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Space and Time: In Conversation with Pile’s Rick Maguire

We talk to Pile’s mastermind about his latest release, ‘Songs Known Together, Alone’.

Pile have always dealt in complicated sonic flourishes that swerve and pummel. Out of all the guitar-based bands on the planet, it’s not a stretch to claim that Pile make the most interesting, mind-bending sounds in this space. Essentially, their innocuous proficiency holds no bounds; the kind that requires the highest form of cerebral acumen.

Singer, Rick Maguire, has always pushed against his band’s unruly instrumentation at just about every turn. When you expect a melody or a chorus there simply isn’t one. It’s the push-and-pull tension that his bandmates thrive on, creating a rigid sound world that teeters on the brink of explosion.

Whilst chaotic and thrilling, through the thick layers of noise, Maguire has always proved to be one of the leading lyricists in modern day composition. In the Pile pantheon, there’s always a song around the corner that is ready to cloak the listener in disturbing emotional burden; perhaps there are too many to reference within these column inches.

Just when you thought a Pile song couldn’t reach a deeper level of emotional depth, on Songs Known Together, Alone, the latest Pile release which sees Maguire re-imagine songs of the past, he finds new depths to extract even more sentiment from his songs.

The hard-edges are softened by a new variant of tenderness. From cacophony-to-calm, Maguire’s new spatial interpretations stick to the shadows, with these re-workings providing new layers, possibilities, and meaning.

From the beautiful Keep the Last Light On to the combination of arguably Pile’s two greatest cuts, Ropes Length and My Employer, Maguire shines the light even further down the dark channels and the results are astonishing.

Treading over past glories, this is not. Many artists have used lockdown to release demo and alternative versions of songs; most of which has come across as a lazy, fiscal raising exercise which, pandemic or not, kicks against the point of art itself. Not Maguire, though. With Songs Known Together, Alone, he has shown the way in which such a task should be presented.

The performance of the album is accompanied by a film, which adds to the intensity of Songs Known Together, Alone. An album bursting with new ideas, to the point that these songs actually feel like new ones.

Shortly after the release of Songs Known Together, Alone, Maguire and I spoke at length about the history of Pile, lockdown, and his latest creation.

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Sun 13: You’ve toured and recorded for years on end now. Did you see lockdown as an opportunity to take a breath and re-evaluate your past?

Rick Maguire: “Yeah, most definitely. We had just come off of a long stretch of touring for Green and Gray, which we released in 2019. We had just finished in December, I was going to do some solo touring, and then lockdown happened. And because touring was off the table, I just looked for things to do that could occupy the space that touring took up. So yeah, it was actually pretty nice because I could focus more on writing. I’ve written a bunch of new material, I just haven’t had the chance to work on it with the band, but that’s going to happen next month, and then we’re going to track that, and then we’ll be releasing a record in July or August of 2022. 

“But beyond that, it has provided me some time to reflect on the past. Playing solo has been a part of the project since its inception, and with the plans for touring in that capacity being interrupted, it seemed like an appropriate time to put some attention towards that.”

Sun 13: Pile has been a never ending thing since you began. Touring constantly, releasing new music and seeing how music is being presented these days more in a digital format, but you still kick on and tour the States and Europe. I guess that’s a testament to Pile and your steadfast following that you are still able do the same things? 

RM: “I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful for the support that people have given us over the years, and, I hope anyway, that it’s due to a trust that’s been built, where if I’m going to put something out that there’s an expectation that I’m putting myself wholly into it. I’m not sure if that’s why it resonates with anybody, I’d imagine everyone has their own reasons, but I like to attribute some of the ongoing support to that.”

S13: Your voice has always worked across the music, even against it, I guess. It’s like the quintessential Pile song is reverse engineered, almost. You’ve totally flipped the script with these recordings. Was that something you thought of with these new versions?

RM: “Well, a lot of these songs have existed to me in a number of contexts. So even though the band has been the central focus for the past 10 years or so, I’ll work on an idea alone and when I start to hear it I can start to tell if it’s a song I’ll be able to play solo, as well. If this happens, then the road kind of splits and I can travel down both at once. The band will then work to establish the dynamics, determine whether certain sections should be truncated or extended or whatever, and that still will be translated back to the solo part of it.

“I do try to keep a number of things in mind when working on those kinds of songs. Then there are other ones that have a strong sense of identity through how they’re performed, and those are less malleable. For example, a very aggressive song that features mostly distorted guitars and screaming is often dictated by those kinds of textures. That’s where they exist. It feels odd to try to perform those ones alone, but then there are others that I think work in both contexts, and there is a strange thing that happens with songs that are essentially rock songs, but they have a strong sense of melody or some sort of dynamic arc to them. Especially where they explode into some sort of loud section, I have the option, when playing solo, to just not do that, and I can even go quieter than the song has been leading up to that part. And then it has this sort of phantom limb quality to where there’s a familiarity with hearing the song one way and when you get to that section, your brain replays that part of the material, but hearing this other one is a strange sort of reflection of both what’s happening and what you’ve experienced in the past. So that’s kind of a fun thing for me to play with. This has been a part of the project in that way for a while, at least in a live setting.” 

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S13: Was it difficult to pick 15 songs? I imagine you had more that you thought could have fitted into that context you were talking about?

RM: “Yes and no, because there are some, especially from the earlier part of the catalogue, that I didn’t want to do because I had played them solo so often. I thought I should investigate some other songs that I hadn’t given much attention to so that it’s a little more interesting, and there’s more potential for surprises even though it’s a bunch of previously released material. 

“And then on the other side of that, there was some more recent material, like from our 2019 release [Green and Gray], which I was trying to arrange and found that they were a bit beyond my skill level. For some of the songs I’m using a MIDI foot pedal controller of a synthesiser while playing guitar and the others I’m playing the piano. Both of those modes of performing were challenging on their own, but trying to arrange some of the songs for either was beyond my ability at the time. And then there was new material that hadn’t been released that I wanted to do, but it didn’t seem like the time for that; I’d rather work on work on those songs with the band first, and then maybe at some point, I could do a solo rendition of those.

“So while it was difficult to choose 15 songs, those were some of the things that helped steer that decision-making process.” 

S13: Talking about the synthesiser, the first half of the record is synthesiser based, and then the second half is piano. Was that a conscious decision to do the tracklisting in that way? 

RM: “Yeah, that choice was informed by the idea that it’s supposed to be two live sets. Sides A and B are the first set and sides C and D are the second. It sort of streamlined it with the filming process as well.”

Pile - Songs Known Together, Alone

S13: By releasing the instrumental record earlier this year, In the Corners of a Sphere-Filled Room, and this record, was that a way of splitting the personality of Pile?

RM: “Um, like these two records, splitting them from everything before it, you mean?” 

S13: Yeah, but going back to what you were saying earlier about different songs having different dynamics, the quiet ones and the louder ones, and the ones where there’s some crossover, but it’s like you’ve flipped the script and split it between the noisy abrasive material, but still adding that ambient element into the instrumental record, and then here going full-tilt, almost like singer-songwriter for this one… 

RM: “I guess. I suppose I hadn’t really thought of it in that context, but yeah, I would say that it explores two different sides; one that’s much more freeform and improvisational, and the solo record is an exploration around structure. So yeah, I could see that sort of split.” 

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S13: You worked with Kevin McMahon on Green and Gray. Was it an easy decision to reacquaint yourself with him for these recordings? 

RM: “Most definitely. We’re actually doing the next record with him in October. Kris [Kuss], the drummer, is currently playing in Kevin’s project called Pelican Movement. Alex [Molini], who plays bass in Pile, is the one that actually introduced me to Kevin. Alex is an engineer, and he’s sort of learning a lot of stuff from Kevin. So yeah, we’ve all grown closer, so it was very easy.”

S13: Was that The Walkmen’s original studio

RM: “I’m not sure, actually. I believe that studio was in New York City, but Kevin did some work with them there and sometime after that I think he moved the studio upstate, where it is now.”

S13: Yeah, okay. So the tracks that stick out for me in terms of feeling like just completely new songs, I’d say Keep the Last Light On, Steve’s Mouth and No Bone. Like a hymnal quality to those tracks now. I don’t know whether Kevin had a lot of input into that, but it just feels like, these are like church compositions, or something…

RM: (Laughs) “We discussed what the idea for the whole thing and work-shopped things from there. There was some vocal processing, but it really was just kind of a representation of what was in the room, you know. In the silo of the barn, there’s an amplifier routing some sound being generated from elsewhere and also a microphone to pick up that activity, so on some songs on the record you may hear the flapping of a bird’s wings because a pigeon made its way in there..” 

S13: That’s interesting. 

RM: “Yeah. Sonically, I definitely did try to wash things out.”

S13: That line in Keep the Last Light On, ‘mourning the loss of someone that’s still there’. It’s like a twofold scenario, and kind of feeds into something existential. Does existentialism play a big part in how you approach your songs?

RM: “Yeah, I would say it plays a part. Philosophy in general has often felt pretty fertile for writing. I think finding out the way that people view the world is interesting. And there’s often something to learn from that. 

“But yeah, that song specifically is about just someone who sustained a life-altering injury. They’re still alive, but no longer the same person. I appreciate that there is a sort of open-endedness to it, though.” 

S13: Speaking of open-endedness, it’s funny because I would say that Rope’s Length and My Employer are two of Pile’s best songs, and here they are together here. Along with Hair, to me there’s like a thematic lineage. Do you leave interpretations of yours songs to the listener?

RM: “Generally, yeah. I think in some cases it’s helpful for me to do that. Just because the circumstances in my life that inspire those songs change. So having that sort of open-endedness allows me to also change what they mean to me. 

“But yeah, I would say thematically, they definitely are sort of in the same zone, and they express… similar but different but related themes. So yeah, I guess it all just kind of depends on how I’m feeling about it, too, because sometimes I do like to share what they’re about, or I’ll choose to be explicit within the song, and others I like leaving more ambiguous, often because it allows me to shift meaning as time goes on.” 

S13: Continuing that, with these reinterpretations, do you feel as if any of them have taken on a new meaning? Or like, it could be next week or next year when you may play a song live that you haven’t played for five or six years, and it has that subconscious element that comes to the fore, totally differing on what you thought the song was about in the first place?

RM: “Yeah, I think the best example of this is I Don’t Want to Do This Anymore. That one was just an instrumental track, and I thought that the phrase worked well with the music. And by choosing to add lyrics I can just take that and use it to be about anything…” 

(Pause)

“I was able to repurpose what that song is. And then there are some songs that I don’t really have to do anything for them to mean something different. But I’m sure that that will continue to happen as I continue writing songs, and especially songs that are less direct, and less explicit as to what they’re about, but still convey some kind of message or meaning. 

“Also, I don’t feel too shy about changing lyrics. Once the song is written, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s done. That’s just where it was when it was captured. I don’t exercise that right all that often, but I hope that I grow more comfortable changing songs after they’re recorded.” 

Pile's Rick Maguire (photo credit: Mark Lapriore)

S13: Obviously, you’ve been doing a lot through lockdown. How have you been coping with the situation? 

RM: “I think there was a point where I felt the withdrawal effects of not having the validation of a live audience. But that seems to have come to pass, I am excited to perform again, but I really want to make sure that it’s the right time, for a bunch of different reasons. I just haven’t found that level of comfort, and I also just need to practice and get ready to do that again, so I’m sure once it happens, It’ll be really cathartic and satisfying, and I’ll be ready to put myself wholly into that experience. 

“But I’ve found other ways and other things to fill the void that the absence of live shows has left, which is mostly just been trying to be creative and just working on material. I think that I haven’t had the luxury to go without playing a show for two years and just work on new music. But now that it’s an imposed limitation it’s been kind of nice. I really feel like I have over two albums worth of material and now I get to sort of try to…

(Pause)

“I guess (laughs) if reverse engineering was a focus, I think maybe over-engineering is a more recent focus. So yeah, I’m excited to sort of explore the material that’s there and see what that’s going to shape up to be with the band. As much as I am excited to do it again, I’m willing to wait a little bit longer to make sure that it’s the right time to do it, and then once it’s ready, I’m sure we’ll be on the road for a very long time, so my guess is that it will be some slow preparation and then fast and condensed execution.”

S13: Talking about the reverse engineering, I was reading something the other day and somebody described your music as feminine. It made sense, but I don’t know how it made sense. I don’t know… what would you say to that?

RM: “I think the whole idea of masculine and feminine is a pretty weird concept to grapple within this context because it’s within these social constructs of what gender is supposed to mean. I wouldn’t necessarily argue with it being classified as feminine, but also, I’m not sure what ‘feminine’ means.”

S13: Yeah. I see it as, like, a tenderness to your music. I guess with the new record and the sparseness and atmospherics surrounding it, that’s how I would attribute that. But like you say, it’s hard to explain.

RM: “As far as tenderness goes, yeah, absolutely. It’s important to me to be in touch with how I’m feeling and to use music as a vehicle of expression for that. Again, as far as that being a feminine quality, I don’t know and I don’t think it’s up to me to decide.”

Songs Known Together, Alone is out now via Exploding In Sound. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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