2nd Grade’s Take Two

Abi Reimold

2nd Grade’s Take Two

Abi Reimold

Meet the reinvigorated Philly pop-rock band and stream their tremendous new album Wish You Were Here Tour Revisited

In 1997, George Lucas went back and added what was, at the time, cutting edge CGI technology to the original Star Wars trilogy to set it up for the upcoming prequels. If you watch a Star Wars movie on Disney+ or something now, you’ll notice some very computer-y aliens walking amongst the very Muppet-y aliens from the ’70s. That’s because George Lucas couldn’t just leave a good thing as a good thing, worrying about his first cash cow looking old and antiquated against his shiny, state-of-the-art trilogy of the new millennium. It continues to piss off Star Wars purists. Too much fiddling with a finished product can be dangerous. You risk ruining a good thing. To mix movie metaphors, sometimes dead is better.

In 2018, Peter Gill was writing the first batch of what would be many songs under the 2nd Grade moniker. Not yet a full band, Gill was recording every instrument himself in a friend’s carpeted bathroom. Listening back to those recordings, ultimately released as Wish You Were Here Tour, is like a time capsule for him. At the time, his life wasn’t that awesome. He was working renting out swan boats to tourists at a riverfront park in Philadelphia. He didn’t have a phone, so he had to coordinate his life with an iPod Touch. And he didn’t have a home of his own.

In 2021, Gill’s life is more stable. 2nd Grade is now a five-piece project made up of some of Gill’s friends and bandmates from other local projects. And the band has since released their full-length debut on Double Double Whammy — last year’s 24-track Hit To Hit.

Oh, and he has somewhere to live.

So when the idea of re-recording some of Wish You Were Here Tour came about, his first instinct was that he was excited to present the songs in a new way, now that he surrounded himself with the band. But, unlike George Lucas, Gill was more aware of the danger of going back and adding paint to a portrait that was already “done.” And while he says he was thrilled to bring these songs back to life with his full band, he wasn’t sure how to make those solitary recordings a group effort.

“The challenge for me personally was, because I had done those original songs myself, I had this particular vision about, like, ‘Oh, this is how the songs are,'” Gill says over Zoom, flanked by guitarists Jon Samuels and Catherine Dwyer. “So I had this challenge of letting go of that to let other people in, and to bring their own ideas to the table. But that’s the whole point of it, too, so it wasn’t that challenging, right? I knew what I was in for, I guess.”

Over the past three years, the band has adapted these songs from Gill’s bathroom sketches for their live shows, adding their own personal touches and tightening the screws. When it came time to re-record, they went to Philly’s Headroom Studios with their engineer friend Lucas Knapp. That effort became Wish You Were Here Tour Revisited, a combination of nine songs from the previous release performed as a whole band, alongside 13 of the original recordings. It’s less of a retcon and more of a companion piece, embracing the original version while showing what the band is currently capable of.

“The original recordings were, I don’t know… they feel very special to me,” Dwyer says. “I felt like I just didn’t want to fuck it up, you know? I didn’t want to make something sound — I didn’t really feel like we could make a better version necessarily, but I definitely didn’t want to make a worse version.”

Samuels chimes in: “I think we made a better version.”

The drums are crisper; the guitars are layered more expertly; the vocals have more life. It all sounds technically better, but the songs haven’t changed, per se. Gill’s power-pop craftsmanship stacks up against the best of Teenage Fanclub, Sloan, and Big Star, so the bones were there. They just could’ve used a fresh coat of paint.

One of Gill’s original tasks when he first started these songs was, if nothing else, to let them stand the test of time, even if it was just by his own standards. “When I was writing the songs in the first place, I was really conscious of asking myself, ‘What is a good song versus a bad song?'” he says. “And, the answer that kind of satisfied me is that a good song is one that you won’t get sick of if you have to sing it over and over on tour or just as the years pass. So that was the goal when I was first composing them in the first place, and I guess I did OK, since I’m not sick of them.”

Part of that might be the impressive brevity in Gill’s songwriting. When you’re streaming a 2nd Grade track, the little time marker moves pretty damn quick. Most of them don’t top two minutes. The songs haven’t gotten old for Gill because they don’t have time to overstay their welcome. He follows Tom Petty’s “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus” advice to the extreme: “Get in, get out.”

“I would write a verse, a chorus, a verse, a chorus, and then maybe like a short guitar solo,” he adds. “I would put all the components that I would want to hear in a song, and then, only when I would look at the runtime after the fact, I would realize, like, ‘Oh shit, that was one minute.’ And that just kind of kept happening. I don’t know, it’s the way that I like to write now. There was a while a long time ago where I was really into, like, slowcore bands like Red House Painters that would have 10 minute songs. And I was like, ‘Shit, how could I write a 10 minute song?’ And I realized they’re playing it so slow, first of all, and then maybe it’s full of unnecessary stuff. I just want to get straight to the heart of the pop song, and that involves just taking out everything that you don’t need. And it turns out a minute is really all you need. A minute and a half I think is the perfect length.”

The perfect example is “No More Parties,” possibly the most relatable song on the record for anyone who shared a house with irresponsible roommates in college. It clocks in at 1:06, complete with a guitar solo, and the lyrics are as follows:

Someone took my comic books
Nanananana no more parties
Someone took my comic books
Now I’m stuck here cleaning up
Nanananana no more parties
Now I’m stuck here cleaning up
Nanananananananana, woo!

Gill is also great at using existing works to elicit emotion, drive a plot, and set a scene without having to get too verbose. In that way, he’s kind of the anti-Craig Finn, though he calls the Hold Steady frontman “one of the masters of reference rock.”

“Favorite Song,” the second track on the Wish You Were Here Tour Revisited release and the opener on the original, uses song titles from the Replacements, Fleetwood Mac, and Bill Callahan as stand-ins to represent the story of self-doubt, isolation, and a relationship running its course:

Up in my room
I hid all June
My favorite song was “Sixteen Blue”
Then I told lies
All through July
My favorite song was “My Baby Cries”

Gill sees pop culture references as a shortcut to profundity, both because the titles he references are each charged with their own nostalgia and because together they build out a world within a song. “It makes everything a little more believable,” he says. “I’m not writing in a vacuum, and I don’t want to pretend I am. I really want to have this music clearly grounded in so much more, I guess. I want it to be clear that it’s this huge web of influences. It’s just a part of a world that already exists, and I’m trying to graft myself onto it.”

Revisiting this material prompted Gill to completely re-evaluate his own place in not only the music world but his own band. After recording Hit To Hit as a three-guitar band, Gill decided to ditch the guitar and go full frontman, influenced by Guided By Voices’ animated-and-inebriated talisman Robert Pollard, who Gill calls a “true entertainer.”

“I would spend a lot of time looking down at the fretboard to make sure I’m playing the chords right,” Gill says. “Not as much time, you know, making eye contact with an audience, engaging with them as much as I could. And you know, part of the 2nd Grade ethos is that we want to be as entertaining as possible. We want all the songs to be packed full of hooks, and the short run times are sort of a way to consider people’s attention span. I see us as entertainers. And so, if [by] stepping away from guitar, I can be an even greater entertainer, I’m gonna do that.”

In a city like Philadelphia that simultaneously loves screaming about itself but insists upon humility, that’s not easy. Dwyer says there’s something of an “anti-fun gene” in DIY sometimes, so Gill was aware that channeling his inner Bob Pollard could be met with some scoffs. But, in true rock ‘n’ roll fashion, he doesn’t really care.

“I imagine a lot of bands in our world don’t really like to see themselves as entertainers,” he says. “And you see a lot of bands that are tentative about even promoting themselves. If they have an album, they’re like, ‘Sorry about my album.’ And I totally get that. I was in that kind of mindset for a long time. And I think I’m just coming out of it now.”

What a time to “come out of it,” too. The decision to be more front-and-center, increase eye contact, and place your emotional vulnerability in an even greater spotlight is a rare thing to land on after a year-plus of near-total isolation. But Gill called the pandemic a blessing, in a way, in that it forced him to look at things differently and evaluate what he wanted from this band and his art.

“I wonder if COVID hadn’t happened, if our band was playing…” he ventures. “Let’s say we were playing two shows a month throughout the whole time, and with all of the rehearsal that that entails, I don’t know if we would’ve had time to really adjust any of the parameters, or think about how we do things. And so, having all this time off was like the perfect time to do that. I think we’re ready for the future.”

As for the past: Gill admits he feels differently about the Wish You Were Here Tour songs now than he did a few years ago, but he chalks that up to just getting older and getting some distance from when they were written. Does it help that he has a home, a phone, and a better job? He’s not entirely sure there’s any correlation at all between his domestic stability and the noticeably bouncier and playful tone of the new record compared to its predecessor.

Samuels thinks that’s bullshit. “If you weren’t in your current situation, your records would suck,” he says.

Wish You Were Here Tour Revisited isn’t a re-do to fix something “bad” or a chance for superfluous additions. It’s not even a case of recording the songs the way they were “meant to be made,” because the original recordings have a real, raw emotional backbone to them. It’s more like allowing the expanded 2nd Grade lineup to fulfill their potential while celebrating the past and present of the band. It’s clean, it’s professional, but it doesn’t ignore its lo-fi past. It’s a way to let songs grow up alongside their writer.

Abi Reimold

Wish You Were Here Tour Revisited is out 6/25 on Double Double Whammy.

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