Interview: Pinegrove’s Evan Stephens Hall discusses the ideas that shaped their new album “Marigold”

New Jersey’s Pinegrove have been charting their own path through the US musical landscape for a number of years, bringing with them an ever-expanding, refreshingly loyal and completely connected fanbase.  They have worked extremely hard at making sure their music is first and foremost available directly to their fans, through numerous live shows and a wonderfully interactive and constantly evolving website.  With ‘Marigold‘, the band’s fourth album and their debut on Rough Trade released in the UK in January, they will be looking to bring their music further afield. The record is a wonderful melange of styles – Wilco-esque wordplay intertwines with anthem instrumentation all tied together with a deep sense of melody – ‘Marigold’ instantly makes you smile whilst nagging away at the head demanding further exploration.  Americana-UK tied down the band’s lyricist and singer Evan Stephens Hall to get to the nub of the very personal and reflective nature of the album.

So fourth album in and a new label, Rough Trade. Firstly, how did that come about? Feels like a great fit!
We’re excited to be working with RT— it really has been a great fit so far. They’ve been supportive about whatever whacky ideas we have, and that doesn’t mean just saying yes to everything, but a sustained interest in helping us develop the project to be the best it can, and to help with resources to get there. It came about in a pretty standard way I think. We were finished with the album and sent it to some people who’d expressed interest in hearing it. They were one of the labels, and after talking with them a few times it felt like we were compatible.

I love the way you describe the record, ” looking at things from the perspective of your bed”.  It conjures up a feeling of security yet the record has a real underlying melancholic edge to it that would suggest a certain unease with the world? It sure is crazy times so I guess that must be a consideration?
The album is meant to look at time, and specifically patience—how that relates to our perception of time. But what you’re identifying as mixed emotions is definitely an important part of the project on this album, and generally. I’ve wanted to look for ways that, on one hand address the melancholy of being alive right now, and yet offer a listening experience that’s affirmation, even fortifying. Any sense of optimism needs to be balanced by the grim acknowledgement of contemporary international circumstance, though of course I’m an American and am writing most acutely from that point of view. But to develop a persuasive sense of optimism, I think it requires enough familiarity with sadness to position the voice to say “and yet…”

‘Spiral’ is just great. It’s like a mantra we could all repeat every morning. Was that the purpose?
Yep, that’s basically what I was after. I’d imagined each line as its own page on a day-by-day calendar. Just little daily reminders. So that was an attempt to show the passage of time—and it also occurred to me that if you’re going to have the listener think about temporality, one way is to have the length of the song itself be notable. So we’ve got a very tiny track and a pretty long track to close the album out and ‘Spiral’s’ the tiny one.

What comes first with these songs, the lyrics or the music? Does one guide the other? How does that work when writing these songs?
They absolutely guide each other. When writing I’m trying always to keep open for opportunities. That’s what I’m looking for: different connections that arise and so both lyric and melody need to be flexible enough to accommodate an opportunity. It’s best when the melody can mimic or amplify what the lyrics are doing, so I’ve continually got my ears perked for ways that can happen.

There is always an anthem feel to what you guys do across all the records, even when the songs themselves don’t really sound anthemic musically. I think you have found a way of tapping into our hearts and senses here, guys. That’s a rare skill. Do you know what I mean by that?
I really appreciate you saying that. For anyone to connect with what we’re trying to do is an honour. For me, I’ve tried to write songs that made me feel something, that spoke to my experience somehow. It’s kind of a mystical process, it’s not one I completely understand. But I know it when I feel it, and that’s how I know the song is worth sharing.

I also really love ‘Hairpin’, it feels like a key moment on the record and a song that a lot of the sentiment of the record really hangs. Tell me a little bit more about that song?
This is a song that’s essentially a love song. It’s a ‘through thick & thin’ song and maybe that’s what you’re feeling as microcosmic of the album’s objectives—because, yes, I totally agree. It’s a song that has known better days, and points toward better days, but is written from a place of pain. So it’s bookended in a way by an optimistic perspective but we get the sense that there’s grief hanging over the song.

Tell me a little more about how you came together as a band and what has changed, if anything, in the way you wrote and recorded this album?
The people in this band have been playing together in various iterations for a long time. A lot of us are from Montclair, NJ, including Zack who plays drums and who has been my best friend since we were little. This album was the second we recorded in our home space, Amperland, in Upstate New York, ‘Skylight’ being the first. So we got a little better at it, we’re able to refine our methods. I think Sam who produced the album with me made really incredible strides towards clarity in the engineering and production of this album.  I’m still really proud of what we made with ‘Skylight,’ but we didn’t want to repeat that and moving away from the ambient room sounds which defined that album—while still recording it in the same room— involved trying some new things. For one, we built these simple but beautifully patterned paisley acoustic panels to isolate and contain sounds better.

Tell me how you set out for the album to sound sonically? There is a quite a bit going on here but it all really sounds so ‘in its place’! I’m guessing that was either the absolute plan or just happened to work out that way? What is your approach to the studio? Do you enjoy recording or is it just something that keeps you away from the road?
Ever since ‘Cardinal’, which I still love but with some distance I can see is a really dense recording, we’ve been striving to arrange more proactively. That’s sacrificed some of the spontaneity of the process but I think on the balance has resulted in a more spacious sound. ‘Marigold’ takes those efforts from ‘Skylight’ and pushes them even further. So now the project with our next recording I’m sure will be how we revitalise the arrangement process to make room for spontaneous attempts while still making some passages really spacious and essentialized.

Musically you guys are pretty tricky to tie down to any mast. Is that deliberate or do the songs just evolve as they do and the sound just does its thing?
I think it probably just comes from diverse listening habits. We like a lot of melodic rock stuff…I’m drawn to anything with an interesting melody, which of course isn’t really a question of genre. I’m not sure. I see what we’re doing as in the lineage of American melodies. Just taking what we like from all sorts of styles: the accessibility of folk; the passionate mortal inquiry of soul; the energy & emotional transparency of emo; the musicianship of country; the poetic intimacy of lo-fi. No effort has ever really been made to define our sound from a macrocosmic sense. I think it’s the result of trying to satisfy our own creative instincts, firstly as music lovers. But microcosmically we’ll sometimes refer to different bands or sounds we’re after. Maybe Algernon, maybe Lucinda. But it’s more that that sort of signifier is a productive shorthand for describing something that is really quite abstract when you think about it.

I notice you have a really interactive band website that feels as if its talking directly to the fans. Have you found that sort of approach is the way to go these days as the usual music industry routes are starting to creak a little?
I would say we’re always interested in experimenting with ways to refine the way we communicate. We are absolutely working towards a sort of site that would obviate the need to rely on other forms of communication, especially for-profit formats. I’ve grown pretty distrustful of social media empires and also sceptical, in ways, of music media’s motivations. So we’re always looking for ways to work around the corporate structure that are more fulfilling for us and for our listeners.

What are you listening to at the moment? Anything really catching your ears?
Mostly when I listen to something these days I’ll listen to a recording of someone reading. I’ve been really into Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf. There are a lot of these recordings on Spotify surprisingly, but even more of course on youtube. This short story was an early important one for her, where you can really start to see her play with point of view. We’re moved quite cinematically from flower, to human, to snail, to couple. You see her making really sophisticated decisions about how much information she’s letting in through the aperture and it’s super cool to see what ways that prefigured the accomplishments that end up defining her body of work, not to mention her contributions to literature in general.  I love the equalising suggestion that the snail’s perspective is as worthy of a paragraph as the rambling man. There’s a great reading of this short story, it lasts like 20 minutes, read by someone named Cathy Szlamp. A good reader makes all the difference, because you want to hear her catch and imply all the ambiguities of the piece. Much like a good singer. You’re not only listening for pitch or tone, but arguably the most important feature of a performance is delivery. So I’ve been pretty excited by that recording. Listening to it over and over, like it’s an album, haha!

‘Marigold’ is out now on Rough Trade

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