’s just kind of me though, I’m pretty stubborn that way.

I remember my dad’s second wedding (my parents are divorced). He and my step-mom got married when I was in seventh grade. I performed at the wedding with my dad and [my step-mom] Iris. We played a Bob Marley song. At the time I wanted to be a professional skateboarder. I actually loved skateboarding. I skated since I was six to 14. I was pretty serious about it. But around the time I was 14, I was getting injured. I got a serious concussion and I wasn’t that confident on the board anymore. And around that time I was playing music too.

I remember someone (must’ve been one of my parent’s friends) saying, “Hey, you really got a talent kid.” And I was like, “Thanks, but I want to be a professional skateboarder.” But that was maybe sort of a turning point like, “Maybe music matters to me too.”

I love the live version you do of Angelina in park. How often do you do acoustic?

It’s attractive for me to able to express the songs in different ways. I think that the mark of a good song is that it can be arranged in different configurations and still be exciting. I write my songs on an acoustic guitar usually, so if it’s not satisfying to me in that format, then I just keep working on it until it is. I do like performing solo acoustic with friends singing along. There’s something very percussive about the acoustic guitar, and I like being able to really be a rhythm player. Which is to say basically a guitar player and a drummer at the same time.

Also, it’s easier to be spontaneous as a solo performer. Recently I went on tour by myself down to New Orleans and back. That was a two-week thing. I’ve also in the summer went up to Montreal, Toronto, and back through the mid-west. I’ve traveled by myself playing acoustic guitar in small rooms (ideally). Most recently I did it in New Brunswick. It was really awesome. I mean that in a biblical way. There were so many people and they were all singing the words. And I just felt totally supported and loved, like I could be a little bit more unmediated. I could just say things I was thinking about, and it felt really positive.

I do like performing in that type of scenario because it’s a more spontaneous setting. That means I can play new songs, change tempos or dynamics at a whim. All of the communication is internal. So I don’t need to queue anyone, even though I do feel like — especially with Zack (drums), I do feel incredible communication. Like I mentioned, we’ve been playing together since 7th grade. We definitely strive to make that communication dynamic and tempo communication the forefront of our live performance, but it’s great doing it by myself too.

This reminds when I first saw you. I saw you were playing at a house in New Brunswick, and I couldn’t find anyone to go with, so I went by myself. After I parked, I was walking through the the off-campus housing through hordes of college kids thinking, “What am I doing here, I’m like 20 years older than everyone.” But went I went into the basement, and the music started, I was like, “OK, this is why I’m here.”

pinegrove_basement

I think of a lot of people would identify with that. Going into a space, feeling kind of anxious about it, then the music starts, and it’s like “This is why I’m here.” There’s a Miley Cyrus fan Party in the USA is such a good song. Pop classic.

I’m already a big Taylor Swift song, but I’ll go over to Miley if you insist.

That’s the only song that I can truly vouch for.

 

Also I try to investigate that in New Friends.

That’s kind of the vibe where you go into a space where you don’t really recognize anybody, and you’re thinking, “Well, damn I wish my friends were here.” Who would that include?” And then you’re going through the list. “Well, there’s this one friend, but they’re not around. F___, who else?

That’s actually about me going to the Meatlocker having graduated college. There are all these people that I recognize but don’t know. And it’s like, “How do I interact?” On a robotic/mechanical level, how does human interaction work.

What’s your day job and how do you balance everything?

I live at home, and I don’t have to pay rent. Well maybe there’s a non-monetary cost of deteriorating my relationship with my parents. [laughs] I’m 26, graduated college in 2011, lived in Brooklyn for nine months, and then moved back. It wasn’t a good place for me to write songs. But this has been good place for me to write songs. And I’ve written a lot of them in Montclair. My dad and my mom are very supportive. My step-mom’s kind of warming to it. She saw us live recently and was like, “OK, I get it.”

They sort of understand that what I’m doing right now is developing a creative portfolio, basically to eventually be able to sustain myself as a creative professional.

This is all to say that I work not that much with other jobs besides music. I really try to take music as a job and I try to write every night. But I do sometimes work at a bookstore called Montclair Book Center. It’s a new and used bookstore. They’ve got me in the fiction aisle which is what I know and like to read. The only non-fiction I read is essays by novelists [laughs].

How did you get hooked up with Run for Cover?

It was a long path. We’ve been releasing music since 2010. I didn’t think about releasing music with a label at all for a long time. Two summers ago we toured with our pals Tawny Peaks. Dexter who played drums also used to play drums in Alex G. He has a booking agent who’s terrific and totally tapped into popular DIY. His name’s Greg Horbel. Greg found out eventually about us through Dexter; and our friend Cam Boucher who’s in Sorority Noise was massively helpful to us too. .

Size of the Moon — I find it joyful, nostalgic and somewhat regretful. Is this based on experience, fiction or in between?

I’m really curious of the designations between non-fiction and fiction. I think we could talk about this forever and not reach a conclusion. But something I do feel pretty sure about is that any type of aestheticized statement is a form of narrative compression.

Life the way we live it, is not the way we’d want to experience art. We need it in way smaller fragments. It’s weird, because we want a piece to be life-like, whatever that means. But that involves all sort of artifice. Artificial approaches. Contrivances. And I don’t mean these things pejoratively at all, it’s just the process.

I know this may seem like a fine point, but yeah these are things that are influenced by things that actually happened, and that’s where the details come from, that’s why I can channel the mood so realistically because I have the room in my mind when I’m writing the song.

So I think about what are the salient details. So all the furniture’s pushed aside because we had a party. All of the emotions that are still hanging in the air, and the things that I want to say but I can’t. I just try to return to that place so that I can maybe do it better the second time.

I didn’t live it exactly like this because hindsight’s 20/20 and we think of all these brilliant things to say after we’ve left the situation and I think frequently I effectively write from a place of remorse almost because I wish I was strong or smart enough to behave like this in the moment.

But now it’s kind of haunting me and I need to return to that. I definitely return to that pretty deeply in this song and pretty specifically. I’m using dancing as a metaphor for connection or allegory. It’s an image that’s supposed to be about two people communicating.

So you weren’t literally dancing with her?

No, I was. But it’s a useful image because it says more than just that. So there’s dancing in the room.  Then there are these ideas, snippets of shared imagination. But they’re all contained in that one space. So I’m imagining the entire relationship occurring in this one room. But equally, I’m imagining the relationship as the room. The room contains the relationship in more ways than one.

This song is really about self-containment in a relationship. How you can isolate yourself with a person and it feels like the whole world is just you two. But it’s such a violent disruption when you break up. And I mean break up.

“Break up” is a great phrase for it. It’s an instant and jagged disconnection. I thought I had this universe, but actually I just have memories of it. And we were building something. But in aftermath, what does that mean. So sure, I’ll talk to my dad about it, but what advice could anyone external possibly give, is the feeling.

This isn’t about my dad, it’s about the dad. But of course I take my cues from My dad. I’m compressing details to make more sense in the song even though I’m taking details from real life experience.

It’s like, “Dammit, Dad, I want you to have an answer for me.” He’s just like, “Virginia Woolf says about the heart,” but thanks I want to really know what you think.

Initially, it’s about reaching out for help and not really getting it. But my dad of course heard that song and was like, “Wow thank you.” And I had a moment of realization like, “Maybe it’s not a sarcastic line, maybe it was important for me to talk about it.” And it was.

And in that way I think it’s an interesting example of how the real world has retroactively influenced my interpretation of my song. Because it used to be kind of a snide line or something, but now it’s a very sincere one.

I really like how it ended up moving your dad.

It did. And I felt embarrassed about it at first. I have a rule that if I know that something’s going to be good even if it might hurt someone’s feelings, if it might help my listeners more than it hurts a single person— if I know if I’m writing something that’s good artistically, that’s going to be moving, there might be a person or two that’s like “Dude, that’s kind of f__ed up that you said that in the song” I still go for it because the song needs that.

But you know, I used to say with such conviction “I care about making good art that’s going to help people. And I care more about writing songs than I do about people I know.” But I’m not so sure. Now it’s like, “Damn there are a few people that I actually like. I don’t want to hurt them.” I wonder if maybe I’m losing my figure.

Are these people you’ve been in relationships with?

Romantic relationships yeah, but especially my parents and bandmates, people that I have no-matter-what relationships with, maybe when I was younger I might have been a little more brazen about that, but I care about maintaining those, because it’s people that I love. Probably what I’d try to do in that circumstance is try to figure out another way to say it.

I’d like to know what you think about the current state of the music industry. Musicians used to sell albums, but now it’s more streaming.

For a long time, we operated on a model where we just want people to hear us. And that to a degree has worked. I feel a responsibility as a human in this world, to make my presence matter and to do the right thing as much as I can, which of course I don’t always do, I do about half the time. But the best way I know how to make a positive impact is through songs. I really care about sharing them. It makes me uncomfortable if someone can’t access my music because they can’t afford it. Especially since economic structures are so f___d basically.

There are a million reasons why someone might be not invited to the “big table of prosperity.” My point is, I don’t want to make that an impediment at all. I am fully OK with people listening to my music for free. In fact, I want them to.

But there are certain things that I rely on for the monetization of my music. And that involves physical objects that I make, and a live performance which is a real-time experience that can’t be duplicated.

You talk about intellectual property and things that are rivalrous and not rivalrous. Like this menu [holds up a menu] is rivalrous because I can hand it to you, and I don’t have it anymore. Like a physical tangible object is considered rivalrous, but with digital copies, that doesn’t really apply because I have one, and I give it you, and I still have it. It’s infinitely re-duplicable. It’s a different category of good.

The things that I think we’ll be able to reliably monetize are the temporally bound experience of a concert that begins here and ends here and you have to be there at that time to experience it.

And I do a lot of hand-painted merchandise which I really like.

I like the green window thing.

pingrovepainting

It’s a cloth tapestry that I found at a thrift store in Paterson. It’s been around my life for a long time. It’s one of those things that you see and think, “That is my aesthetic totally.”

When I hear a band that sounds like me, it’s like “F__k, this band is great.” Everybody has that narcissism I think they want to see their own experience reflected in other people’s experiences. It’s maybe born of loneliness. Because it’s like, “Damn, I want to confirm my existence is real.”

But maybe my response to the confused age of music to emphasize the things that I know no one else can do. No one sings the songs that I write like I do. Invariably. So I can charge money for people to come see that if they want to. And no one paints like I do. Basically, I’ve scaled it back to the question of “What can I as a person offer that no one else can.” And basically sell those things. But that hasn’t been enormously lucrative yet. I still live with my parents.

But, I’m beginning to see how this could be a life for me where I live cheaply, but I work only part-time at a bookstore. Which is what I’m doing now, but I don’t pay rent. I’d love to be able to pay $400 somewhere in a rural location. Just make music..that’d be cool.

Craig Finn reminds me of what you said. He’s my age, he’s not married, and he keeps expenses low. But he doesn’t have these responsibilities that people his age have. Maybe he can be a template.

Even as a 26-year old, I’ve seen a lot of my friends be in serious relationships and living with their partners, having beautiful spaces that they live in and call their own. And I aspire to that. Not like cookie-cutter American dream exactly, I don’t want a cubicle, but I do want some of those things. Mainly a house. I would just go wild decorating a house. I’m a painter, so with the foundation of interior design, which I learned from my mom, I’d love to design my own space with colors. Primarily, I think I’m interested in colors.

I’m figuring it out. I’m aiming to move out in May.

Locally?

Yeah, because my band mates live around here.

Speaking of your band mates, how did you guys form?

My dad and Zack’s dad play in a band. Zack’s dad is a killer guitar player. He just rips harder than practically anyone in this world. My dad’s a terrific keyboard player and singer too. My step-mom sings in the band as well, called Julie’s Party. It’s not even the first band that they’ve been together. But that’s how I know Zack. And Nick is Zack’s brother. He plays guitar sometimes. We kind of have a revolving cast. Nick and Zack have pretty much always been involved.

I met Nandi Plunkett in college. She plays keyboards, percussion. She has an awesome voice. She has an awesome band too called Half Waif. And Zack plays drums in that. Adan Carlo who sometimes plays bass with Pinegrove plays in that band too.

So actually, when you saw us in New Brunswick, it was me, Zack and Adan. Half-Waif is Nandi, Zack and Adan.

So Adan, Zack, Nandi, Nick, and Sam — one other guy from Montclair, form kind of the core of it. I always sing. When there’s drums, Zack’s always playing drums. Nick and Nandi play on all the recordings too. Most of them. Except the mixtapes i guess, those are all me.

What’s next?

The past two days have been pretty crazy. [Interview was conducted on January 6]. We announced our new album. We got written up on Pitchfork today. It’s sort of funny because I have to reconcile this part of me that’s always been like “Pitchfork doesn’t matter, it’s alright if they’re not paying attention to you, they’re not the end all and be all.” And then they do finally write about us, and it’s like, “Alright, maybe this does rock.”

On February 10th, Pitchfork gave the album Cardinal an 8.0.

Pinegrove will be playing at SXSW this Thursday, March 17, and will be at Irving Plaza opening up for Into It. Over It. on Friday, April 22.

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