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Synths & Static Sounds: Pile Brings Legacy of Ambition & Influence to New Heights on 'All Fiction'

Back in February, Pile returned with their highly anticipated eighth studio album All Fiction, which shows the Boston trio fueled by years of experimentation and a newfound penchant for synths. While the band was on tour in Europe back in March, we caught up with guitarist-vocalist Rick Maguire to talk about how this pivotal record came to be, and what it's like to make an album as a DIY group today — from the challenges of big tech to the value of community.

Photo by Adam Parshall

Over the years, Pile fans have devoted themselves to the band's iconic, thrashing DIY rock sound. All Fiction, the band's newest album and most ambitious project to date, feels like a distinctly unique era of Pile, as the group steps away from its signature "bombastic" sound towards something much more minimalist and eerie. The latest release from Rick Maguire (vocals, guitar), Kriss Kuss (drums), and Alex Molini (bass) captures the universally familiar feelings of self-reflection and existential panic from the pandemic, while moving the group forward into uncharted and exciting territory. And though All Fiction's sound is predominantly atmospheric and haunting, there is an undeniable aura of joy and artistic freedom throughout, fueled by years of experimentation and a newfound penchant for synths.

Pile's previous release, Songs Known Together, Alone, a solo project by frontman Rick Maguire, was an exploration and reinvention of the group's earlier works. Their last tour was a celebration of the tenth-year anniversary of their 2012 breakout album, Dripping, during which they played the album straight through — a true delight for day-one fans of the group. In revisiting these earlier releases, Maguire was able to study, experiment, and gain even more technical chops for the release of All Fiction, his brainchild of several years.

While the band was on tour in Europe back in March, we caught up with Maguire to talk about how this pivotal record came to be, and what it's like to make an album as a DIY group today — from the challenges of big tech to the value of community.

Paperface Zine: Pile's last tour was for the 10th anniversary of Dripping, and then its last release was Songs Known Together Alone, which was also your solo project. You're in Zurich right now, and you're heading back to North America for a tour in the fall. How is it being back on the road with the whole band and a brand-new album?

Rick MacGuire: It's great. I mean, it's different, but that has definitely been by design. Doing the Dripping tour was really fun. It was great to play with the Matts again — Matt Becker and Matt Connery — and I'm sure we'll play together again in the future. So much of everything through the pandemic was trying to get as much mileage out of old material. Maybe mileage isn't the right word, but I didn't feel like going forward with any new material without the rest of the band, but to be able to do this is cool. It's been nice to try different things as a collective, as a group. It's been pretty well-received too. I tried to mentally prepare myself for people to be kind of disappointed or upset that it's not the same thing as it's been. Being an aggressive yet dynamic rock band that is now, I guess, still that — but plus a whole other element with the synths and the static sounds rather than the really dynamic sounds. And there's less bombast with the new material. So to answer your question, it's been really fun and rewarding to try things that I haven't known whether or not they would work. Then just working as a group to figure out how they will work has been very, very rewarding.

PZ: The production on All Fiction is very different from previous Pile albums. It's a lot more atmospheric and explorative. How has that been translating to the live shows and how has it been received by the crowd so far?

RM: It's been received pretty well. I mean, we have older material that we can draw from, some of which was written as a three-piece, we can just sort of use some of that. I think that we've tempered it in a way where if anybody is not down with whatever we're trying out [laughs], there's enough of what the band has been in the past to draw from. It's been nice to really get into a detail-oriented mode with how to get the set right. We're playing every night, so we're just trying to fine-tune stuff. And the three of us each have an additional instrument now. I have a synthesizer in front of me, Alex has a synthesizer in front of him, and Chris has an SPD, which is like a little drum trigger, which has been crucial. So to have all of those things, we can represent as many of the songs as we want to live.

PZ: At first maybe this album could be perceived as dark and heavy. I've seen the word "haunting" used to describe it a lot. But I think, and maybe this is connecting with the audience as well, there's this feeling of whimsy and joyful artistic expression that definitely comes through. Can you talk about your mindset going into creating this album?

RM: Yeah, yeah, definitely. There was a lot of preparation for it. I had been thinking about this album for a long time, and I worked on the songs pretty steadily and consistently for a while. I felt like I'd finally gotten to a place with them where it was time to record them. It was time to try new stuff. And there was a lot of ambition behind it, too, and it was really rewarding. It felt like there were more options on the table in terms of trying things and being able to throw out an idea and see if it would work. I mean, granted, we did that over a long period of time, too. I demoed a lot of things with Alex, and there were plenty of opportunities for saying, "well, let's try this," and taking the time and space to be like, "I have a decision to make, there are two roads I can take, I wanna take that road." So over time, it was whittling down from all of these options. In the past, there was that part in the writing, but once it was brought to the band, it was like, "this is how we're gonna perform it, and this is how we're going to record it." A lot of those doors were left open as we were going through. So, there was always the option to add something else or try something different. And I felt like I was looking for those back doors along the way. One thing that came up in the studio that was cool, that I was not expecting, was that we just did a full band overdub. We did a lot of the stuff to a click, we played in a practice space, and the songs were very much felt, so that was how we chose to approach it.

Photo by João Neto

PZ: So when did the sessions for this album start?

RM: Chris was living in Boston. He came down [to Nashville], and we worked on the stuff for a month, and then we recorded the album twice all the way through. Actually, it was more than just the album. We did 21 songs, and 6 of those just weren't happening. So we cut those and then recorded those 15 again. Once we had those, we gave those to Kevin [McMahon], the engineer, and then we went up to the studio to do it for real. So the month of September '22 was when Chris, Alex, and I had those sessions where we were basically practicing recording the record. And then we went to upstate New York at Marcata Recording with Kevin, and we did three and a half weeks there. We did 15 songs, 5 of which aren't on the record, but we're gonna release them at some point. We did what we had to do, then a string quartet came up for a couple of days and did their thing. Then we had a few days after that where we continued messing with things. Took like a week and a half off and then went back up for a final four days. But basically, it was two full months: a month of rehearsing and recording together at our place, and then a month in a studio.

PF: While creating this album, did revisiting Pile's earlier work affect the way you approached it at all?

RM: I had an agenda that I didn't reveal with the solo record, which is basically I wanted to approach these songs from a very different angle, I wanted to use textures. I wanted to use a synthesizer. I wanted to explore all that stuff and get familiar with that in a studio setting. I had spent plenty of time working on stuff alone at my house, or on a laptop just making weird sounds. But there seemed to be something more consequential about doing it in a studio where you're spending money. So using this solo record as an opportunity to showcase what I do when I do solo stuff. And, in addition to that, try out different things sonically. So when we come in as a band, I don't feel like an imposter trying to use a synthesizer or something like that, or it doesn't feel uncomfortable in any kind of way. I think that there was that plan all along. Pretty much, from the beginning of the pandemic or really the end of 2019, it was like, the next record's gonna be different. And I just ended up having more time to really stew on that than I would've otherwise. I'd say that revisiting stuff definitely helped inform the way that some of these songs came together, sonically anyway.

PF: It seems like with the pandemic, plus real estate developers and gentrification, or all three combined — DIY spaces and community spaces are really taking a hit. I saw you mentioned on Twitter that your practice space in Boston was affected. Can you talk a little bit about what effect that had on the album, if any?

RM: Well, it hasn't had much of an effect on the album just because Alex and I moved back to Boston in September. The guy had been leasing the building for like 40 years, that lease went up and the building was being bought, so the writing was on the wall. It just happened very, very quickly. It was like, "end of this month, you have to be out of here," which sucks because it was the end of January and we were doing these release shows at the end of February, and we had just a ton of work to do. We had to figure out how we were gonna perform the record. Fortunately, they extended it, we had the month, and we moved into a new spot the day before we flew out here. So we're in a new facility now, and it's… it's a space. We haven't practiced there yet, but we are very grateful to have a spot. In Boston, and I know in a lot of cities in America, places are just being bought up and rented to people with money, so it's not easy. There are fewer places to play. We're fortunate that we are able to play between 300 and 500-cap rooms in a lot of towns, but it's really the 100 to 250-cap rooms where bands can cut their teeth and now there are just very few options, in the Boston area for sure. And then with the pandemic, there are a lot of places that went under. It's not really easy. In terms of finding space to do stuff, in terms of being compensated for your work. It's pretty interesting because it seems like a lot of people really just generally love music in their lives. Like, they value it as a thing. People from all walks of life are like, "oh, this song means something to me," but I do feel like musicians, in general, are not very well-respected. Those are my feelings about it. I don't think that I used to feel that way in the past. I used to be more like, "well, you just got to work hard, and that's that." But I've done that, I've worked hard. I know there are people that really connect with the music and I'm very grateful for that. And I hope that continues to be true. But as far as it being a sustainable thing for anyone in the band to be able to live off of, it's tough.

Photo by Adam Parshall

PZ: In this album in particular, and throughout a lot of Pile's albums, one of the overarching themes is big tech or big algorithm. Can you talk about how big tech in general has affected your creative process at all?

RM: I don't know. I mean, those things exist. There will be something else at some point. I guess my only thought is that it, whatever that might be, might just continue to devalue music more. But also, I can't be too concerned about it because I have zero control over it. I do think that the accessibility is really great — anybody can find anything. But technology's gonna do what it does. I think I have a tough time finding the outrage on it. I am curious to understand it, and I support people who are really rallying against the way that it operates. I've worked in the rollout for the album and all that sort of stuff, and I was living more in the world of, "alright, we've gotta figure out how to get this album out there and how we can reach as many people as possible." I feel strongly about this material and I'm proud of it. And that world — where I'm just trying to think about social media and streaming and all of these things and marketing — can be really alienating. Since I don't fully understand all the ins and outs of it, I'm just trying to pay attention to how I feel in response to it. It's a difficult thing to navigate both practically and emotionally, but I noticed that by trying to navigate it emotionally, there are people that have access to things that I don't. That's sort of the front and back of it. But being out here and touring…I know I can't control how many people come to shows, but what I can do is really work together with the people that I care about and try to do as cool of a thing as I possibly can.

PM: I think that’s a great point, about focusing only on what you can control. A lot of the algorithms are so seemingly arbitrary. You'll post one thing, and it'll get thousands of likes, then the next day you post something similar, and no one sees it.

RM: Yeah. And beyond that, and beyond like algorithm stuff, I have no idea what people in general respond to. With the album, I feel so strongly about it and wonder what it's gonna do for us. And it's done what it's gonna do. I think people have enjoyed listening to it, but it hasn't changed my life dramatically. And then we put out like a guitar pedal, and the day before it came out, I was like, "it’s a really weird idea," and I felt self-conscious about it. "I don't know if people are gonna respond to this." And never in my life have I been associated with anything that has sold out like that [laughs]. I just don't know. So that is something that I try to keep in mind as well. I have no idea how a lot of these things work and what people will respond to and what they want.

PZ: Right. So why not just go for it?

RM: Yeah, just trying to focus on whatever sort of thing is bringing me joy and is fulfilling. To continue to pursue those things and give time and attention to the things that I care about and the people that I care about.

Photo by João Neto

PZ: So I saw that you mentioned Kate Bush, Aphex Twin, even PJ Harvey as some of the influences for All Fiction. Were there any other artists you haven't mentioned that maybe influenced this album, or Pile in general? What were you listening to while you were making the album?

RM: A lot of people have mentioned this, but I mean, I definitely listened to Kid A a lot. I was interested in that record. I grew up with it, and I accepted it just as, "oh, this is a cool album." I was like 15 or 16 years old. Then 20 years later listening to it again and being like, "there's a lot to this that I just accepted, that I feel like doesn't exist on other records." So that was a big one. There was a lot of atmospheric music that I was more interested in. I listened to a lot of William Bazinsky. I know I mentioned Portishead, but I don't know if I mentioned Beak, who's a great band. Those are the main ones that I just sort of drew inspiration from. I think the most recent Liars record, too. I was in the middle of working on the record and Alex was like, "you should check this one out," and it definitely was in the same zone as what I was trying to get after.

PZ: With this album, the percussion definitely moves to center stage more so than on some of the earlier albums. Your vocals also sound more pushed back and a lot more sparse. Was that something you wanted to try out intentionally going into the album or did that come out through the recording process?

RM: It was moved in the process of recording. Chris' drumming is just great on this record. It's great on all the records, but it's cool because I definitely was trying something different and I feel like it just speaks to his versatility as a drummer that he was able to take what I was throwing and find a whole other way of approaching the songs. It's a lot like groovier, there are more songs in 4/4. Yeah, I think it's sort of circumstantial. Then we have these five other (unreleased) songs, in which the vocals are more upfront on those than anything that we've released. Which I'm happy about. They're pretty dry, all things considered. I usually try to affect or obscure my voice in some kind of way, but I'm happy with the performances. But yeah, it wasn't as much intentional as circumstantial.

PZ: Pile is often referred to as "your band's favorite band." People who like Pile seem to really love Pile. There's been such a great response to this album. If you look at Pile's YouTube comment section, it's all very wholesome. What do you think it is about your music that resonates with your listeners in such a strong way?

RM: I have no objectivity in this, so it's difficult for me to say, but I could guess? I would say that it has to do with two things. One is, because of how much we just traveled as a band and just been very open to meeting people, I feel like there are a lot of people — who maybe wouldn't be as interested in the band — but we've met them and we got along, and we made friends, and we've wanted to connect with people, and if we can't connect with them with our music, we've wanted to just connect with them as people, comrades and just trying to make art and hang, just enjoy other people's company. So I think with that, there have been people that are willing to have our backs because, maybe they might consider us friends. So I think that's one part of it. I think that the other part of it is that maybe there is an investment in the music that people hear. I've labored over these songs, and the band has labored over these songs for a long time. So maybe when people hear that, they can hear those choices being made. Those are my speculations. One, we have met a lot of friendly people along the way and they are nice enough to sing our praises. And, the other being that you can just hear some of the labor that we put into it. I also think some of the labor doesn't necessarily translate to accessibility and I think maybe people get more out of those interesting choices than they do ones that are made in the interest of accessibility. So that's my guess.

All Fiction is out now on Exploding In Sound Records.


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