Pile’s Rick Maguire Gave Up Everything for His Band and He’d Do It All Again
You'd think 12 years of work would've worn Maguire down, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
By now, it’s a well established fact that Pile fans are deeply devoted to the band. But, as excitable as they may be, no one loves the band as much as Rick Maguire, the band’s driving creative force. When Maguire released Demonstration in 2007, the solo offering bared the name Pile, a function of not wanting to put his name on the release, even if he was the only person featured on it. As the years went on, Maguire built a band around him, and with a constant slate of new material, and a never-ending tour schedule, it became clear that he had no off-switch.
On May 3, Pile will release their seventh full-length album, Green and Gray. Seven albums in 12 years is no easy feat, but considering that there’s rarely been a year without they haven’t released something, it’s only fitting that they’ve crafted their most ambitious work yet. But along with Green and Gray comes some fairly noteworthy changes for the band. Guitarist Matt Becker and bassist Matt Connery have left the band amicably, making room for the band’s touring guitarist Chappy Hull to become a full-time member and for Alex Molini of Stove to enter the fold. While these shifts have been gradual, the one that will shock most people is a spiritual one. When Green and Gray is released, Pile will no longer be able to classify itself as a Boston band. Though Pile has been an integral part of the city’s independent music scene, with Maguire, Hull, and Molini all living together in Nashville, in many ways, it feels like the start of a new era for the band.
All these changes aside, Green and Gray feels like a natural outgrowth of the sounds the band was exploring on 2017’s A Hairshirt of Purpose. But while there are more genteel abstractions throughout the record, it also features some of the band’s most disgustingly savage compositions in their history, as Maguire unleashes his pent-up political frustrations in a way that’s direct but not heavy-handed. Yet, at the same time, Green and Gray offers the most transparent view of Maguire himself. Songs like “Firewood” and “My Employer” see him no longer using narrators as vehicles for his own emotions, as he plumbs the depths of his experience and puts the discoveries on full display.
Speaking to Maguire on the phone, as he preps to release the band’s most openly introspective work to date, there was an expectation that, maybe, 12 years of constant work had finally wore him down a bit. But as Maguire shows, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Noisey: I wanted to start by asking when this album came together. Hairshirt came out in 2017, you toured a bunch, put out that collection album, toured some more, and then found the time to write the band’s most sprawling record to date. When did it all start to take shape?
Rick Maguire: I think it started feeling like a record around May or June of last year, once I got back from the solo tour. I wasn’t able to write much when I was on that tour, but I think I was kind of collecting things here and there as time went on. Some of those riffs are, in some cases, two years old. But the actual picture of a record being a thing probably didn’t start to materialize until May or June.
What were you feeling going into this writing process? Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted the record to be like, or were you just working your way through it?
The record found its way as I was going through it. I had a plan of doing two separate records, and I’ve kind of always had this plan and it never ends up working out this way, but it’s that we’ll do two records and release them one after the other, a really aggressive, loud one, and then a very mellow, subdued record. This was supposed to be the aggressive one, but there are some very mellow songs on it. And that’s kind of how the past however-many-records have turned out. Time creeps up, and then there’s just one record. But I do have a new batch of material that’s mellower that I am working on and hope I’m going to get out by fall of next year. The picture of our albums kind of changes along the way, as I’ll edit and tailor certain things to a grander idea or narrative as I go.
There’s always been kind of whispers of there being a Pile record and then a solo record from you for that kind of stuff. Is that how you’d see that working, or would it all be reframed through Pile?
Whenever I say solo record, I usually put that in air quotes. It sounds like songs I would play solo but, ideally, they’d be songs that are recorded in a way where it doesn’t sound like the band with loud guitars and loud drums, but they’d be able to translate if the full band played it or if I played it solo. Trying to create songs that could be that versatile would be kind of ideal. Some of them have been pretty easy, but there’s less room to experiment with parts when it’s done solo, and it ends up simplifying the song. But I guess I could alter them for each iteration.
Speaking of the band, a couple members that have been really integral to the band have left and you’ve brought in a couple new people. What was it like having to make those changes shortly before you recorded Green and Gray?
I obviously love Matt [Becker] and [Matt] Connery very much. I’m glad that it wasn’t directly related to the band or any interpersonal stuff that may have sullied our relationships going forward. But yeah, I was a little nervous. It wasn’t doubts in either Alex or Chappy’s abilities or their commitment to the thing, but because it was new and it was a change. But ultimately, the change has been really good. I love playing with those guys, and I’m currently living with them.
This writing and recording process was awesome, as they were fresh and ready to go, and they were trying out different things for the band. That was great, and it made my life easier. Alex comes from an engineering background, so he was demoing everything we were doing. We had talked about doing that in the past, but none of us had really had the know-how or the resources to pull that together. He spearheaded that, and that was great. And Chappy’s an awesome guitar player, he’s always listening to new music and is always around new music, so he’s got a really fresh perspective on things. And obviously with Kris [Kuss, drums], I love playing with him, and he continues to surprise me with his playing, which is always a treat. At first, it was a little bit scary, but now that we’ve crossed that bridge, it’s great.
With writing things, I definitely wanted to expand and do new things, but I didn’t want it to seem drastically different. I didn’t want people to say, “Oh, this is a completely different band now.” But now that we’ve done this record I feel like we have more room to get weirder in whatever way that means, just whatever is outside what is the norm for us.
Every Pile record is a bit of a deviation from what has come before though. What kind of things were you hoping to explore on this one once you got going with it?
With this record, we did pretty much what we set out to do, which was that we focused on refining that specific batch of songs. To the production part of it, all of us were of the mind that we had more time to track it, so that gave us the freedom to think of what we’d want to layer on top of it. Between the string players and us, it was like, “let’s put keyboards here,” or “let’s put another feedback track here.” It was layering that on then, in the mixing process, figuring out where things would fade in and out, and how they’d fill space.
What kind of things do you feel this frees you up to do next?
I had recorded some stuff that was just me, and had some weirder synths and things like that, ones that were more songwriter-ish and not so much rock band stuff, so moving forward I see it being things like that. Though I am still interested in messing around with noise, I’m also interested in making pretty melodies and things. Maybe it will be exploring that while also continuing to push the poles of what sounds really abrasive and what sounds saccharine and sweet. Right now, I have a little electric piano in my room that I have headphones for and I’ve been playing that more than I’ve been playing guitar. And I don’t know how I feel about it yet, but I know that I’d like to try do more with it. The fact that’s what has been drawing me to play music instead of a guitar is a little weird for me, but I know I’d like to pursue it because it’s different. Though, who knows, it might be really bad. Hopefully not. [Laughs] Bringing two new people into the band and then putting out a piano record, people would be like, “What happened?” Now I feel a little bit more comfortable moving forward with some of those ideas.
Looking at the lyrics on this record, it opens with you saying, “No longer burdened by youth,” and it feels like, more than previous records, you’re really exploring your place in the world and what you’ve sacrificed to make this band work. Was that something that was driving you during the writing process?
Yeah, definitely. This was the first record where, for one, I didn’t have to work another job while writing it. I could just wake up and say, “I’m just going to write today.” I was celebrating that a little bit. But it’s weird going on tour now and, generally, just being a little bit older. I’m in my mid-30s now, and that’s a thing, and I guess I wasn’t sure how I’d react to still being in a band at that age. I was just reflecting on that, and it was also the first record where I was completely sober. There was a lot to examine, and that’s what I chose to examine.
Did it start to feel like your personhood was getting sucked into the band a little too much? That you were never just Rick, you were always Rick from Pile?
No, because I was always ready to give all of myself to this thing no matter what. It is weird, especially going through a press cycle, and then being on tour, you’re definitely spoken to in a way, or at least I was spoken to in a way, where there’s no other venue in my life that anybody would talk to me that way. I just have to remind myself not to take to heart all of that stuff. It was always, “Wow. You are this person, and it’s so cool you are doing this thing.” It’s just a thing that I do and I like doing it. It’s a weird thing, and I’m glad it’s been a petty slow process, where the rooms progressively get more full, and it’s easier to adjust to each time, though it’s still an adjustment.
I don’t feel bad about any of the sacrifices that I had to make for this thing. I was ready to make them from the moment I decided to do it. If anything, I’m happy that I’ve been able to figure out more and more how to do things that are aligned with what I want to do as time has gone on instead of succumbing to some kind of hedonistic lifestyle.
It’s interesting, because as you’ve kind of taken those steps up, you’ve not really sacrificed the way you want the band to operate. You haven’t changed labels or started writing simple, poppier songs. Seeing this all start to work, did it just make it easier to reaffirm your commitment to what Pile is?
I guess I hadn’t considered it too much, because I feel like there are a lot of things at play when a band chooses to go down those different paths. But with writing this stuff, I just always think of it as, I want to be a fan of this band. The thing that was at the front of my brain with writing this stuff was that I wanted it to be rich with ideas. That is more interesting to me in music. I love a hooky pop song as much as the next person, but sometimes playing those songs you’re just like, “Eh, this one’s good enough, I guess I’ll just leave it here.” But I want things to have a little more depth, and I tend to tinker with them until there are some more interesting aspects to them.
On the flip side, this record also has the most outwardly political songs you’ve written, as you reference a “neon cartoon” in one song and call out Stephen Miller by name. Why were these topics you felt you needed to be worked in, even in a more abstract way?
It’s just impossible to avoid. Every day it’s something new. It just drives me crazy. It’s so stupid, so incredibly stupid. It’s just a reflection of a culture that decided this is the way to go, and that’s so infuriating. The song “The Soft Hands Of Stephen Miller,” that dude is the same age as me, and he grew up in a fairly similar socioeconomic situation, and it’s like, what happened to you? I feel like there are people like that I went to high school with, and it just brought back all this anger. Like, why do you think this way?
Sometimes, when you think of an old, white politician, you can look at them and it’s just easier to make sense of. It’s difficult for me to relate to their crazy ideas about this, that, and the other thing, and I don’t give it a pass, but I can understand how they see things differently. And I know that they can say the same things about me. But this, it’s just spitting in the face of logic. It’s just small-minded. I’m getting worked up even just thinking about this. I just couldn’t avoid it. It’s worth mentioning even if it’s just for expressing a disdain for them and what they believe.
How did you find a way to explore these topics without making them into simple slogans, or using the same kind of buzzwords we see all day on Twitter?
I feel like that’s what makes these things lose their teeth a little bit, because they cease to mean what they were intended to mean. For me, personally, I wanted to go at it from a different angle so that there was some sort of emotional meat there. I didn’t want to just be reciting what everyone has heard. Even the mention of Donald Trump’s name now, phonetically, you just meet it with an eye-roll. Any time his name is mentioned anywhere, they say it in their body language that they’ve heard it so many times.
To go back into the song itself, vocally, you really go for it. Your voice sounds, and I mean this as a compliment, really gross. How did you get yourself into that space?
I started working on that song about a year ago, and the whole song is just that one riff. I’d been working on really mellow stuff, so I decided to try and do the most aggressive song I could. I put that riff on a loop and then played drums over it. And we’d just gone on tour with Converge, you know? [ Laughs] I was just playing with that idea a little bit. We’re releasing it as a single, and I’d guess we’re going to be playing it every night, so I don’t know how my voice is going to hold up doing that. But hopefully it will be fine.
What did you take from doing that Converge tour? I don’t think most people would look at Pile, who get called an indie rock band, and see that as a natural pairing, but you guys get very heavy and out there, too. Did that reignite your interest in that kind of music?
Definitely. That tour had a huge impact on me. Watching them play stuff that was, in some cases, nearly 20 years old, and then still be working out new ideas and playing new material, that had an impact on me. My interest in heavy music always goes in cycles, which probably isn’t that surprising, but there are times that heavy music is as exciting as music can be for me, and there are other times when it’s just sounding the same. It just comes and goes. I don’t think it will ever go away completely for me.
When this record was announced, you made mention of the fact that “Bruxist Grin” was inspired by you having a panic attack a night before you were set to move into a new apartment, which was also right before you went into the studio to make this record. Has that been an ongoing occurrence for you since?
The panic attack, that was just kind of a one-off event, at least thus far. What kind of sparked it was that I was showing my room to people when I was about to move out, and I’d just been spending a lot of time alone in my room during that time. We were all in the living room, and I realized that we’d never all been in a shared common space together at the same time. Then this person who was looking at my room, they asked what everyone did for work and I realized I didn’t know what all of my roommates did. And that’s totally on me, but I realized I just hadn’t been very present in my surroundings, and that’s been something I’ve been working to fix. My anxiety is always finding new ways to sneak up on me, so I’m just trying to be aware of these things. A big part of that is just putting my phone down and walking away from it. I don’t need to be that connected at all times, and it’s good to just experience things without that being a part of it.
What made you feel like it was time to leave Boston? Did it feel like you were solidifying this new era of Pile?
A little bit, yeah. Obviously, I was worried about it a little bit, but I realized the last few years in Boston I was kind of isolating myself. I lived right near the river and could go for walks and be in my own world, which was nice, but I wasn’t really seeing anyone. I had close friends, but I was kind of just in my own space a lot of the time. It felt like home, and I knew where everything was, but I think it was kind of contributing to some that too.
Moving to Nashville, that was mostly because that’s where my parents live, and I haven’t lived close to them in many years. I already was splitting time between Boston and Nashville, alternating summers and winters, but my family’s here, Chappy lived here, and then Alex moved here, so it just made sense. I moved down in February, and it’s been nice living with the band instead of basically making everyone fly to me for practice. A lot of my identity was in Boston, and the band’s identity was there, as everything written about us opened with “this Boston band,” so it felt a little weird to change that. But it’s been good for me, and it’s been good for the band, I think.
It seems like this all kind of gets reflected in Green and Gray, too. You seem to be searching to understand yourself and your environment in ways that have never really surfaced on a Pile album this directly.
Yes, that’s definitely part of it. It feels like I’m trying to be more direct about where I’m at and how I’m feeling in these songs, while obviously still leaving it up to interpretation. Everything used to be kind of a mix of emotions, where the songs would end up being about three different things and I would just put them all together in whatever way worked. But I wanted to be a little more direct about how I was feeling. I’m older now, and I’m just trying to make sense of my place in the world a bit more, and just how I’m interacting with everything.
It feels like the first adult Pile record, in a way.
That’s nice to hear, as that’s kind of the hope. I want to be learning more and expressing more, at least as much as I can.