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Pinegrove: Getting By With a Little Help From Their Friends

The country-punk foursome expands on their hometown ties with label debut, 'Cardinal'

When we meet at a Midtown coffee shop for our interview, Pinegrove’s Evan Stephens Hall and I are wearing almost exactly the same outfit: jeans topped with flaming-orange sweaters. “I hear that it’s nice to wear a pop of color in the dead cold,” I tell him as we compare threads, and Hall’s eyes light up. “A pop of color in the dead cold, totally,” he responds enthusiastically. “If I were writing an article, that would be the headline. Whatever happens, can you please somehow figure out a way to include that sentence?”

It’s the first of many delighted outbursts from the 26-year-old Montclair, New Jersey native, who emits an air of easy and immediate affability. Familiarity is what he and his closest collaborator, Pinegrove drummer Zack Levine (also 26, seated beside him) naturally project in their music, which consists of a not-oft-heard amalgamation of roots-rock instrumentals and urgent punk vocals. “Intimacy is important,” Hall says. “As people who appreciate a close-knit circle, we want to express that.”

The pair met when they were just seven years old — each, coincidentally, raised by musician parents who still jam together. After childhoods spent listening to alternative and punk touchstones like Radiohead, Green Day, and Nirvana, Levine and Hall began playing shows at Montclair venue Serendipity Cafe, a “drug-free, alcohol-free” spot for high-school students that features local talent on a monthly basis. “It’s an incredibly positive entity,” Levine says. “It fostered this community that encouraged bands to play, and it had a huge impact on pretty much all the artists I know who’ve grown up in Montclair.”

Their self-released 2012 debut LP, the math rock-lined Meridian, was received so breathlessly in their microcosm of listeners and musicians that Levine and Hall felt it was time to leave Montclair and set up shop in Brooklyn. Levine stayed there (he currently lives in Crown Heights with his other band, the electronic-leaning trio Half Waif), but the new surroundings didn’t work for Hall. “[Brooklyn] was kinda loud, too stimulating to write well,” he says, admitting that they moved because they thought part of the requirements for “making it” entailed relocating to Brooklyn. “So I went [back] home and I’ve lived there since. I have a low cost of living, and I can just write every day.”

Since Hall left Brooklyn, Pinegrove have put out a 2015 limited-run cassette (later re-released last October) called Everything So Far, and the group’s proper sophomore full-length, the recently released Cardinal, which they recorded in Levine and Halls’ parents’ basement. Featuring eight deeply earnest tracks like the spindly devotional “Cadmium,” the twangy “Old Friends,” and the latter’s hopeful counterpart, “New Friends,” the new album was inspired by Hall’s nightly walks around Montclair’s Brookdale Park. “The album’s a lot about place,” Hall says. “A lot about traveling, but also a lot about Montclair. [I was] thinking about distance, space, and places I’ve been.”

Cardinal’s title, meanwhile, came to the frontman purely by accident. He felt inspired by the titular bird flitting around his backyard in Jersey, which he took for an omen of good luck. “They’re bright red,” he notes, again gesturing to his vibrant sweater. “I really am just attracted to primary colors.”

Once finished, Levine and Hall showed Cardinal to a few friends: music agent Greg Horbal, former Alex G drummer Dexter Loos, and vocalist-guitarist Cam Boucher of Hartford emo-pop project Sorority Noise. Boucher helped connect Pinegrove with the Boston-based Run for Cover Records, home to DIY acts Elvis Depressedly and Pity Sex. “It’s always been important for us to keep everyone that we work with very close,” says Levine. “It was immediately clear, working with [Run for Cover], that they’re just a great group of people — we felt like part of the family very quickly.”

A sense of interconnectivity pervades Cardinal’s lyrics, too. Boasting overlapping red-square album art that’s meant to look both symmetrical and “just a little bit sloppy,” the record was meticulously sequenced and is packed with recurring ideas and themes (the act of pacing and walking appear constantly in songs like “Aphasia,” “Visiting,” and “Old Friends”) — a tool he’s previously admired in lo-fi bedrock Phil Elverum and fellow autodidact Frankie Cosmos. “When I was writing, I noticed a bunch of opportunities to make internal references to other songs,” says Hall. “I think that makes a stronger structure overall. I really like listening to albums that feel conceptually coherent. In fact, I’d go a step further and say I’m disappointed if there’s not conceptual coherence in an album; it’s a missed opportunity.”

Consistency might matter to Hall in his music, but when he speaks, his stream-of-consciousness rhetoric exposes a restless inner-monologue, which sometimes results in contradiction. As much as Hall finds inspiration in the past — through his long-held crew of confidants and the home that nurtured him and his creativity — he explains that he’s not permanently bound to it, nor is his work the product of arrested development. “Montclair matters to us,” he says. “There’s a multi-generational community that’s musical and supportive of this sort of thing, and that’s where we come from. But I’ve lived there for four years now since college, and I’m ready for something else.”

Tags: Pinegrove