Evan Stephens Hall of Pinegrove is wishing for a better world with 11:11

Date:

Credit: Balarama Heller

“It’s so still, how’d you do that? You settled down my habitat” opens up New Jersey band Pinegrove’s fifth full-length album 11:11, which is out today via Rough Trade. Following 2020’s Marigold11:11 represents a back-to-basics approach for the group in that it leans into the rockier tendencies of their early years, but it also expands their horizons both sonically and lyrically as lead singer Evan Stephens Hall takes listeners on a journey to simply look up and see the world around them in vivid and sometimes intense color. 11:11 is a pleasantly unpleasant listen; it’s a sometimes-jarring political record that finds Hall reacting in shock to the tumultuous events of the 2020s (so far) with elegantly constructed, precise instrumentation underneath that blurs the line between alt-country and indie rock. Hall is incredibly explicit with his imagery, like in “11th Hour” where he sings of “When coal is cut across the sky / In saturated dye / An actual emergency now / It’s really going down” to reflect the immediacy of the climate change crisis that the world faces, but he also takes on the pure emotional heft of the world around us in fan-favorite “Cyclone”, where he’s simply asking the question “If it’s better, then why am I crying?”. It’s a heavy, emotional triumph of an album, and even though the band has postponed their first few dates supporting the album due to the Omicron variant (the tour will tentatively kick off on February 16th in Boston), 11:11 feels like an important album that will endure through the potential chaos of 2022 and impact a lot of listeners. I was thankful to chat with Hall about the meaning of 11:11 and the band’s history up to this point:

 

 

How are you? I feel like this is the first normal album rollout that you’ve had in a long time; Marigold was released right before the pandemic, Amperland was obviously out last year as vaccines were rolling out — does it feel any different?
I’m pretty good! It’s hard to consider this as “normal” given as we’re still dealing with the pandemic, but so far so good. We’ve been playing some shows, mask compliance has been high — it feels pretty safe to do and the shows have been fun. I will say that the first run of shows last fall was a real challenge because I kept losing my voice! I think it was because I hadn’t sung with drums in more than a year; the band was still close during the bulk of the pandemic, but we were never physically close, you know? So, my body was shocked to be doing that thing again; it was really hard to build that back up, and I’m finding that I’m losing my voice so much more quickly now from just, like, talking. We played something like 200 shows in 2016, so it’s an odd feeling to feel a little out of practice (laughs).

Yeah, the pandemic’s effect on touring has obviously been a leading conversation among myself and artists over the past year, but for Pinegrove I can see it being particularly impactful because of how heavily you toured in the past; I think I saw you all three or four times on a single run in one city alone. Now that you’ve been on this little run in 2021, are there any new things that you’ve noticed between the touring landscape then and the touring landscape now?
Well, I think that people now are grateful to experience community, and live music is such a crucial way to provide that. The joy that we’ve seen now is incredible because I think other people and fans of live music are just thrilled to be back in venues.

I feel like almost every band has had an incredible “first show back” experience.
Yeah, our first leg of dates was very interesting to put together, because we tried to keep everything outdoors as we were watching how the Delta variant was progressing. But that was subject to the whims of the weather — the very first show was postponed to the end of that run, then Bonnaroo got postponed because of a climate change-fueled hurricane, and a few others on that tour had to be moved around and canceled to deal with the weather. That wasn’t really on the show cancellation Bingo card, but of course it should have been — we thought it was going to be COVID or dealing with venues that were reluctant to do COVID-compliant methods for the audience’s protection, and instead climate change-related flooding comes in and takes you out (laughs). I think now, though, that people are generally more flexible and understanding when things like this happen after everything we’ve all been through, which is really wonderful when we’re dealing with it from the “oh, we might have to cancel dates” perspective. I was listening to Plans by Death Cab for Cutie the other week and there’s a line that goes “every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time”, and sure enough, that’s my year.

 

 

Opening the record with “Habitat” — what a move, dude.
(laughs) I’m so glad to hear you say that.

Well, it’s just this long opus of a track, and I feel like it’s a hell of a way to dive into the album. I think that the album leans into your earlier, emo-esque roots moreso than Marigold did, but this is still not a back-to-basics record. What’s your perspective on where this record might sit within the confines of your discography?
Well, we do like the idea of making new recordings that are in conversation with other parts of our discography. When I’m writing a new album, I know that I’ve already written Cardinal or Skylight or whatever, so I don’t really have much of an interest in repeating myself — but, it’s always fun to place these records in context with each other and seeing how they interact. This is the first album that we’ve recorded in a studio setting; everything prior to now has been recorded in a home, in like, giant rooms. I think we felt a little freedom to get a little messier, because we were in a “professional” area trying to make music rather than being in our house trying to sound professional. I went into it wanting to make a rock album — I think there are a lot of slower tracks that contradict that idea a little bit, but it still lands hard. “Respirate”, for instance, is probably the heaviest we’ve ever gotten, and I felt compelled to explore those territories just because I was feeling heavy. This was partly cathartic and partly necessary; when we recorded this album, it was the first time we’d played together in a long time, which made it a cathartic and communal experience.

The lineup is a little different this time around, right?
Yeah, it is — typically these records are born with me and Zack [Levine] and then they’re built brick-by-brick. This album has Megan Benavente playing on bass, and it was her first time playing new songs and writing new parts together — she tracked the whole thing from home in LA, which was insane to me. At first, it was a little confusing to figure out how we’d make a record while being distanced and safe, but we stumbled onto a method that we enjoyed: we had her do, like, six takes on every song that had variance in how she played. First was, like, basic root notes, and then on the next one she’d follow the bass drum, and so on. Together, we comped the bass parts together from those six takes and moved things around to where we could compose something on the computer with really amazing and adventurous basslines. I think what we came up with were these really melodic compositions on bass, and opportunities where the bass was the lead instrument; Pinegrove has really never done that before. It was out of necessity that this invention took place, and it led to something beautiful.

You referenced the move to an actual studio setting to record, but how else does this album stray away from the earlier Pinegrove recordings? It’s funny — the way you talked about the bass makes me think about the ways the guitar tracks sounded on Everything So Far.
A lot of what was recorded then was just me in my bedroom with no real producer-type figure to tell me when to stop putting guitar tracks on the song (laughs). I think that’s a big part of it, you know. This time around, I wanted to try with Sam [Skinner] to make it as if we went in a more-defined style of collaboration. The way that Sam and I did it was that I really wanted real debate about every decision we made. If we agreed, there was no reason to debate — but if we disagreed, I wanted real, intentional decisions about why we were doing what we were doing. I think we really thrive in a space where conversation and debate are welcome and explicitly encouraged; every decision that we made, I’d have to be convinced that we were making the right decision.

 

 

Something that frightens me is that Meridian turns ten years old next month. I’m only 23 and it makes me feel frighteningly old. What would you think is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned since then?
Well, I DO want to acknowledge that someone pointed out to me is that if we count Mixtape One as our first record, we’re actually 11 years old this year. So that’s just perfect synchronicity (laughs). I am really grateful for the amount of shows that we were able to play to double and single-digit audiences. It was so disappointing and heartbreaking at the time, but I can reflect back on some of those and see that we weren’t playing as well and as whole of a band as we could be, so those experiences were actually the chance to develop and grow as a band. We developed in basements — we see bands that are playing their first tour on stages to hundreds of people, and I would’ve been so emotionally disturbed by that (laughs). That’s one thing that I want to share, is that with a little bit of vantage, it’s felt so good to reach our fans gradually and durably. It feels like less of a flash-in-the-pan thing when you can go to Omaha and make your case to the twenty people there, and then go back a year later and there are forty-five people there! That’s a really cool feeling, and it taught me forever that the individuals listening to this band are people with complex interior lives, personal histories, joys, sadnesses — I’m thinking of individuals that I’ve connected with, and it’s a very powerful thing. A lot of my songs are from the first person, so when I’m singing “I” it’s about me, but when listeners are singing, they’re singing about themselves. I want people to treat themselves tenderly, and I feel as if that’s a responsibility among songwriters that I think our slow growth has been able to better develop in myself. Practiced compassion is, in part, a result of this band being around for eleven years and thankfully ignored by mainstream music press for the first half of that.

A lot of these songs from the new record have been floating around for a minute amongst fans and the Internet — I know you tend to write like that.
(laughs) Never throw anything away.

Are there any songs on this album that you hold dear?
I do love “Habitat”. I don’t know, I really love them all. When I’m making an album, I’m essentially trying to make a many-side shape. Each song is its own side and its own breathing entity — maybe a better comparison would be that each song is like the wall in a house. They all have to speak to each other and hold each other up. For me, it’s a little tough to take out one song in isolation and pick it as a favorite. But, talking about “Habitat” is fun because it actually started out as a B-side from the Cardinal era! The second half of the song, where it sort of breaks apart and decomposes, was actually written in the studio, and the first half I took from way back then and rewrote the lyrics to reflect the times we’re in and to make it more meaningful to me. It ended up being about all of the falling-apart homes in New York state; there are a lot of affluence that’s coming to the area, but you go a little further and half of the town is boarded up. There are brand new cop cars driving around the town and buildings are literally caving in — so I think there’s a serious contradiction there that needs to be addressed. I renovated that song to fit the present moment, and I like that song a lot because I feel like I was able to talk about how emotional it actually feels to see these policy decisions in practice. It’s not some dry, technocratic thing: it’s people’s lives and their communities, and you can see it.

That song talks about more than that, though — it’s also about time, and how big moments can stretch across the span of our history. It made me think of our civil rights movement in 2020, and how that started here with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor but ultimately funneled around the world because of the energy in that moment. I was following this story in England, where there was a statue of a slave trader — or a “businessman” as they put it — in downtown Bristol, and it was knocked down, vandalized, and thrown in the water. They recovered the statue but left it horizontal with the graffiti on him, and I think that was a brilliant curatorial decision that really inspired me as I was reflecting and writing the new lyrics to “Habitat”.

 

 

This record feels more expressly political than other recorded material from Pinegrove in the past. You’ve always been a band that’s been outspoken about your beliefs — I remember learning about the Sunrise Movement from coming to one of your shows — but was there anything that made you decide as you were writing 11:11 to center those beliefs throughout the recorded medium?
I think it had to reach my emotional center. Like I was saying earlier, political thought ceased being a purely intellectual exercise and it became something that I was genuinely feeling — it was the world that I actively saw around me. I think for a lot of people, politics is becoming a less discrete category that you can choose to participate in or choose not to participate in; not participating is a political decision as well, as a quiet defense of the status quo. I think that was the shift; it was something that I was thinking about enough, so it made its way into. I try to be intentional about my songwriting, but there’s also a large portion that I’m not necessarily in control of. This is the first album that I wrote on the other side of 2020, and in 2020 we learned that government doesn’t really care about us. Here they are sending minimum wage workers to their death to keep the economy going, and we’ve got politicians saying “well, these are sacrifices that we need to make” — yeah! You’re talking about killing poor people and old people! That’s really what they mean; and the fact that after the very vital civil rights moment, grassroots movement around Bernie, and mass awareness about climate change, we ended up with the author of the ’94 crime bill and California’s top cop to lead the country. It felt like a slap in the face to anybody that had humanist sensibilities. There’s this real Red-team, Blue-team bullshit that I think we just need to put away and appeal to our humanity; all of the language is sanitized to play defense for the Blue team and it’s really upsetting.

Climate change in particular is something that is frustrating because it’s a ticking clock that no one seems to be paying attention to. I think I saw a stat recently where Black families are 75% more likely to live next to toxic waste. So, it’s not even purely an environmental issue — it’s an issue of racial justice and class, and it’s just a planetary issue. Marginalized communities are the ones who will be affected first, and they’re the least responsible for emissions, and that’s before we even talk about Indigenous communities that are directly impacted by this issue. And yet, Biden is approving more drilling projects than Trump. The sanitized personality and team-like thinking behind this issue is dangerous and misleading; certainly, Trump was a very violent individual, but we can’t just be complacent and neglect our planet because Biden’s not Trump. So, this was the context for writing this record the way that I did — everyone has their own process and method for coming to these conclusions, but I finally reached the point where it was unavoidable for it to intersect with the art we were making. I think everyone does have a responsibility to critically consider the issues with our country, even if you come to different conclusions than I did; this record was me attempting to reconcile with that obligation.

What’s the significance of 11:11 to you as the album’s title? I don’t know if your childhood was similar, but I remember there being a somewhat-cheesy idea of making a wish at that time that I still subconsciously carry with me today, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that number recognized in this way.
That’s actually part of it! It’d be nice to have a little optimism — making wishes for more hopeful things. But that wish has a bit of an asterisk to it, right? It’s more of a Hail Mary because you never know if it’s legitimate or not. It’s a very visual number; it looks like a line repeating, or a pattern. That might be the secret for how we get through this world we’re in — finding a pattern or finding art that allows us to really think critically about what surrounds us. Another part of it is that it could represent four trees — it’s a pine grove, in a way. It’s four people standing shoulder to shoulder, marching, or their community singing together in the audience. I meant it to be multivalent; I like there to be different layers of access. You don’t need to think about all of these things when you’re listening to the album, but you can if you want to. It’s a prayer, and it’s hope in trying to imagine a better world.

Pinegrove is doing a live-stream performance of the new record tonight — you can grab tickets to that here.

Keep up with Pinegrove: Twitter / Instagram / Facebook 

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