Songwriting has ceased being earnest and has turned sharply in the direction of irony and cynicism. Take Mark Kozelek, for instance: Perhaps the quintessential songwriter of the indie world right now, he has a storytelling style that contains an almost comedic quality, even in its most emotive moments.
Or, that was my assumption as I began a conversation with Evan Stephens Hall and Michael Kaple, the songwriters behind Pinegrove and Sedna’s Not Alone, respectively. This was an assumption, however, that was quickly cast aside, because apparently I don’t know what I’m talking about. There’s nothing more or less honest about what they’re doing, they adamantly protested, than what abounds plentifully in a world I just haven’t sunk my teeth into.
What I’m talking about is the DIY music world – a world housed within the user-generated audio domains of Bandcamp and Soundcloud. Sentiments are conveyed there in a way that circumvents the current “indie” style, representing a paradigm shift that calls the very meaning of the term “indie” into question. There’s nothing independent about indie rock right now, while there’s something deeply independent about bands writing, recording, and distributing their own albums. As an observation, this is not controversial.
Tomorrow, Above the Bayou will be hosting a series of acts defined by the honesty of their approach, both musically and professionally. The songs of Pinegrove and Sedna’s Not Alone are most easily defined by their lack of pretentiousness. The words matter, the melodies are pretty, and the mood is for the very most part introspective. As these acts, hailing from New Jersey and Ohio respectively, make their way down the East Coast on a tour that culminates in New Orleans, it’s well worth anyone’s time to go catch feelings in their midst.
How’d you guys get connected?
Evan: It might be interesting to hear both sides of the story. I went to college in Ohio – Kenyon College – and we played with Sun Country. Or, I guess they saw us open for Johnny Flynn one time? Then Sun Country contacted us and wanted to play a show. It was just the start of a cool show-swapping relationship. All the guys from Sun Country are total pals at this point.
Then, basically, it came to light that Kaple was holding out on us. He’s an incredible songwriter and I had no idea. I’d known him for years before I’d discovered that fact. My friends and I have been listening to Sedna’s Not Alone since he sent me some demos. Then we started playing some shows together and we realized it could work out in a cool way.
Michael: From my perspective, Sun Country was never really an end point for me. It was fun and I had a great time – I got to do a lot of cool things that I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to do, but Sun Country was never really my project, so my tenure there was kind of inevitably limited.
I remember I first saw Pinegrove at a rooftop show in Brooklyn, and I remember thinking they were pretty damn good. They were the best band that I’d had the privilege of playing with, and still are. Evan and I talked on the roof that night, and we seemed to have some serious shit in common. Then when I left Sun Country and started doing my own stuff, I reached out to Evan for a little professional advice – I sent my first demo to him before I sent it to anyone else, and he gave me really solid feedback on it.
Pinegrove and Sedna’s Not Alone both seem to be really earnest projects, which seems increasingly rare these days. The words in your guys’ songs matter, and they don’t come across as overly cynical or ironic.
Michael: I think, if we’re going to say that music should aspire to be more than just a fun time – not that fun times are bad – then being earnest is the way to go. There seems to be a pretty heavy dose of irony in music these days, lots of guarded lyrics. And for me, I guess just being honest is how I like to write music. Not that I see it as fitting in within a trend, or against one necessarily, but that’s just how I like to do it. Like, I write about dreams, shit that happened to me – for the most part I keep it pretty personal. A guy whose opinion I value once said to me, “What is most personal is most universal.” I’ve always dug that saying, and thought it was pretty true.
Evan: Was the guy who said that James Joyce?
Michael: [Laughs] Did he say that?
Evan: Well, he said, “The personal is contained in the universal,” or something like that. In any case I think it’s pretty true, too.
What about you, Evan, when it comes to Pinegrove’s lyrics? Would you say you write personal songs?
Evan: I definitely try to put narratives in my songs, but they’re certainly not linear. I’d say I’m trying to leave a trail of breadcrumbs back to my personal life to a certain degree. But I also like to leave things a little open, because one of the things I think is most interesting about, well ok, let’s just say about art in general, is that the person making it can have one thing in mind, and the person receiving it can get something totally different out of it, and that’s a really beautiful thing. Because as a listener, if you’re looking for a very certain thing, if you need a very certain thing, you can find it if you’re looking for it. On the flip side of that, whenever I sit down to write something, whatever I’m thinking or feeling at the time gets embodied in the song. So it’s there I think.
It seems like being personal is pretty frowned upon these days, unless you’re Mark Kozelic or something, but even he dresses his lyrics up in a lot of irony, or even comedy.
I think you can probably find a lot of examples of people who are pretty much phoning it in where the lyrics are concerned, but most of the music I listen to has really engaging lyrics. I’ve always been attracted to words, and I think that a lot of really talented songwriters out there – I have in mind Stephen Steinbrink, or Alex G, Aaron Maine from Porches., and some others – but I think that in DIY right now there are just a ton of really superlative songwriters. I hear what you’re saying about earnest music not being the popular trend right now, but I don’t feel like we’re out there doing anything that a lot of other really talented people aren’t doing, especially in the scene we’re playing in.
How has it been generating an audience as DIY bands? There seems to be a lot of excitement surrounding the tour.
Evan: When it comes to growing ourselves, there are a couple things that really help us: Traveling to different cities, and releasing new material. This is our sixth tour – we had two out to Chicago, a couple Ohio jaunts, we did a US tour this past Summer, and then we’re going to New Orleans this time around. I find touring to be a fun, and in general a very effective way to get out there and meet people, play for the fans of the local bands on the bill, and just try to grow that way. It seems organic and just authentic in a way that connecting with people through buzz on the internet isn’t really.
Other than that it’s really just been about trying to write the best songs possible, take our live show seriously, and take pride in what we’re doing. Also, we try to spread the word about bands we like, and to try to help out bands when they come through here, basically just to be an active part in the community, and take our role as a band from New Jersey seriously.
Do you set up all your tours personally?
Evan: The first few times it was a total crap shoot. Like, we knew we had friends, but we also had friends of friends, and maybe they had friends of their own… you can see where I’m going with it. We’re talking really tenuous connections. But at this point, when we’re returning to a lot of places, we can kind of just call and say we had an awesome time last time and we’d love to do it again if you’ll have us. And a lot of the places will, or have, so it’s sort of just growing that way. I don’t want to use the word network… because it’s not about establishing a network, it’s about making friends. Networking I think has a connotation of being about mutual business interests, but it’s much more about making friends and traveling to new places.
The only time money factors into the whole equation is, like, whether we can literally make it to the next city. If we can, then cool, if not then we have to figure something out.
Any really close calls?
Evan: Well, [laughs] we try our best to save up before tours just in case. I think on the U.S. tour at a certain point we were down about 300 bucks, which, to a band of our size is kind of a lot, but we eventually came out of that hole. I think we broke exactly even on our U.S. tour, which felt like such a victory.
Mike, you’re going to be on stage with Pinegrove on this tour? What are you going to be playing?
Michael: I’m mostly going to be playing my voice I’m pretty sure. But it also sounds like there could be some banjo happening, possibly some guitar. I really enjoy coming into already-established songs, and live shows in particular, and just kind of either adding something to it or filling out what’s already there in a cool way.
Evan: Well the truth is we actually haven’t played together yet, so we still have to see what works best and stuff. But also, Pinegrove is going to be the backing band for Sedna’s Not Alone.
Michael: Yes, which I am very excited about. I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a second to point out that Evan was being modest; Pinegrove set up this whole tour and just made everything happen.
There’s a lot to be said about handling your own publicity and merchandizing.
Which reminds, me, I have to burn a shit load of CDs for this show in New Brunswick we’re playing tonight. I’ve never actually been to New Brunswick… oh wait, never mind, I actually saw the Dali Lama there once like five years ago I’m pretty sure. But besides that…
This could stand to be the second spiritual coming for New Brunswick.
[Laughs] We can hope. I’ll do my best.