Small City, Big World: A Night with Pinegrove
Who knew the sons of jingle composers would make a perfect album?
It was 2007 when they made the pact. Evan Stephens Hall and Zack Levine were stoned out of their minds, ready to graduate high school, devouring Gushers in Levine's beat up car, listening to My Morning Jacket's "Gideon" and dreaming about the future.
"We were on some side street shortly after discovering weed, eating snacks," Hall says. "We're listening to MMJ's live album, and we were like, 'We love playing live, we love music. Let's fucking go for this after college. Let's make it our lives.' And we have."
They tell me this over beers before their show in New Haven, Connecticut. Hall, the guitarist and singer, and Levine, the drummer, are the core members of Pinegrove, a band that mixes the cutting introspection of punk with a tinge of alt-country and unparalleled musicianship to sound wholly like themselves. Their latest album, Cardinal, released on Run For Cover Records, will probably end up as my favorite album of this year. They're comparable to Bright Eyes—not so much in sound, but in that the band is two people and whatever musician friends can make music at that moment. The rotating backing crew leads to new arrangements of songs on each tour, keeping things fresh.
"I've been saying this for the past few years," Cameron Boucher of Sorority Noise tells me, "but Pinegrove is one of the best bands because of their ability to rearrange songs in the live setting and surpass the brilliance of the record itself. I have to have seen them more than ten times now; each time it gets better. It just continues to blow me away, like a scene in a movie you need to rewatch over and over because, despite seeing it, you can't bring yourself to accept and take in how truly special it is until it passes by."
While the Bright Eyes crew takes their stake in Omaha, Hall and Levine take theirs in Montclair, New Jersey, a peculiar "city" (population: 37,669) a short train ride from New York City. In a small town that big, how did they even meet?
"Our parents knew each other and play in a band together," Hall says. "My dad wrote the 'Call JG Wentworth, 877-Cash-Now' jingle. He writes for TV commercials, films, shows."
"My Dad does some of that too, though not full time anymore," Levine says. "His calling card is the Whac A Mole theme. That's how our parents met, but then we met as adolescents because they were friends. They're still in a band together, called Julie's Party."
"It's fun for me to think that when my Dad was our age, he was touring in a country band. It's weird to swap stories, ‘cause in those days you set up one club for a week and play mostly covers, whereas for us you play a different city every night with four bands on each bill and it's all originals."
The two sons have been in bands together forever (including a high school band that covered Britney Spears' "Toxic"), and both fathers make an appearance on Cardinal, with Doug Hall playing piano on a track and Mike Levine contributing lap steel. (Zack's brother Nick is also a guitarist on the album.) The new record, as a whole, captures the thing I love most about music: not just the sounds or the lyrics, but the way those two things can combine to form a greater whole. I'm not alone in this.
"Pinegrove has this air to their music that's almost conversational, a trait that I've always admired about them," John Rule, the singer and guitarist of Queen Moo tells me. "Their delivery is always genuine and energetic. I think everyone should take notes from Pinegrove artistically, they're truly a powerful musical force."
When Hall and Levine graduated college, they reconnected with their stoned post-high-school commitment and decided to move to Brooklyn for a year to focus on the band. Levine still lives in Crown Heights; Hall didn't stay forever.
"[New York] didn't work for me as a writer," Hall says. "There was something about it, the frenetic energy; it was expensive, I had to work all the time and I couldn't focus on writing. I moved back to Montclair, and all of a sudden I was writing all of these songs. I have a park next to my house, and I'd go for a walk in it every night."
"Also, all my friends from high school had graduated college and moved away, so I didn't know anyone in town. It really helped with writing—I couldn't hang out with people! I didn't know anybody. I was just walking around and thinking about music."
The time in New York did lead them to their popularity, however—just inadvertently.
"We were playing Manhattan all the time," Hall says. "It must've been Dexter [Loos, ex-drummer for Alex G and Tawny Peaks] who was like, 'Yo! Why are you playing all these Dad Clubs?' And that's sort of when we turned it around, when we started playing basements, these shows that were also events or parties and started interacting with people. As soon as we started prioritizing the community aspect, that's when we started gaining momentum. It's way more fun to do it that way, too."
"Though there have been recent 'Holy shit!' moments, I'm proud of how gradual it's been for us," Levine confides. "We started playing to no one, and over the past five years we've grown very slowly; five people to 15 people to 30 people to 50 people and so on. It might look like it to newer fans, but it hasn't been a flash in the pan. It's something we worked hard at building and it's nice to see it finally pay off a bit."
If Levine wasn't succeeding with Pinegrove, he'd be a sports announcer, something I first think this is a joke, but Hall and his bandmates insist that he's better than Al Michaels. (He announced softball, baseball, basketball, and football at Northwestern University, and spent a summer doing baseball announcing in Cape Cod.) "It was always my plan B," he says.
After telling me their backup plans (and a quick game of pool with Levine and guitarist Josh Marre), we head back to the venue for the show itself. One hundred and fifty or so people jam into a little corner upstairs of New Haven's Toad Place—The Lilly Pad, ha ha ha—where Pinegrove is playing with Loner Chic the day their album drops. Every band on the bill is a Pinegrove fan, evidenced by vocalist Chris Cappello contributing a positive review of Cardinal to the Yale Herald.
Near the end of the show, Hall sings "One day I won't need your love, one day I won't define myself by the one I'm thinkin' of" and the crowd shouts along, ready to tear their own hearts out with him. I stand to the side, watching; I'm convinced Pinegrove's cracked some musical cipher, like they've figured out the perfect way to say just the right words over specific melodies to make you feel the heartache they were trying to capture. For at least one moment, I knew everyone felt the same way.
Dan Bogosian is on Twitter - @dlbogosian