Talking creativity with Pile's Rick Maguire

Talking creativity with Pile's Rick Maguire
Maguire (left) with Pile. Photo by Adam Parshall

By now, it's well-documented that I'm a huge Pile fan. I've written about them a ton, interviewed the band's songwriter Rick Maguire several times, and just generally championed Pile whenever the opportunity has presented itself. This week, less than a year after releasing All Fiction, Pile returns with the five-song Hot Air Ballon EP. Given that the band has released a ton of music in the past few years, and you can find Rick out on the road either with the band or on his own, I thought it would be fun to reflect on the past year of Pile.

It's also funny how this is now the third interview in a row that I've done with someone from Boston. Not sure what's up with that, but I guess it just works out that way sometimes. Anyway, here's my chat with Rick.

All Fiction was intentionally a bit of a departure, so now that you’ve toured it, you’ve seen the response, how does it feel like that all went over?

Rick Maguire: I think it was difficult to separate the difference between the response to the material and the landscape of the music industry now. Or at least separate the response to the record from show-going culture because the way that we started with the record was going to Europe first, which is a thing we've never tried. In addition, we were also a three-piece. We played Primavera in 2022 and thought that was going to have a bigger impact on how things were received in Europe, and it was just difficult to tell. But now doing everything, I would say that it went pretty well. I know that some people were pretty excited to hear old stuff, but something that I wasn’t expecting, especially by the end of touring it, is that there were some people who were not familiar with old stuff. They were really psyched on the new stuff, and then we’d start playing “Prom Song” and there would be silence. I’m like, “Oh, okay. I guess they don’t know this one.” So that was cool, and seeing some younger faces that were dancing and enjoying themselves to the new stuff was pretty cool. 

I have some observations like that from touring the new material, but I would also say that, personally, processing all of those observations, I'm just very happy that we did it. I think that doing that record and touring on it in that way and being able to kind of tie it up at home with playing a bunch of old stuff and a bunch of new stuff and, to me anyway, to have that feel very cohesive, I felt like I had accomplished something. Now, creatively, I felt a little bit more open. After Green and Gray I needed to do something different. Now I can go in whatever direction I want, which is pretty fun.

Following Pile for a long time, you’ve always been pretty prolific. Since 2017, there’s been something every year. With that, there have been some pretty big sonic deviations. Do you feel confident making those shifts or does the audience perception take up some space in your head?

Rick: It's difficult for the audience perception to not take up at least some space. But, ultimately, I think one thing that has helped and some of the freedom that I've felt to go in these directions and pursue these creative whims, is a sense of trust from the people that have supported us. I think that the people that are fans of the group, while to some it may be a betrayal, there being fewer guitars or there being no drums or no songs on a record [Laughs] I get the sense from the people that support us that they're just down and they trust that we're trying different things out. Even if it doesn't land with them it's like, "Hey, this is a band doing its thing," and there's an openness to that. I think that that's one of the benefits of there being such a connection and availability. It’s not like a customer and a service provider where if you're not providing that service for me then I'm going to be upset. Now, it's framed in a way where it’s like, "Oh, these are actual people making these things that I enjoy, and if this person wants to make something that they're excited about then who am I to say that they shouldn't?"

I think that the landscape allows for that more, and I also think that we're very fortunate to have such a supportive fan base. I think that those things working in concert make me feel comfortable to try to go forward and take riskier moves. 

Did you ever feel, previous to this point, that there was that pressure where you couldn’t do something because it was too big of a leap? 

Rick: I do think so. I felt that most probably with the solo record [Songs Known Together, Alone] and the noise record [In The Corners Of A Sphere-Filled Room]. With In The Corners Of A Sphere-Filled Room, that one was very obviously a departure for us. It at least made sense to me, but if people don’t want to listen to it, it’s fine. But Songs Known Together, Alone felt very much like these are songs that people have voiced favor for and expressed to me that they like these songs and now I have the power to really mess that up. So that was a little bit scary. 

But it also felt like if there were ever a time to try this, now is the time. I think going through that and trying it out, I realized that it's okay to do that. It was also understanding that there are going to be people who are not as into it, and there’s also going to be people who find out about the band from that record. I think there’s also just a lot of value to that. But I think the staying active part of it is also just really important because you don’t know where people are gonna find you. You don’t know at what point in your career that people are going to be like, "Wow, I’m really connecting with this thing." It’s good to be surprised by that at times. 

To that point, there’s this perception that once a song’s released, it’s done; the creative journey has ended. How much was doing that solo record an exercise in finding something new in those songs, or was it just about subverting expectations? 

Rick: It was more the former. I think it was in February of 2020 and I had been planning on doing some solo touring and I had just gotten this MIDI controller foot pedal that I was hooking up to the synth, and that was how I was doing solo stuff. It felt like I was doing a pretty cool representation of these songs. I always felt like the solo stuff was a way of doing a quote-unquote stripped-down thing, but it's not really stripped-down anymore. There are certain parts that are pretty lush because I have this airy synth and then this sub-bass and then I'm playing guitar and singing. It just has a different vibe. So it was before the pandemic that I started doing it. 

I had the idea that maybe I could do a tape or something where I just do these representations of songs. Then, when the pandemic started, everyone was doing these live streams and they mostly looked and sounded terrible. It became the idea that maybe I could do these songs in a way that felt live but in a studio setting. 

I think that in the process of pulling those together, I had to really choose which parts were most essential to the songs. It was interesting deciding on those songs where exactly I saw space to explore further. I think there’s maybe three or four songs on the record where I really leaned into that. The most I did that was on “I Don't Want to Do This Anymore,” which became, for all intents and purposes, a totally different song. Which is cool, because there just weren't vocals on it before, so it just opened things up in a way.

I was hungry to create new stuff, and the stuff that I was making for All Fiction, the initial intention with that was that I was going to make these songs that I could perform solo, I could perform as a band, and then on the record, it's like a totally different thing. In order to do that, they just needed to be compositionally strong. Obviously, this is all very subjective, but in those decisions, I got to play around with how much things weighed. 

As someone who has written songs, I think there’s always that moment where you can see something can go down a few different roads and then you just have to commit to one. Did this at all feel like a way to say that your art isn’t some fixed position you always need to adhere to?

Rick: I would say that’s a big part of it. When you're making music you make certain decisions and those feel like a commitment to how it's going to be going forward. With a lot of the stuff on the earlier records, I wrote and worked on a lot of those songs on an acoustic guitar, but that's not where they ended up. But what's to say that committing to recorded material doesn't invalidate that part of the process? It may not ultimately land there, it may not ultimately land anywhere, it could just be a thing that continues to change. I feel like that's also just like allowing the songs to change and allowing that sort of trajectory. I think it’s ultimately a freedom. It’s also just taking snapshots of the process, which is similar to the First Other Tape and the Second Other Tape. This is a part of the process that I think is equally valid. I think that, although the industry has informed how music is released, this is the form that it takes. Like, this is the album version, so this is the only way that the song exists, and this is my relationship to it. But in reality, we go see those bands and it’s not the same. Even if they play it note-for-note, the space is different, your headspace is different than when you heard it the time before, so there are always moving parts. I think exploring that can be really fun and freeing to not be tethered to what anyone else's expectation of that might be. And also exploring what those expectations are and whether they're valid to you or not. 

Earlier, you mentioned the landscape of the music industry. There’s this established way you’re supposed to do things. Though it should, hypothetically, be the most open and free it’s ever been, it’s actually quite rigid with how you’re supposed to promote and release a record. So my question is: How do you feel about playing that game? 

Rick: I'm absolutely willing to play the game. I think it's a matter of seeing what works and what doesn't. Because, I mean, the music's already on Spotify, you know what I mean? I'm willing to see where that goes and try to understand it. If it means a sustainable life for me and the rest of the band, I’m willing to give it a shot and see what the results are. 

I'm curious about all those things. I want to understand them and I want to know if they work. So, I’m down, but the past few years have required a lot of investigation because I think that the marketing part of the industry has changed so much, and also just our position as a band. We’ve been around for a while and the people that support us are really, really down to, but I don’t know how much we’re, like, growing a fan base. I don’t know how to leverage the roles of the internet in the same way that someone from the younger generation might. Or not just younger generations, but people who just work in the industry and for whom it is their job to understand that and leverage that for the artist they are working for. 

I'm not getting paid to understand how TikTok works for artists or what the most effective way of utilizing Facebook pixel stats and a smart link are. Besides YouTube videos and reading articles to teach myself that, there’s no resources to understand it. Well, there may be some resources to understand it, but trying to do that on top of all the other things that go along with managing a band is just a lot. Having to pick and choose which things to focus the attention on, and then beyond that, trying to implement all of those things and be like, well, which of these things work? Which of these things are worth pursuing? Which seems like a lot of people in the industry are trying to figure out.

So, I am down to play the game to some degree, but it's important for me to stay connected to the fact that what is exciting about doing this is scratching a creative itch. And beyond that, connecting with people. Touring was great because it was, in real-time, you were expressing this music and you got the opportunity to interact with people to whom this music means a lot. That is a really validating experience. But for the years prior to that, you're just really going off of emails and Instagram comments and things like that just to have some kind of connection with people. I'm open to trying different things. That doesn't mean I'm necessarily open to anything. I'm just curious just to see what's effective.

There’s that old joke about how being in a band is being a traveling T-shirt salesman. But now it’s like, I’m in a band, which means I’m the director of paid marketing at an ad agency. There’s just so much more to the day-to-day management of being in a band because you’re guessing what things are actually going to be worth your time and energy. 

Rick: I mean it's been such a gradual thing, the establishment of my relationship to this technology, it’s wild to think about. My relationship with it really is still evolving. After the tour, it was like, okay, I think I understand this a little bit more. I don’t need to post every day. I don’t need to do all of these things. But if it’s a thing you feel like is going to help, or you have something to post, then do it. It doesn’t need to run your life. If it starts to, just know there will be consequences on your mental hygiene. Coming back from a tour where you see it’s still effective from a business sense, that’s cool too, and alleviates some of the pressure of all the digital stuff. 

Doing a rollout in 2023 and touring in 2023, I think I understand now. Leading up to it, I felt kind of in the dark, so I was just scrambling around with a tiny flashlight trying to just gather as much information as I could. Now that it’s done, I feel comfortable with where things are. I know which work I enjoy and I know which work is going to drive me to an unhealthy place mentally. Managing that is a priority and I feel like I have the tools to be able to see that through.

After you finished the tour, you sent out a newsletter talking about trying to find the balance between making it financially and psychologically sustainable. At this point, do you feel like the fulfilling parts are still outweighing the non-fulfilling parts? 

Rick: Absolutely, yeah. I can really only speak on this though, because everyone has their own independent relationship to it. But for me, I think that on this past tour, I was journaling every day. Which is kind of crazy that I haven't done this up until this tour. The motivation to start doing that was just to take notes on the performance of the show. Just to be like, alright, well, I didn't get great sleep last night, but I was able to do vocal warmups, and I ate like three hours before the show, and I also had this vocal nebulizer. So it was like, okay, I had good energy and I was happy with my vocal execution, or to note what the crowd was like. How much of that plays into what I’m doing? How much control over that do I have? It just spilled over into other things, just remarking on how much I do enjoy touring. I’m living in this work where I feel like I built something, and I take pride in that. 

Working as a team, and looking out for each other, I think is a really positive and powerful thing. When you’re constantly faced with new settings every day. To have a literally refreshed landscape every day brings up new ideas and new motivations for me. Without rambling too much, when I’m at home and doing work that I need to do it’s helpful for me to go in different settings. If I have to do a bunch of laptop work, I really enjoy going to a library or a coffee shop, someplace that is not the same place where I am going to eat dinner or go to sleep. On tour, my brain is in a different place, I’m looking at something different, and it’s like that every day. Being in a new place all of the time opens me up to new ideas, and I still really like that. I still get a sense of adventure even though, at this point, we’ve made like eight laps around the country. It’s pretty well-worn territory, but it still has new people, settings, and situations, so I still really enjoy it. 

I know you’ve moved back to Boston from Nashville and, recently, [Matt] Connery rejoined the band. I get the sense that no matter what happens, be it lineup changes, geographical changes, all of it, Pile can kind of survive anything. 

Rick: There is a lot of work that goes into dealing with and managing those changes as they arise, but I think staying connected with, and I’m leaving this open to evolve and change as I feel it’s appropriate to, but when I started doing this when I was 19, I was in a band at the time and I was like, I need a safe place to create. I am willing to do a lot to preserve that. I don’t really feel like if I were to start another project it would really be anything different than an extension of what I’m already doing.  

I’ve been making a case for it, with how much things have changed, this can be whatever I need it to be. With respect to that, there are values that I want to uphold. The people that I work with, those relationships are important to me and I want to meet anybody wherever they’re at. It’s not just like, "I’m gonna do whatever I’m gonna do." I did say, when I started out, that I want to do this and whoever feels like being a part of it, I want them to be and, if they don’t want to be, that’s cool too. While that has gotten increasingly complicated to make sense of going through lineup changes and things like that, I can still really connect with the feeling I had when that idea was in my head. 

A thing I wanted to revisit here is that you said that you felt you had to do something different after making Green and Gray. What about that record, or that experience, made you need to step out like that?

Rick: So there's a couple of things. After Dripping, I remember talking to Dan [Angel] and James [Ryskalchick] who recorded the album and being like, “I think this is the last record we're going to make that sounds like this.” That ended up not being the case, mostly because of resources. It was like, well, we need to keep playing shows and we need to keep touring, and I don't have the money and the time to do a complete instrumental overhaul of what is going on. I think that You're Better Than This was basically playing with the fact that these are the instruments and there are certain things that jut out at confusingly, unpredictable times. I think I was just toying with that. 

With the next record, I sort of leaned back into doing more straight-ahead songs, and there was the introduction of the strings and keyboards and more things like that. So it was five years later after already establishing that I wanted to move away from those things. After A Hairshirt Of Purpose, I had writer’s block. This was probably December of 2017 and January of 2018, and I had writer’s block that just snapped with me recording 10 new songs. It was called Carrion Songs, and a lot of those ended up being All Fiction

Around that time, also, it was clear to me that Matt Becker wasn’t going to be able to do it anymore. It was the end of 2017, prior to the tour with Converge, and he was having another kid and needed to step back. Around that time, Connery was like, “I want to record the records but I can’t tour.” I really needed someone who was going to be able to do both because, what would end up happening, is I’d need to teach somebody all the songs and that’s just time I don’t have. It became clear that half the band was going to be different so, with that, I didn’t want there to be, “Oh, half the band is different, so now it’s a totally different band.” I felt I had to write a record that was the version of Pile that most of the people who had found the band would recognize. They found us between Magic Isn’t Real, Dripping, You’re Better Than This, or Hairshirt. Those are the four records that they most likely connected with the most. There’s Jerk Routine and Demonstration, but very few people found out about the band through those records, at least in my perception of things. It felt important to be like, "Alright, let’s do a heavy rock Pile record," and that’s what we did. In that time, I knew the record after was going to be the one where we change. I think the elastic had been pulled back so far, it just snapped by the time there was the opportunity to do it. 

It was also during the pandemic when there was no guarantee of playing live, so the concept of the band needing to replicate these songs live, that was fully off the table. So we decided to use the studio to just make a cool-sounding record. 

With the new EP coming out this week, and you’re already working on new stuff, do you have a framework in mind of what you want to pursue going into the next release? Or are you still figuring out where things are going to land? 

Rick: A little bit of both. I'm sort of giving it the openness to end up changing, but I’ve got 12 ideas for songs that have all kind of sprung up organically. I’m just following that and starting to demo things and seeing what the cohesive throughline is. It’s actually a really fun part of the process because I’m just going to make stuff and see. I’ll pursue the things I like and then get into the refinement period where it’s fully dependent on what day it is and what mood I’m in as to what version I end up exploring. I’m looking forward to playing with the band to try some of this stuff out because that wasn’t on the table for the last record. I was writing them, and then I’d play them with Alex, and he would just track all these demos and ask questions that inspired a rethinking of how I was approaching songs. That was the process for All Fiction, so we weren’t jamming on stuff, which was new. So now I think we'll be able to have all of that in the process of making the next one.

When you talk about building this body of work with Pile, do you see a point where that will ever stop, or does it feel like this will remain the dominant vessel of your creative expression?

Rick: I don't think that it will ever stop, but I don't know if it'll always be the dominant force for my creative output. I think that it's a thing that I've been able to build to the point where this is always a thing that I'll have if I want to do it. I still feel very driven by it and it's still a thing that feels really important to continue pursuing. So I think it’ll always exist. Well, it’ll exist until the last thing that I put out. That might be the next thing, or it might be something that gets put out after I die. [Laughs] It’s just nice to have that agency. Especially since I have such a gentle hand with my own creative desires.