The genius oddballs of the Boston post-hardcore-ish band Pile practice in a labyrinthian brick building that takes up a full city block of a busy artery in Brighton. There are windows visible from the outside but you wouldn’t know it from the rehearsal room, where a high ceiling does little to improve the close, swampy air. Fluorescent lights wanly illuminate obscenities scrawled on a wall that is papered with fliers seeking the likes of drummers, and drumming students, and people who might be interested in buying custom-made drums.
Pile shares both the room and the corridor with other bands, but the overwhelming mood evoked by those rows of closed doors inside putty-grey walls is one of wretched, convoluted solitude. It’s a feeling that Rick Maguire, Pile’s singer, songwriter and co-guitarist, is fond of exploring in his twisty, surreal compositions.
Maguire recently visited the practice space on a customarily overcast February afternoon. Pile was preparing to embark on a three-month tour, beginning with a show at Great Scott in Allston on Feb. 24, in support of their upcoming album, “You’re Better Than This,” out March 3. Earlier that week Maguire had been laid low by a back injury, but he lugged the band’s equipment through the slushy parking lot with good-natured purpose. It would be nice to leave the snow-paralyzed city behind.
Sipping coffee in a paper to-go cup at a Dunkin’ Donuts down the street, he remembers the recording process of “You’re Better Than This” as a difficult one: “I was a friggin’ wreck in the studio.” The band cut the album over the course of a week with engineer Ben Brodin in his Omaha, Nebraska, studio.
“I wanted to do slightly more challenging, weirder [music]—to open myself up a little bit more,” Maguire explains. “And also to kind of give a thumbed nose to any expectations of what we should be putting out next. I think that was the general intention. And after we finished it I was like ‘I don’t even know if I f--king like this thing.’ It was honestly very recently that I was like, ‘I’m proud of this.’”
Maguire blames his own underpreparedness, but the truth is that he tends to hold himself and his band mates—guitarist Matt Becker, bassist Matt Connery, and drummer Kris Kuss—to ever-higher standards. (Even the album’s title, “You’re Better Than This,” could be read as an exhortation by Maguire, to himself, to surpass his own capabilities.) Since its earliest incarnation nine years ago, Pile has garnered a reputation verging on mythical among Boston basement show scenesters. The band’s performances are sweaty, deafening affairs marked by exacting-yet-raucous musicianship. Maguire, Becker, Connery and Kuss roam from peculiar dissonances to simmering decrescendos to brutal paroxysms with the precise abandon of a skateboarder flinging down a half-pipe.
“Being in the band that we’re in is about playing live. So it has to serve that function of being interesting,” says Maguire. “And also, the guys in the band are awesome. They’re great musicians, so I know what we’re all capable of. Or, I don’t know what we’re all capable of. I like to see that grow.”
That hungry restlessness is perhaps what lends “You’re Better Than This” its strange and beguiling flavor. Maguire’s songs run the gamut from the aggressive hardcore inflections of “The World Is Your Motel” to the wily ramblings of “Mr. Fish” to the dulcet tones of the incongruously-titled instrumental “Fuck the Police.” The songs themselves reject conventional pop structure, trading verses and choruses for motifs that vanish, only to reappear in some gleefully demented incarnation, or be replaced completely by another modulating, time-signature-defiant fancy. Though Maguire’s writing is deeply melodic, “You’re Better Than This” is practically devoid of any identifiable hooks. There are moments that might qualify, like the distorted and exultant final minute-and-a-half of “Touched By Comfort,” but they are usually subverted by jarring transitions, evidence of a resolute refusal to let comfort touch for too long.
“I try and think of the records that I’ve always liked. And it’s the ones with peaks and valleys of intensity,” says Maguire. “And to be able to do all that in an album and have it seem to work? I don’t know. It ends up covering a lot of ground. It’s like a good book or something. Where it has an arc, and it has all these different characters, and they’re all developed and interesting.”
That meandering tendency is well-matched to Maguire’s lyrical style. As in his melodies, rarely does a phrase repeat exactly. Songs that begin as anxious fever dreams, like “Hot Breath”—“The mouth grows wide over me/ It shows its teeth/ I feel its hot breath”—morph into nightmarish fantasies: “I’ll breathe the stink of its hot breath/ I’ll become its dream and I’ll make it drink from my breast/ Opened wide the tongue reaches up so I can give it a soft kiss/ I feel my tits start to grow.” Maguire’s voice sits low in the mix, and he sings with lopsided, mumbling emphasis punctuated by long, caterwauling syllables. His words offer up revelations only to the most intrepid listeners. (Or, admittedly, anyone who reads the liner notes).
For Maguire, the challenging nature of “You’re Better Than This” represents a self-conscious move away from the material on Pile’s last album, “Dripping,” which was more in tune with rock ‘n’ roll orthodoxy. The final track on “You’re Better Than This,” “Appendicitis,” contains a hidden coda, in which the members of Pile unleash a brief, tumultuous assault consisting almost entirely of a single screaming guitar solo. The name of the song, which clocks in at just under two minutes, is “Rock ‘N’ Roll Forever With the Customer in Mind”—a sardonic reference, according to Maguire, to the most-requested track off of “Dripping,” which features a similarly blistering centerpiece.
When it is posited that perhaps Maguire exhibits an oppositional reaction to approval, he concedes—somewhat. “I’m always doubtful of it,” he admits. “Maybe it’s a New England thing.”
But, he adds, the expectations he is most interested in undermining are his own.
“I don’t want to defy people’s expectations just for the sake of f--king with them,” he explains. “Defying people’s expectations does not necessarily make it good art. I think it’s just that, by doing something different, maybe I can learn something about myself in the process. And maybe that can be part of what makes it ‘good.’ Or have there be some kind of value in it, for at least me. Because it’s not up to me whether or not people like it. And so to challenge myself, I feel, [is] the only way it has any chance of it being worth something. Because then I’m putting myself in a very vulnerable position.”