Three Days in Boston With Pile’s Rick Maguire
Sunday, March 26
Blue State Coffee, Commonwealth Ave.
Rick Maguire flashes a friendly grin as he walks up the stairs, backpack in tow. He is the frontman and songwriter of Pile, a band that sounds like a country singer burning through polyrhythmic hardcore; like indie rockers who are so over indie rock they just had to be burningly original; like a fish out of water that found a way to grow legs and breathe freely.
Pile's new album, A Hairshirt of Purpose, released March 31 on Exploding in Sound, is more melodic and album-oriented than previous opuses. (A hairshirt is a shirt made of animal hair that's deliberately uncomfortable, designed to wear in atonement for a person's sins.) As Maguire's musical habits evolve, his personal habits do as well — he’s been trying to remain an active reader, despite the time constraints of writing music, touring in Pile and doing press. On the Better Yet podcast, he talked with interviewer Tim Crisp about the influence of Don DeLillo's White Noise on his writing.
"It's beautifully written, but there's nothing to hold on to at the start [of the book]," Maguire says. "I'd be reading it, almost falling asleep as I go through it, but still excited. I lifted some of it for lyrics on [Pile's 2015 album] You're Better Than This; not prominently, but I liked the pairing of certain words."
His reading material in 2017 is non-fiction.
"I've been reading a book on the history of everything forever," Maguire says. "It's a lot. I just keep re-reading it because it's so dense, going, 'I should remember this; this is worth remembering.' I wish I read more, but because of driving, when I finally have a moment to pause, I watch television and pass out.
"Humans haven't been around that long. In the context of a complete history, you feel even smaller. It makes all of my problems seem so small."
On Hairshirt, the two opening tracks, "Worms" and "Hissing for Peace," share an introductory drum roll with the closer, "Fingers"; and the penultimate track, "Slippery," shares a rhythm guitar part with "Hissing for Peace," acting as a hidden palindrome. Other songs share chord progressions, but flip from major to minor, or feature the same parts at wildly different tempos, creating a masterwork of self-references, like a Weakerthans album filtered through a night of wild drinking.
Maguire's grin broadens as he takes us further inside baseball.
"There's a couple musical themes on the record," he admits. "The beginning riff of 'Rope's Length' is the same timing as another song. 'Worms' and 'Texas' have the same riff, but one is major and one is minor. There's a lot of that.
"It seemed like the songs are a little bit all over the place, which is not atypical for us on record, but to at least tie them together with musical motifs felt like a cool way to give it some sort of cohesion, even if it doesn't come across right away."
He's already working on new material for another Pile record, revealing that by the end of this tour, he'll have half an album written. ("It's more rhythmically dense? Maybe?") This is a conscious decision on Maguire's part.
"This was more harmony- and melody-driven," he reiterates. "Old habits die hard, and you are who you are. But in the past I was trying to change song structures, or even be disjointed. This was like, 'I'm going to write melodically and see where that goes.' It's kind of nice to set that challenge for yourself. It's not like any of this stuff came out of thin air. But trying to be deliberate and focus on singing more than screaming, I wanted to do something different. I thought this record was going to be more mellow than it turned out to be."
He concedes that Hairshirt's predecessor, You're Better Than This, was an intentional attempt to challenge Pile's audience. (With an innocent smirk, he says the point was to ask new listeners, "Do you actually like us?") He is past that now, past the point of getting asked the same questions every band is asked. Pile’s fans are their fans. They are set in their ways now.
Thursday, March 30
Fomu, Cambridge St.
Maguire is drinking tea when a friend of his, Dennis, walks in. He asks Dennis to work merch on Sunday, the first day of Pile’s tour. (Dennis agrees and is stoked, clearly a Pile fan himself.) Several others recognize Maguire, his quiet but jovial nature always welcoming, his plain look somehow doubling as distinct.
He displays his own tattoos, both on his legs — one is for the band Drexel, another was received at a tattoo party in San Francisco. Pile tattoos are not uncommon — fans have earned their reputation as a cult for a reason — and Maguire enjoys more comfort from that than not.
"It's nice because I've dedicated a lot of my energy to it," Maguire says. "So, to see that we resonate with somebody else in a way that makes them want an indelible mark on their body is pretty flattering."
Many cult bands have a certain mythology to them. Because Pile's songs are intentionally strange metaphors open to interpretation (for example, the story of an appendix getting removed from the appendix's perspective) and their popularity is large enough that the band can seem hard to reach (Maguire was dubbed a "recluse" by DigBoston), their mystique has grown further and faster than most.
Like any mythology, both truths and lies become calcified: Maguire lived in the band's practice space for a while (true); he started out trying to play guitar right-handed before accepting that he was left-handed (true); all he does is go to the library and write songs all day every day (false); and so on. Maguire laughs at the silliness of it all.
"The mythos is fine," he states. "I don't want to argue with people when they have their own notions, because it's going to happen anyways. People have an idea of how you've done it or how you do it, and I don't want to defend myself from that, you know? Unless it's something really egregious — but even still, I think it's better to just leave it alone."
The potential for lies to be spread as truth grows as his band does. It’s something he can’t control, and it worries him.
"It could be something out there, someone just has an idea of me that's not me," he says. "I don't know. It's just that it's possible, is all, and it's something that I can't help but allow to cross my mind."
Maguire speaks quieter. He doesn't sweat or squirm; his face doesn't reveal how he's feeling in the slightest. The tell is in the tone of his voice — these thoughts are something that bother him, but nothing that keeps him up at night. It's an itch that remains impossible to scratch, but never burns too badly.
"By choosing to be in a position where I'm onstage, where I'm trying to have an audience, I'm inviting it, I guess." Maguire pauses; his discomfort is decreasing as he slows down. "I don't know — you're putting yourself out there."
He seems more comfortable upon acknowledging that this is more insecurity than reality. Pile's popularity has been a slow build from solo project to regional powerhouse to their present-day status, and they'll probably never have to play an empty show again because of it.
Someone else recognizes Maguire and points out that he was on the cover of DigBoston this week. Maguire still hasn't seen it, but hopes to. He rides his bike to the Middle East to catch Ovlov and Grass Is Green, smiling as he crosses the Allston footbridge.
Sunday, April 2
The Sinclair, Church St.
Maguire grins devilishly onstage, guitar in hand, cult in tow, eyebrows twisting to match the contortions of the music. Dennis is standing at the merch table, holding firm on his duties, but still headbanging with the beat, occasionally shouting along with Maguire. Pile close their set with “Rock and Roll Forever With the Customer in Mind,” the hidden track from You’re Better Than This, but it’s arranged differently, closing with the guitar solo. People still recognize it. The mosh pit still swallows fans whole. Maguire still smiles. For a moment in time, everyone grins that devilish grin.