Evan Stephens Hall wanted to make sure I heard him right.
It was a few hours before Pinegrove's show last July, and we were sweating over pints on Larimer Lounge's back patio, nearly shouting over the clanging of the sound check. The young rock band's lead singer-songwriter was describing a song cycle he wrote for a college class – a fable in which nineteenth-century German logician Gottlob Frege is “captured by Wittgenstein’s henchmen” – and Hall was concerned that I spell the philosophers’ names correctly.
“That’s kind of the purpose of an artist, right?” Hall said. “To represent ourselves in interesting and new ways, so it’s frustrating when it gets frazzled and diffuse on the other end.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Hall is the force behind the critically lauded 2016 album Cardinal, the band's debut full-length with Run for Cover Records. It's a record that's sure to appear on many best-of lists next month, while its place in the current musical landscape remains slippery. Pinegrove mixes up popular elements of American rock genres – Is it emo? Is it alt-country? – yet remains out of specific place and time. Hall himself previously described the music as “if Virginia Woolf hallucinated the midpoint between math rock and Americana.”
“I've always tried to write music that's melodically based and groovy,” Hall said. “Makes you wanna shake your ass – but kind of in a sad way. It's cathartic ass-shaking music.”
Not quite satisfied with that sound byte, Hall continued, “But it's mid-tempo, too – geez, I might be too close to it. Let me try again. Really, my aim is to collapse experiences and things that I've learned into small, digestible segments. To make an interesting universe for myself – and everyone's invited.”
Hall considers his words carefully, pausing briefly before unfurling complete thoughts. Sometimes he stops mid-sentence to revise his point, and you can almost see the red pen drawing a line through what he's said. Maybe he's been burned by too many bloggers misspelling, misconstruing or just plain missing it. More likely that Hall is just like this – fascinated with language, with signifiers and their failures. As a teenager, Hall said that he “wasn't good at a lot of things, like talking to people or whatever other people were doing in high school..." Then, he says, "I found this one thing that made me feel really good. And that turned into — if I can get other people to feel the way that I feel about these songs, then that’s very exciting.” Pinegrove, due to its visceral vocal delivery, catchy guitar-centric melodies and heart-on-sleeve lyrical content, has been lumped in with the so-called emo revival. Yet in speaking to Hall and taking a closer listen, you realize that the songs on Cardinal aren't actually bare diary pages obsessing over an object of desire. Instead, Pinegrove songs are more often structured as intimate, difficult conversations – which ultimately interrogate the self. “Cadmium,” for example, makes reference to the correspondence between artists John Berger and John Christie, which used riffs on color to get at profound topics, and Hall sings, “Say what it is/It's so impossible/But if I just say what it is/It tends to sublimate away.”
Okay, so songs communicating the idea of how hard it is to communicate – in lyric references, phrasing and delivery – may sound a bit meta. Yet Hall's actual goal is to make an experience resonate on multiple levels at once. “I was always interested in accessing different parts of communicative potential,” he said, “and I realized there were certain things that melodies could do that poetry, for example, could not.”
Hall insists that access and inclusivity are very important to the band, and emphasized that all-ages shows are “one way it manifests extracurricularly.” In the songs, he “want[s] there to be words that sound cool, that mean cool, that you feel in your gut, that are accessible melodically, that are compelling rhythmically, that are familiar and traditional in a certain way, but that express contemporary feelings.... Reinforcement is kind of the main goal.”
I asked him to break down how "reinforcement" and layering works in the song "Aphasia," a standout on the album. The title is a term for the inability to comprehend or formulate language, but Hall personifies “aphasia” as an unwanted interior companion: “So satisfied I said a lot of things tonight/So long, aphasia, and the ways it kept me hiding.”
“'Aphasia' is basically just the same melody over and over,” Hall said. “There are variations, of course: I'm doing a trick that I like to do a lot, which is using the same melodic shape but in a slightly different register. Using that to mimic the emotional dynamic of [the lyric]. If I want it up, I'll sing it up. If I want it to be more intimate, I'll use a lower note.”
Ultimately, even if you don't recognize words like “aphasia,” Hall's vocal delivery drops any pretension and lets the listener in. Inextricable from the phrases and melodies, it's his voice's ups and downs, its murmurs and sudden wails that communicate human emotion – clearly, finally – with or without words.
"I’ve always thought that authorial intent has no place in a conversation about art, and I’m realizing more and more that that’s true," Hall said. “New experiences continue to be relevant with these songs [on Cardinal], which sometimes makes me feel like I’m not making any progress as a human, but at least I already have this song that’s going to make me feel better about this.”
Hall said that Pinegrove's music is for "entertainment and catharsis." But in these post-election days, when many listeners are questioning what kind of music we should be making or seeking, are entertainment and catharsis enough? What purpose can these songs — trackings of internal movements rather than rallying cries — serve in our polarized political moment? A close listen to Cardinal, which Hall said is recontextualized for him all the time, shows that Pinegrove manages to turn navel-gazing outward, and that introspective songs can take a hard look at how we treat each other.
“I will say on the record that I don’t feel represented by our government,” Hall said over the summer. “I feel that there are so many humanist issues that are not being acknowledged or that are just being outright ignored or denied that it’s depressing. But that doesn't mean we shouldn’t talk about police brutality or how communities of color are treated so poorly legislatively and economically and by the police. We won't go down quietly.”
At Pinegrove's last Denver show, Hall said from the stage, “Let's localize this. Be contextually sensitive.” In a recent video from the tour that documents the band on election night (above), Hall said, "It can't be overestimated how much work we have to do. So we are here today to reaffirm that we believe in compassion and equality and love and we do not respond to hate."
How does ally-ship and action manifest for a touring indie-rock band? As always, it starts with the music itself.
“I'm considering more and more what it means to write for an audience,” Hall said. “It doesn’t mean to be more serious, but it does mean to take my responsibility seriously, [which means] refining my message into investigations of compassion and relationships and…how we can love better. With acknowledgement of pain in the world, but also the beauty in the world.”
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Katie Moulton is a former Westword music editor. She's written about culture for alt-weeklies since 2009 and has also worked as a venue manager, radio DJ/producer and festival organizer. Her go-to karaoke jams are "Flagpole Sitta," by Harvey Danger, or "Ride Wit Me," by Nelly, which tells you a lot.