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Pile frontman Rick Maguire returns to playing live, alone

Rick Maguire, of the local band Pile, standing in the pews of the Church of the Covenant in Boston, where he will play a solo show on March 19. This solo tour will mark the first time he has played in front of a audience in over two years. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Rick Maguire, of the local band Pile, standing in the pews of the Church of the Covenant in Boston, where he will play a solo show on March 19. This solo tour will mark the first time he has played in front of a audience in over two years. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

After a forced three-year hiatus from touring, Rick Maguire — the frontman of Boston’s sweetheart indie-rock band Pile — is feeling refreshed and ready, if a bit trepidatious, to get back on the road.

“Hopefully everything goes smoothly,” he chuckles nervously. “Almost everyone I’ve asked about how it’s been to get back has said it’s been — weird.”

Maguire has made good use of his time away recording “Songs Known Together, Alone,” a collection of Pile tracks that he has rearranged into solo compositions. Holed up in a barn in upstate New York, he has produced cavernous and forlorn reimaginings of some of the band’s most impactful songs.

Now, he’s preparing to take this old material made anew out on the road, along with unreleased material. “I’m digging into the catalog,” Maguire says. “From really old stuff to relatively old stuff, and stuff that has not yet been released — all in this new format. I’m going for a nice mix of, ‘Oh cool, I know this song, but not in this context,’ and ‘I’ve never heard this song before.’”

In the same way that “Songs Known Together, Alone” is a new way to experience classic Pile tunes, his upcoming shows are meant to be a new way of witnessing Pile play live. Without the precise and loud back-up of his band members, Maguire will be treating concertgoers to a calmer, stripped-back performance in less-than-usual venues.

“I was really pushing for places that aren’t bars,” he says. “I feel like those unconventional venues will make these shows more memorable.”

At his Boston show on March 19, he’ll be playing the Church of the Covenant on Newbury Street. The event, which will also be livestreamed, seems a perfect aural extension of this project that Maguire recorded in an empty grain silo.

Rick Maguire discusses details for the day of the show with Church of the Covenant building manager Bill Brown during a walkthrough of the venue. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
building manager Bill Brown during a walkthrough of the venue. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“The whole tour is kind of based around that show,” says Maguire. “Playing this material in a church, in this cavernous space with all of that reverberance, is a cool opportunity. And the city of Boston has been very kind to this project of mine. I’m always very happy and excited to play in town.”

Turning these songs, once played by a four-member band, into a one-man show has taken meticulous choreography. On some tracks, Maguire plays guitar, sings, and with his feet, triggers synthesizer notes. “That took a lot of practice,” he laughs. “Just running measures over and over.”

“We’ll have to see how it goes,” he says. “I kind of forget what it was like to play in front of people. Before this break, I don’t think I went four months without playing a show. I used to just show up with a guitar and an amp. I’m lugging a lot more equipment around this time, which is exciting, but hopefully doesn’t get too tiring.”

He isn’t new to playing alone. Pile was originally a solo project until Maguire found his current bandmates. “Back then, there wasn’t an option for me. I wrote songs for myself so I could perform them on my own,” He explains. “Now, I’m taking material that I wrote for a band and figuring out how to perform it in a way that is its own thing but still stays true to the original’s essence.”

There is a harmonious revisiting and renewal at the center of Maguire’s show in Boston. Fans who have watched him and his band come up in the basements of Allston are in for a trip hearing familiar yet foreign tunes played in a setting that is far from a do-it-yourself punk venue, but one that is still somehow true to the core of Maguire’s music.

Without a drummer and a bassist, Maguire lets his ruggedly powerful voice carry many of the tracks on “Songs Known Together, Alone.” This is in full effect on the new album’s opener, “Touched by Comfort.” The song, originally off of 2015’s “You’re Better Than This,” builds into a euphoric crescendo of blown-out, angular guitars and a driving tom-led beat as Maguire belts the cryptic, “I wish it were direct where things can go/ But only pictures, always pictures.”

On the new version, Maguire’s voice carries a similar tune, but it’s backed by a quiet, eerie fuzz of white noise, and gentle, distant-sounding guitar. Still, Maguire manages to build the very same tension from the original by cutting out any instrumentation and allowing the listener to sit in that white noise in anticipation. After a while, tinkling notes begin to return and Maguire’s voice comes crashing back in with the force of an anvil.

Similarly, the original version of “Steve’s Mouth” built into a head-banging and distorted finish before it cuts off, and “Afraid of Home” was once a mosh-worthy punk song. On “Songs Known Together, Alone,” Maguire allows “Steve’s Mouth” to float in an echoey purgatory over lush, and heavily delayed synth notes.

“Afraid of Home” has gone through two transformations from a dirge-like folk song on 2007’s “Demonstration,” to the driving iteration on 2018’s “Odds and Ends,” to this final atmospheric experimentation of distortion.

These versions show a new beauty and melancholia that was always at the heart of Maguire’s music. And, in a way, this tour and this album embody the definition of nostalgia, the hint of something familiar and exciting from the past now presented through a new lens only brought on by the passage of time. For Maguire and his fans, this communion at the Church of the Covenant is the perfect opportunity to reminisce and to move forward.

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Lukas Harnisch Contributor
Lukas Harnisch is a contributor to WBUR's arts and culture coverage.

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