There are some bands that happen to be from Boston, and there are other bands that become so influential within a certain niche that their Boston-ness starts to seem like a defining feature. Over the past decade, Pile has become one of the latter.
Chalk it up to the city’s appetite for cerebral weirdo-rock or the unflinching work ethic that leads the band to write, record, and tour as much as humanly possible. Boston doesn’t always make touring in a rock band look like a viable long-term option; Pile did it anyway and became an unintentional symbol of hard-fought DIY success, especially for local fans.
But while grateful for the support, vocalist-guitarist and bandleader Rick Maguire started to find difficulty in rooting so much of his own identity in Boston. Ahead of recording upcoming album "Green and Gray" (out May 3 via Exploding in Sound), he suddenly noticed he had fewer ties to the city than before.
“A lot of my friends had moved, things had changed, bands broke up,” says Maguire. “There were still people that I knew and cared about deeply that still live there, but logistically there was so much that was pushing me in another direction.”
As a result, he quietly moved to Nashville, where his family and new Pile guitarist Chappy Hull already lived. New bassist Alex Molini moved down to join him, and now he, Hull, and Maguire share a house, complete with a dog, a built-in practice space, and a guest house where friends’ bands crash. Drummer Kris Kuss flies in from Boston to practice and record, and they’ve settled into a new rhythm without much trouble. Moving was tough, but the new setup feels healthy — they’re already writing again.
“I’ve been doing this in one form or another for a majority of my life, and now it’s like my job, which is great. I’m very grateful for it,” he says. “But it’s weird to continue to do it. When I would think about it as a kid, like, ‘I want to play music for my job,’ it’s tough to imagine yourself past a certain age doing it.”
Now 33, Maguire is getting past that certain age by his own estimation. After a point, the wilder nights stack up and lose their novelty.
“It’s like another adolescence, to go from being a kid and a young adult, and the kind of reckless behavior that goes along with it, to being like, ‘Well, that doesn’t really suit me as much anymore,’ and figuring out how I feel about it while continuing to do a thing that I, in many ways, have associated with recklessness.”
So over the past few years, he reined it in: quit smoking, quit drinking. He’d felt uncertain at first. “Much like I felt some of my identity was wrapped up in where I lived, I felt like some of my identity was wrapped up in the substances I chose to partake in,” he says. After quitting, “There was definitely a period of six months to a year where all of these things kept bubbling up to the surface that I didn’t know were there, because I’d drink pretty regularly.”
That clear-headed approach is reflected in "Green and Gray," Pile’s longest, most direct album yet. It’s less cacophonous than 2015’s "You’re Better Than This," but builds and collapses harder than 2017’s "A Hairshirt of Purpose." Chugging rhythms, searing guitars, sudden gentle turns — it often sounds like Pile at its most Pile, if the band’s fans were asked to figure out what that means.
But they’re up to new tricks, too. Lyrics read like poetry. Album opener “Firewood” picks at the boundary between solitude and isolation, which resurfaces through to the last track. The thrumming “Lord of Calendars” and mellower “My Employer” negotiate priorities and age with vastly different tones. Lead single “Bruxist Grin” delivers a blow-by-blow of Maguire’s pre-move panic attack (“First, your heart pounds in the dark/ In the morning, your mouth full of dust…”) with a claustrophobic cowboy stomp.
For the first time, political criticism is glaring, too. “Your Performance” takes a stab at a certain “neon cartoon” behind the podium, but it’s standout track “The Soft Hands of Stephen Miller” that really digs in, devoting a relentless two minutes to skewering its namesake, Trump’s senior policy advisor and a main architect of 2018’s widely condemned family separation policy.
“From a long line of translucent lizards comes our boy Stephen,” Maguire hollers, like he’s giving the world’s most pissed-off TED Talk. It gets steadily less generous from there. But it’s his vein-busting yowl, barely recognizable as the word “HOW?”, that pushes Pile into a desperate fury.
Some of Maguire’s incredulity comes from the fact that he and Miller are the same age and have “experienced the same kinds of cultural events as life has gone on,” yet wound up with values that are so at odds. He attributes Miller’s outlook to a dangerous insecurity. “Rather than trying to examine it and rectify it within themselves, [Miller and his supporters] just try to push it on a mass scale against people who are less fortunate and privileged than they are.”
When the song explodes, Pile has never sounded angrier. But at other times, "Green and Gray" is more contemplative, and Maguire’s writing is at its most introspective. It’s not an album about any one thing; Pile isn’t defined by any one thing. Today, they’re not a Boston band. They’ll always be a Boston band.
By now, attempting to tidily explain Pile might be irrelevant. They move quickly and keep a distance from their hype. Like any band that’s existed for a decade-plus, they aren’t the same band anymore; in addition to new members and a new city, there’s the sense that they’re drilling deeper into what they want to say.
But maybe they’re enjoying it more, too. The feeling translates live: Pile has always torn up a stage, but now they do it with a particular sense of glee, whipping out Thin Lizzy covers and turning the beloved Prom Song solo into a self-aware, playful quasi-meme. Maguire pops his guitar up and plays behind his head, Hendrix-style; the rest of the band leans into goofy rock-star posturing; they all grin like they’ve won the lottery. And then it’s over, and they’re off to whatever’s next. It would be foolish to guess.