An Explanation and Brief History of Pile

Rick Maguire on the evolution of the band, and his new album Songs Known Together, Alone.

Throughout most of Pile’s existence, I’ve chosen to bounce back and forth between performing in a loud, dynamic-driven rock band and alone as a singer-songwriter. The oscillation between these two modes of performance developed organically: It started as a solo operation and then others joined the effort. And in addition to performance, these two approaches have also strongly informed my writing by allowing me to explore how the same song can exist in different contexts. 

However, for the past 10 years or so, I’ve directed most of my attention towards the band. The band would track the records and the band would tour. I would do some solo shows as “Rick from Pile” (the least confusing moniker I could think of at the time) in between the large-scale band tours to stay busy and try out new material. Some shows of this kind were scheduled for March of 2020 and then kiboshed by nature, leaving me with indefinite time away from the band. While I, much like most with internet access, did some solo live streams, often the audio or the video (sometimes both) left something to be desired. I was also writing a bunch of new songs, but I wanted to work on them with the band before tracking anything, so I decided to record Songs Known Together, Alone (another case of trying to be as explicit as possible). It’s a collection of re-imagined versions of songs from previously released records, tracked live and alone. The first half of the album is performed on guitar and synthesizer, which allowed for some sonic experimentation, and the second half was performed on piano, an instrument I love but am still becoming familiar with. The performance of the record was filmed, which also was a novel experience, but I felt comfortable taking all of these risks because I could do so within the safety of songs I knew and trusted. The experience ended up being both a reflection on what the project has been but also an exploration of where it might go next. In keeping with that, here’s a little history of the thing in hopes that it’ll shed some light on where it’s headed.

Though two primary modes of travel have been established, at the very beginning it existed only as that theoretical plane wide open for exploring. I willed Pile as a musical project into existence in 2006 while I was in my first serious band, Hel Toro. I say “serious” because it was agreed upon that from the outset that we were to be a fully democratic entity, meaning all decisions — creative, logistical, or otherwise — were to be either voted unanimously or determined by a majority rule. Because of this, we were all intensely invested in the road the thing traveled. Prior to that band, all of the projects I was involved with had a lopsided or unsustainable distribution of emotional investment. From the age of 13, it was with certainty that I wanted to pursue writing music. Six years later, Dave Silverstein, Aaron Silverstein, and myself found that we shared that enthusiasm for pursuing our artistic output so we formed a band. And while the drive and intensity of the work in Hel Toro was rewarding and mind-expanding, it was through that project I discovered the desire for a personal creative space wherein I was free to make whatever. So, I started Pile.

I had a tape recorder and a cracked version of Pro Tools on a desktop and started experimenting with recording. I was studying music in college, so I had some access to the campus’s facilities and equipment. Whether or not the music department wanted all the building’s doors locked after 8 PM, one wasn’t. I would go in there late to mess with pianos, wind organs, timpanis, or whatever thing I had little-to-no experience using or was curious about. I would sometimes bring in a tape recorder to capture ideas and then transfer these to my computer. A lot of these ended up on Demonstration, the first Pile release. 

Around this time, Hel Toro dissolved and I started focusing all my attention on Pile. Because I wasn’t in a position to start a new band and because I didn’t have much in terms of financial resources, I just started trying to perform these songs on acoustic guitar almost anywhere that would let me play them. Transitioning into this felt liberating but vulnerable. I was accustomed to playing in loud rock bands where, in a live context, and in the places we were playing, it wasn’t all that important what you were singing. In Hel Toro, if we had a new song and it didn’t yet have lyrics, I wasn’t too self conscious to yell random words to a melody that I thought worked with whatever was happening with the rest of the band. And if I made a mistake on guitar, it often wasn’t all that glaring in context. If it was just me with an acoustic guitar, I was much more naked. I had to know what I was saying and I needed to play the guitar with intention. On the other hand, I could perform anywhere and anything (within my ability). While I had limitations in terms of resources, I had a newfound endless plane of creativity to explore.

Roughly two years later in 2009, I started playing with a band again. I had just put out a record named Jerk Routine and I decided I wanted to tour on it. I had some friends in a band named Margin Walker and we had talked about doing a tour together, so I decided to form a band. Matt Becker, Margin Walker’s bassist, was willing to share his services and I was able to find a pretty good drummer in fellow grocery-clerk, Kris Kuss. Suddenly, I was back to having a bunch of dynamic options that weren’t available if using only an acoustic guitar. And with a couple of people who were willing to entertain and see through whatever vision I had, we managed to make music that was drastically different from what I was playing when I was just alone with guitar, sometimes using the same songs. 

With some committed people and a willingness to play often, the band started to gain momentum creatively. And it was at that point that if we approached a state of collective exhaustion, such as after a tour or recording session, I would return to performing songs alone if I felt so compelled, which I usually do. In the summer of 2010 we recorded Magic Isn’t Real, and that established the pace at which the band would gallop the following decade. But when the pandemic hit and we had just finished a year of full-band touring on our 2019 release, Green and Gray, the obvious choice was to focus on the solo component of Pile. 

While forging ahead has always been a part of the ethos of the project, this seemed like as good a time as any to reflect. And even though the idea of rerecording material for Songs Known Together, Alone felt strange, doing it opened up some imaginative outlets separate from writing songs. The whole record was filmed and edited to have a loose narrative, of which there’s a coincidental easter egg (you’ve earned it if you’ve read this far): The house being torn down in the video performance of “Touched by Comfort” is the house in which I recorded my first EP and full-length with Hel Toro. Ryan Dight (who filmed and directed the performance) caught the demolition on video before we’d met. It also feels like a closing of a chapter on this material, and I’m very excited to move ahead. I’ve got grand plans for sonic experimentation with the next batch of material and this was an avenue to get back to feeling comfortable with that.

It was a helpful reminder that there aren’t any rules, and I’m very grateful to have a vehicle to see through these sometimes lofty or harebrained schemes. I’ve toyed with the idea of trying to coordinate performances that have a full string section, back-up singers, dancers, projections, amps placed in different corners of the room, etc. in addition to the band, and also including some solo performance from yours truly. The idea of making a whole production of it sounds exciting. Making music has become something of a boundless place for me, where there exists the freedom to ignore constructs, imagine oneself as something or someone else, or intimately pick apart one’s own emotions and identity.  It can be vulnerable but it can also be playful. It’s also a great place to try to build whatever you’d like to see in the world. Whatever it happens to be at any given time, having the space to give tangible form to those ideas or feelings has been an invaluable part of my life.

(Photo Credit: Mark Lapriore)

Rick Maguire is the frontperson of Pile, whose new album Songs Known Together, Alone, a reimagining of material from across the project’s catalog, is out now via Exploding in Sound.

(Photo Credit: Mark Lapriore)