Imagine this feeling. You’re buckling in to your seat at the foot of a menacing rollercoaster, when a startling snap indicates the cart locked itself onto the rotating chain under the track. The first sensation of a slow, upward movement fires pains of anticipation through your core. You gaze up the spine of the ride but can’t pinpoint the end of this nervous ascent. As the cart deliberately lurches to its pinnacle, the clicking of the revolving chain reminds you of a ticking time bomb, only further engrossing your consciousness with raw anticipation and excitement. You finally arrive at the peak, your emotions have evolved to pure ecstasy, and you catch a brief glimpse of the ride’s trajectory before being swept away by the journey.
For a devoted music enthusiast, following a young, inspiring band through its stages of growth is an experience similar to the visceral sensation of riding a roller coaster. The ascent to the band’s launching pinnacle can be a long process that requires patience, but also riddled with excitement, anticipation, and a captivating mystery of what lies over the bend. Once you reach that height with each passenger on board, the first drop when the band finally “breaks through” can be the most exhilarating and memorable stretch of the long and crazy ride. I’ve been a passenger on the Pigeons Playing Ping Pong roller coaster for a couple years at this point, and I feel we (sometimes referred to as “The Flock”) have either reached that first peak, or are riding that first vitalizing plunge.
Think about it this way. On April 1st in 2015, Pigeons headlined the Brooklyn Bowl for their first time with support from Aqueous and ShwizZ. At the show’s peak, the 600 capacity venue was about half full, so just over 300 people came out to the show. Fast forward a year later to April 2016. Pigeons are headlining the Gramercy Theatre in Manhattan for their first time, where they nearly sell out the 650 capacity venue. In just one year, the band has doubled their draw (or “flock”) in the music capital of the world. To bring this empirical sketch full circle, on Friday (11/18/16) Pigeons are co-billed with Dopapod to perform their largest NYC show to date. With the Irving Plaza boasting a massive 1,100 person capacity and advance tickets rapidly diminishing, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong are on track to keep mathematical pace with their exponential accumulation of success.
So if you ask me, this monumental Friday concert at the Irving Plaza is either the first launching point of the band’s roller coaster of a sonic journey, or the triumphant whirlwind of their first major plunge. Ahead of Friday’s show, we caught up with Greg (guitar, vocals) and Jeremy (guitar) to finish up our narrative of the band’s inspiring ascent and talk about the wild journey yet to come (check our Part 1 of the interview here). With Friday’s show just around the corner, don’t sleep: make sure to reserve your advanced ticket at this link before #Dopapong sells out the Irving Plaza (feature photo credit: Scott Harris Photo).
CEG: Hey Greg & Jeremy, thanks for taking some time to speak with us prior to your band’s show at the Irving Plaza in Manhattan this Friday. To start things off, what’s been going on over the past couple weeks for Pigeons Playing Ping Pong?
Jeremy Schon: Well we have a few days off after a long stretch of 9 shows in 11 days. From Halloween weekend to the week that followed, it’s really been an amazing run of shows for the band. On Saturday we’re performing in Baltimore, which is our hometown. It’s going to be a great weekend.
CEG: How has your experience been so far touring with Dopapod?
JS: We love those guys, it’s really been a pleasure to tour with them so far!
Greg Ormont: Like Jeremy said, it’s been a pleasure! It’s great touring with Dopapod – they’re goof balls just like us and are really talented musicians. It’s not only fun hanging with them and becoming better friends, but it’s a learning experience to witness firsthand their work ethic and how much they practice backstage. Performing with them has inspired us to work on our chops, both individually as a group. It’s what we hoped for from this tour, and it’s certainly paid off from an inspiration standpoint.
CEG: What inspired or lead to the decision to do this joint tour with that band?
JS: It sort of just made sense! We’ve all been friends for a while, and we both have strong draws and followings across the country. From the perspective of the tour, they were stronger in places where we needed a little bit more help and we were stronger in places where they needed a little more help, so we thought putting the attractions together would boost the tour. In other words, we were shooting for a 1+1=3 kind of deal, and
it’s been working out like that in a lot of the cities we’ve visited on our co-billed tour.
CEG: Every musician I speak to unanimously agrees that New York City is in a class of its own as a live music arena. What does Pigeons Playing Ping Pong have in store for its landmark performance at Irving Plaza this Friday (11/18, tickets here)? Have you ever visited the concert hall?
JS: I haven’t actually been to Irving Plaza myself, but I’ve heard amazing things about it. I’m really looking forward to making our debut there on Friday. Whenever we play in New York City, it’s always a monumental night for us, so we always plan to pull out all the stops and do something crazy when perform in the city.
GO: You know, I have a really bad memory! I’m from Long Island, New York, so I’ve naturally seen a lot of shows in the City, but I can’t remember if I’ve ever been there before! We certainly haven’t played there before, but I know it’s a big room and a supposedly great space to perform in. As for our plans for Friday’s show at Irving, it depends on the size of the stage each night for surprise sit ins. We’re all down to pop in during the other band’s set unless one of us has family in town and has to go out to dinner or entertain while the other’s playing. So as long as there’s space for our completely absurd light rig, Eli’s keys, Rob’s amp, and all of our equipment, maybe we’ll see some whacky sit ins!
CEG: Elaborate more on this topic. What is it like when members from Dopapod and Pigeons collaborate on stage?
GO: Well when we sit in together, we all listen to each other. Sometimes when amazing musicians sit in with a new band, they tend to just do their own thing on stage. But when you have someone who’s attentively playing, whether it be Eli or Rob or any of the other guys, it simply makes for a better collaborative experience with a better end result, not to mention the jams last longer! Rob just sat it for what must’ve been 15 minutes for just on one song because were listening to each other, moving between major and minor keys, and running through our other progressions. It was really fun, and all of the evidence points towards another incredibly special night in New York.
CEG: Looking back at the past couple months, do you have a particular standout moment or story from the Dopapong tour?
JS: Oh man, it’s always amazing when Greg sits in on stage with Dopapod, and people really have to witness it to understand what I’m talking about. I also always enjoy playing onstage in Dopapod, or having their members sit in with us. A personal highlight for me was joining Dopapod on stage at Macon, Georgia on Rob’s birthday.
GO: One great memory that comes to mind that actually lives outside a concert hall was when we all went to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. A crew of us went from both bands, so we got to ride some whacky roller coasters with those guys. In my opinion, when you flip upside down with someone, you make a bond for life! Beyond that, as we touched upon before, we’ve shared a ton of fun sit-in moments. Just the other day in Cleveland, Rob sat in with us on our song, “Poseidon,” and that jam was incredible. He’s such a good listener, so everything he played was intentional and within our group. That jam dug deep into the cake – it wasn’t just frosting, there were plenty of chunky pieces in there as well. Then Jeremy sat in with Dopapod in Macon, GA, and that was an inspiring jam to watch. They teased a bunch of Allman Brothers tunes because they’re from Macon and it was wild to listen to. Then our drummer, Alex, recently crushed a jam with Dopapod. I’ve even gone on stage with Dopapod to do the intro to their song “Nerds,” complete with the valley girl vocals and side ponytail, which is always a blast! Then Eli’s sat in with us a bunch as well. As you can start to tell, it’s getting to be pretty incestual on this tour, and that’s what we were hoping for!
CEG: In a previous interview, Greg, we dug into your personal background. So Jeremy – looking back your history, when did you start playing guitar? Tell us a bit about your musical backstory.
JS: Well I started playing guitar when I was 12, which was 16 years ago. Since I picked it up over a decade ago I haven’t really put it down!
CEG: If you had to think of one guitarist that has been your biggest music influence, who would that be?
JS: For me, Trey Anastasio is the obvious answer, but I also dig Eddie Roberts of The New Mastersounds and Eric Krasno. To be honest, my influences really come from all over!
CEG: Greg, what about you? Who would you point to as your strongest influences?
GO: Well, ironically Jeremy probably has the biggest influence on me as a musician. I didn’t really know guitar very well until I met him during my first year of college at the University of Maryland, so he really showed me a lot and taught me so much about the instrument. Then that segues nicely to Trey Anastasio. Jeremy introduced me to Phish at Maryland, so we went to go see them perform at Jones Beach for three nights in 2009 after they got back together. After that experience, I went ahead and saw them over time more times that summer.
CEG: How was that first experience traveling around the country to soak up Phish?
GO: It was incredible. Eventually I started to notice a similar type of theatrical approach at their live shows where when Trey moves forward and moves back, the crowd moves forward and moves back. They involved the audience with clapping and vocal parts, and moments of silence and tears when they freeze. So I’m proud to say Trey Anastasio is easily my biggest influence. And from there, I’ve been listening to John Mayer before he got all big in the jam world. The John Mayer Trio is so good, in fact I was listening to their album Try! earlier today. Everyone loves Hendrix, but I grew up more with Clapton. I also love Mike Rempel from Lotus, who we’ll be playing with on New Year’s Eve, which is another full circle moment for the band! And like Jeremy, Eddie Roberts from The New Mastersounds always catches my ear because he has such a unique style and can move a band with his right hand so well. Similarly, Eric Krasno is a monster – so slick, and his tone is to be desired by anyone. In this day’s jam world, I get inspired everyday, but when it comes down to it, it boils down to Trey Anastasio and Jeremy Schon for the win.
CEG: So while we’re talking about Trey, Phish just covered David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust from front to back in Vegas on Halloween night. If you were put in that position with Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, what album would you select to cover for a show?
JS: We’ve talked about this topic many, many times, and we have no idea how to choose! There are so many great albums to play that it’s extremely difficult to pick one. If I knew which one it was, I wouldn’t tell anyone anyways, because we’d want it to be a complete surprise. But I can tell you we do have a lot of crazy ideas for themes and cover sets in the future.
GO: Funny you ask – I’m actually about to watch the video of Ziggy Stardust tonight. So many options to choose from though! One I’ve personally always wanted to do, and this goes way back for me, is The Who’s Tommy. That was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway, and it had such a profound impact on my life that I didn’t even realize at the time! The perfect combination of a classic rock show and a fully choreographed theatrical experience took such a hold on my head that I know it front to back and could perform it now if you needed me to. I was about 10 years old when I first saw Tommy, and The Who’s guitarist, Pete Townshend, was playing with the orchestra. After the performance I met the entire cast of All That, including Kenan Thompson and Lori Beth Denberg, and it was such a good night that I not only caught the music bug, but I also caught the theatre bug. I had been doing musicals already at that point in my life, but Tommy was such a rocking show that I continued to do theatre and plays all the way through my Senior year of High School.
CEG: When you’re writing new music for Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, who does what, and how does the band approach the creation process?
JS: Everyone contributes to each song because we wouldn’t sound like Pigeons without each piece of the puzzle. In general, either me or Greg will come to the table with a song idea, whether it’s a hook or a chord progression, a melody line, or a fully written song with parts for each band member. Everyone then puts their own spin on what they think the track could be, and when it comes together, the end goal is creating a great, unique Pigeons song. We’ve got a drawing board of at least 100 new songs that are in all sorts of different forms or shapes. Some are sort of finished, some just have one part. Greg writes about 90% of the lyrics, well, more like 99% of the lyrics. I’ve contributed a few vocal lines here and there, but that’s not really my strong suit. I’ll write most of the instrumental songs and sometimes we’ll take one of those songs and have Greg write lyrics over it. A great example of that would be “Horizon,” which was an instrumental song I wrote that we decided to add a touch of vocals to to take it up a notch. But sometimes it works in so many different ways, so there’s no set formula we deploy to create a song.
GO: Like Jeremy said, it’s very much a collaborative effort. We try to practice every week if we can, depending on our tour schedule, and we each practice on our own writing music, playing with scales, and experimenting with riffs. Basically one of us will come in with a song idea. It could be a verse, it could be a chorus, it could be a riff, it could be mostly an entire song, and we’ll present it to the group. Jeremy will usually record it through Audacity or Garage Band with loose structures in mind, then we’ll play it as a group and start to mold it into something we can envision ourselves playing live. Whenever we write new music we keep our fanbase in mind, but we also want to create what’s in our hearts and on our minds, so it’s really an interesting process.
CEG: Do you have a specific song in mind that could serve as an effective example to illuminate your process?
GO: Definitely – a great example is our song, “The Liquid.” The song was born when I wrote the song’s initial framework with my guitar, and at first it was just a fast-paced funk song. When I first played it for the group, we put our heads together and agreed the fast-paced nature of the song can get repetitive if there’s nothing in the middle to cleanse your pallet. After working with the guys, we ended up writing in this slow blues breakdown that drops the tempo a number of BPMs. The entire feel from the beginning of the song is almost thrown out for a second, so when it snaps back in, it is powerful. What I find interesting is if you write all the parts yourself, it will sound like one person wrote it, but if you put your ego aside and allow a song to be morphed by the three other minds you trust, you’ll find yourself with a more balanced product that is more representative of the entire band. Theres’ never a situation where we write a song and one of us says, “Oh my god, we can’t play this live!” If that’s something one of us feels, we’ll put the song back to work, we’ll put it back in the process, and we’ll make sure it’s something we all stand behind.
CEG: In the spirit of changing the pace of questioning – what are your personal favorite breeds of pigeon? Frillback? Tumbler?
JS: The Nicobar, aka the Indonesian Rainbow Pigeon.
GO: **laughs** Mine’s the same as Jeremy’s, the Indonesian Rainbow Pigeon. In the end, as long as the pigeon plays ping pong, I’m down with all pigeons.
CEG: So Jeremy, you mentioned before the band has over 100 songs in formation. Are there any concrete plans to release a new album in the next year or so? Anything you can report here about new music?
JS: We’re always creating new music, and we’re always talking about the future and our next album. Our big focus is always touring, so we’ll pop out an album here and there when we have time between tours. It could be a live album, it could be a studio album, or maybe even a combination of both. We have a lot in store.
CEG: Looking back at Pleasure, a couple “Flockers” I spoke to were interested to learn more about the inspiration and story behind the album’s cover art.
GO: Well, neither Jeremy nor I drew it, but that particular cover was imagined by ODDS (One Drop Design Studio), who also designed our cover art for Pyschology and does a lot of work with Twiddle. He has a specific style that you’ll start to recognize once you check out his portfolio. Each band member had a bunch of ideas. I had one where a pigeon was swimming in a bowl of croutons making it rain loves of bread. Others had ideas of the more human approach, like a woman on a beach. I think my favorite part of the Pleasure album cover is the background. If you look at it, there are pineapples in there interwined with big lips. It’s just about the coolest wallpaper you could possibly have. It’s a great design, and we like to give our artists a good amount of artistic freedom.
CEG: In our previous interview we did a good job tracing the origins of the band and building a relatively complete narrative. Looking back on that feature, however, I realized we missed a significant piece of the puzzle – we never talked about Alex! So to complete the history of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, tell us about Alex’s backstory, and how that addition was made.
JS: Do you want to answer this one, Greg?
GO: Sure! Alex has been touring with us for just about 2 years now, and our time together has been nothing short of amazing. He has an amazing work ethic, he loves playing drums, and he’s always pushing himself to be better and better. We first met Alex when when we played a show with his previous band, Lifted, in Connecticut 5 or 6 years ago. Ironically it was a very low attended show. In fact, it was one of the lowest attended shows in the history of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, but we all remembered how good the drummer of the other band was. From that night on, we always kind of had Alex in the back of our minds. Our original drummer for the band was our friend, Dan Schwartz. When we first started the band we were just in college having fun and I don’t think we ever sat down and said, “Hey let’s do this for the next 50 years.” So after the first 3 years of touring full time, Dan was also starting and developing his own personal businesses. Dan’s an entrepreneur, an app developer, and a real estate mogul. He’s an incredibly hard-working person, so his course with the band kind of naturally came to an end after the college years into the early touring years. Around that stage, he gave us plenty heads up and made the transition incredibly smooth. It was very amicable, and when Dan left we just started auditioning drummers.
CEG: So this is where Alex comes back into the picture?
GO: That’s right. I think we auditioned about four or five great drummers including Alex, some of whom could have definitely been in the band. I remember when Alex walked into the audition room it took about 10 seconds of him playing for me to know he was the new member we were looking for. He came in prepared, he had notes upon notes for our songs, and that’s just the way that Alex operates, and that’s a blessing.
CEG: So what’s Dan up to these days?
GO: Dan’s still a great friend of ours, and what’s really cool is now he’s free to explore the world on his own volition. He’s currently either in the Philippines or Thailand, but he’s really been all over the place. His company, Investifuse, is absolutely crushing it. While we’re on the topic, our original lighting guy has also moved on over the past few years, and our current one, Manny Newman, is killing it with Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. He’s an amazing LD, and in the meantime, our original lighting guy, Ronny RedRocks, has been touring with The Chainsmokers, who you might recognize from their #1 song on the Billboard Top 100 chart. Ronny’s been doing insane European tour, and has traveled all over Europe, Asia, and he’s about to do a one-off show in Berlin. He’s basically going to be playing every major arena in the country! He’s also starting to orchestrate lights for the Electric Daisy Carnivals. So it’s really cool, as your friends grow up, to see everyone start to do well and grow individually.
CEG: I’m always interested to read about developments and learn more about your festival, Dome Fest. What can you share with us about the event at this point in the year?
JS: Well, one thing I can certainly tell you is we are doing Dome Fest again. More details will be disclosed in coming weeks!
GO: Yep, we’re certainly doing it again. And for those readers who haven’t heard of it, we throw a music festival once a year called Dome Fest. This is just the best weekend of the year for us by far, and it’s a pretty intimate party. It’s grown quite a bit over the past years, but we’re never going to get too big for our bridges. We’re always going to have plenty of dance room for our patrons, and it’s at a great location each summer. Unlike festivals where you need a day off to recuperate, we want to create an event where you come out feeling refreshed and full of love and life. Like Jeremy said, we will be announcing a lot of information soon, so stay tuned!
CEG: One specific question I gathered from a Flocker pertains to your touring abilities. Does the band have any secrets or use any form of black magic to bring the same amount of electrifying energy night after night to different cities?
GO: First off, we absolutely love to perform. Sure, sometimes we get exhausted while on the road, but when you walk out on stage and your fans are there to hear your own music it’s an incredibly exciting feeling. I came from a musical theatre background, so when you’re on stage, you’re either performing or you’re not. There’s no inbetween for me, and there’s no inbetween for the band. I think every opportunity you have to perform and be the entertainment for the evening should be done at its fullest extent without a regret in mind as you get off stage. Sometimes you can just use that thought to rally yourself up on a tired night. I’m always in the zone once I’m on stage and the crowd just feeds energy to me. We’ve even said it to each other on stage, “This show is Madison Square Garden. Not a bar in Kentucky, this is MSG, let’s blow them out of the water.” Having said that, we’re sponsored by an amazing energy tea called Runa. When I’m feeling tired, I’ll have just a half of a can of Runa, and it makes me feel unbelievable refreshed, but it’s not a jittery feeling you get from other energy drink companies.
CEG: That concept you just articulated about letting everything out on stage, regardless of the venue, must resonate with the story of Alex joining the band.
GO: Absolutely. Even though the show we played with Alex was poorly attended, it turned out to be one of the most important gigs we ever played in our lives, because we met Alex. If you’re tired, or even if there are four people in the room, one of those four people might eventually own Madison Square Garden, or might be the radio connection you’ve searching for, or that future manager who stumbled into this hole in the wall and discovered you by accident. So never taking a night off mentally and treating every show like its the most important gig of your life really pays off in the most unexpected ways, as long as you do it consistently. If we didn’t treat that show with the same respect and energy we do for our sell-outs, maybe Alex wouldn’t have wanted to join the band. Touring’s a long haul and this whole thing is a marathon, and it’s important to give it all each time. I always think about that when I look out to a crowd that I don’t necessarily think is big enough. If I ever need motivation or psyching up, I’ll remember that poorly attended show where we met our future drummer and band mate for life.
CEG: I like to end interviews with an open forum. Is there anything either of you would like to share that we didn’t cover here?
JS: Stay tuned for some cool new announcements coming soon. We have some cool tricks up our sleeves, and have a huge 2017 plan in motion that people will be hearing about that in the next weeks.
GO: Well, it’s been a long ride in New York and it’s really exciting to be playing such a monster venue like Irving Plaza. New York City is no joke and we don’t take it lightly. We could prepare for this show our whole life, and we’re going to make it the best night ever. We’re honored to be there, and CEG has been so good to us as we’ve come up from places like Sullivan Hall to a near sold-out show at Gramercy Theatre earlier this year. We’ve been working our butts off to produce a sound that deserves to be there at Irving, and then some!