Pinegrove Enlightens on New Album ‘11:11’

In the early spring of 2020, the collective global population was sidelined by an event that proved more powerful than the previously perceived strength of a digital era. As many watched along from their respective homes, disheartened by the inconceivable events unfolding, Evan Stephens Hall of Pinegrove saw an opportunity to redesign society to operate more efficiently outside of its ancient parameters. 

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He detailed this enlightening in a song titled “Respirate,” which became the centerpiece of Pinegrove’s new album 11:11, released Friday (January 28) via Rough Trade Records. The album title hosts several interpretations that define the overarching sentiment of the 11-track project. At a glance, the repeated numerals illustrate the band name as a row of towering pine trees. This portrayal doubles as a subtle reminder of the album theme: the dire nature of the climate crisis.

Pinegrove’s brilliance lies in the thoughtful packaging and tactful delivery of deeply unsettling  information. In an era of clouded communication, many attempts to scream as loud as possible out into the ether to no resolve. So the question became: How do you explain that the sky is truly falling in a way that actually resonates? 

Hall found his answer within a pre-existing practice of his poetic songwriting. Wielding emotion and poignant imagery, Hall was able to speak directly to the heart of the issues at hand. Without a soapbox, he manages to make critiques while maintaining an accessible point-of-view.

11:11, which Hall describes as the band’s “first proper studio effort,” was recorded at Levon Helm’s home studio in Woodstock and The Building in Marlboro—both in the Hudson Valley, where many of the band members call home. Noted producer and former Death Cab for Cutie member Chris Walla took on mixing duties, while Hall and Pinegrove multi-instrumentalist Sam Skinner co-produced.

Beyond obvious nods to Wilco and Flying Burrito Brothers, much of the country-influence heard on tracks like “Flora” is derived from Hall’s admiration for Gillian Welch, whom he described as “the quintessential post-modern storyteller.” Additionally, he notes Lucinda Williams as a critical player, as well as the Beatles for moving Blues and country into a more experimental space. But an integral influence in the foundational sound of Pinegrove physically resides within this project, which features piano accompaniment from his father, Doug Hall. It was his father who first introduced Hall to Dr. John and Little Feat—roots rock, and swampy-piano playing.

The amalgamation of foundational influences and the steady shaping from past albums led Pinegrove to this pivotal project. Blending indie-rock tones and pop sensibilities atop their undeniable country roots, Pinegrove hung a lush, yet approachable backdrop for a rallying cry record.

These songs were mostly written and became realized as a batch between March and May of 2020, in the very thick of an anomalous, almost-apocalyptic era of global unraveling. In a way, 11:11 is intended to commemorate the fear-drench era, to preserve the emotions of that time, and forge a path forward.  

American Songwriter: How did you work around the parameters of the pandemic, and how did those shape the final product?

Evan Stephens Hall: We started recording in September 2020. So, as you’ll recall, that before the vaccine before testing was widely available, and so yeah, we had to make some tough decisions. Ultimately, we decided on doing basic tracks, me and Zack, who plays drums, and Sam, who I’m co-producing the album with, got together to just do the basic tracks at Levon’s. And then there were some people that popped in the bubble for a day or two.

Megan Benavente, who plays bass brilliantly on this album, lives in LA. So that had to be a remote collaboration as nobody was comfortable with the idea of her flying over. But I think that the remote strategy resulted in a product that we might not have arrived at if we were in person. There was a lot of improvisation, and we cobbled together something very interesting and melodic. In some cases, the bass turns out to be the lead instrument, in some sections, which we had never really tried before. 

AS: What do you recall from the time period in which these songs were created, and when did you realize they would become an album?

EH: That was a real inflection point in my life, where politics became less of a discrete and separate category and more of a superimposition over every aspect of living. It became so clear that the way the government was handling the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the crisis of racism in our present-day and in the history of the United States, were all dovetailing and amplifying. Not to mention the climate crisis; all of this is going on while the West Coast is completely on fire. So you know, that really affected me in an emotional way. Previously, it had been—I don’t want to say an intellectual exercise, only because that really does trivialize the stakes for a lot of people—but there was a shift for me.

I think there was maybe then urgency to writing these songs. You know, I’m not a policy analyst, I’m not a particularly good orator or a climate scientist. I’m not a nurse, but I am a songwriter. And so I sort of kind of tried to take my role as a public communicator a little bit more seriously and really think about how people were going to respond. And if they sing along, what does it mean, when they inhabit the first person that I tend to write my songs in? What are they saying about themselves? And that’s a thought that I’ve had before, but it sharpened a little bit, stakes felt higher. A lot of people I knew were feeling quite desperate and on the edge. So I thought how was it possible to write a song that comforted my friends and myself, while also encouraging us to go deeper to maybe find the courage to be citizens of the world that we want to be.

AS: There is so much noise to cut through at the current moment, what were your conversations with your band like as far as strategizing how best to get the memo across here?

EH: The answer is to not think about it all that much. Our message has always been based on sincerity and an emotionally-direct approach. For me, the only way it made sense to include political critiques and trying to actively imagine a better world through songwriting, was to actively metabolize it through emotion. 

If we succeed—and I’m the least qualified person to weigh in on that—but if we do, it is because it’s emotionally centered. To just list facts about American imperialism, that’s a little tough to swallow. But if I’m talking about climate anxiety, frustration with political inaction, and weaving in images, emotions—I guess you kind of have to triangulate the political dosage with other things that ground it. 

AS: You credit Chris Walla, for the shift of “crisp and contained” production on Marigold (2020), to more of a “messier” feel for these new songs. How do you feel this shift in production and soundscape helped bolster your storytelling?

EH: Both Levon’s studio and The Building are basically big rooms. There’s no control booth or anything like that. But I think the distinction was that they are called studios. And so whatever chip we had on our shoulder about making a home recording sound as professional as possible, I think evaporated. You’re able to be a little bit messier, more collage-like, I suppose more ambitious in that aesthetic register.

What you’re referencing is something that I wrote, but I’m going to disagree with it just slightly. I think all of our efforts, in some way, incorporated this bramble approach to arranging guitars where it really is supposed to feel like a thicket—like you’re moving through a  jungle teeming with life or something like that. That sounds intense, but I think that we’re getting better at it. And with the latest effort, we’re the best yet. We’re learning from our mistakes and seeing what worked, trying to emphasize that. If you do something enough, you can’t help but  improve a little bit.

Photo by Balarama Heller / Missing Piece Group

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