Pile Usher In A New Era With Green And Gray
Within the last five years, Pile have gone from a Boston cult act to one of the foremost reference points for underground college rock in the 2010’s. As nearly every written or spoken story about them will mention, they tilled an exceptionally devoted regional fanbase for years before their allure caught on throughout the rest of the United States and Europe. Their proclivity for bizarre rhythms, dizzying structural changeups, and riffs and melodies that flip like a switch between tenderly somber and staggeringly gnarly, also positioned them as one of indie-rock’s premiere band’s bands. And again, it can’t be overstated how important Boston’s DIY rock scene — a place where they’re revered as local heroes — was, and continues to be, to their current stature as a year-round touring act. And with the new album, Green And Gray, out this week, it seems apparent that their popularity will only continue to grow.
However, it’s 2019, and Pile aren’t a Boston-based band anymore.
“I’m living in Nashville now,” says frontman Rick Maguire over the phone. “My folks live here and now three-quarters of the band has a house together… It didn’t feel like that crazy of a jump. Especially ‘cause I had spent winters down here for the past few years just to avoid being in the Northeast. So I decided to kind of just switch it so that I would live down here, and now I can go visit Boston in the summer.”
For longtime members of the quartet’s cult following, this news may feel cataclysmic. Throughout the last decade, Pile’s brew of scruffy post-hardcore and needly post-punk has been inextricable from the Northeastern DIY rock conversation. With each new album, their rabid fanbase turns another shade of red-faced that they aren’t getting their proper due (i.e. heralded as one of the best bands of the 2010’s) and their graceful stylistic progressions pull more converts into the fold.
It’s a distinctly Northeastern phenomenon to be a Pile fan: immense pride that quickly transforms into misdirected animosity toward those who don’t understand their wonder, while on some level recognizing that this institution — whether a gangly, inaccessible rock outfit or a brutally cold and coarse region of the country — is in fact challenging for the average person to enjoy.
Eschewing trendy internet personas, obvious crossover attempts into any one of the scenes they teeter between (punk, indie-rock, left-of-center hardcore), and without any significant chart placement or streaming action, Pile have planted themselves on the radar of anyone with a vested interest in forward-thinking guitar music. And they did it just by touring incessantly and delivering a genuinely great album every two years since 2010.
“I just have assumed along the way that if I just keep plugging along, this thing will slowly but surely grow,” Maguire says. “And the last one seemed like [we] made some serious progress.”
He’s referring to Pile’s sixth album from 2017, A Hairshirt of Purpose, which was the one that seemed to finally resonate with a music press that often struggles to make sense of bands without a spicy narrative or an easily definable sound. Some of their more raucous material sounds like early Queens of the Stone Age if they came up in basements alongside a band like Pissed Jeans. But Pile started as Maguire’s twangy singer-songwriter project, and since his acoustic guitar-strapped debut, they’ve always stood a stone’s throw from the cowboy indie-rock of Silver Jews or Smog.
However, Pile truly just sounds like Pile. And their seventh album Green and Gray is arguably the most effective distillation of their singular sound. Like many Pile records, this one was initially supposed to be broken up into two: one for the screechy rippers, and another for the shifty ballads.
“But it always ends up this way,” Maguire says. “Where it’ll come down to it and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to write an entire record with just this one temperament or dynamic.’”
In a vast catalog of nervy and unpredictable songs, this batch contains some of their most extreme examples. On one end of the spectrum, there’s The Soft Hands of Stephen Miller — a scathing, thrashing, hardcore scorcher about the U.S. Presidential Adviser. And on the other, there’s the subtly melodic slow-burner My Employer. Both are completely different sounds, but each see the 33-year-old Maguire wrestling with his age in one way or another.
“I think the thing that really sort of made me feel so strongly about [Stephen Miller] in particular is that we’re roughly the same age. So we experienced the same things in the world. It’s like the people talking about like, agh communism — or socialism — blah, blah, blah. When they’re upset about it it’s because of a historical context that I did not experience. Not that it’s, like, a pass — you’re still being ignorant. But I understand that I don’t understand.”
“And with him it’s just, why doesn’t he understand? What is his deficiency? Obviously we didn’t experience the exact same world, but [we’re] both white dudes that are roughly the same age that were born in the United States. And the fact that where he stands on things is so — he’s an exhausting person to think about.”
Maguire doesn’t excuse himself from political self-scrutiny, though. He explains that the album’s second track, Your Performance, is about watching Donald Trump be this incredible narcissist, and then noticing the parallels between his behavior and Maguire’s own profession as an entertainer.
“I know that on a very surface level they seem worlds apart, but it’s worth at least some sort of analysis. Could, potentially, my obsession with making stuff turn into a really malignant thing? Could it turn me into a sociopath?”
So far it’s just been a sacrificial altar for friendships and romantic relationships. My Employer is essentially an open letter to all of the people in his life who’ve been let down by his steadfast dedication to Pile. ‘I can’t think two things at once / I don’t mean to be so cold / But if it means a movie alone / It could be worse,’ he sings.
“I continue to do this thing. I think that there’s maybe relationships in my life that have suffered my commitment to this thing. And it’s sort of an apology. It’s an apology but it’s also sort of a tongue-in-cheek apology to the people that have suffered that. Because — you knew the deal.” He laughs.
“I’ve been doing this obsessively for… of what I think about, this is 80 per cent of it. And I’m not saying that that’s good or bad… and it’s sad that it has cost some relationships but at the same time. At a certain point I have to stop apologizing for this.”
The current and former members of Pile know this best. Maguire recalls a funny yet illuminating anecdote in which his ex-bandmate Matt Becker texted him that he was getting married months out from the actual celebration. Maguire was ecstatic and assured Becker that he’d be there.
“And then I told Kriss [Kuss, drummer] about it. Like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s getting married!’ And he’s like, ‘Oh cool, I haven’t heard about that yet.’ And I guess Matt texted Kriss and was like, ‘Yeah I had to text Rick first so that way he wouldn’t book a tour on Mars or whatever.’”
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