Bronx, NY folk-rock unit Pigeons concoct dark, kaleidoscopic soundscapes populated by loose pop structures and abstract dissonance, shades of wintry stillness, and a hauntological layer of dust. Recently, they expanded their line-up to include acoustic noodlers from the No-Neck Blues Band and Black Twig Pickers, and got to work on their third full-length. They Sweetheartstammers, out next week on Soft Abuse, is packed with hypnotic psychedelia, Francophilia, cobweb-laden sonic spaces, and shadowy retrofuturism, balancing moods of wonder and foreboding with an artisan’s acumen. The founding power duo of partners Clark Griffin and Wednesday Knudsen took some time via email to talk about the band’s origins, their progression from improv to concise songwriting, trash art, and finding unusual muses in the creaking freeform explorations of Jean-Claude Eloy and the mighty Margarita enthusiast Jimmy Buffett.
AZ: I’d love to hear the definitive “how Pigeons came to be” story.
Clark: We lived in Seattle and we played with the Sea Donkeys– a loose association of freaks and assholes, but a good band. We had many things thrown at us during our performances. It was a golden gamelan era, though. We learned a lot about improvisation. Then we moved to New York and kept busy musically, putting out some cassettes and a couple of lathes under the name Pigeons. There have been fewer projectiles for Pigeons, but that might be because attendance at our shows is usually minimal.
AZ: How did Jason Meager of No-Neck Blues Band fame and Nathan Bowles of the Black Twig Pickers come into the permanent line-up?
Clark: We’ve been huge fans of No Neck for years, and in particular, of Jason and Pat [Murano]‘s side project, K Salvatore. Later, we played with NNCK a few times with Sea Donkeys. Our first show as Pigeons was opening for Excepter and NNCK at a short-lived place called Syrup Room in Bushwick [Brooklyn]. Around then, Jason opened his Black Dirt Studios in Upstate New York, where we recorded Virgin Spectacle, which Jason put out on his Black Dirt Records. Si Faustine and the latest, They Sweetheartstammers, were also recorded there. It took a while but our schedules finally aligned and he was able to play bass with us full time.
Wednesday: It was Jason who introduced us to Nathan very recently, when we were looking for a drummer for live performances. And Jason met Nathan through his work with Jack Rose. Nathan drove up from Virginia, we poured a round of whiskies, said “Hi my name is…,” and then we started playing. It was a happy encounter. Both are astonishing players and often more than busy with their own projects, so we’re very lucky [to have them].
AZ: NNCK and Black Twig Pickers come from a more improv-oriented background. How has the new line-up changed your songwriting process?
Clark: Well, Pigeons started out as an improvisation duo. At first it was just drums, saxophone, and noise machine, and later we started renting a guitar by the hour at our practice space. Then Carter Thornton played with us for a few years until we started playing songs, and then he bailed. This phase was more or less inspired by the free jazz greats and [various] musical oddities, as well as by what NNCK and some other contemporaries were doing. It is easier to leave structure behind with the present line-up than it is with the duo, though things can also get very groovy with this rhythm section. The thing is that these guys can do anything. Both play several instruments well– some, very well–, and [since] they come from improvisational backgrounds, they listen well. As for songwriting, we’ll still write the songs, but I think their development will be different once we bring them to the band. We are all just letting it roll in the natural direction that it takes. We’re looking forward to recording with them.
AZ: The new LP has, at least to my ears, a much poppier presence than, say, your Lunettes 7″ from 2009. Was making a more accessible work this go round a natural result, or a conscious change of direction?
Clark: Since we began writing songs, they’ve all seemed poppy to me, so the only real difference that I hear is that the production values are much higher on They Sweetheartstammersthan on anything we’ve done before. Maybe that makes the poppiness stand out more, but it’s always been there. The new album was recorded at Black Dirt using a system called Radar, which combines the best of both the digital and analog worlds. We had thought the new record was a little bit of an odd one, but if you think it’s accessible, that’s great. Maybe people will actually buy it.
AZ: I read recently that you all spent some time in Paris, which probably explains the vague Françoise Hardy vibes throughout the LP. Was the move a musical or personal decision?
Clark: The move was more personal, but we did bring our guitars, rehearse, play, and record, so it was kind of the same as in New York. The main difference is that Paris is civilized and New York is not. This might have an effect on music. I’m not sure.
Wednesday: There have always been songs in French, and Françoise Hardy is certainly a major point of reference, as well as the whole yé yé sound, which is both bizarre and intoxicating. But when we were in France, we were listening to a lot ’60s psych– Eliane Radigue, introduced to us by a good friend who lent us his collection of her recordings–, and Jean-Claude Eloy. We even had a chance to see Brigitte Fontaine and Areski perform, which was wonderful. We spent some time playing with a little-known, super underground group called Radi Noir, which is oriented toward free-form ambient sounds.
AZ: What’s the origin of the unusual album title?
Clark: The “They” comes from the artist who did the cover art, Yuji Agematsu. He takes these epic walks around New York and collects garbage that catches his attention. Then he catalogs these pieces and notes where and when he collected them. Then he maps it all out. He has this whole well-developed process, and he’s been doing this for over 20 years! It is really astonishing art. Anyway, when you speak with Yugi about his art, he refers to these pieces of cataloged trash as “they,” hence the first part of the title. Incidentally, he made 20 handmade covers for the new LP, and he used everything from hair and gum and foil and floss to dogshit.
AZ: Besides the new album and, presumably, some touring, anything else exciting coming down the pipeline for Pigeons?
Clark: We bagged the fall US tour because it just became such a battle to book. So we’ll see. In place of that we’re gonna hole up for two weeks together and see what happens. Have you seen this video [of Jimmy Buffett]? At the end, Buffett hits this high note… that’s our goal.
They Sweetheartstammers is available November 8th via Soft Abuse