A stereotype of rock 'n' roll that existed many years ago was that of a non-stop party. Playing music for a living meant being rewarded with backstage trysts with groupies and cocaine, and brandy glasses full of brown M&Ms. Of course, it's usually much less glamorous than that. Long hours, sleep deprivation and malnutrition can make the touring lifestyle a hard slog. And then there's the loneliness.
Pinegrove, a band that hails from Montclair, New Jersey, knows a thing or two about loneliness. Their new album Cardinal pretty exclusively tackles a complex emotional web of friendship, interpersonal connections and the inevitable distance that grows between people. "Old Friends," the album's leadoff track, is a somber acknowledgement of the passing of time, and the toll that it takes on relationships with friends and significant others.
"Maybe I should have gone out a bit more, and you guys are still in town," sings frontman Evan Stephens Hall. "I got too caught up in my own shit—it's how every outcome is such a comedown."
It's a fairly universal feeling that Hall touches upon—that people sometimes just grow apart, and it happens despite our best intentions not to let it. In a phone interview from Tennessee, as the band was making its way to SXSW, he says no specific personal incident inspired the song, but that his own experiences act as a catalyst for exploring broader ideas in his songwriting.
"I write more clearly when I've experienced something similar to what I'm writing about," he says. "I usually have a specific circumstance or situation in mind, but it's more like drawing a line around the thing rather than saying what that thing is. I don't feel a...very direct responsibility to report from exact experiences. But at the same time, they absolutely influence the feeling and the mood and the texture."
Autobiographical or not, Cardinal —released in February via Run For Cover—is a record that feels incredibly intimate. It's not necessarily a quiet record, at least not all the time. There are big guitar sounds, and distortion pedals kick into gear when Pinegrove really gets going. But much of the songs feel like a conversation from Hall to a confidant.
On "Visiting," Hall taps into themes of distance and vulnerability, asking "After the drugs have worn off, and we're brittle in the light, will you still be there for me?" And in "New Friends," the final track and companion track to "Old Friends," there's hope in his words: "I fucked up, so I'll start again/ What's the worst that could happen?"
Pinegrove plays April 3 at The Irenic
From the beginning, Hall says, there wasn't necessarily a grand blueprint to write an album about friendship and insecurities. But once those themes arose, he let them guide him.
"For me, songs happen in two main ways: really slowly or really quickly," he says. "The ones with a lot of lyrics in them tend, for some reason, to happen pretty quickly. They'll just pour out...if I'm tapped into a particular train of thought that I want to pursue, that'll happen pretty easily.
"When I figured out what the songs were about, which sometimes is really totally cart before the horse—writing it and then me deciphering it...once I figure out what the song is trying to tell me, I'll edit it with that in mind to make the song clearer, or more trenchant," he continues. "So I guess I saw an opportunity there. The album is a lot about friendship. We decided pretty early on that 'New Friends' would be the last song on the album, and then we built the sequence from there."
Within the sonic approach that Pinegrove develops on Cardinal , there's a fair amount of diversity for an album that's only around 30 minutes long. "Then Again" is a high-energy rock song, with pedal steel adding a touch of twang to some blazing guitar riffs. Meanwhile, that same steel guitar provides a weeping, melancholy tone to a more spacious and gently gritty song like "Aphasia," and some rootsy banjo plucks back up the emo-revival surge of "New Friends."
What they all have in common, however, is a warm, even comfortable feel. The rich production of the album, paired with the occasional unpolished vocal take or Hall sometimes shouting his lyrics away from the mic, makes it feel like you're sitting in on a casual session with the band, rather than a professional studio. Hall confirms that this is an intentional strategy.
"We have developed particular recording strategies, and we've adopted these strategies because they mimic what we want to talk about in our songs—like that homespun or approachable quality is in the recordings," he says. "I try to mimic the casual lyrical tone, and...we try to be as accessible and human as possible. I think that the recording process, with all the incidental sounds in it, I guess I consider that an honest approach to recording, and that seems to be in line with other aspects of how we do the band."
Warmth, honesty and emotional engagement are all essential parts of who Pinegrove are as a band. And though theirs isn't a radical reinvention of rock's foundations, there's something uniquely unpretentious about it all. Hall says that he wants people to connect with the music, and maybe even take something away beyond a catchy melody.
"To me, the process is extremely cathartic, and the point is to help myself work through these issues, or just things I'm thinking about," he says. "And if that can help someone else, then Iíve done my part. I hope it moves people."