Pinegrove: “A song is a process that helps me understand myself better”

Ahead of a small string of UK shows, Evan Stephans Hall talks the latest LP 11:11, its call to action and the importance of self-worth

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Since their arrival in 2016 with debut Cardinal, which seemed to usher in a new wave of indie rock that weaved the rust and warmth of country and folk with the cathartic cadences of emo, Pinegrove have pulled loving swathes of listeners into their vivid world with all their friends and places.

But on the New Jersey band’s fifth full-length, 11:11, released back in January, it’s the wider world that gets frontman and lyricist Evan Stephens Hall’s attention, and more specifically the forces that threaten to disrupt it. Ahead of shows in Manchester, London and Bristol, Hall talks us through his hopes for the record, waking up to collective action and looking for tensions between melody and lyric.

11:11 has been out for a few months now. Does it feel like it’s had time to breath, and has its meaning developed at all now that you’ve had a chance to hear other people’s reactions?

Oh yeah, I hope so. I’ve had a really positive response about some of its themes, like the climate crisis, with people letting me know that it was able to open a space for them where they could be angry, sad or even galvanised or more courageous to get involved with climate organising. So that’s been an ideal response, that’s what I was hoping for.

What point did this come after Marigold? Is it a distinct new chapter or a development of it do you think?

In certain ways everything I do at this point is a response to previous efforts or an expansion of what I’ve been trying to do previously. There are some songs where maybe the melodies were written much earlier, like with ‘Habitat’, the first part at least was initially recorded with Cardinal, although the lyrics were totally different. And with ’11th Hour’ too was a song I’d written around 2014. But then I think it started to thematically coalesce after I wrote the song ‘Orange’, a song that was written in a day in response to these photographs being circulated from the West Coast in Oregon. They were experiencing this very unusual, apocalyptic scene; there’s this particular photograph of this UPS truck bathed in blood light, taken at two in the afternoon or something. It just looks like the most horrific, bleeding sunset you’ve ever seen, and this was a result of not even forest fires in the area, but essentially across the whole West Coast.

We hadn’t seen something like that before, or at least I hadn’t, and there was a really emotional reaction on social media. I was looking at this from about 3,000 miles away, but I still felt it and that started a process in me.

Pinegrove - "Habitat" (Official Video)

You mentioned the album opener ‘Habitat’, why was now the right time to put that track to use? Was it something in the melody reflecting the message you wanted it to have?

That’s an abstract question, whether melodies themselves have an inherently emotional component or that they’re only activated when the lyrics happen. When I finish an album, or when it gets released actually, then I feel released from the obligation of thinking about that album any longer in any critical way and I can think about what I wanna think about. Frequently that involves returning to old things, just kind of culling you know. It’s never the case that an album’s finished and I’m just totally done with any ideas that were on deck, although that would be ideal, to get everything I’m thinking about and working on in a single project, then I suppose I could just die. But you know, OK some are further along than others but I love all my children [laughs], but I’ll work on some and then for whatever reason it’s these eight, nine or ten tracks that get finished in time and once I start to see the batch emerge then I start to try to connect them and that inevitably means that some don’t fit in whatever web I’m trying to weave. So after I’m done with the project I can check out the remainders. Sometimes songs will resurface after a long time for no discernible reason.

It’s a natural process of where my interest goes. I like to use that as an editorial tool, because if I’m interested in it then that means something, and if I’m not interested in it that really means something; if I can’t get excited by this idea then how can I expect anybody else to? So it’s a good barometer for quality control. So the cutting process really happens quite naturally; we find for whatever reason what we’re avoiding.

11:11 is strewn with markers that directly pull you into the context of the song, not just the immediate environment, with the birds chirping nearby, but the social context of the last few years of corona, vandalised monuments, bragging politicians… Was this an inevitability, or something you thought consciously about?

I think I always had a sense of the underdog or something, but I realised that that was a political commitment somewhere around 2016. For a lot of Americans the Bernie campaign of that year was really activating because he was beginning to use language that was extremely inclusive, and I think a lot of Americans had never really experienced a politician who was inviting them through language to participate. Otherwise it was the technocratic language that implied that you had to be a specialist about everything before you were entitled to an opinion.

So that was the seed that was planted, but in 2020 it was just laid bare that enormous things need to change and capitalism is the problem. At least that’s the conclusion I’ve come to from trying my best to follow what’s gone on. If you say that in a song, or at least if I say that in a song, I think it might come out pretty didactic or soapboxy, so to me the challenge was trying to move some of the conclusions from the political space into an emotionally metabolised product. Look, if I wanted to write a political manifesto I would have written a political manifesto, an essay. But the format of songs is, for better or worse, what I’m given or have some amount of comfort with, and I knew that it needed to be emotionally based for it to make sense as my music.

So yes, you’re seeing or hearing some pretty specific images, but I think they’re kinda kaleidoscopically oriented. You can certainly see how I feel about them when I’m singing them, but I hope that for people who’re connecting with it, there’s some amount of processing that they need to do to meet me where I am.

They’re definitely all seen through your own perspective, as it’s always been with your songwriting. Even when the song is centred around more personal issues, there was always a reference to a place or a friend. Your shows are a palpably emotional experience, how does it feel to see people sharing quite specific experience from your own life?

I think at first when I’m writing a song I’m trying to connect with myself. Like most people, I sometimes feel alienated from myself or my true feelings, so a song is a process that helps me understand myself better. But a change happened around six years in to writing songs for Pinegrove, when people started to listen to them on a larger scale. I realised in some way that I had a responsibility to people, that if they were singing these songs they were inhabiting my first person. Almost all of these songs are sung from a first-person perspective, so when somebody else is singing it, they’re singing “I”. I wanted to think about what it meant for somebody else to be inhabiting that perspective, and one conclusion I came to was that I absolutely should be tender to myself in these songs, because that means that somebody else is inhabiting that self-acceptance. That’s really important to me because there’s so many things telling us that whoever we are is wrong or malformed in some way. Everybody to one degree or another has some suspicion that they’re not doing it right, whatever ‘it’ is, and so these songs in a lot of ways are meant to be about acceptance and love.

There’s self-love and there’s a gesture of communal love, because this effort comes from the idea that we deserve to understand love better and once we do the world might be just a little bit better.

Photo by Brittany O’Brien

I think that’s why your shows have such a tangible emotional response. Do you ever feel a sense of pressure, or does it weigh heavy on you at all, to give the experience the emotional weight it deserves?

It is admittedly pretty exhausting to try to open a sincere and unique emotional space every night for the people who are there and for us. To some degree, it does become impossible to really inhabit a song like, say, ‘Aphasia’ or ‘Old Friends’, ones that we’ve played hundreds of times. And yet, I’ll be surprised occasionally by just the way I respond to a song or to the audience responding to a song, and occasionally there will be something that really differentiates it from the hundreds of other times. We played 200 concerts in 2016 and have played a lot since, and every single one is unique; for anyone who’s seen Pinegrove more than once, I think they know that there’s some degree of improvisation that goes on when we’re playing and that we try and play to the room. The size of the room, the people in it, the dimensions, the shape of it, the way the lights look and feel. 

We’re doing our best to respond to what’s in front of us and that results in some unique formulations, but you’re making real-time judgements and knowing that you need to be in a space of acuity. Like OK, how do I get there if I don’t especially feel like going there? That’s a question that I feel like a lot of performers face, and especially performing in 2022, there are a lot of added stresses. Are people wearing masks? We had to cancel seven shows on this last tour, we had to cancel a show the tour before for health reasons. 

But yeah, if you do anything enough you begin to experience the full range of human emotion in reference to that thing. For a band that’s played hundred of concerts like my band has, we’ve done it to experience all types of shows, ones where you come off feeling absolutely sad, and ones where you come off feeling absolutely elated. 

Do you think songs such as ‘Darkness’, for example, help alleviate some of that weight? Even the title of that track has a looming heaviness to it, but it’s sounds pretty playful isn’t it? It reminds me of listening to old Green Day in a way…

Yes absolutely, you’ve gotta be playful with the darkness. I’m really attracted to songs that have some emotional tension between the lyrics and what the melody seems to be saying. It seems we’ve circled back to your original question! So that’s a really interesting thought experiment: what happens when the melody is saying one thing and the lyrics are saying another thing? 

Green Day is a perfect example of that, especially on Insomniac, where the lyrics are comically pessimistic. “I must insist on being a pessimist”, he says on the very first song ‘Armatage Shanks’, which is like the manifesto of the album. And yet it’s so upbeat, so it makes you feel on one hand understood, and then on the other that maybe it’s possible to get over it. 

Pinegrove - "Darkness" & "Skylight" (Pallet Session)
Video by Paddle Splashers

One song on the latest record that does align melodically and lyrically, though, is ‘Swimming’, which It feels like the record’s climax before the relief of the last two tracks. It feels like it summarises the whole album in a way, with the imagery of bodies and nature spluttering and intertwining…

Yeah definitely. The climate crisis is a human problem, and it’s mostly for humans, although there’re certainly species that have already bore the brunt of human behaviour. But the world will continue, I think. I’m not a scientist but everything I’ve read has lead me to believe that there is going to be some level of life that continues, regardless of whether humans do.

Anyway, yeah I think that song does encapsulate ‘I’m not ready to die yet’. It’s time to really start trying in the thrashing of survival that’s embodied by that character who’s coughing up saltwater.

You’re using your platform to try to help tackle this face on, but do ever you wrestle with the dilemma of action vs escapism? We’ve talked about how cathartic your shows are, but I’m reminded of the closing moments of the album, which warns of the 11th hour, but is followed by a short-term sense of warmth and cosiness…

Right! I was thinking of a couple of things as you asked that. There’s the Mount Eerie line, “I burned the whole world/ And was warm for a little while”. Then I’m also thinking of the writer Mark Fisher, who mentions in Capitalism Realism that capitalism is incredibly good at including anti-capitalist gesture. You know, you go see the movie Wall-E in theatres and you feel like you’ve had this emotional arc towards a better world, but at the end of the movie all that’s transpired is that you’ve paid for a ticket. You feel like you’ve done something, but actually it’s just been coddling you. Now, it’s not a bad thing necessarily, as long as it’s paired with action, and I think that art has this interesting way of being both balm and scalpel, sometimes at the same time. In a certain way I think that Mark Fisher’s reading of Wall-E is kind of pessimistic and doesn’t really acknowledge that actually comfort is important. Just because you feel comforted in the moment does not prevent engagement in the way that he suggests.

I hope to be using music in some ways to bring people together, which I think is a form of organising, and I’m interested in exploring that further. I’ve always been interested in what the potential for community could be through music, and in the 2010s I really witnessed and learnt from it in the American DIY scene. I think that that was what taught me a lot of the tenets of socialism before I even know that word.

It’s a good question and there’s no easy answer, but I really hope that when we’re coming together it’s an opportunity to, yes, sing together and feel something move through us and maybe exorcise some demons together, but that people might come away feeling like they might have a little more space to take on some collective action.

Pinegrove play Manchester, London and Bristol on 13, 14 & 15 May. Limited tickets available here.