If you’ve found yourself at a show in a grubby Boston basement in recent years, you’ve probably heard of Pile. People in that corner of the world speak of the band with the kind of reverence usually reserved for hometown legends like Pixies or the Lemonheads. They’ve been the subject of entire albums by their peers and countless homemade t-shirts. But the cult of Pile has developed almost entirely separate from the band over the course of their decade-long career, and on their latest album Green and Gray it sounds like they might have grown past their status as Boston’s DIY mascot.
Frontman Rick Maguire and his band have fought hard for their success, touring relentlessly for years and coming back from each tour a little older to a city that was a little bit different. That feeling of transience only accumulated over time, and when Maguire returned to Boston after touring Pile’s last album A Hairshirt of Purpose, it felt like those roots he’d relied on weren’t all there anymore.
“A lot of things had changed in that city,” Maguire tells Paste. “I was living in a new spot, a lot of people had moved. There were just certain things that I was used to that had changed, and I think maybe some of that was internal too. There was just a lot going on within me that felt alienated from the place that I had lived in for a long time.”
Maguire notes that Boston’s sense of impermanence might have contributed to these feelings. “It’s a lot of students, and it’s people that are there for a short time and then they leave.”
As a result, Maguire turned inward, staying in his room in his new neighborhood of Cambridgeport to write the songs that would eventually become Green and Gray. Meanwhile, Pile welcomed two new members—Chappy Hull on guitar and Alex Molini on bass—and the band was more spread out than ever before, with Hull in Nashville, Molini in New York and drummer Kris Kuss also in Boston. Maguire would spend weeks writing new material alone before bringing the band together to work on it in short bursts.
“We would schedule blocks of time to get together to work on stuff, so it was like I was working on a presentation of material almost,” Maguire says. “Then we would all disperse and go back to where we lived and I would internalize all that again, work on it, edit it and then bring it back. So we did that about three times.”
To make this process easier, and to be closer to his family members who already lived there, Maguire decided to pack his bags and move in with Hull in Nashville. It was a difficult move, one that triggered a lot of anxiety and even panic attacks for Maguire. He channelled some of that anxiety into the album’s lead single, “Bruxist Grin,” a restless, seething track filled with lines about white-knuckling your way through change. Bruxism refers to grinding your teeth, so Maguire’s grin was the happy face he put on for the world while taking that leap of faith to Nashville.
Through the move, Maguire’s solitary writing process and the band’s quick bursts of creative energy, Pile emerged with their most sonically lush, intricately crafted and dynamic album to date. Green and Gray channels all those feelings of displacement, transience and wayworn confusion into a remarkably focused and deliberate project, one that feels aware that the path of least resistance might just be to embrace the change.
“No longer burdened by youth,” frontman Rick Maguire sings at the start of the opener “Firewood.” It feels like a weight has been lifted from his shoulders, and that statement carries through the rest of the album like a tailwind urging it forward. Maguire cites “Firewood” as the most challenging song to write on the album, but also the one that he’s most proud of.
“I’d sort of had that in mind as the opener since I started writing it, so I think I put so much pressure on it to be that,” Maguire says. “The first demo of it is unrecognizable from what it is now. It’s in a different meter, the timing and melody are very different.”
The lyrics on “Firewood” and the rest of Green and Gray are tighter and more directly personal, speaking to visceral emotions too strong to be contained. This emotion manifests itself politically as well, like on the album’s searing midpoint, “The Soft Hands of Stephen Miller.” It’s one of Pile’s angriest songs, two minutes of unbridled rage directed at the president’s advisor who orchestrated some of the administration’s harshest immigration policies.
“From a long line of translucent lizards comes our boy Stephen,” Maguire screams. “That inferiority complex passed down generations.”
But unlike on “Soft Hands,” where the lyrics lend targeted thrust to Maguire’s anger, Green and Gray also holds instances where Maguire’s words take a backseat to the dark, serene beauty of the music. Maguire is no stranger to moments when the sun breaks through the clouds, but they’ve never been this reliable and emotionally staggering. The stakes feel higher on Green and Gray, and its palpable tension is all the more rewarding when the dynamics shift and that tension is released.
Much of the album’s lush, orchestral sound is due to Pile’s collaboration with producer Kevin McMahon, whose credits include Swans, The Walkmen, Gang of Youths and Real Estate. Maguire met him during a solo tour with Titus Andronicus, who McMahon has also worked with in the past. They decided to work together then and there, and Maguire went up to McMahon’s studio in upstate New York for a pre-production meeting about the album.
“I told him that I wanted the record to sound dark,” Maguire says. “Not gloomy or anything like that, but sonically dark, like not a lot of bright or harsh sounds. It’s just a sort of frequency thing that comes off in the recording that I was interested in trying to do.”
McMahon helped Pile stay on track with this vision and gave the band the opportunity to work with a whole set of new toys that they’d only begun to explore on past albums. The results can be found throughout Green and Gray: the soaring strings on “Hair,” the atmospheric synths at the start of “Hiding Places” and the soft keys on the closer “No Hands,” which the band simply referred to as “piano ballad” right up until it was finished.
The band has already begun working on new material out of their new home in Nashville while they gear up for their Green and Gray tour. Maguire says he’s been writing mostly on piano.
“It’s sort of like I’ll take a tiny venture out of what I’m comfortable with each time, but it’s never been a huge leap,” Maguire says on how his records have progressed. “I feel like with the next batch of stuff it might get a lot more odd.”
The members of Pile may not be as young as they once were, but they’ve learned to confront change head on, even if that means gritting their teeth a bit. They’ve got a new house, a new city, a bigger, fuller sound. But they’re still the same band whose raucous, wild songs can be heard spilling out onto the street from houses all across Boston on a cold winter night. Green and Gray finds Pile diving deeper into the strengths that brought them where they are in the first place, while recognizing that things are quite a bit different now, and that’s okay.
Green and Gray is out now via Exploding in Sound. Watch Rick Maguire’s 2018 Paste Studio session below