The basement of this suburban house in Bloomfield, New Jersey, is tidy and clean, bereft of the typical clutter you'd expect (busted tennis rackets, laundry piles, old paint cans), so the four members of the band Pinegrove are practicing in their socks. After hitting the final four notes of "Cadmium" -- a song on their new album, Cardinal, released by Run For Cover Records on February 12 -- singer Evan Stephens Hall recaps the performance. The tempo, he says, was fine. But it could be better.
"Maybe there are more discrete moments that can have their own metrical identity," Hall says to the rest of the band. "Really, my only complaint was when it drops. As far as phrasing melodically..." he continues, while drummer Zack Levine, whose parents have graciously offered up their basement as a pre-tour practice space, listens closely.
"We're talking about a small difference here," Levine says, "so to suggest meeting in the middle is, like, one single BPM." They both laugh.
This is how precise the conversations can get among a band rehearsing for a big tour behind a new album. Pinegrove's upcoming shows with emo stalwarts Into It. Over It. and The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die will showcase the band in its latest iteration: a lean, tight quartet surging with energy for its new material. Crucially, the band can win hundreds (even thousands) of new listeners, potentially propelling the very well-received Cardinal to best-of-2016 territory and pushing the band itself to a higher level of visibility.
So the songs have to be perfect. They get that way by disassembling how they're performed, checking each piece for flaws, and refitting the entire thing back together -- a series of musical oil changes.
The basement mechanic work continues. About two-and-a-half minutes into "Waveform" -- a twangy, beautiful song that sounds like My Morning Jacket playing Death Cab For Cutie's "Sleep Spent" -- Hall sings the phrase "an avocado cut" in three-part harmony with Levine and guitarist Josh Marre. They play the song once through, and after, Hall offers his take on tightening it. Each syllable should soften up and be lighter than the one before it, he says.
They go again: "avo-cahhh-do CUT." Levine and Marre come in too heavy on the last word. They go again: "avo-cahhh-do cut." Too soft this time. Not enough punch when it needs to punch. They go again: "avo-cahhh-do cut." Perfect. It's gorgeous.
Listening to Cardinal on record, this caliber of detailed arrangement may not be immediately apparent. Hall's ambling voice occupies much of the real estate across its eight songs, along with guitar layers, loud drums, blooming banjo and pedal steel backing parts, and the creeping sense that the band recorded the whole thing in an empty high school janitorial closet. "When we were mixing, one of our priorities was to make it feel convincing, like all of these could conceivably be happening in a room together for the listener right there," Hall says.
But at the molecular level, Cardinal's songs are just as rich, unspooling narratives about escape and adventure and fucking up and trying again.
Cardinal's two bookends, "Old Friends" and "New Friends," capture the same problem from different angles: What happens when you take your support system for granted? The lyrics tell it both earnestly ("I should call my parents when I think of them/ Should tell my friends when I love them") and plaintively ("I resolve to make new friends/ I liked my old ones but I fucked up/ So I'll start again"). As any young person can tell you, those support systems are extremely, messily, crucially necessary when it turns out that you actually don't have everything worked out quite the way you thought you did.
Hall and Levine are the sons of musicians who played together in nearby Montclair decades ago, and in addition to holding dual jam sessions when they were both 7-year-old drummers -- each banging on the same kit as a four-armed noise monster -- the two also had a touring grunge band in middle school called Dogwater. Now, in the age of getting 300 new Facebook likes overnight after the Cardinal album announcement, how do you talk to those older than you about the level of success your band has found? How do you explain it to your grandparents?
"We found out the other day that we’re on the Billboard charts, a number of them," Levine says. "So that’s just undeniably cool. I was at my grandparents’s last night, actually, and they were like, 'Now you’re finally talking about something that we’ve actually heard of.' Which is something we joke about a lot, being able to be part of something your grandparents actually understand. That’s a big milestone."
Pinegrove's lineup now consists of Hall, Levine, Marre, and bassist David Mitchell. But a few years ago, the band also included Levine's brother Nick, vocalist Nandi Plunkett, and bass players Adan Carlo and Sam Skinner in alternate capacities. "It turned into whoever was free for the tour," Levine says. "The full-time band structure dissipated a little bit." At one point, the band relocated to Brooklyn "because that's what a band's supposed to do," but after a year, Hall moved back across the Hudson River to Montclair. The other members stayed, and all but Levine ended up pursuing other musical projects. Those who've departed the band are still part of the Pinegrove DNA, even if they're not on the current roster.
"Everyone else who had been in Pinegrove at some point is on the album," Levine says. "This is the family."
The band's tour, which kicks off March 22 in St. Louis, Missouri and makes it way to New York's Irving Plaza a month later, is something of a family vacation. And that makes a lot of sense given Cardinal's biggest takeaways: escape and adventure. The title of the album evokes both the beautiful bird, referenced in the opening song touching down in a bed of dogwood, and the four directions on a compass. It's the most real for Hall.
"I'm a 26-year-old who lives at his parents's house," Hall says. "I do think about leaving a lot, and one way that I've figured out how to do it is to book tours, you know?"
Another way is through the music itself. When it's not gushing with urgency in minute details of conversations and the chasmic spaces between the said and unsaid, Cardinal is indulging in escapism with outright references to heading west ("I am out of my goddam mind and out to California"), heading east ("I was totally nervous to go to Japan"), and not sticking around too long (the song called "Visiting"). It's all intentional, Hall says.
And it's all an invitation: "I made it as a puzzle and a universe for myself to spend some time in, maybe as a method of escape. But everybody’s invited."