Our interview series Icebreaker features artists talking about things—some strange, some amusing, some meaningful—that just might reveal their true selves. This edition features Evan Stephens Hall, frontman for the whip-smart alt-country band Pinegrove, whose album Cardinal placed on our Best Albums of 2016 list.
Pitchfork: What is your most unusual hobby?
Evan Stephen Hall: I used to be really into pogo-sticking as a kid. I wanted to break the world record of most consecutive hops. But then I did some research, and it turns out that they don’t even qualify it like that—it’s not number of hops, it’s duration. There are people who have done it for like 28 hours.
What was your high school yearbook quote?
I did not take a senior portrait. I was not in the yearbook at all. It was just a name and a box right above and no quote.
What is a band that you really love that people might not expect given the music that you make?
I really do consider myself a student of pop music. I really like ‘NSync, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears. A lot of that stuff was written by Max Martin, who is arguably the best songwriter of our time. It was a huge compliment to me when some review described us as “Wilco by-way-of Taylor Swift.” I was like, “yessss!”
Which book have you re-read more than any other book?
I’ve read Tenth of December by George Saunders three times. It was a fun world to live in. And it’s short stories, which ends up being a good format for me on tour. Beyond that, I admire his overall project so much; it seems like his aim is to incite radical empathy in his readers. His work is very funny, very sad, and formally experimental, but he writes about regular people in tough positions and just gets at these very poignant moments. He’s an author that’s made me feel more palpably than any other writer.
What was the worst job you ever had?
Right after I graduated college, I moved back to Montclair, New Jersey and worked at a country club—serving drinks to people who were already mad at me for existing. One time, I wore the wrong outfit and had to go home to change. And when I went home I listened to “Winter’s Come and Gone” by Gillian Welch. She’s one of my favorite songwriters. I laid down on my bed and was like—fuck. I started welling up, basically just having a really powerful experience. And I was like, This job is making me unhappy. Fuck it, I’m not going back. Thank you, Gillian Welch.
What’s the greatest concert you’ve ever seen?
It was the first time I saw Radiohead. I was in eighth grade. It was at this festival at Giants Stadium and it was pouring rain all day, so a lot of people left. Then it stopped raining and Radiohead came on. It was only 15 percent full. We got really close. It was just impossibly exciting to me. That is really the pinnacle of it for me. That is my reminder of how transformative and positive music can be. I’m very happy remembering it right now.
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
I took a James Joyce seminar and my professor said: “When reading Joyce, it’s never either/or. It’s always and.” And that advice extends to just interpreting experience. It’s an adventurous perspective, and it also does not try to collapse or reduce or one-dimensionalize experience—there are many layers to everything that’s going on, and they’re not competing, they co-exist. And you don’t have to choose. In fact, to choose is a little bit foolhardy. Never either/or, always and... [points to his “&” tattoo].
What is the biggest musical risk you’ve ever taken?
I started writing the & EP as a senior in college in 2011 and I wanted that to be very conceptual and latticed; after reading The Sound and the Fury, Ulysses, and The Crying of Lot 49, I was like, “I wanna make something like that—a love album about semiotics, or a semiotics album about love.” But following that, something clicked, and I realized the more simple I am, the better. It is always more potent to communicate quickly. So I started writing shorter songs that were more conversational. And that was exactly when things starting connecting more deeply with a listenership, with Mixtape Two. That was a real turning point. It allowed me to move towards simplicity. Because complexity is a little bit of a defense mechanism. I challenge myself all the time to simplify.
If you could hang out inside any Virginia Woolf novel, which would it be and why?
The Waves is my favorite book by her. I read it when I moved to NYC, when everything in my life was falling apart. It taught me so much about texture—that it is possible to engage a reader with a practically non-narrative book. There is character development, but it’s almost like the characters don’t even matter that much. That book showed me something about the permeability of self, being in a city with all these impossibly complex moving parts. It made me center myself a little bit and understand the fluidity of personality, and that lead me towards a more humble perspective, because it’s not so much about me, it’s more about my role—how can I help this big thing? Also, it’s so… wavy, in the contemporary sense. It helped me realize that taking an earnest swing at what consciousness looks like on the page is a trippy assignment. You don’t need to be surreal in a classic sense to be psychedelic. If you are rendering consciousness accurately enough, it is going to be trippy.
Which fictional character do you relate to the most?
The writer Ben Lerner’s character Adam Gordon in Leaving the Atocha Station. Ben Lerner is compared to this character all the time because he made a thing that a lot of people have engaged with, and now they assume that that person is him. I relate to that. A lot of people who have listened to Pinegrove want to know just how autobiographical it is. And of course some of it is. But it’s also fictionalized. I select details to make it more of a cogent story, more exciting, to make it rhyme, to make it fit. For example, aphasia is a neurological condition that prevents you from accessing words well, and we have a song called “Aphasia,” and people have asked, “Do you actually have aphasia?” No, it’s a metaphor. It’s a fear of mine that I won’t be able to express myself well enough, or that I’ll be somehow trapped inside myself. Maybe a lot of people feel that way. So I’m using it metaphorically as an extension of solipsism. Not only am I afraid of discovering that I am the only real thing, but I can’t communicate that discovery to anyone because I’ve lost my use of language. That’s what Cardinal is about for me.
What’s the last song you heard that made you cry?
“Golden Days” by Whitney. There are incidental associative memories with it—as a listener or reader or viewer, you’re always bringing your own baggage to whatever art you’re engaging with. A song like “Golden Days” allows you to have a personal moment that is basically independent of the song; there’s a certain intensity-meets-serenity with a song that will allow you to access that space.
What’s a moment in your life when you felt like the smartest person on earth?
I think a real turning point for me intellectually happened when I became less concerned about presentation and more concerned about content and feeling. My most recent revelation was about how being a good artist and being a good person are really similar. Basically, the moment I decided to really dedicate myself to matters of the heart, in an emotionally responsible way, I unlocked my brain, too.