New Jersey band Pinegrove has been making waves in the music scene for their unique sound and eloquent and powerful lyricism. About two weeks before their Club Dada show, two of Radio UTD’s DJs were thrilled to speak on the phone with one of the brilliant minds behind the band, singer-songwriter Evan Stephens.
Radio UTD: So how’s it going?
Evan: Umm, really good. Beautiful day in the Hudson Valley.
Radio: Ooh, that sounds nice. It’s hot here. Hopefully it’ll be a little bit cooler when you get here, but no guarantees for that.
Evan: Well, please, please do your best.
Radio: We’ll do our best to control the weather just for you.
Evan: Thank you.
Radio: We’ll start up all the fans, open up all the windows with the A/C on.
Evan: [laughs] Good, good, I support that fully.
Radio: Alright, so we have some questions for you, so we’re just gonna go for it.
Evan: Hit me.
Radio: So, there’s kind of two genre influences that I can hear pretty clearly. Kinda some indie, grungy rock, and the other side of it is kind of folk music. Where do these influences come from in your life and how did you come up with the idea of blending them together like this?
Evan: Yeah, well, as far the blend it’s really just- I’m writing songs that I want to hear. These songs that, I guess, in the first place are for me and for my emotional process and figuring out tense or complex things in my life and that’s just kinda how they come out. They are catered exactly to my taste, you know? These are the songs I wanna hear! As far as like, what I’ve listened to that might get me to arrive at a destination like that, my mom played a lot of Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch in the car when I was younger, and in the house… that had an indelible impact on me. My dad, too, is roots rock with the band Little Feet or Dr. John. Both come to mind. But besides that I really loved Nirvana and Green Day and Bush, the band Live… I think that I was sort of a precocious alternative rock listener as a 5 year-old in 1994 with babysitters or au pairs who would kind of just put me up on what they were listening to. I was really an eager listener, and I was learning how to play drums at that point so that sort of stuff is really energetic and really fun to play drums to. That’s probably part of the reason I was attracted to a band like Green Day.
Radio: Okay, interesting! So, give us a little bit of background on Pinegrove and how you started and became a band.
Evan: Yeah! Well, so I’ve known Zack (the drummer) for quite a long time. Our parents are friends, actually. They play in a band together, which is sort of a roots rock cover band. A bar band, but a very good one. They’re called Julie’s Party. My dad and stepmom and Zack’s dad play in that band. That’s how we were originally introduced, our musician parents brought these two little budding drummers together. One of my first memories of us hanging out was at a barbecue at my house playing double drums together. My little limbs were on the floor tom and Zack’s were hi-hat and snare, basically splitting the drum kit in half so we could take care of all of it. After that, Zack and I were in a band together in middle school and high school called Dogwater with our friend Danny. After going off to different colleges and not really playing with each other a whole lot during that period, we graduated and had talked a lot about just wanting to do it- whatever that meant. And we did, when we graduated we moved home and recorded our first album “Meridian”, which is all found on the compilation and everything so far. There have been some membership fluctuations here and there, but pretty much everyone is from Montclair. I met Nandi in college- we went to Kenyon College in Ohio- sort of a long story, but it’s pretty much just centered around friends from Montclair who were playing with people we hung out with.
Radio: Speaking of Kenyon, I know that your band is named after the pine grove from the BFEC there. Is that something that was super defining about it that you named your band after it, or certain memories from there?
Evan: Oh yes. It’s a very resonant place, vibrating with magic basically. It’s a grid of pine trees and when you go in there you’re just completely enveloped in that world, with the soft needles under foot and some light that can kinda poke through the needles. Mostly you’re just in this sort of cave, and that was the place I liked to go to to just think or have cognitive adventures.
Radio: Whoa, that sounds incredible. We have flat land, neighborhoods…
Evan: [laughs] Well, everything, I think, is magic if you look hard enough.
Radio: Very true! Actually, my friend Maggie said she saw you at Three Links a few years ago and that your pep talks about how no one was alone and some of the inspirational stuff you’ve said has stuck with her this whole time. She wanted me to ask you: are there any words or phrases you like to live by? Or, rather, if your band had a mission statement, what would it be?
Evan: Mmm, yes… Maybe just trying to love better. A lot of these songs are about love- familial love, platonic love, and romantic love of course. Frequently they identify failures of love, and I think that’s an important place to start. But that’s not the end of the story, because everybody makes mistakes- especially me, apparently- but moving forward and trying to keep your momentum, trying to do your best (in a way a lot easier to say than to do)- really just trying to learn from your mistakes and recognize that that’s not the end of the story.
Radio: So you’ve been writing music since you were a kid… is there a certain period of your life that was the most important in the development of your music?
Evan: Yeah, I’d definitely say my time in college. I was studying English, being introduced to some pretty important books to me- that’s when I began to feel really ambitious about what a song could do. Realizing how certain books- specifically I’m talking about The Sound of the Fury, I took a William Faulkner class that really moved me, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and then later on The Waves by Virginia Woolf and Ulysses, too- these ambitious novels that were on one hand very beautiful and sad but on the other really spoke to something in my brain and just what it meant to be a human at that point to me, made me feel like this was something I wanted to participate in. I’m using the tools that I have instead; I’m not a novelist, at least not yet. They made me feel inspired and ambitious to make works that talked about what I was feeling- all the psychedelic aspects of being a human and how strange it is, how sad, and how beautiful.
Radio: Yeah, we have an amazing Faulkner teacher here. I took two classes in the past year and it’s so mind-boggling.
Evan: Yeah, really cracks your gourd open huh?
Radio: Really. Okay, so what is currently your favorite song to perform and why?
Evan: Okay, I really like the song “Paterson + Leo”. It’s going to be on our new album, but also we’ve released a version of it… somewhere. It was on, like, this bonus disc we did for Cardinal. In any case, we have some in-studio session performances. It’s a song about friendship and is just really fun- fun doesn’t even capture it- really moving to play with people that I care about so much. We’re making this thing together; it feels totally beautiful to do that one.
Radio: Do you have any good stories from the road?
Evan: Mmm, good stories… I’ve always found that to be a really hard question for some reason, usually our routine involves arriving to the city right before sound check, doing the sound check, going out to dinner, walking around maybe a 10-block radius of the venue, going to the venue, playing the set, going to wherever we’re going to sleep that night, waking up, and doing that again. The van is really where I’m spending most of my time, and it’s a very strange way to live. On one hand we’ve seen so much, but on the other we haven’t really spent time anywhere.
Radio: Any food in particular you like on the road?
Evan: Yeah, well, I’m vegan so it’s sometimes hard to find stuff, but there’s excellent Thai food all over the country. Especially in Seattle, there’s a restaurant called Thai Tung that is the best restaurant I’ve ever been to.
Radio: You know, I think we have some good Thai places around here…
Evan: I wouldn’t doubt it. My favorite food genre.
Radio: I really like Indian food, and we have a lot of good Indian food here too.
Evan: Incredible. Point me in the right direction.
Radio: Who is your favorite musician or band right now that is totally low on the radar, that no one has likely heard of?
Evan: Uhh, no one? [laughs] Okay, maybe I’ll just hit you with a range of things. I just want to talk for a second about Mount Eerie- Phil Elverum- who is probably my favorite songwriter. I saw a concert of his two nights ago where he played almost all of A Crow Looked at Me, which is his new album which deals really explicitly with death, love, and parenthood. Then he played six new songs, which I just thought were extraordinary. They were really narrative unspooling tales, almost essay or diaristic. It’s introspective, smart, sad, but also funny and very beautiful. Almost in the style of maybe Mark Kozelek, but instead with a compassionate approach, which is where I think Sun Kil Moon really falls short. He is just so deeply unsympathetic, but then Phil Elverum is doing this style in, I think, the best way that we’ve ever heard. It’s really exciting as a songwriter to hear the format of confessional songwriting pushed places that it never has been before.
Radio: Right on! Now we have a few silly questions, I guess, that we thought it’d be fun to ask.
Evan: Hit me with the silly stuff.
Radio: What, if anything, do you have a complete irrational hatred for?
Evan: [laughs] I kind of have a phobia, or just like a pet peeve maybe, of when people who are brushing their teeth take that whole situation outside of the bathroom and walk around. Like, it just makes me really anxious that some glob of foam is going to fall from their mouth onto some surface that’s going to be hard to clean up. I’m not really a germophobe, but for some reason that really bothers me.
Radio: Oh yeah, that is pretty gross.
Evan: No, but it’s like so common! Especially staying in a hotel with my bandmates, who I love-
Radio: Just to clarify…
Evan: [laughs] Right? You know, like, people will start the process in the bathroom and just walk out and be part of the conversation talking while that’s all going on and I’m just like eeeeeeeeugggghhh! Yeah, that’s my answer.
Radio: [laughs] Okay, so if you could start some crazy new band with a groundbreaking new genre, what would that genre be called?
Evan: Hah! Well okay, okay, the fact is… as someone who doesn’t really play to genre in the first place, I just feel like that is what we did.
Radio: The genre’s called Pinegrove…
Evan: [laughs] Not to pat myself on the back, but the genre question has always been a little bit befuddling because genre is used to describe something after the fact. People don’t write to a genre, that’s putting the cart before the horse, I think. It’s just helpful then to categorize and say if you like this then you’ll like this. I always wanted to see traditional American melodies in a more emotive and energetic format. There you have it.
Radio: Oh yeah, I think that’s what you got. What would your dream job be if not a musician?
Evan: I would love to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps and be a college professor. My cousin, too, is a professor at Colorado College. My grandfather T. William Hall (A.K.A. Bill) was a professor of theology at Syracuse for many years. Ever since I was a kid, being a teacher sounded so cool to me.
Radio: We need more Humanities teachers here at UT Dallas! (R.I.P. Art Barn).
Evan: Alright, I’m on my way! Be right there!
Radio: If you were an English professor, what would your required reading list be?
Evan: I’ve dreamt of teaching a class that we could call “The Frame” or diegetics or something like that. It would talk about essay fiction and the line between art and reality, essentially. I think we’d have Ben Lerner in there with 10:04, we’d have Lydia Davis’ collected short stories which I would select a few, maybe The Disagreement is a good place to start. We’d have Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer, which is an autobiography about this guy who’s trying to write a biography about D.H. Lawrence that ends up being a novel about procrastination. I would include The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker; again, a novel about procrastination. Okay, maybe that’s actually the class I want to teach.
Radio: The real question is, would the students actually show up and have read the material if it’s about procrastination?
Evan: A fair question indeed. Well, hey, I’m sorry to say I think I need to get off the phone. I was supposed to do only ten minutes, but now I’ve done twenty, because you’re very fun to talk to.
Radio: Awww, well thank you for taking the time to talk to us. It’s been great man.
Evan: Yeah, see you when we’re down there I hope!
Radio: See you in Dallas.
Evan: Of course! Take care.