Pinegrove’s Public Interiors

Geoff Nelson

Pinegrove

Pinegrove are many things. That they are a band from Montclair, New Jersey with a new, vaguely alt-country LP called Cardinal does and doesn’t clarify the matter. Promotional photographs and details on the band’s various digital platforms offer only vagaries. Over their five-year existence, Pinegrove have listed themselves as a five-piece and a four-piece; they’ve toured as a trio. So when I’m on the phone with two band members, Evan Stephens Hall and Zack Levine, I wonder about the project’s iterative qualities, chasing some essential oneness. It’s the day after the band’s record release show in their hometown of Montclair where they were surrounded by generations of friends and family—and all that is Pinegrove, too.

Hall, the songwriter, and Levine, his arranging partner, laugh about the many faces of Pinegrove. I tell them I first saw the band opening for Sports at Baby’s All Right a few months back. They tell me the lineup that night had never performed together before, and probably wouldn’t play in that form again. The fabric of friends and family brought together by having played in the band is also Pinegrove. “It’s a really important part of our story, these relationships we have with the people we play with—it’s kind of a friends-first scenario,” says Hall. “I truly have only two or three friends that aren’t people we play with.” Band members have come and gone, sometimes friends, sometimes family, or what Levine calls, “a revolving cast of six other folks.”

Despite the collection of part-time members, Hall and Levine have known each other since they were 15. Things have changed since they were kids. The boys went off to college, Levine at Northwestern and Hall at Kenyon, where he met Nandi Plunkett, a part-time member of Pinegrove and full-time member of Half-Waif, a band in which Levine also plays drums. The Pinegrove universe is labyrinthine. Relationships overlay in a social arabesque. Over the five years since they graduated, Pinegrove put together a number of releases, finally signing to Run For Cover records last year. Their first long-player, Meridian, sounds quaint and splashy compared to the precise lyricism and tight arrangements of Cardinal. Still, Hall’s vulnerable tenor resonates throughout the band’s catalog. As if aware of the many threads in the story, their last collection of music, before Cardinal, was titled Everything So Far.

Levine and Hall are at the center of Pinegrove. But they intentionally live apart—Levine in Brooklyn and Hall in Montclair. They moved to Brooklyn as a band after recording their first record because “that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Hall says. It didn’t stick. Hall moved back home to New Jersey. “It was a deliberate choice to get away from the cacophony to a quieter place where I could walk around a lot, hang out in the park.” It’s the odd paradox of Pinegrove: the twin desires to be alone and with others. Like the title of Sherry Turkle’s book about technology and identity, Pinegrove reflects a sort of Alone Together-ness: the collection of relationships orbits Hall and Levine, the lyrics orbit Hall alone.

It’s a really important part of our story, these relationships we have with the people we play with—it’s kind of a friends-first scenario.

Recently, glowing reviews of Cardinal and a growing fan base brought new tensions. “These last few weeks have been a total whirlwind. Life doesn’t seem to be the grounded, day-to-day procession that it was beforehand. Everything is changing. It’s kind of wild,” says Levine. Hall describes it succinctly: “We’re in a transitional phase.” Hall and Levine wonder if they should get a manager, meditating on the importance of doing things themselves. As we get off the phone, they are running a bit late for that night’s show at Fordham University. “We need to actually learn how to do this. We’re thrust into this situation where things are getting a little more high profile, and we’re trying to catch up,” Levine confesses. Hall adds, “We’ve always wanted to do this like this.” That circular logic communicates the beauty and terror of a small project scaling up.

The intersection of interiors and exteriors, between these public anxieties and the private ones, begins to describe some of the satisfaction of listening to Cardinal. The album opens with “Old Friends” and closes with “New Friends”, a choice Hall liked for its symmetry and its emphasis on offline social networks. And yet, the album is a journey into Hall’s self-conscious wanderings, a deep interiority made public. He writes best alone.

The record hangs on a mixture of Hall’s astute, observational lyrics and complex self-awareness. The title refers to a lyric where Hall spots a cardinal in a dogwood on one of his peregrinations around Montclair. It’s one of the album’s many evocative tableaus, visual and psychic. Listeners walk through Hall’s world with him, through his self-consciousness, an object lesson in modern post-adolescence. You believe him when he sings, “If I did what I wanted, then why do I feel so bad?” on “Size of the Moon”.

Often the album refers, intentionally, to itself. “As a writer, I’m looking for ways to make things more thematically coherent. The more internal references there are, I think, the more it feels like its own universe, and it invites the listener to really spend time hanging out there,” says Hall. “I want to be able to reward multiple listens. It’s more fun to make a puzzle like that.” On “Old Friends”, Hall wonders why “every outcome is such a comedown,” later returning to the lyric, singing, “I got too caught up in my own shit, how every outcome is such a comedown.” Hall is even aware of his own self-awareness, one of the few lyricists who could—and does—correctly use “solipsistic.”

‘I’m ignoring your question, I guess, that’s what I’m doing,’ Hall says brightly.

He calls the writing on the album “an amalgamation of different feelings I’ve had, especially recurrent things.” He goes on, “Maybe that’s why I like images to repeat and connect because that’s what it feels like to live. We do our best to be as self-aware as we can when we do this thing, I mean, being alive. But it’s less linear than that. It feels disjointed at times.”

Hall pushes back against the idea of narrativizing the record or the band. It’s what I’m trying to do, after all: Pinegrove in 1400 words. I ask about it. “The record itself is the closest summary of itself. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, I think she called it a reducibility theorem. An artwork is exactly the thing that it is. And you can talk about it, but that’s not a summary of it. It’s inspired by it. It’s all in the album. All the decisions are pretty deliberate. I’m ignoring your question, I guess, that’s what I’m doing,” Hall says brightly. “Whether someone describes it as narrative or not narrative doesn’t change the album at all. I guess I always kind of dreamed of being critically engaged. I needed to remind myself that it’s ultimately not that important.”

The existence New Jersey’s pine barren residents—“Pineys” as they were derisively called—are a matter of the 18th and 19th century historical record. They lived in the wilderness, a mixture of chosen remove and ostracization. Pinegrove, like the physical space their name describes, represents a lacuna too—a place apart, maybe even a space within that space: a forest or a clearing. The name feeds on the old bucolic dream of losing or finding oneself in the space of the wilderness. The first recognizable sound on Cardinal is Hall’s deep inhale, the pregnant space in his expanded chest cavity before the record comes tumbling out. As a listener, you enter his body in the first moments of “Old Friends”, to be released on the last notes of “New Friends”.

At the core of Cardinal resides a persistent, bleating optimism. Hall believes his limited experiences hold a universal quality, that chance encounters in a “fucked up place” like the Port Authority Bus Terminal speak to some larger, common truth. His music believes that both he and you are, in some larger sense, knowable and worth knowing. Statistically speaking, you aren’t in Hall or Levine’s extended group of friends, and you almost certainly haven’t played in Pinegrove; but, by the end of Cardinal, you feel you know them better, even though you don’t. Together and alone, Pinegrove is the space where that can happen too.

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