I am listening to two people agree the venue was better three years ago, when bands that have since hit financial ruin played here. One of them asks for my opinion. I am the enemy: I have only lived in Brooklyn since after their era of cool ended; I have only been here twice; I am a balding young man in a Saves the Day hoodie, a music industry phony. I say, “I was here for Alex G last month,” and they nod. They can smell how uncool I am. I am waiting around for Richard Maguire — “Rick,” as they call him in the business — to show up so I can interview him. He is the guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter for Pile, the rock ‘n’ roll band most comparable to getting stuck in a burning building while wearing a scuba diving suit, in a good way. I am the guy who interviews Pile.
Pile’s new album, You’re Better Than This, will be released March 3rd on the Brooklyn DIY label Exploding in Sound Records. EiS and Pile are both known for their guitar-driven indie rock, but Pile drives faster, harder, stronger than anyone else, and on a wildly different course.
I struggle putting Pile into words without using strange metaphors: They sound like a man falling from the top of the Empire State Building and landing safely on his feet only to get run over by a car; they’re a guitar band that doesn’t sound like a guitar band; there’s something intense and brave about them, but it feels feminine, not macho, not over the top. I don’t feel good at explaining what Pile sounds like.
Pile is Rick, bassist Matt Connery, drummer Kris Kuss, and guitarist Matt Becker. They are from Boston, and they have a reputation as your favorite band’s favorite band. I have an email about Pile from Amar Lal, the guitarist of Big Ups. I’ve asked him four questions, and he answers “What do you love about Pile?” the best.
“The music, the people in the band, and the community of Pile-lovers,” he writes. “More specifically: their mastery of extreme dynamics, the way the drop-tuned guitars resonate with you in just the right way, the melodic and harmonic turns that you never expect but always feel right, the feeling of extreme release that I get from listening to Pile and yelling the words I still don’t know, getting drunk and watching videos of leopards tripping on drugs in the jungle with Connery, embarrassing ‘Rick from Pile,’ Kris’s continuous grin and bear hugs and unparalleled manliness and professionalism, Becker’s guitar face and late-night conversations about life, meeting someone halfway across the country and mentioning Pile and knowing that they just ‘get it,’ and smiling and being speechless with a group of people after what I’ve heard described as the ‘religious and transcendental experience’ of seeing Pile live.”
I’m nervous before the interview, not because I am unprepared or because Rick is famous. I’ve talked to Rick before. He’s nice. I am nervous because I have 35 questions in my iPhone for Rick, and some of the questions are so obsessively specific that I wonder if I am crazy. I think about a friend who is schizophrenic and a family member who is also schizophrenic. That usually sets in when you’re in your early twenties, right? I Google it.
“Symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions usually start between ages 16 and 30,” the National Institute of Mental Health tells me. I worry I use the internet for the wrong reasons. Cameron Boucher, the guitarist and vocalist from Sorority Noise and Old Gray, tweets at me, “im in Brooklyn lol I meant to tell you.” He and I are both from Connecticut, though I last saw him in Brooklyn at a different Pile show at Shea Stadium. I told him to hit me up the next time he was in Brooklyn, that I was interviewing Pile and would love to get a quote from him.
He and I text. I tell him the interview is tonight. “That’s gotta be a dream come true. Ask who Daryl Fish is.” Cameron has Pile’s new album; he is referencing the titular character from its second song, “Mr. Fish”. I have no idea how he got it early. I’m happy he has it. I can talk to him about the final song, “Appendicitis”, without seeming deranged.
After Radiator King finishes playing, the vocalist points out that their guitarist, Yazan, will be filling in with Pile on tour. I’ve seen Yazan at four or five Pile shows. He’s encouraged me to pursue my own music, so I am morally obligated to like him. I spot Dan Goldin from Exploding in Sound Records talking to Rick. Exploding in Sound is truly a small, community label; Dan and his partner Dave Spak are both publicists by day, and they do everything for their artists themselves. I admire how independent they are, how carefree they seem despite having lives that depend on kids paying for $8 shows and $10 records.
Dan once said, “Pile is the true force behind the label.” Dan knows I am not cool, but he does not care. To me, that makes him cool. We agree it’s interview time and that we should conduct it in my car where I can turn on the heat and it will be quiet. Rick has to get something first but will meet me at my car.
On the way out, I run into Yazan. “I know you from somewhere,” he says. “We’ve run into each other at four or five Pile shows.” I start to tell him he once encouraged me to pursue my own music, but he finishes my thought and asks if I’ve played any open mic nights yet. I haven’t. He says, “Aw man, try it soon.” I can tell he’s trying to go somewhere else. I say we’ll talk again soon.
I walk to my car with Rick. The people in line see us get into my car. Why does someone in Brooklyn at a DIY show at Palisades have a car? They know I am not cool. I look at my iPhone. I have 35 questions. I feel embarrassed. I am not cool. I scramble with where to start. I look at Cameron’s text. I ask Rick who Daryl Fish is.
“He’s semi-fictional, but he’s based off a guy in Boston, in the Allston or Cambridge area,” Rick tells me. “I don’t know what sort of mental illness he carries, but it’s a strong, invasive one. I’ve been told schizophrenia, but I think people just slap that on. He definitely has a detachment from reality, whatever that is.”
I think about the National Institute of Mental Health. Rick spins the illness almost as a positive quality. “He just sees the world differently than other people. The song is more of me wondering if he has any idea that everybody sees the world differently than him. And if he has schizophrenia, I hear that comes on in your early 20s.” I am 26. I tell him symptoms usually start between 16 and 30. I worry about seeming obsessive because I use the exact phrase “between 16 and 30,” but Rick is too lost in his own world to notice. He is reminiscing about the time Mr. Fish approached him on the street and said, “I am in love with you” and “there are aliens in my skin.”
“I wonder what it’s like to go through life like that,” he says with a strange smile.
I look at my questions. I planned to ask if his songs were literal in meaning, if they were frameworks for people to project meaning onto, or if they were meaningless crap that sounded cool. I have the phrase “meaningless crap” written on my phone. I ask Rick if the songs are always as literal as “Mr. Fish”.
“I’ll write lines here and there and then connect the dots of a storyline. Or I won’t, and it’ll be this rambling thing. Some of them are easy and come out in one shot, some of them take time.” I tell him certain songs work as metaphors — that the song “Pets” is clearly about a man fucking a gorilla, but that fucking a gorilla has to be a metaphor for … something. He looks at me like I’m asking him about something he doesn’t want me to know.
“I’d rather use strange metaphors for topics that are pretty common and universal, things everybody goes through, than do it the way others do. I don’t think I could come up with an interesting way of saying something if I didn’t try to codify it in my own way.”
I try to figure out how he developed this method and ask about his history. For all the obsession with Pile, no one really talks about the path that brought them here. He tells me a quick version using shorter sentences than when we’re talking about the music: Richard Maguire grew up roughly half an hour outside of Boston. He attempted to learn guitar as a righty at age 12 for a while, but quickly figured out that lefty was a better fit. He never took lessons until college, where he majored in Music Business at UMass Lowell.
The business leaning explains why he chooses to be the band’s booking agent and manager and why he would never hire a publicist that isn’t from Exploding in Sound. “There’s a fucking ton of shit to do, and that’s great,” he says, reeking of pride. “I like knowing that shit; I don’t want to be that guy down the line saying, ‘Wait, what’s going on?’ To be oblivious would make me a clown who just goes up there and does something. I like knowing how things work.”
Kris once told me the band is named “Pile” because Rick was in a different band, and all of his solo songs would get thrown in “the pile.” Rick more or less confirms this: “Yeah, I guess something like that.” He tells me the band’s origins: He recorded an album mostly on his own, needed a drummer for live shows, and found out Kris, a coworker, played drums. The fact that Kris is a behemoth behind the set whose drumming is more in line with Rashied Ali’s brain-splattering work with John Coltrane than Kevin Fennell’s plain-as-day hitting with Guided by Voices is not lost on Rick.
“I knew Matt [Becker]; our old bands played together. I got pretty lucky with Kris, Becker, and Connery,” Rick says. “We went from just me to an actual band pretty quick, and we all fit together nicely.”
He tells me he never particularly envisioned success or thought about the band’s style. Pile’s first two albums, Demonstration and Jerk Routine, are straightforward blues; the past three, You’re Better Than This, 2012’s Dripping, and my personal favorite, 2010’s Magic Isn’t Real, all sound like someone well-versed in classical harmony sucked the classical blood out, dropped the empty corpse into a furnace, and burned the body until it became … well, Pile.
“I never thought I would be popular at all,” Rick admits. “I can’t predict what I’ll be writing in three months from now, let alone three years from now. I doubt it’ll be very poppy, but it might be.” I wonder aloud how he went from straightforward Robert Johnson blues to a guitar-chicken running around with its head cut off and still making its way safely back to the coop.
“It was about my capabilities. The first records are mostly me, and it was me trying to play all the instruments — which I didn’t because I didn’t play drums. That and I was more into folk music at the time.” As I’m trying to figure out how he started there and ended up here, I mention that his songs, when played acoustic, still sound like country. He admits he loves old country. I tell him I think he sounds like Waylon Jennings with his hair on fire, or like Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel trying to beat the shit out of an innocent child — metaphorically. Rick laughs, but he laughs like I’m not crazy instead of laughing like I am.
I’ve always thought the band’s sound — two guitars with less effects than you’d expect, rarely ever playing the same chord — is distinct and unusual but oddly familiar, like when you watch a sitcom set in the 1960s and 1970s and feel at home despite having never been alive during either decade. Guitar harmonies normally feel cheesy to me; in the ‘70s, they were tacky because only bands like Thin Lizzy and Sweet did them, and in the ‘80s, Poison and Ratt did them. There’s no way to not sound tacky if your four biggest comparisons are Poison, Ratt, Sweet, and Thin Lizzy. I ask how Pile pulls off guitar harmonies without sounding bland.
“Sometimes, when I first play it, I feel like it is cheesy. But I like it enough to not really care,” Rick says. I admire this attitude. I wish I could adopt it as a lifestyle. Maybe that’s why I like Pile. I don’t think that’s why I like Pile; I think I like Pile because it sounds like deranged psychopaths became virtuoso musicians and wrote nursery rhymes for horny adults, or basically because it makes me feel like a teenager. I’m conscious that every time I first hear a Pile song will be a moment I’m later nostalgic for.
Rick can see that I’m admiring his words. He doesn’t seem perturbed by this; he smiles like the leprechaun on the Lucky Charms box. I get the feeling he is as surprised people love his music as I am surprised he is a normal person who likes to play basketball. We start talking about the recording process. You’re Better Than This sounds vintage, but it wasn’t recorded exclusively in live takes. The bass and drums were, but vocals and guitars were overdubbed later. “There’s some bleed on there where you can still hear the original guitar tracks,” Rick admits. “Not as bad as on Magic Isn’t Real. There’s blood all over that one,” he says with a laugh.
I ask him if he cares about what reviews say, and he admits he reads reviews, but doesn’t let himself get caught up in it. He figures that’s bad for his art and his emotions. He tells me he could give his own review of the record; I push him to tell me his feelings. He won’t. He laughs the same way he did after talking about the bleeding microphones on Magic Isn’t Real. I get the feeling he’s never satisfied with things, that he doesn’t revel in the imperfections, but that what bothers him may be what other people love about what he does. I want to ask him if this is true, but I don’t.
We’ve been in my car for half an hour. I feel weird. Rick treats me like I am cool, but he knows by now that I am not. I stop asking questions designed to get good answers. My notes read: “Tell him how much ‘Appendicitis’ means to you, how you feel like you don’t fit in anywhere, how you feel like your life is about music, but you don’t love anything the way you loved things as a teen except for Pile. Tell him you’ll go off the record if he wants, but you need to know what it’s really about.”
Instead, I ask him if there’s been any music he’s been listening to regularly, and he tells me he’s been listening to a lot of Converge. We talk about the intricacies of Jane Doe before getting out of the car. He thanks me multiple times for going to nine Pile shows in the past two years; I want to thank him for writing the line “There were times when I wanted it so bad I made it hurt,” but instead I tell him I’ll see him at the next Connecticut show.
I watch Pile. It’s the first time I’ve seen them with Yazan on guitar. I’ve seen Steve Hartlett from Ovlov fill in, the true lineup with Matt Becker play, and now this. They’re great each way. Yazan seems happy, like Pile is a drug that he has always smoked and is only just now starting to grow and sell on his own. I haven’t smoked weed in almost a year, and I wonder what it’s like to grow and sell drugs you used to smoke. I wonder if it’s like playing guitar for Pile.
During the guitar solo to “Prom Song”, a man jumps on stage wearing a plain white tee with the words “Prom Song Solo :)” written in sharpie on the chest. His body flaps around like a wind tube man at a gas station. His face looks like Jimi Hendrix dropped acid after a hard concert and tried to imitate his own guitar face with hyperbolic glee. He sniffs Rick’s neck and beard; Rick still plays every note to the heart-splitting solo perfectly. His face looks like a kid at a surprise birthday party. I wonder what kind of face I am making. I secretly want a shirt that says “Prom Song Solo :)” to wear in my everyday life.
Cameron remembers he needs to give me a good quote for the piece: “If I can say one thing about the new Pile record for you, quote me on this: from 3:25 to 3:32 in ‘Hot Breath’, you will experience the most fucking rock 2015 will have to offer.” I think of this when the band plays “Hot Breath” live. I feel like I’m the only one who knows the words, but the record isn’t out yet.
The show ends. I drive home. I think about what Amar wrote: “The ‘religious and transcendental experience’ of seeing Pile live.” I listen to “Hot Breath” and think about how transcendental experiences happen. I don’t look to see where 3:25 into the song is, but I know where it is. I briefly wonder if any religious icons were schizophrenic.
I think about something Rick said: “I’d rather know what a song’s about but leave it broad for you than box the thing in. Life is all made of pretty simple stuff; songs don’t have to be.”
I turn on “Appendicitis”. I cry after the opening line. I wonder if it’s about not fitting in with his friends, or a fear of missing out, or an ex-girlfriend, or throwing a tantrum and losing everything important, or a bad acid trip. I think about how I feel. I cry a little more.
I feel cool.