Pill Aren’t Angry, but They Are Smart, Assertive and Nuanced
The four members of Brooklyn post-punk group Pill don’t consider their music to be angry. They might call it forceful or aggressive, passionate or disdainful. It can also be aggressive, humorous, satirical or inquisitive. But of all the emotions that course through the 12 tracks on their debut album, Convenience, anger isn’t one of them.
“We were playing in Athens, and someone said, ‘Why are you guys so angry?’” says guitarist Jon Campolo. “And he was a young guy. It was kind of a naive way to approach me to ask about our music. And I was like ‘Well, angry is really a generalist term.’ It hints at oppression and immediately being the bad guy.”
On Convenience, released in August via Mexican Summer, Pill offer a listen that’s challenging, but not hostile. They’re ostensibly a post-punk band, with an aesthetic that ranges from the wiry rhythmic jerk — and exclamation-addled saxophone accents — of Essential Logic (“Which Is True?”) to the eerie folk-punk of the Violent Femmes (“Speaking Up”) to the atmospheric darkness of early Sonic Youth (“Dead Boys”), all the while tackling a number of socially and politically charged topics ranging from whistle-blowing and socially constructed gender roles to taking ownership of your sexuality. And they do it while continually allowing their own aesthetic to evolve, feeling their way through the messy realities of a 21st century world while finding new ways to groove.
Pill aren’t, however, dictating a manifesto. If anything, says vocalist and bassist Veronica Torres, they’re still figuring things out for themselves — they’re just letting listeners in on the thought process.
“I really dislike militant viewpoints,” she says. “It turns people off. It creates enemies. I think we’re trying to get to the same ending ... without really telling you how to do it. Because I don’t know how. I’m learning myself.”
We caught up with Pill — Campolo, Torres, saxophonist Ben Jaffe and drummer Andrew Spaulding — over a phone call during one of their evening practices in Brooklyn to discuss their new album, catharsis in music, and how music and politics mix.
There’s such a wide variety of sounds on Convenience that it feels like the result of different aesthetics and backgrounds coming together. Does everyone in the band have similar tastes, or do you often introduce each other to something new?
Jon Campolo: I think there’s a few solid things that we all like, but it’s not uncommon to come to practice and someone plugs in an iPhone or something like that, and then someone else says “What is that? I’ve never heard that!” I love being around that.
Andrew Spaulding: I think that’s part of the reason we came together in a lot of ways. We all like each other’s musical taste a lot. Whenever they play me something new, I don’t think I’ve ever said “I fucking hate that.” We’re really into the idea of freedom. There’s not really anything in the band can say that’s not valid. I’m speaking for myself, but I’ve never played in a band like that.
How does your songwriting process work? Do you find you get the best results when the four of you are together in a room?
Veronica Torres: Absolutely
Ben Jaffe: Even one of the solos I took on the record, where it’s pretty quiet, I wouldn’t have done it without the three of them standing in the room. It’s just me. And everyone else had stopped playing their instruments, but they were standing there with me. You have to have that energy in the room.
VT: Last year Ben was out of town for like a month, and we would just make songs and he would come back and feel them out. Ben, actually ... is very visual. He’s extraordinarily visual. So we’d be like, “Imagine that you are a cloud — a shade of green. Not cumulus, but nimbus.”
So much of the album touches upon social or political issues in personal or playful ways, but not always so directly. How do you see the role of music in promoting social change?
VT: Not all music has to do that — I don’t think it’s inherently the role of music. I’m new at making music, because I’m an artist — I studied visual art. So, for me, it’s a transition of just what I was making before, but in a lyrical way and learning an instrument. And I happened to find some people who were interested in making the same work. And that’s awesome. But I don’t think it has to be, like, the main goal of music. I think our music, as an extension of where we came from, became political. But, you know, art in general, sometimes, is a reflection of the time around you. So, in music, too, you can see in the lyrics and sounds what people want, what people are missing, what people are striving for. It’s all apparent in art. It’s definitely a document in time. All art is.
JC: Speaking politically, I truly believe in “think globally, act locally.” I know it’s a trope. Seeing the power of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and the power of pop culture, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people right now likening the present to the Vietnam era. Peace is popular again. It’s cool to care.
Do you get a feeling of catharsis from playing music?
AS: Dude, absolutely. Some of the first conversations I had with Ben were playing music. We just didn’t have a verbal conversation. I think this ties in earlier, too, when you asked about a direction in terms of attitude. It’s also about mood, man. What determines some songs to be aggressive or not. Or some dynamic to be entered in there. Maybe some of us are having a hard day, and we have to play this out.
With so much energy and immediacy in the music you make, do you put a lot of forethought or consideration into how it translates in a live setting?
VT: It depends. There are certain songs where I will know that I will want to be able to ... mainly be doing vocals, so it’ll be a compromise. So, they’ll be like, “We want you to be on bass for a while,” but I say I think I can move better in a room if I can drop the bass and be with the crowd.
AS: We do think about stagecraft. But we don’t think about it in terms of certain songs.
I worked in Virginia for a while in a weird little restaurant, and the guy who ran the restaurant, his name was Jim. He had a band that would open for U2 every once in a while, back in the day. That was his claim to fame. He smoked cigarettes and had a really young wife. He was great — also really weird, but a good guy. So, I really like music and we used to talk about it, and he’d say [in gruff affectation] “Andrew,” and he’d be smoking this big-ass cigarette, “Andrew, the thing about playing music is it’s all smoke and mirrors. It’s all just smoke and mirrors.” It was like a cartoon! I think I took to heart, though. Stagecraft is a big asset to any band. We get fuckin’ crazy; we have fun on stage. And everyone always tells us, “Hey, we like your music and we’re not just telling you — you look like you’re having fun. You actually look like you’re having a lot of fun onstage.”