Evan Stephens Hall is standing on top of America when he picks up.
“America” in this case might just be a painted map of the United States on a playground where his band Pinegrove is shooting their next music video, but the singer/songwriter recognizes the fitting setting in discussing the globetrotting year he’s had on the back of the band’s debut album, Cardinal.
I’m calling from the roof of my apartment, the neighbors’ azaleas staked out in a corner opposite a few yellowing bottles of beer that were emptied long before I moved in. It’s where I listened to Cardinal for the first time months ago and many times thereafter, yet it feels like the kind of roof that would weave itself into one of Hall’s stories after Angelina’s done washing her windows or when dancing in the living room dies down at the end of a night.
We end up talking a lot about the minute, yet sprawling details in Cardinal and the intentionality layered underneath, which Hall attests is something he’s had to think a lot more about since the album arrived. Pinegrove works best when the simplicities are addressed first though:
- They’re alt-country or emo or some amalgamation depending on the listener.
- They write about love, friendship, hometowns, and wanderlust like many before them, but with a level of detail that sets them apart from most of their peers.
- They also write about toast like few before them, no question.
- And sure, it makes little sense how New Jersey could be home to a singer with such a deceptively Southern twang, but there’s no way Pinegrove could work as well without him.
The seemingly mundane details are never a bore in the Pinegrove universe; it’s in these average frames where Hall creates compelling miniatures of America in a time where most would rather avoid analysis of their own country. Ahead of their sold out show at The Middle East on Sunday, we discussed all this and, literally, a bag of chips with Evan Stephens Hall upon his return from the UK after the band’s first solo tour abroad.
Allston Pudding: So how was the UK?
Evan Stephens Hall: Really good! The audiences were extremely attentive, maybe even a little quieter in general than American audiences. They were not singing along, which I kinda like!
AP: Why’s that?
ESH: I have a habit of going off-script melodically speaking live and one of my favorite things to do is to stretch out the parameters of the song with improvised melody. Maybe I had a bit more leeway over there… or also, since it was my first time out there, everyone was just shy?
AP: So in general, you’d prefer no singalongs at a Pinegrove set?
ESH: Well… I feel a little conflicted about it. With the full band, it’s pretty much fine because it’s louder, but I sometimes play a little quieter when it’s acoustic. On one hand, [singing along] is a show of support and community. When they sing the word “I”, they mean themselves; when I sing the word “I”, I mean myself. Logistically though, like I said, I just really like improvising vocally. When I do that, people are still singing along to the recorded version, which, yes, I acknowledge is the definitive version. But to me that’s just one iteration of it, the way I happened to sing it that take; the songs themselves exist in a little bit more of an abstract way. Which, by the way, is acknowledged in copyright law.
AP: [laughs] So it’s a matter of testing the boundaries of copyrights in that case?
ESH: Yeah! [laughs] In a way, it comes off as a slightly rude or antagonistic gesture to change the melody up on people when there are a couple hundred people that just want to sing this line with me and I sing it differently, but that’s not something I intend to do.
AP: I can kinda see both sides of it when you put it like that. In terms of the American shows, you guys got a lot of hype from SXSW. Would you say SXSW was more business or pleasure on your end?
ESH: [laughs] Well, SXSW is a maniacal clown car of rotating casts and it’s all crazy bullshit. Let me preface that by giving you a quick rundown of what our schedule was like. We were there for three days, arrived the first night at 5 PM, and then somehow proceeded to play four shows after that. Not even in a single day, just one night. That was wild and cool, but I was just so burnt out. And I’m really susceptible to sunburn, even though I prepared! I definitely lathered up, but no amount of sunscreen could have prepared me for what I endured.
AP: I also heard you went around one of the days with a pizza box full of your records… did you sell any?
ESH: [laughs] Alright, that is a little bit wrong and a little bit right. The way our label [Run For Cover] packages the records, they’re in a big box in groups of ten and each group is housed in a small record box. So no, it wasn’t formerly a pizza box, but we almost sold one to a person at a bar! A total stranger! They almost bought one based on my persuasive reasoning skills, like, sight unseen. It turns out they didn’t have enough money, but they did buy me a beer!
AP: Okay, so there was some pleasure with the business! Let’s shift across the country and talk about Pinegrove’s hometown of Montclair a bit. Between you guys, Forth Wanderers, and Tawny Peaks, I feel like I’ve read a lot about Montclair bands taking emo and pushing it into different directions, but I just don’t view any of those bands in a strictly emo light. Would you say there’s a “Montclair sound” in any way or is it all diverse?
ESH: I think there’s been a big handful of skilled, melodic songwriters from Montclair, so it’s a honor to be associated with all those bands and bands like Cold Foamers too. All these bands are kind of from different time periods of Montclair, but a lot of our first shows were at this thing called The Serendipity Café, which was this monthly event that showcased local bands through an organization of students and one very helpful chaperone. Having something structured like that influenced the scene in a big way; there was a reason to rehearse, a reason to have band practices after school, and a place to play.
I think [the diversity in sound] is definitely true, but I also think there are common threads. [Songwriters out of Montclair] are pretty lyrically driven; they’re somewhere between happy and melancholy, between being kinda energetic and kinda stoney.
AP: I feel like Cardinal has a notably strong sense of narrative and detail while covering very familiar topics: friendship, love, death, struggling with things in a small town/bubble, and finding peace within it all. What did you want to achieve personally with Cardinal?
ESH: First off, I think people are down to hear a good story, no matter what format it’s in, so it’s not entirely surprising to me that people are responding to the more narrative elements of my songwriting. If you can write something that feels propulsive, then you’re going to be able to stow away the things you actually want to talk about. For example, friendship and compassion are some of the things I really wanted to investigate with Cardinal.
The more thematically coherent an artist can make a thing, the more that a listener or reader believes that it’s an intentional, thoughtful universe. They trust the author more and are more likely to follow them to the weird places that the author wants to go. That’s the reason why I try to write so texturally about location; it’s another way I think of encouraging trust between myself and the listener. If it feels familiar, it becomes inviting.
AP: Would you say touring more since Cardinal came out and seeing the country has created a resolved/content feeling now that so many more people are listening? How has your writing evolved since?
ESH: Much of Cardinal was written when we went on our first full US tour three summers ago with Tawny Peaks. There was a lot of traveling, a lot of friends I had met and wanted to keep in touch with but were across the country, so a lot of it is about correspondence, placement, and displacement. Those were themes that I really feel emphasized a sense of home on the album because it’s tough to really know something unless you know its inverse.
Right now, I’m working on something where the entire album takes place inside a cube. [laughs] I think I’m trying to take what I learned about writing even more literally, you know, about place and geometrically abstracting it. I’m figuring out how to write compellingly about places that don’t really exist. I dunno; it’s kinda spacey and I’m still working the kinks out of it.
AP: I think that’s going to be really fascinating given how rich Cardinal is with those tangible locations. Winding down though, we asked a few fans for some burning questions to ask you. I really liked this first one: what is the significance of the “Rainbow, Sun, Hail” sign that’s in a lot of the band photos and on one of the EP covers?
ESH: Ahh, well, it’s a cloth tapestry that I found at the Red, White, and Blue Thrift Store in Paterson, NJ about six years ago, maybe more. I think it was in my decorative strategy for rooms in college as early as Sophomore year.
I really like that thing for a few reasons, the first being this thing is deeply in my color scheme, which I might describe as “cool elementary school”. I think there are Pinegrove colors and I’ve done my best to make a consistent visual universe as well. I paint all the album art and I’m heavily involved in all the posters. So, when I saw this [tapestry], I was like, “yeah, that’s my palette forever.”
The weather formations are weirdly simplified, even sarcastic in a way. For example, the fog frame is just grey. It’s just a grey window, no texture. They’re two rows of four windows… also, I’m really attracted to rectangles in the first place because I think of rectangles sort of as a metaphor for creating— one way to talk about art is to look at the limits of the frame, what is contained in it, what it excludes, what purpose as a narrative frame it holds. The rectangle kind of represents art in general to me. I like the repetition of four rectangular panes in a window and the four windows going across… four is an important number in Pinegrove numerology.
AP: Why is that?
ESH: Because… oh gosh, you probably didn’t expect the question to go down this path…
AP: No, I’m more pleasantly surprised than anything that a tapestry could bring about an answer like this!
ESH: [laughs] Four is important because… okay, so the number three imagines something continuing like an ellipsis, but four is almost to belabor a point and make it obvious that we’re talking about repetition. It’s the ellipsis that knows it’s being repetitive. Repetition is the foundation of music as a format and also, you’ve got four beats to a pop song measure. Four, to me, is the most musical number. In this context, as a companion to the music, it seems to wink as if to say, “yep, I know what i’m doing.” Four describes self aware art.
Back to the tapestry, I think the glibly flat weather formations are human renditions of messy, natural phenomenon. I think, as an artist, I’m trying to capture the messy, emotional phenomena of being a human compressed in a simplified and engaging way. That’s sort of a mission statement for us, right?
AP: [laughs] Sounds like it.
ESH: There are all these complex, unbelievable, unknowable, inchoate feelings and I’m just doing my best to put them in a two minute song. I was writing Cardinal for three years, but really, the listener wants learn what I learned over three years in two minutes. On top of that, having been interviewed way more this year than any point in my life, I’ve been forced to strive for coherence and really articulate what my strategy and message is with Pinegrove. Like, if I can’t explain it, it’s not good enough. It’s a big challenge, I’d say, stuffing those insights into reduced forms.
That’s probably why, artistically, I’m really excited about simple shapes and colors. It’s about creating a really direct, but emotional approach, which mirrors what I’m going for with the music as well. To encapsulate big things into small chunks.
AP: I can definitely see the intentionality in all of that. I gotta be honest; I don’t get answers like that from many bands… do you ever put this much thought and backstory into your other projects?
ESH: This is my only project. This is my life. This is what I do and I don’t have any particular ambitions outside of it.
AP: I almost want to end it on that note, but the last question is pretty simple: what are the essential tools for an “existential party” as described in your Bandcamp info?
ESH: [laughs] You got ta have chips and you got ta have dips.
AP: Chips and dip. That’s all?
ESH: Yep. Stay away from Tostitos Scoops though because they’re kinda sharp and might cut your mouth. Good luck out there!