Q&A: Pinegrove On The Ethics Of Personal Songwriting And Why They’re Not Emo
Earlier this year, Pinegrove released Cardinal, one of our favorite albums of the year so far. The group — built on the foundation of core duo Evan Stephens Hall (guitar/vocals) and Zack Levine (drums) — hails from Montclair, NJ and has steadily accrued a fervent following in the DIY rock sphere, often getting lumped in with emo-leaning rock despite their rootsier inclincations. Yesterday, Pinegrove took the stage at Spinmedia’s Toyota Music Den at Lollapalooza, playing a stripped-down set with the whole band lined up on chairs either playing guitar or providing backup vocals. Afterwards, we caught up with Hall to talk about the increasing exposure of his project, what he’s reading right now, and the murky complexity that comes with drawing on your life to make art.
STEREOGUM: Your album’s been out for almost six months, and you guys have been getting a good amount of buzz and really positive coverage. How’re you feeling after all the attention?
EVAN STEPHENS HALL: It’s great, of course. I’ve always dreamed of having, basically, as wide a listenership as possible. So it’s totally incredible that some people are listening now. More than ever.
STEREOGUM: I read once that you and Zach decided to do this while listening to My Morning Jacket’s live album Okonokos.
HALL: Oh, well, I think that was the journalist narrativizing a bit, but the fact is that we’ve played music together for a long time and have enjoyed listening to music together as friends. But there was something special about that My Morning Jacket live album that was like, “Whoa, they do it! We wanna do it, too!” We saw them two or three times during that tour cycle [for Z]. There are several albums of that caliber that were as influential [for us]. Bon Iver is another one. I think you can probably hear it…I think clear influence or lineage or something like that.
STEREOGUM: That’s one thing I was curious about. Sometimes you guys get lumped in with the emo revival stuff–
HALL: Errantly, I think.
STEREOGUM: I agree with that. People often say, “Oh, it’s sort of a punk band, but it has these country-leaning tendencies,” or whatever. I’m curious what you think about the narrative that’s been placed on Pinegrove.
HALL: It makes sense to me that there’s a certain…that people are detecting a kinship between what we do and emo. It’s lyrically confessional, it’s emotionally direct, and emotive vocally, frequently. Well, actually…so there’s this article in Westword by Katie Moulton, it was a review of our concert in Denver. And she really put her finger on it, I think: emo points inwards and it’s our aim to point outwards.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, the idea of the directness of Pinegrove is to connect widely, and accessibly, right?
HALL: I hope so, yeah. But it’s also very fascinating to me, as an aside, and maybe you’ll be interested as a journalist: the way music journalism can complete the cycle by impacting my feelings about my music and reifying my own vision, refining my own vision, helping me clarify what I’m going for. And isn’t that also sort of the purpose of emotive songwriting, to articulate feelings that everybody has but that maybe not everyone has access to? I’m sure, if you’re anything like me, your favorite songs have said something you identify with that you didn’t even know you needed.
STEREOGUM: Totally. That feeling of discovering an artist or album that is something you’d been looking for without knowing it.
HALL: That’s sort of the epitome of what community can do, or collaboration. People will show you things that you never have thought of. You’re smart, I’m smart, but we just have two eyes, and two ears, and one set of experiences. So, anyway, I think this matrix of listening to contemporary musicians, writers responding, fans responding, and saying the things that are important to them, and then me responding to their response and so on, I think that’s how good communities are made.
STEREOGUM: I know it’s early yet to be thinking of “Where Pinegrove Goes Next” or whatever, but how exactly do you feel it impacting your vision of your band?
HALL: I think that I now have a stronger feeling of responsibility for making songs that matter to me, that I feel like I’m earnestly talking about the things that are influencing me. Which is not to say it has to be so serious. In fact, it’s one of my goals as a songwriter to be a little funnier, or to not take myself so seriously. But, acknowledging that there are people who take it seriously, I want to step up to that.
STEREOGUM: One thing you’ve talked about in the past that I really appreciate is the idea of a cohesive, concept-driven album. I know there’s a dirty word association with that–
HALL: Concept album? Yeah, stony, spacey. “Pinball Wizard.”
STEREOGUM: Right, the ’70s narrative stuff or something. But of course many of the best albums have that depth from recurring themes or images, etc. Do you find that many other rock bands around your age are shooting for that right now?
HALL: I think that there are a lot of really smart songwriters right now that are doing really incredible things with narrative. Andy Shauf comes to mind. Frankie Cosmos. Stephen Steinbrink. Alex G. Porches. Florist. These are important songwriters who have the vision and they are executing it. These are albums that you can live inside. They’ve made a universe for you, and they are internally referential, and that’s exciting.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel some kinship with those artists?
STEREOGUM: Another thing people always talk about with Pinegrove, naturally, is you and Zach being from New Jersey. Obviously Cardinal is rooted in some experiences there, but was there also a scene or anything you felt some connection to?
HALL: Well, I think that Montclair is a really special place. There are a lot of really good songwriters that have come out of there. Raw, twangy stuff, actually. I feel really excited about trying to write about where I’m from. I’m very proud to be from Montclair. It was a great place for me to grow up and develop as a songwriter. It’s maybe a more writerly impulse to write specifically about place to give a listener a sense of where you are. That’s a more immersive experience for the listener, and it’s my goal to persuade the listener to, well, listen to what I’m saying and to come along to all the places I want to take them. So, the more persuasive I can be, the better. That’s one good way to do it, I think.
STEREOGUM: Do you think you’ve told your Montclair story now, or do you think you’ll continue to stay sorta autobiographical going forward?
HALL: Oh, well, hold up. This is fiction.
STEREOGUM: I thought a lot of it was rooted in your life.
HALL: Yeah, but what artist doesn’t take from their own life? I’m compressing this and selecting the important parts, discarding the rest. I’m taking things that took me my whole life to learn and dropping them in a two-minute song. I am really tempted to buck against the notion that any aestheticized work is nonfiction. It’s like, yeah, I’ve taken what I’ve learned as a human being and put it into this, and yes, there are details that are from my life. I do feel committed, still, to writing about human relationships. To learning, publicly, how to be more compassionate and kinder. Making mistakes publicly, through my songs. Trying to perform self-improvement and vulnerability. And I’m working towards refining my message, always. And, as such, refining my life and aestheticizing my life to a way that makes me feel comfortable as a human being and my best self.
STEREOGUM: This is something I’ve thought about with writing I want to do that isn’t music journalism, the idea of taking things from your life and aestheticizing them. Obviously it just sort of happens if you’re doing creative work. But is it something you mull over consciously, like you’re collecting experiences specifically to filter them into this other thing? Or, if you want to be harsh about, even the idea that you might use people in your life, and their stories, as characters in your work and all that?
HALL: I totally know what you’re talking about. I don’t think I deliberately do that. I think that you’re right to point out that there are complex narrative layers of being a human who makes art derived from your own life — so I guess I admitted it, didn’t I? I tried my best, but there it is. I have, in my life, written songs that have hurt people. I used to think, “Anything for the song. The people need to know I am an honest journalist!” Now I’m thinking: Maybe there’s a way to make art that doesn’t hurt anybody. And if it does hurt someone, it is not worth it. Maybe we can take what we learn from the hard thing or the heavy thing and make it allegorical. Take that thing that we learned and plop it somewhere else that’s not going to be harmful to the person you learned it from.
STEREOGUM: You guys have talked about being influenced by writers as much as musicians, sometimes. Is there anything you’re reading right now that’s really inspiring you?
HALL: On tour with me I have two books by George Saunders that I’ve already read but just love and carry around with me. And I’m reading The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. I’d never read anything by him before, and I’m really liking it. It is beautiful. I love his rhythms. It’s very exciting and propulsive to read. There’s a sex scene like every 10 pages, which has been great. I am enjoying it thoroughly.