A Conversation with Rick from Pile

2017 has been big year for Pile.

Since the March release of their latest studio LP “A Hairshirt of Purpose,” the Boston band has been busy delivering their unique brand of frenetic and asymmetrical post-hardcore to audiences across Europe and North America.

Extensive touring hasn’t been the only thing on Pile’s plate this year. The band was recently presented Boston Magazine’s Best in Boston award for Artist of the Year. As the magazine’s blurb boasts, “Maguire’s drawl and octave yawps soar over a cacophony of compulsively listenable tunes” – a glowing review for a band whose accomplishments have sometimes seemed muted by their dependence on word-of-mouth promotion and seemingly deliberate cult status.

NICK VIDAL. B-Side. Rick Maguire.

“A Hairshirt of Purpose” is Pile’s fifth full-length record and third official release with their current label, Exploding in Sound. Pile, however, was originally conceived as the solo project of guitarist, lead vocalist and primary songwriter Rick Maguire.

An Acton, Massachusetts native, Maguire spent time living and working around Boston after graduating from the University of Massachusetts Lowell with a degree in music performance. Though he admits feeling somewhat discouraged by professors from playing in bands, Maguire said he considers his time at UMass formative and ultimately beneficial. Although, he is quick to admit, “I really learned more about myself there than any of the things they were trying to teach me.”

Maguire went on to devote his post-collegiate years to playing in bands around Boston and, particularly towards the end of the 2000s, to his own solo material, self-releasing a handful of albums under the name Pile, including 2006s “Demonstration” and 2009s “Jerk Routine.” Around late 2009, while working at a local grocery store, Maguire was introduced to a then previously unknown fellow coworker: future drummer Kris Kuss.

With the addition of bassist Matt Connery and guitarist Matt Becker later that year, Pile officially become a collective project and followed quickly with the release of their self-produced 2010 LP, “Magic Isn’t Real.”

Maguire has since quit his job at the grocery store following the release of 2015’s You’re Better Than This. Using his newfound freedom as an opportunity to devote himself fully to the band and its endeavors, Maguire moved out of his apartment and converted the band’s practice space into his new bedroom, a professional decision  which informs the significant creative progress Pile has made in the years since.

Nowadays, as the band’s chief songwriter and lyricist, Maguire generally supplies the rest of the group with the raw material that eventually becomes what we hear on record. Maguire admits, with an air of frankness and humility, “if I did a good job, there’s not a whole lot to alter,” but “if I haven’t, we need to do some work.”

Maguire says that these periods of collective writer’s block don’t generate a feeling of “I don’t have any good ideas,” but more so of “I don’t like any of my ideas.”

ELIZABETH FUCHISIA. WBUR. From left to right: Kris Kuss, Matt Connery, Matt Becker, Rick Maguire.

Translated to the group setting, this can prove stifling. “When you labor over a song so much in practice,” Maguire explains, “it’s pretty tough to garner the same enthusiasm the next time around,” Although, he candidly admits, “it usually helps if there are few a beers involved.”

But when cracking open a cold one with the boys isn’t enough to get Pile’s collective creative juices flowing, the band has a set of routines that Maguire says help tremendously with maintaining a healthy creative output.

Maguire says that his own process generally involves working in the morning with a cup of coffee, a book and a guitar, while strategically avoiding the internet. As a rule, he tries to “either be writing or reading,” in order to remain open to creativity. 

The majority of this time constitutes what Maguire considers to be “direct” work – that is, the actual substantive processes of practicing, writing and recording his music – though he is careful to note the importance of more “indirect” processes like going to the gym regularly, getting enough sleep, and, in particular: reading.

When pressed about what exactly he’s reading, Maguire lights up. His list of texts is diverse, with topics ranging from neuroscience to musicology to chess strategy. At the forefront of this list currently sits Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century,” a brief but dense book on the dangers of latent authoritarianism that Maguire claims he felt was “a good choice given our current landscape,” while also being just short enough to read in the van.

When asked about his recent listening history, however, Maguire takes a momentary pause to collect himself. “I listen to a lot of mellow stuff,” he says, breaking the silence, “a lot of piano-based music and electronic music like Aphex Twin and Mount Eerie – basically music with sonic textures that are sort of uncommon for rock music.”

NICK VIDAL. B-side. Kuss and Connery share the stage at Club Metronome October 7, 2017.

Given the ambiguity of what constitutes “rock music”, Maguire offers his own working definition. “In general,” he says, “rock music is some sort of vocalist talking about their feelings against some kind of melody – either singing or yelling or screaming – underlain by some sort of a pulse,” he stops short before adding, “ and there’s usually a guitar involved at least somewhere.”

According to those criteria, Pile might just be the quintessential “rock band.”

As for the musical interests of the rest of the group, Maguire admits, “Our tastes are growing somewhat more disparate” – be it Matt Connery’s unique preference for crust punk or Maguire’s own love for mellower, less conventionally rock music – “but I think that ultimately it’s a good thing in that it allows us to all be able to bring something new and exciting to the table when we sit down to write.”

The sheer range of interests among the members of the band is immediately evident from their live shows, and Pile’s recent performance last at Burlington’s Club Metronome Thursday, October 7 stands as no exception.  As wildly unpredictable as they are emotionally sincere, Pile have always been a group that shines more on stage than on wax.

Songs simmer, swell, lurch, and collapse as Maguire oscillates rather frantically between moments of subtle tenderness and explosive tenacity. With technical prowess that borders on the obscene, Kuss commands authority from behind the kit and provides a crucial backbone to the band’s often dizzying and cacophonous arrangements, themselves performed diligently by Becker and Connery.

BEN STAS. Allston Pudding. Pile at the Great Scott in Boston, Massachusetts.

Given the power, professionalism, and intensity of emotion that each member brings to every performance Pile gives, it is understandably difficult to imagine them doing anything else. To the hypothetical and existentially challenging question of what other career paths the band might consider in Pile’s absence, Maguire chuckles, “Well I kinda put my eggs in one basket.”

In his own regard, Maguire is well known for having done just that. Since quitting his full time job in 2012, he has been notorious for taking little time off from the group, writing and recording regularly and maintaining a near constant touring regimen, whether with Pile or under his solo monicker, Rick From Pile.

But when not on tour, he says that he and the rest of the band stay pretty busy, each member choosing to work part time,punk Connery working at a local guitar shop, Kris, part time at a movie theater. Even Maguire finds time to work a few hours a week at a used book store.

“But ideally,” Maguire says,“ if the whole Pile thing didn’t work out, I’d hopefully be doing something to make the world a better place.”

With that, Maguire grows slightly sentimental and the tone of our conversation begins to hush. Posed with the question of what advice he might offer the average struggling DIY musician, he muses, “Always be willing to do it yourself until there’s something that comes along that seems like a better deal.”

“But ultimately,” he finishes, considering his words for a moment, “don’t expect anybody to do anything for you.”

Be sure to pick up, stream, or sample “A Hairshirt of Purpose” and, especially if you missed their set last week, make sure you don’t miss Pile on their extended east coast tour this fall. You won’t regret it.

For Tom

The air was hot and thick as I stumbled outside of my Northwest Washington, D.C. home and into the golden morning light of a mid-July day.

At nine years old, I had big ambitions on my summer swim team and at my Corcoran Art School summer camp, so I packed up my pint-sized duffel bag and hopped into my dad’s 2004 Volvo s60 to zip across town in time for practice. The car smelled like a potent cocktail of Dentyne Ice and moldy summer rain from the night before and the CD rack holding a handful of classic rock anthologies was filled with gum I’d not-so-successfully hidden stuck to their plastic sleeves.

MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

I sifted through my favorites, but what I wanted to find was already in the disc drive. As we turned right off of 30th Street and headed into Rock Creek Park, the opening chords of Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” filled the musty atmosphere of our car.

We blasted the AC and opened all the windows as we wound down past the creek and under the vast oak trees lining Beech Drive all the way to the Maryland state line and beyond, passing vistas of the National Monument and the Basilica across Georgia Avenue all the while.

One of those few Washington mornings in July when the sun isn’t already oppressively hot, it was a polaroid perfect summer moment as I jumped in the pool for my first lap. A flawless Tom Petty day.

MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

Years later at 17 on a Tuesday afternoon in Marin County I sat next to my mom on Redwood Highway barreling toward Point Reyes with those same chords ringing out from our shaky little rental car. Here we were among the golden hills and vast blue skies of Petty’s California, and no other soundtrack would have been fitting.

We veered off to explore country roads snaking down coastal mountainsides and dipping in and out of redwood forests before reaching the great Pacific. A thick fog passed over us for about an hour or so as we stared into the abyss to the Farallon Islands barely discernable in the distance before a brilliant sun greeted us again for our ride back to San Francisco. An unmistakable Tom Petty day.

MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

At 21, Oct. 2, I’m biking furiously on a Tuesday afternoon as far north as I can get before the sun goes down. “Full Moon Fever” blasts in my cheap headphones and I swerve between joggers, dog walkers and slow cyclists up the Burlington bike path with Lake Champlain glistening at golden hour, dotted with late season sailors and the occasional whitecap.

The Adirondacks hang tall and triumphant as I peek over my shoulder to take in the view for a second before dipping back into the deep woods. I peel back some forgotten fences to ride the newly paved sections of the trail, and coasting along I pass couples playing with perfect puppies and families walking hand-in-hand to the closest overlook before sunset.

MAGGIE RICHARDSON.B-Side.

Finally, I break the trees at Maye’s Landing not too high above the Winooski River and stop on the same wood and steel bridge I speed past almost every weekend on this ride. Somehow this view looks more brilliant, more blue, more delicious than it ever has. Those same old songs are still ringing in my ears as I take a deep breath and say goodbye to an old friend, a companion on so many sunny days, the voice in my head telling me to keep running down a dream.

Slurred Words and Spatzle: Oktoberfest Vermont 2017

On a quest for locals to bear the last days of Burlington’s Indian summer, the solution was clear: bubbling brews, festive hats and games easy enough for those under the influence to win prizes.

Oktoberfest Vermont held its third annual festival this past weekend from Sept. 21 to 23. Forty local, regional and world-renowned brewers and seven food vendors gathered at Waterfront Park to bring Burlingtonians a taste of German festivities.

BETTINA CATALDI. B-Side.

Friday night of the festival began with a pink and orange-hued sunset over Lake Champlain, washed by the sound of the traditionally-costumed German band The Inseldudlers. The band kept the night lively playing all sorts of music from traditional German tunes to “Sweet Caroline” until the taps closed at 10 p.m.

Each attendee received a small glass for vendors to fill as well as 15 green tickets, each equivalent to one beer from a vendor of their choice. A plethora of options surrounded the borders of the festival, from Magic Hat Brewing Co. to Sierra Nevada – even hard cider options such as Citizen Cider for those facing a gluten intolerance or who just prefer a little sweetness in their beverage.

Upon arrival, 15 tickets didn’t appear to be enough; though after reaching our fifth high-percentage beverages, we deemed that the amount of tickets was plenty to sustain a socially-acceptable buzz.

BETTINA CATALDI. B-Side.

There was not one type of attendee, either. The crowd ranged from older, local beer buffs to German-outfitted festival lovers, to college students looking to enjoy some cold brews in lieu of room temperature backpack beers.

“It’s my first time here,” senior Garrett Chisolm said. “I’ve tried some great local brews and food, and I’m really loving looking out onto Lake Champlain.”

Oktoberfest’s food choices were able to cater to a range of palettes, from local fan-favorites like Kountry Kart Deli to traditional cuisine from the Vermont Spatzle company.

The night wasn’t only for drinking and eating; the festival vendors also brought their games to the table. A local sticker company, Sticky Brand, had a plinko board set up in which players could drop a wooden chip to a numbered slot determining how many stickers they could take home. Samuel Adams brought an inflatable slide, fitted with hops flowers awaiting the participant at the bottom.

BETTINA CATALDI. B-Side.

A group of friends and I attempted the Escape Room challenge set up in the middle of the grounds. The theme was to escape from the drunk tank, so we were all handcuffed to a wall in the prison cell-themed room. We were given the last slot, thus, by far the drunkest of those who had attempted the game. Contrary to the title of the game, we did not escape the room.

“About 75 percent of the teams have been able to escape the room,” said Mike Garber, an employee of Escape Room.

Apparently, we were the unlucky 25 percent.

By the end of the evening, the crowd began to dissipate, and seemingly disappeared once the clock struck 10 p.m. and the taps closed. Overall, participants appeared to be extraordinarily happy with their choices in brews and abundance of food and games.

 

Chasing West

My friends and I departed on a Friday afternoon during the peak of summer, leaving behind our homes and any concerns for the time of day.

We’d entered into a losing race with the setting sun, united by our common western destination, winding through those vibrant green New Hampshire mountains without a look back. 2,297 miles, 35 hours and six questionably hygienic gas station bathrooms later we arrived in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I was raised in the excessive familiarity of an isolated New England town, a town boasting a thriving tourist scene and more ski resorts than people of color.

JAMES GAUDREAULT. B-Side.

Although my family certainly traveled, we tended to limit our excursions to the east coast, exploring Maine and New Hampshire tirelessly, yet content with gleaning knowledge of the distant “West” through National Geographic photographs.

I think this was the root motivation for the trip – the idea of the vast unknown and the unfamiliarity that accompanies it. My friends and I had never ventured more than five or so hours from our homes, limiting ourselves to day trips and overnight hikes in the seemingly limitless White Mountain wilderness.

We’d had romanticized talks of “pilgrimages” out West. We had daydreamed of dropping everything and exploring the Pacific Crest Trail or the boundless beauty of Yellowstone. We’d had visions of camping under the stars, living off hand caught fish, and spending our days wrapped in the arms of mother nature.

While it wasn’t possible to fully realize our fantasies so soon, this past summer I was able to take that initial exploratory step.

For the first leg of the journey I was fortunate enough to have the help of one of those old friends, Ian Lubkin, who was on his way to New Mexico to study at Albuquerque University. With his dog Alta as our third amigo, we piled the sum collection of our belongings into his blue Subaru Outback and headed on our way.

On that first night we left home with only one final destination in mind and no obligations in between. We cruised through the first few hours comfortably, passing familiar New England territory, bubbling with a freedom-fueled energy, as if our newfound independence would sustain us for weeks to come.

Conversation and laughter flowed freely that night as our motley trio left first New Hampshire behind, then Massachusetts, before pushing deep into the winding rural roads and thickly-wooded hills of upstate New York.

We weren’t sure where we stopped for the night, and it didn’t matter much. As the gas gauge crept low and the clock edged into the early morning hours, we pulled off into an abandoned field, the swaying grass standing nearly as tall as the car itself.

JAMES GAUDREAULT. B-Side.

Once we cut the engine and surrendered ourselves to the natural world, a kind of surreal realization of our situation settled in: we were doing it.

We pulled a tent from my 45-pound all-inclusive hiking pack, unrolled our sleeping pads and bags and made ourselves at home with the crickets and the distant giggles of an enthusiastic creek. We gathered a few twigs and fell into our dinnertime camping routine, resulting in a “feast” of ham, potatoes and toast.

We rose with the sun, prepared some farm eggs, and, with the help of Alta, packed up our things back into our miniature makeshift RV.

Saturday was spent in the car. We continued through New York, stopping only at Anchor Bar in Buffalo, the famed birthplace of the buffalo wing. From here we drove nearly straight through the night, stopping every few hours to walk Alta and alternate behind the wheel.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t the unbearable gauntlet we’d been bracing ourselves for. Up until this point we both had limited long-drive experience, and we’d braced ourselves for the pain and boredom of those 4-5 hour family vacation treks, each minute agonizing, without a second unnoticed or uncounted.

Instead we fell into a routine not far from enjoyable, napping off and on, our attention shifting from music to books and inevitably back to the unrelenting stretches of highway laid out before us.

As we passed through Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky and eventually Texas, the color gradually drained from the scenery flying by. The tall pines were the first to go, leaving only their distant shrub-like cousins and occasional oak towering over the livestock fields.

For miles on end our only company was scattered cattle and thundering semi trucks emblazoned with massive brand names, advertising to the empty fields.

Soon after the sun rose we entered the desert zone, passing through Amarillo, Texas, the gas prices declining with our latitude.

Before noon, New Mexico swallowed us, and all greenery with us, leaving only bleak high desert plains stretching on for miles uninterrupted. Although we were running on little food and even less sleep, it was the excitement of the destination that pushed us those last few hours into the sandy city of Albuquerque.

Rather than rising magnificently, it seemed to almost grudgingly emerge from the plains, the few ranches sprinkled about morphing into a cohesive civilization built with the ingredients of asphalt, billboards and oppressive heat.

JAMES GAUDREAULT. B-Side.

The city was no exception to the bleak Southwestern palette, each and every building created with a severely limited spectrum of browns and grays.

For the next eight days Albuquerque was my home. These were filled with desert hikes, canyons, camping, swimming, dog walks, sunsets, laughter and new friends, each of which could be a story of their own.

The following Tuesday I gathered my limited belongings and carefully traced out a cardboard sign: “LA or West: (probably not an axe murderer).” I planned to hitchhike, a kind of surrender to the flow of the highway and the spirit of the American adventure.

I spent the following seven hours stranded on highway curbs and rest stop entrances, presenting my sign and upturned thumb, doing my best to convince passersby that the straggly 19-year-old with a ratty Hawaiian shirt and even rattier mustache would be good company for the next few hours of their road trip.

JAMES GAUDREAULT. B-Side.

While I did receive several ride offers to Mexico and one gentleman who attempted to recruit me to rob a bank (promising plenty of “guns and scary masks” in his truck), the kind-hearted family or truck driver never pulled to the side to take me under their wing.

As dusk settled in and my crude sign was lost to the swallowing darkness, I decided to dig into my shallow bank account to buy a one-way Greyhound Bus ticket to Los Angeles.

The Albuquerque bus station was an adventure of its own, inhabited by diverse and fascinating specimens: a young father and son with only the clothes on their backs sharing a seat in the corner, a large older woman with a shopping cart and colorful pajamas sprawled over a three-seat kingdom, and a collection of nearly identical latino men dressed in tank tops and army shorts, engrossed in an ‘80s crime drama unfolding on a small pixelated television.

My bus left 2 a.m., and I’d arrived at the station 5 hours prior. As we entered the morning hours and the bus to LA was the final ticket left to board, the group grew, and the smell with it.

JAMES GAUDREAULT. B-Side.

We finally boarded, the veteran driver grudgingly checking each ticket as if he had a personal vendetta against each and every paying customer. The following 17 and a half hours were some of the most grueling of my life.

We drove through a sleepless night, the air conditioning struggling as if clogged by the tangible stench hanging in the stagnant air. The sun rose with the temperature, the bus reading an exterior temp of 110 degrees, the interior not far behind.

Brief desert stops interrupted the rest of the journey, each mile adding another drop of sweat to my shirt.

When we eventually rolled into the Los Angeles station, the first half of my journey ended. From here I jumped to San Francisco, Northern California, Chicago and finally back home, colorful stories to be saved for another day.

All in all, there is no universal moral to extract from this story, no motivational pitch or grandiose inspirational message to concluded here. Rather, I hope that this serves as evidence, if nothing else, that sometimes “winging it” works out just fine.

Sometimes just going for it produces the best memories and most powerful experiences, even if your idea of “it” isn’t fully articulated at the onset.

Not everyone can drop everything and head across the country (I certainly I wouldn’t have made it more than a few miles without the generosity of friends and sufficient savings) but regardless I hope more people will expand their definitions of what is feasible, and ask themselves “why not?”

On Being your own Outing Club

As I near the start of my senior year, every so often I stop to look around this little college town in that starry-eyed way I did as a first-year: in awe of mountains, water and vast open spaces in every direction. It’s the kind of feeling that draws so many students here and leaves so many missing their once-temporary home in the dog days after graduation.

SUSIE NAGLE. B-Side. Summit of Wright Peak, Adirondack Park, NY.

Living in Burlington and going to UVM, there is an undeniably strong connection between community and the outdoors. This weekend, I saw newly moved in first-years walking out of Outdoor Gear Exchange with new gear for their first fall season, and last week I saw the first TREK groups pouring into the Outing Club house together.

MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side. Giant Mountain Wilderness, Adirondack Park, NY.

For someone like me who grew up in a city with only the occasional field or rolling hill to romp around, coming to UVM is like entering a vast wonderland of natural beauty unfolding all around you, all the time, waiting to be explored. During my first year at school, though, I found myself shying away from those adventures I had been so excited to embark on when I first came to campus. The new friends, schedules, work and general intimidation by the intensity of outdoor options kept me away from the woods for too long.

A long winter and a summer away from Vermont passed until I decided to take another shot at prioritizing time outside. In the fall of my sophomore year, I tried my luck getting into the Outing Club’s WILD outdoor leadership program and failed, as did many of my close friends. We spent hours complaining about the missed chances and the competition of it all, wondering why we were left behind when the outdoors is supposed to be all-inclusive.

MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side. Giant Mountain Wilderness, Adirondack Park, NY.

That weekend, we decided to start our own outing club. October had come and a blanket of orange and red confetti stretched out across the Champlain Valley as my two best friends and I drove south to the Green Mountain National Forest, just east of Middlebury. We took our time reveling in the cold fall morning, got coffee and cookies for the road and when we arrived at the trailhead, were greeted with a quiet mountain breeze bringing the season’s first snow.

We marched up through the Breadloaf wilderness for a couple miles until we reached the Long Trail and the Skylight Pond shelter just beyond. Waiting for the heavy snow to stop, we snooped around the shelter, reading old entries from hikes past. One of our favorites was from a Boy Scout group years ago that read: “We came as boys, left as renegades.”

MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side. Algonquin Peak, Adirondack Park, NY.

A little soggy and fairly cold, but with high spirits, we tramped down the mountain. Halfway to the end, we ran into the WILD group setting out on their first overnight trek. We said hey to familiar faces, wished them luck and headed back to the car for the drive home and a night with our friends back in Burlington.

MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side. Adirondack Mountain Reserve, Keene Valley, NY.

Since that day, we’ve left few Saturdays un-hiked, un-skied and un-explored. We’ve tackled a handful of the Adirondacks’ high peaks, revisited Breadloaf many times anddriven countless miles of country road in sun, rain and fog just to get that breath of fresh air. I don’t want to be cynical about the clubs, the gear heads and the competition, but the best way to get outside is on your own terms. Don’t wait to make the cut, don’t wait for instructions, just get out there.

Beer and Baseball Hats in the Berkshires: Solid Sound 2017

On a muggy Friday evening in the rolling hills of the western Massachusetts Berkshires, a crowd of L.L. Bean-clad festival goers descended slowly on the sleepy town of North Adams. Though its main street is spare and some of its sidewalks are old and wearing, the town is home to one of New England’s most beloved music festivals: Solid Sound.

Hosted by the much-praised Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCa, for short), the festival was birthed in 2010 as the brainchild of the ever-prolific Chicago-based rock band, Wilco. Over the past seven years, Solid Sound has attracted musicians, comedians and artists from across the country. Levon Helm, Hannibal Burress, Yo La Tengo, Jen Kirkman and Mac DeMarco have made up the festival’s diverse lineups since its inception.

This year, the festival boasted an eclectic mix of artists from all ends of the musical spectrum, from jazz to funk to indie rock. As patriarchs of the festival, Wilco was the centerpiece, playing sets every day of the weekend.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. Solid Sound Festival at MassMoCa.

Drawn more to the spectacle of festival life than the music, we decided to head down for the weekend. The promise of camping, a good museum, quality people-watching and a chance to get out of town was enough for us to make the trip. So we packed up the car with an excess of snacks, sunscreen and bug spray to see what Solid Sound was all about.

The trip from Burlington to North Adams is reason enough to make it down to the festival, with Route 7’s gentle curves snaking past small Vermont towns littered with antique shops and flea markets set against the spine of the Green Mountains. The road winds down through verdant river valleys freckled with wildflowers among the tall grass wetlands this time of year, and deep woods hiding trails to mountain peaks alongside dilapidated barns filled with rusting relics of other eras.

When we crossed the state border, taller mountains fell away, yielding rolling hills and eventually the polished landscape of Williams College grounds before we reached North Adams. There, country roads turned into narrow streets lined with clapboard duplexes, crooked power lines and dive bars. In the midst of the small town skyline made of church steeples and steel bridges was the crisp helvetica MassMoca sign, assuring us we were in the right place.

Since the festival takes place in the middle of New England’s most balmy months, camping is a highly popular choice for those who spring for weekend passes and make the trek to North Adams from all over the Northeast. As we pulled in to camp, we began to get a sense of the festival’s flavor as families loaded out of RVs, and groups of middle-aged friends and fathers cracked open Coors Lites to kick off the weekend.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. The hats of Solid Sound Festival 2017.

Inside the festival grounds, the scene looked much the same: a sea of Teva sandals, cargo pants and the occasional fedora. Graphic tees featuring corny dad humor abounded, with messages ranging from “Baltimore: there’s more than murder here!” to “I am listening to Ryan Adams because I am very emotional right now.” The amply sized MassMoCa compound had been transformed into a wonderland of craft beer carts, hipster taco trucks and designer hot dogs all under countless strings of Christmas lights. Stages were set against the white-washed brick facade of the museum, and the first notes of whispy folk music echoed through courtyards as the evening began.

Known for its whimsical and laid-back character, Solid Sound attracts a different set of characters than the rowdy, drunken bunch of flower-crowned hippies you might expect from a summer music festival. Here, gone is the scent of pot wafting through humid air and foreign is the sight of neon face paint around the glazed-over eyes of 16-year-olds. Here, you’re more likely to walk past a mom sipping a mimosa in a flowy top or a toddler dressed in a “Raised on Wilco” shirt his dad bought for him in preparation for the weekend.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. A dad naps between sets at Solid Sound.

Friday night was a warmup, and after a night of heavy rain soaking our tent, Saturday sun beat down on the festival in full force. When we returned to MassMoCa, the crowds were warmed up and ready for another day of good, clean fun at the festival. One of the day’s first offerings was a jam packed comedy show, first showcasing the sassy sensibilities of Michelle Buteau of Big Morning Buzz, Key & Peele, and The Eric Andre Show fame. She poked fun at her upper-middle class white audience in between cracking self-deprecating and painfully relatable jokes about relationships, farting and being a woman.

Following Buteau was the impossibly charming Nick Offerman, who immediately launched into his trademark campfire song comedy with tunes about his wife, Megan Mullally (whose power comedy-music duo Nancy and Beth were also on the festival lineup), Siri, and Ron Swanson. Each song was the perfect balance between satirically self-aware and riotously raunchy all with the perfect finale of “Bye Bye ‘lil Sebastian” from Parks and Recreation. “If you know this song, you are welcome to sing along—if you don’t, you are in for a real treat,” he giggled. The audience let out sighs of nostalgia and some put their lighters in the air for Pawnee, Indiana’s favorite mini-horse and one last resounding applause at the song’s end.

MAX MCCURDY. Michelle Bouteau performing.

Back outside, the music was in full swing. We caught a stunning set from the Brooklyn-based indie rock group Big Thief, followed by a raucous power pop performance by Jessica Dobson’s current Seattle-based project, Deep Sea Diver. Both sets filled the courtyards with delicious sound under peak afternoon sun.The crowd swayed and sweated between beer refills until the music was over. Festival-goers started to feel more like family as we saw familiar faces again and again and got into the rhythm of hopping from show to show, breaking for barbecue in between.

Amidst the afternoon’s excitement, we went inside for a breather and a quick chat with one of the day’s favorites, Big Thief. In a cavernous room with floor-to-ceiling windows opening to the courtyard where moms were intently gyrating to Peter Wolfe’s set, we asked the band about their Solid Sound experience.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. The Solid Sound crowd listens to Big Thief.

“It feels really good; it’s really cozy,” the band’s guitarist Buck Meek said. Big Thief is new to the festival scene, but Solid Sound is the first of many they’ll be playing throughout the summer from Winnipeg to Newport.

“We’ve never played a big festival; we’ve never heard that ‘waaaaaaa!’,” bassist Max Oleartchik laughed. Despite the setting’s newness, during their set the band seemed to be totally in tune with the audience, atmosphere and each other as they delivered raw and ambient riffs with powerfully emotional lyrics that echoed with potency into the air. “You have to find a different resonance in the middle of the day in the sunshine, singing about emotional stuff; it’s an interesting thing to do in the day,” guitarist and lead singer Adrianne Lenker said.

The band cogitated on performance as an art form and the different modes of being it takes based on the kind of audience they’re playing to. “One night we played at this big rock club and the next we played at a church, and it was so different; you can’t just plug a set in anywhere and expect it to stick,” drummer James Krivchenia said. To them, everything comes down to presence. “We’re in what we’re singing for the whole show if it’s hard or if it’s joyful, it doesn’t matter as much — it feels right when it’s present,” Lenker said.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. Big Thief, one of our Solid Sound favorites.

“If you have all these ideas of what you want it to be then it’s useless; it’s all about being like water,” Oleartchik said. “We have to do this with other people we don’t know which is very strange; the larger the audience is, it’s more abstract,” he said. “Today was a big crowd, but we could feel them and we’re starting to do better on that level.” What Big Thief was looking for – that presence – the Solid Sound audience delivered again and again throughout the weekend.

The final taste of that tight-knit community between artist and audience filled the air as the sun set behind the hills and Wilco took the stage for a rambling two-hour set. The band played old favorites as lifelong fans sang along and slow danced into the night. In between songs, Jeff Tweedy appealed to the sentimental crowd with his philosophy of art’s importance in hard times. “The most important thing is that we get to make art and show it to each other,” Tweedy said as everyone cheered in accord.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. Wilco fans await the band’s big show.

Tweedy and the band played long after the end of their time slot, and slowly Wilco fans trickled over to one last cool-down show, Jeff Parker Trio, to end the evening. The sky had darkened and a smattering of stars poked out from under rain clouds as couples swayed shoulder to shoulder and a pair of free spirits danced with hula hoops to the sound of double bass.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. A pair of whimsical festival goers dance to Jeff Parker Trio.

All too soon the night was over, and dimly lit school busses carried weary but smiling festival goers back to their tents as if they were kids coming back to their cabins after a long day at camp. The soft sound of an acoustic guitar playing Wilco covers faded into the night along with the giggles and sighs of parents shepherding their already asleep children into their Airstreams. I dozed off slowly to the sound of my campground neighbors cracking open one last cold one as if they were old friends.

First Fridays in Burlington’s South End

Alongside the Burlington waterfront lies a lesser-known land beyond creemees and sunsets; one populated by photographers, metal workers and painters alike.

I attended my first-ever “First Friday” event, in which dozens of art venues and restaurants across the South End opened their doors free of charge to the Burlington community to promote local artists April 7. Aptly named, the event takes place on the first Friday of every month from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

        Beyond enjoying the plethora of free brownies and viewing an impressive array of artwork, I was fortunate enough to speak with two women in the Burlington art community, both of whom are involved with galleries in the Downtown area.

My first stop was the HAVOC gallery on Sears Lane, one of the furthest galleries featured on the Burlington Art Map. HAVOC is a self-proclaimed “abstract contemporary gallery” featuring both local and international art. When they’re not displaying international artwork, the local flavor of Vermont artwork is brought by metalwork artist Bruce McDonald;  HAVOC also serves as his studio space.

The gallery is a single room with the exhibits in front and McDonald’s studio in the back. It’s only view of the outside being a large garage door behind heaps of metal and wire contraptions. “In the summertime we put the bay doors up because you can smell the lake and it’s all green back there, which makes it an open air gallery,” said gallery director of HAVOC, Sarah Vogelsang-Card.

We discussed the gallery’s diverse displays of art from McDonald and international artists, and how their collection fits into the Burlington art scene.

“We don’t show Vermont-type art work; we exhibit abstract work, a lot of minimalism, high-profile work… so it’s the kind of artwork you would find in New York City galleries,” Vogelsand-Card said.

Although McDonald brings international work to the community, HAVOC prides itself on bringing a new outlook to the community.

“We love the Burlington art scene. We want to be able to contribute new visions, new ideas, and we generally don’t show Vermont artwork so we try to bring in artists from California and Virginia so we’re infusing the community with more art,” Vogelsand-Card said. “More art to see, more art to buy and more art to enjoy.”

She emphasized the importance of introducing international work to Burlington.

“We’re always flushed with new work of Bruce’s, but to be able to show international artists is really fun for us,” Vogelsang-Card said.

There are currently two exhibitions in the HAVOC gallery along with McDonald’s permanent display year-round. Next on the HAVOC agenda is their party in June celebrating McDonald’s piece, “Visible Indivisibles” reaching completion.

Just up the road from HAVOC on Pine Street was my next stop, Brickwork Art Studio. The space is home to fourteen studios featuring artwork of all shapes and styles.

“We’re primarily painters, printers, and I’m the only photographer,” said Jude Domski, Brickwork resident photographer. “We each rent our own spaces, but because of the close proximity, there’s always a bit of cross-pollination.”

The exhibits rotate monthly,  as artists’ work alternates from the main gallery to smaller corridors.   

Domski’s residency at Brickwork has influenced her work beyond what she initially expected. Her newest exhibit, “Shape of Water,” illustrates her artistic evolution since her time at the studio.

“I usually do digital, mostly event photography,” Domski said. ”[Shape of Water] is my first foray into more abstraction, which is not necessarily typical of what I do.”

This exploration began whilst looking for an art space, where Domski took into consideration multiple venues throughout Burlington.

“One venue was Karma Birdhouse, which is more media-focused. Had I been there, I would have been more influenced in that direction,” Domski said. “But it just happened that I chose to be here and I’m around more people doing abstraction. It’s been good for me as an event photographer to get out of that very literal mindset.”

After my time spent speaking with Jude and Sarah on that First Friday in April, I can honestly say I’ll be back exploring the Art Map on the next First Friday in May. Each venue offered me an entirely different experience, all within the comforts of Burlington’s borders.

www.artmapburlington.com

Music Making for the Masses

 

It is genuinely hard to find someone who doesn’t enjoy listening to music. It’s quite a bit easier to find someone who doesn’t play music.

While factors such as lack of interest or time might play a part in this gap, the disconnect between listening and playing music is surely due to the difference in difficulty between listening and playing music.

Playing a guitar is hard, and there are infinitely wrong ways to do it. Listening to music is easy as can be as there’s no “wrong” way to hear an album. While the difficulty of learning to play an instrument, such as guitar, discourages a lot of people from trying to learn, others choose to embrace the challenge.

Holden Jaffe, a NYC-based singer-songwriter and frontman for the indie band Del Water Gap is one of these people.

He started his musical journey by learning how to play drums at age 12. His focus eventually shifted to guitar while spending his junior year of high school abroad in Zaragoza, Spain.

Upon moving to a big city for the first time, he knew he would have to part ways with his beloved space-robbing drums.

“I had brought my guitar, and I spent a lot of time that year sitting in my room, getting better at playing and writing songs.” Jaffe said; “then I kinda caught that bug and continued through my senior year of high school.”

DEL WATER GAP. The band performing at Stone Studio in Lakeville, Connecticut.

While playing the guitar had logistical beginnings, as Jaffe became more interested in writing, it made more sense for him to play a melodic instrument he said.

Up until the early ‘70s, the only music making method was Jaffe’s instrument-based method. Anyone unwilling to put in the time and effort to buy and learn an instrument was relegated to simply listening to music rather than playing it.

That was until one album—Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 masterpiece There’s a Riot Goin On—exposed the world to the then-primitive technology of drum machines. Interestingly enough, Sly’s motive for using a drum machine for the first time was not some genius attempt to re-invent the music industry; it was simply a logistical reaction to his drummer quitting the group due to a souring relationship.

Digital music technology has come a long way since the first drum machine, the Chamberlin Rhythmate, was released in 1957. Drum machines, synths and MIDI controllers are now becoming commonplace in most college dorms and apartments.

Be honest — everybody knows someone who “makes sick beats.” While over-confident, under-talented people such as these may contribute to the impression that increased accessibility of music-making is an awful thing, real musicians tend to disagree.

That change in accessibility is the biggest change to music—both the industry and the art form—in the history of recorded music, Jaffe said.

“I think it’s great; I’ve gotten so many opportunities to create content and meet new people, and to have a career I wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said.

Jaffe also shrugged off the common misconception that making music digitally is “easy as pie.”

“People treat these Digital Audio Workstations like instruments –they have to practice them and get to know them like instruments,” he said. “There’s no difference there.”

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. Del Water Gap performing in Burlington.

Jaffe has also noticed this increase in the accessibility of making music digitally. “A lot of friends are now moving in that direction,” he said, “and a couple of my most consistent collaborators are now in that world.”

Things are no different in Burlington, as every year there are more and more people digitally producing music.

One of those people is junior Mike Garrett (aka Mike G), who takes an old-school approach to production.

Mike G’s main instrument is an MPC-2000 XL, a storied drum machine and sampler that’s been the tool of choice for countless hip-hop legends over the years, like J Dilla, Nujabes, DJ Premier and many more.

“This machine is indirectly responsible for hip-hop, so I felt I had to get one at some point,” he said, “and I’m using the same thing my favorite producers did, so I can sort of put myself in their shoes and think, ‘this is what it’s like when Pete Rock makes music.’”

Garrett also took the old-school route of buying an MPC made in 2000 due to his self-proclaimed affection for old machinery.

“I love old electronics; they have cool little quirks to them that new things don’t,” Garrett said, “and the quirks are your friends.”

Even as someone who is passionate about producing the hard way on now-defunct technology, Garrett shares Jaffe’s opinion that the increased accessibility and ease of making music is a great thing.

“If you make music, I don’t think you can actually have a problem with more people making music, or that you can think of making music as an exclusive thing,” he said.

Garrett also commented on how advancements in production technology are beneficial even to old souls such as himself.

“In my research of trying to make a full analog studio setup, I’ve found it’s ridiculously expensive and requires a truly amazing amount of hardware,” he said, “but now your computer can do the same things all that hardware would do, so now it’s just so much less expensive to make music.”

A love for hip-hop, though, doesn’t attract everyone to the expensive and sometimes-frustrating world of dealing with decades-old analog electronics, and there are different paths to digitally producing music.

UVM junior N’Kosi Edwards has taken one of these alternative paths, choosing to produce with a modern MIDI controller – the AKAI MPK Mini 2 – and a Digital Audio Workstation, Logic Pro.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side.

“[Producing] is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while,” Edwards said, “and once I saw young producers like Young Chop getting big I thought, ‘maybe I should start making beats, that looks kinda fun.’”

For Edwards, the desire to produce came hand-in-hand with his love of rapping. “I’ve always been infatuated with how people could twist words in hip-hop,” he said, “which is why artists like BIG Krit were always an inspiration, because he made his own music and rapped over it.”

The increased accessibility and popularity of making music has not gone unnoticed for Edwards. “I know a lot of people that rap and make music,” he said, “like my friend Louis that got signed to a record label. I get a lot of inspiration from people like him, that are just doing their own thing.”

Edwards also shares the opinion that the more accessible music is, the better.

“If it wasn’t for that I probably wouldn’t be making beats, so I have to give thanks that it’s so much more accessible now,” he said.

Edwards’s use of only one MIDI controller is something he surely couldn’t imagine before he got started producing. “Back in the day, when I didn’t know much about it, I thought I would need a whole bunch of equipment,” he said.

The only downside that Edwards could see with increased accessibility is that “it has definitely given people the ability to mass produce a lot of crappy music, but who’s to even say that? People might say my music is crappy,” he said.

Digital music production has come an unspeakably long way since that first Chamberlin Rhythmate went on sale in 1957, and there’s certainly no end in sight. Digital music tech has gone from that ancient Rhythmate with only 14 drum patterns, to Digital Audio Workstations with thousands of samples built in, with the ability to download an almost infinite number of additional sounds.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. N’kosi Edwards making music.

It’s gone from the first digital sampler—the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer—costing $5,000 upon its release in 1980, to MIDI controllers like N’Kosi Edwards’s AKAI MPK Mini 2, which costs as little as $100 on eBay.

It’s gone from expensive analog tape recorders that added unwanted white noise with every recording, to programs like GarageBand, offering a far superior recording experience for free on any Mac computer.

In short, it’s easy to see why digital music production has become so much more common and accessible in the last few years: it’s more intuitive, cheap and advanced than it has ever been before.

And with that, there’s more music available now than there has ever been. And even if that means there’s now more crappy music out there than ever before, statistically there has to also be more great music out there than ever before, right?
In order to enrich your life by checking out the amazing music these great artists make, I strongly encourage you to check out their respective online libraries. For some soul-touching, emotionally-rich indie grooves, listen to Holden Jaffe’s super-group Del Water Gap on Spotify, iTunes, or Bandcamp (https://delwatergap.bandcamp.com/), and be on the lookout for their upcoming EP! For some futuristic yet old-school raps and instrumentals, check out N’Kosi Edwards on Soundcloud at https://soundcloud.com/nkosi11. Unfortunately, Mike G’s music is yet to be published online, but be on the lookout for his gritty, 90s hip-hop greatness hitting the internet’s airwaves in the near future.

A Night Out with Rose Street Collective

Snapping their fingers under lights of purple, blue, and yellow hues, Julia Spelman, Lilly Dukich and Erika Polner spend the majority of a Friday night set perfecting harmonies as a powerful vocal trio, while reserving a few songs for solo performances highlighting individual strengths.

 Rose Street Collective, a new band consisting of five UVM students, surrounds the three singers while playing songs the group has meticulously mastered.

Filling two venues in one weekend, the Skinny Pancake and Radio Bean, the Collective shares their own perspective on jazz by playing both original and familiar tunes.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. From left: Lilly Dukich, Julia Spelman and Erika Polner performing at the Skinny Pancake on February 3rd.

Since November, the band has played about 10 shows and is quickly becoming a  staple of the Burlington music scene.

The magic of Rose Street Collective lies in their ability to pay tribute to the history of jazz by taking the audience through a dynamic tour of the genre, from Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues” to a nostalgic yet energetic rendition of Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things” and, finally,  covers of today’s hit indie songs.

The band consists of Adam Sullivan on keys, Ian Mack on guitar, Kevin Nikolaides on bass, Ethan Shafron on drums, and Rayne Bick playing the alto sax.

Members share a respect for jazz’s rich history, a reverence that resurged years after taking lessons as kids.

“It has always been a part of our lives, even when we didn’t realize it,” Spelman said.

Most of the members met through the UVM jazz ensemble, while Mack and Bick connected with the group later on through mutual friends.

The ensemble helped them further develop their skills and the group quickly became eager to branch out from campus once they recognized their common love of many different genres of music, from soul to funk to rock.

The group’s ultimate goal was to mimic their favorite musicians, incorporating classical jazz standards into the modern music they listen to.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. Rose Street Collective at the Skinny Pancake on February 3rd.

Their interpretation of funk group Vulfpeck’s hit song “Back Pocket” illustrates this perfectly as they replace keys with an alto sax and turn the volume up, taking the song to a new level.  

While it may seem that there is a meticulous strategy to their setlist, it mostly just pays tribute to the songs they all love, which they compile into a Spotify collaborative playlist or suggest via Facebook messenger, Shafron said.

Nikolaides uses Google Sheets faithfully in order to avoid chaos, keeping ideas and song choices organized. 

At the show, the band members seemed completely in their element on stage, exchanging glances and smiles in the midst of their solos.

They’re quickly making their way from one Burlington venue to the next each weekend, which helps to immerse them into the “hopping” music community, Spelman said.

To keep up with their movements, the band suggests liking them on Facebook and possibly following their Instagram in the near future, Shafron said. They have a show this coming Thursday, February 16th at Radio Bean, 11:00 pm.

The Anti-Sport

     Skateboarding is set to be in the 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo. I’m confused. The Olympics are for usually for sports, and skateboarding can’t be a sport. Seeing skateboarding in the olympics is akin to McDonald’s offering dry cleaning. Skateboarding can’t be a sport, sports have clear objectives and points. In a basketball game, everyone knows what they should be doing: trying their darndest to get the ball in the net. When they do, they don’t wonder what happens next, they know they will get points for it.

   Skateboarding is nothing like that. Skateboards don’t come with instructions. Some people choose to use a skateboard purely as transportation. Some people decide to ride huge boards exclusively down steep hills. Some people aim only to flip their board in complex ways. Some people strive to hop down huge sets of stairs. The only wrong way to approach skateboarding is to not approach it.

    There are no points in skateboarding. When I landed my first ollie, there wasn’t a scoreboard flashing numbers at me. There’s no way to score skateboarding. Some people can naturally do things without trying, while it might take someone else years to learn. That one guy at the skatepark that’s struggling to kickflip may turn around and do something twice as hard.

   Sports encourage competition. Competition encourages animosity and hostility amongst competitors. Every time a team celebrates scoring a goal, there’s another team that hates them for doing it. Skateboarding is the opposite: it encourages camaraderie and friendship. When I see someone do some trick I’ve always wanted to do, I can’t be mad at them, I can only be excited for them.

   Calling skateboarding a sport is like calling a grilled cheese a burger. Or calling high heels tennis shoes. Or calling 9 hours of sleep a nap. While they may share some minor similarities,the connection is not quite there. I propose a new word, something to signify an activity that requires physical exertion and developed skills, but does not contain an inherent goal or point system. How about ‘hobby’? Skateboarding is a hobby. I’m all for making an Olympics of hobbies, but I’d like to keep skateboarding out of the current hyper-jockish, athlete-childhood-extinguishing Olympic culture.

The arts, lifestyle and culture blog of the Vermont Cynic