Greg Ormont likes to get funky — and so does his band. The curly-haired, 29-year-old guitarist and vocalist for Pigeons Playing Ping Pong says his jam-centric group has been focused on having fun since its beginning in 2009.
"We started out [at the University of Maryland] casually noodling and writing goofy songs," Ormont, a resident of Baltimore, recalls. "We were an acoustic duo, and eventually we got a drummer. Once we added bass and started practicing regularly, we found a friend's garage where we liked to hang out. We set up space heaters and wore warm clothes when we jammed out in the winter months, which is not the best for guitar tuning. We felt like the rite of passage was to play in a garage somewhere, and so we did. It was a relaxed and organic scene. We still like to keep that same lighthearted vibe."
Pigeons, which describes its music as high-energy psychedelic funk, recently played to an enthusiastic crowd of approximately 10,000 fans at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, where, according to Ormont, it logged the second-longest performance of the event, behind Eminem. PPPP also recently performed for another oversized audience during halftime at a New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. The jocular singer takes it all in stride.
"I couldn't see to the end of the crowd [in Tennessee], which was pretty cool," Ormont says. "But we also played the Garden [in March] to a bigger crowd of about 19,000 people at a Knicks game. Jon Stewart and Liev Schreiber were in the audience. They were bobbing to the music. You don't play Madison Square Garden for the show. You do it so that you can specifically play to Jon Stewart and Liev Schreiber."
Holding to its established ethos, the group is not afraid to let its musical freak flag fly. Pideons Playing Ping Pong, which has four self-released discs to its name, recently opened up its annual Domefest — an event that it's been hosting for the past nine years and that includes other up-and-coming bands — with an off-the-cuff jam that made up its entire first set.
"It's really exciting to improvise live and see where it goes," Ormont explains. "We played a one-song set that lasted well over an hour. That was some honest improv. We had nothing planned and just let the jam unfold. A lot of times you have to keep the clock in mind when you're playing certain festivals, so you don't have the freedom to just roll. But at Domefest we can go for however long we want, and this one went the distance. It was our second one-song set ever, and it went great. You can't really plan for it. But we survived, and we stumbled upon some really cool musical moments. It was a blast to improvise for that long. It was really honest and open-ended. Even our crew was excited for us. We play hundreds of shows a year, and that was a unique moment. We have vocals, but the meat and potatoes of our jams are peaks and valleys of instrumental improvisation."
Whatever tune it's playing at any instant, Ping Pong likes to dig deep. Ormont says that early in its career, the band enjoyed the occasional medley and covered artists of varying stripes.
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"When we started playing shows, we would do these mashups of multiple covers of a song or multiple songs," he says. "One of our faves was a Bob Marley and Phish combination that we called 'No Woman, No Farmhouse.' We also did both versions of 'Every Breath You Take' — the one by Sting as well as the Puff Daddy version. We play some covers to keep the crowd hooked, but it's mostly original music now, unless we're doing a special themed night like Halloween or New Year's."
Ormont says the band's curious name fell into his lap one day in college, when he was attending a lecture in his freshman psychology class.
"Jeremy [Schon, lead guitarist] and I were sitting in Psychology 100, and I was zoning out on the wrong page of my textbook during the lecture. The page I was staring into happened to have the phrase 'pigeons playing ping pong' on it. The words almost lit up at me. It turns out B.F. Skinner, the famous psychologist, actually taught pigeons to play ping pong [as part of his studies in behavioral reinforcement]. We used to run the B.F. Skinner Foundation video of the two pigeons pecking the ball back and forth behind us when we played. Nowadays our lighting guy uses the lights on the back wall before we start playing, and sets up a game of pong with two little paddle slivers that he projects. It's like a game of old-school Pong before we start playing. That's one of the little things that people don't always notice, but eventually we hope everyone will. We like to bury a lot of Easter eggs in our concerts that might take a while to notice."
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong with moe., 6 p.m. Thursday, July 12, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, $29, 720-865-2494.