“Old Friends”, the opening track on the excellent debut album, Cardinal, from Montclair, New Jersey’s Pinegrove combines all the best aspects of the band. There’s the country-esque twang of frontman Evan Stephens Hall’s golden voice, swelling guitars that rise and fall, and introspective lyrics that reveal themselves more upon repeated listens. “How come every outcome is such a comedown?” wonders Stephens Hall as he thinks back on his small town surroundings. There’s a sense of him wanting to escape, but he realizes at the same time that this place will always be a part of him. But “Old Friends” isn’t a downer-fest. “I knew happiness when I saw it,” the singer concludes- a hopeful thought that emphasizes a key theme of finding optimism in situations where it might be impossible to muster otherwise. Listen to the song below along with our recent interview of Stephens Hall and the band’s drummer, Zack Levine.
What were some of the differences you noticed self-releasing your first album and putting your new record, Cardinal, out through Run For Cover Records?
Evan Stephens Hall: Yeah, well immediately we had a wider listenership. There are a lot of people that really check out anything Run For Cover puts out, which was part of what attracted us to the label. Then on the flip side of it, we’re working on their schedule. We were used to finishing a record up and then just putting it out the next day on Bandcamp. This one had been done for months, maybe half a year or even more. We finished recording it last New Year’s and then mixing it until about May.
Zack Levine: That required some patience that we had never before had to exercise. It’s also worth it when you can hold a vinyl in your hands and there are tons of physical copies.
Evan: They can facilitate making our weird ideas come to life. There’s financial support now in a way that there never was before. Like we did a deluxe release where I painted a bunch of records and the materials were expensive. I probably wouldn’t have been able to do a project like that if they weren’t helping us out a little bit. We’re gonna do a music video eventually which we never had any budget for and now we do.
How did you guys find Run For Cover? Were you shopping around?
E: Well, we’d been working with our friend Greg booking shows for a while and he knew that we were working on a new album. When we finished, we gave it to him, our friend Cam Boucher who plays in Sorority Noise, and our friend Dexter from Montclair. They showed it to people at labels that they had connections to and when we were able to figure out who was listening to it and enjoying it, it was pretty clear to us.
So the album name Cardinal. It’s in the lyrics of the opening song (“Old Friends”), but were you thinking more about the bird or cardinal directions?
E: Both. There’s a lot about travel and so I think that both fit in pretty well. The bird is free and mobile and the directions reemphasize that theme.
Where does the album art originate from? I noticed you have similar square tattoos on your arms.
E: All of the stuff that I write about is stuff that I think about and stuff that’s important to me. There’s this weird representational flip sometimes where the things that are important to me are then in stone on a recorded piece or visually with the images we work with too. And usually they come first because they meant something to me, but then once they’re a Pinegrove thing then that’s an additional meaning to it. I have an ampersand tattoo as well [the logo of the band]. For so long I was interested in circles and now I really like squares.
Where does the ampersand logo come from?
E: That’s a symbol that’s really attractive to me for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s like a semi-alphabetic symbol, one that’s a combination of “e” and “t” (of et. cetera). So that sort of sets it apart from the rest of the alphabet, and there’s something about that which allows it to exist as a more concretely aestheticized symbol. To that end, it’s a symbol of art.
Z: It’s inclusive rather than exclusive and there’s no bounds to it.
What are some of the venues you got started in in Montclair, New Jersey?
E: I’m the only one who still lives in Montclair. But we all grew up there and one place that was important to us was Serendipity Café. It was a monthly student run show that showcases local talent and gives kids a place to play.
Z: And it’s still going on.
E: And the Batcave. That came in at a time in my life when I really needed it. I was living in Montclair after college and most of my friends had graduated from college and were in other places in the country so I didn’t really know too many people. But then when Batcave started there were shows going on at least every week, usually more. There were people there to hang out with and it was a great place to see music. It was a nationally important place for DIY musicians. It made a huge difference in my life living in Montclair those years. It’s now defunct which is unfortunate because the landlord realized that hundreds of people were coming out of the basement every week.
Z: It had a good run. Unfortunately with regard to those kind of venues it’s kind of like all good things must come to an end. Rare is the house venue that lasts for a long time. But Batcave had its run and I think along with Serendipity, those are the two Montclair institutions that we hold near to us.
How did you guys meet in Montclair?
E: We went to middle and high school together and also our parents know each other.
Z: Josh and David who are touring with us now are pretty new to the family. That’s one of the reasons we’re doing a bunch of shows these weekends is to get some live performances under our belt. Before Josh and David came along, almost all of the members of Pinegrove are from Montclair and that includes my younger brother Nick. Our dads are on the album too.
E: Zack’s dad, Mike Levine, does pedal steel on like three or four tracks. Our parents also play in a band together too called Julie’s Party.
What was the hardest song to write on the new album?
E: It’s interesting to think about the collection in terms of which was most difficult. Probably “Aphasia” and “New Friends” took the longest. All songs reveal themselves in different ways and sometimes I need to be more patient for some than others. “New Friends” I had the beginning part for a long, long time, but I didn’t know how I wanted to end it. I just kept trying different things and eventually found one that I liked. “Aphasia” is essentially the same melody the whole way through and that was kicking around in my head for a while before I put down words to it. That end section was something that I had written even before then. I try to put my head down and keep working because I never know when different sections are going to come back into relevance. Sometimes a fragment from a few years ago can satisfy the requirements. It’s not really a matter of difficulty, more a matter of patience. Well, and I guess that can be really hard. Some of the material can be painful to think about, but that’s also sort of the point: to work through things.
When you get back to Montclair you’re starting a tour in the spring?
Z: Pretty soon, we leave March 9 and come back May 1.
E: Very early on we’re playing a few shows with a band called Zula who we like a lot. And we’re going to be at South By Southwest. The big tour is with Into It. Over It. and The World Is a Beautiful Place And I’m No Longer Afraid To Die and Sidekicks.
Who are some bands you want to give a shout-out to? Either from Montclair or bands you’re listening to now.
E: Cold Foamers, they’re Montclair-via-Philadelphia. We mentioned Dexter Loos earlier and he’s a member of that band.
Z: Yeah, they just released an EP.
E: I’ve been listening to Brittle Brian a lot, they’re out of Boston. Andy Shauf too, who’s out of Saskatchewan, Canada.
Z: Zula too. We also played with this band Leapling in Syracuse at a show who are our good friends. Palm out of Philadelphia has an album that I’ve been listening to the past couple months. They do some really incredible stuff.
E: We could go on forever.