Along the banks of the Schuylkill River, Evan Stephens Hall of Pinegrove sits among twigs and rocks and plays two new songs on his acoustic guitar. His bandmate sits beside him with a banjo and a Casio as they perform “New Friends” and “Old Friends.” All the while, Hall sings profound proclamations about companionship over twangy chords.
Pinegrove’s current line-up consists of lead singer and guitarist Hall, Nick Levine also on guitar, his brother Zack Levine on drums, Adan Feliciano on bass, and Nandi Plunkett on keys.
BTR recently spoke with Pinegrove’s frontman about the band’s beginnings and where they are headed next.
BreakThru Radio (BTR): Can you explain your background as a musician and how Pinegrove came to be?
Evan Stephens Hall (ESH): I should first start by saying that my dad is a composer; he writes music for TV commercials and film. There were always instruments around the house and I was playing them from an early age. And we wrote songs together for our band, which was called The Reptiles. I was in elementary school then. I played drums and sang and my dad played guitar.
Then, after that I started playing music with friends and especially with Zack [Levine]. We were in a band together in sixth grade called the Pug Fuglies and we’ve been in bands together ever since. We were in one band through all of middle school and high school called Dogwater with our other friend Dan. When we graduated college, we knew that we wanted to try to play a lot of music together and that’s been happing since.
Nick, who plays guitar, is Zack’s younger brother and Adan, who plays bass, is Nick’s best friend from high school. And then I met Nandi in college and we started performing there as a duo. I played bass drum, acoustic guitar, and sang, she played keyboard, snare, and floor tom, and sang. It was a pretty full sound for only two people!
We’ve gone through a few different permutations of the lineup, sometimes including our friend Sam Skinner who we still record with. And that’s that! There are five of us now and we try to play together as often as possible.
BTR: What is the significance behind the name Pinegrove?
ESH: I went to Kenyon College in Ohio. It was in a really rural area. There is a land conservancy or farm, I’m not sure exactly what to call it, but it was on college property. You would walk up this big hill and there was a big grid of pine trees, which some people called the pinegrove. And I’d go there to write, and explore, be alone, be introspective. I’d go there for spiritual purposes and creative purposes and it was an important spot for me.
The more time I spent there, the more time I thought about why I connected with it as much as I did. I should describe the pinegrove first. The pine trees are planted close enough so that you can’t really see the sky except for places where a tree died and isn’t there anymore In those places there’d be a cylinder of light on a sunny day shining through to a circle on the ground, a dotted line to a circular patch of grass or weeds and greenery where otherwise there would be wet needles around and under your feet. So there’d be these green circles and rows of dark red trees negotiating the angles against your eye as you walk through them. Very geometrical.
Another reason I like the rows of pine trees is that it reminds me of repetition, and I think that’s one of the things about music that’s important. It’s a format that is based explicitly in repetition, and I guess that made me realize that there was something inherently musical about Pinegrove the place. So with all of that, I wanted to honor it and challenge myself by calling the project Pinegrove. I wanted to try to write songs that tapped into whatever coolness the Pinegrove was on and challenge myself to live up to that.
BTR: It sounds like there is a mixture of genres coming into play for Pinegrove. How would you describe your sound?
ESH: We are definitely indie rock, but that doesn’t say too much. Oh, there’s actually a good way to describe it that I saw recently–I was listening to the new album by Ratboys and I noticed that one of their tags on Bandcamp is “post-country.” I think post-country is exactly the type of music we are trying to make. There are definitely elements of rock, R&B, and maybe sometimes math, but I mainly think I try to write American music. Music that feels like it’s from somewhere. I’m really attracted to twangy inflections. I used to say that we were a country band, but that didn’t feel totally right, a little facetious or something. But post-country, it’s a good coinage!
BTR: Do you draw influence from any specific country bands or bands in general?
ESH: My favorite songwriter is Gillian Welch. I think she is one of the smartest melodists. Her arrangements with David Rawlings are beautiful, with interlocking guitar lines that are so slow and so sweet. I really respond to it.
But I think there are a lot of people right now who are making music that feels inflected by Americana and that sort of stuff. Like people who sound like Hank Williams versus Pavement. Then you get bands or artists like Stephen Steinbrink or Porches, and, to a degree, Alex G. These are all my favorites right now. Also, I really like Frankie Cosmos. I hear all their music and they make me want to write better songs. I think a lot of [their music] is in the folk tradition, and I consider myself to be in that tradition or lineage too.
BTR: You released a new song called “New Friends,” which definitely has that country vibe going on. Can you explain your writing process for that song or your songs in general?
ESH: I think usually it starts away from my instrument. I’ll be walking in the park or waiting in line and I’ll come up with a melody or a lyric. Maybe it’s the melodic way someone will say something and I’ll re-imagine in a near-rhythm. Like my brain is playing with it and quantizes it. It’s a small scrap, but then I start playing with the scrap and listening to what the scrap wants. Then it gets bigger and it starts to become a puzzle. I can see the parts that are problems or the parts that work. I play through the parts that work until they expand and I try to attack the problems until there aren’t any. And then I’ve solved the puzzle.
There are obviously a ton of different components like melody, and structure, and lyrics, and they all happen at different times for different puzzles. But usually it’s the melody that comes first, and that might come along with some phonetic fragment also. I try to listen to what my subconscious wants to say with those fragments. I don’t really go into it with a strict idea of what I want the song to be about. I try to let it tell me, I try to be receptive to what feels best for the song.
As far as compositional balance or magnetism, I can tell when a song holds together and when it doesn’t. I keep working on a song until I’m finished or until I get bored of it. Whenever the band gets around to having rehearsal, we try to dig in. I’ll play the song usually, or I’ll make a demo, and I might have ideas about what my bandmates’ parts could be, but I really like to hear what their interpretation is first. I like to listen for ideas that I wouldn’t have considered and then I’ll show them mine and we talk it out and play it out until we all feel like the song rocks.
BTR: Are you in the process of working on new music?
ESH: Yes, well, I love writing songs and I do it as often as possible. I’m always working on new material. We are working on new recordings. Well, we’re done with them, but we are considering how to release it. No plans for that yet though. But we would like to reach as many listeners as possible and keep traveling and playing a lot. I’m planning on recording a new mixtape I think, too. Trying to do it all as much and as often as possible. Trying to reach new listeners and make new friends.