In Conversation: Drew Riekman (Blessed) and Rick Maguire (Pile)

The two songwriters discuss quarantine, gratitude, art, and more.

Drew Riekman sings for the Canadian art-rock band Blessed, and Rick Maguire sings for the Nashville (by way of Boston) band Pile. The two friends connected recently to talk about what drives them artistically and personally. The occasion is the release of Blessed’s excellent new iii EP. 
— Josh Modell

Drew Riekman: I haven’t spoken to anyone in a capacity like this in quite a while.

Rick Maguire: I’ve talked to my family and my therapist, and then the people that I live with. Beyond that, it’s really very few people. I wonder what that’s going to be like, once shows start happening again… there’s just people all around seemingly all the time. And just having to deal with that on a sensory level sounds overwhelming and exhausting. Because it always has been to a degree but like a muscle, you can sort of build it up and strengthen that part.

Drew: I wrote a couple things down because I have such an anxiety around anything that I know is going to be written down or published anywhere. But that’s a nice segue into this one question that I kind of wondered about, because I think one of the parallels between our two bands, at least in the last three years for us, has been touring a lot. Especially coming from Canada, because we have to pay an exorbitant amount of money as a DIY band before we’re even allowed to cross the 49th parallel. So there’s this pressure to make it worth it. 

I think that people equate seeing those massive tour posters with the concept that the people in the band absolutely love being on tour more than anything else in the world. And that’s a weird misconception to break down. I felt a lot of guilt before, especially the last bigger tour that we did. When you’re out for like two months and you are not having a particularly great day, and people are genuinely really stoked to see your band play and talk to you about what you’re doing. I think sometimes I retreat and am not very engaging a person to talk to. A couple of us in the band are pretty introverted in that sense. I kind of wonder if anyone in your band feels the same way, where it’s this weird balance of being so grateful to be doing what you’re doing. I almost feel like you’re not supposed to acknowledge that it can really burn you out sometimes.

Rick: I would say that we’ve experienced that on the road. It can be really tiresome keeping a schedule like that. And as far as socializing on tour with people who may be excited about the show or excited to talk to me or whatever, I compartmentalize that a little bit. But I also understand that if somebody comes up, I can still be engaged and focused on that for whatever time and I have to accept that if I’m going to go out into a place where somebody can talk to me.

That’s why the green room I feel is something that I always thought of like, Oh, green room, look at you. But it’s a very special place, where it’s just like, I’m just going to chill in here and put a towel over my head.

Drew: When you’re with people 24 hours a day, and you’re staying at other people’s houses and you’re sleeping on floors, or you’re showering in foreign showers… When you experience so much disheveled moving around, and none of it is familiar, I do weirdly cherish those moments. They mostly manifest between when you arrive and load in, and playing. I mean, the compartmentalizing, that is a great point. I was just curious if you all felt that weird weight sometimes on tour. I think it’s a lifestyle that you’re supposed to be very, very grateful for, and I am.

Rick: I think there is importance in acknowledging that you’re allowed to feel off for a day. I remember you saying that once a year that everyone would sit down and be able to kind of unload emotionally and be able to say whatever you want, the idea being you can’t be offended, or there needs to be an open sort of discussion. We’ve come to that a little bit too, or from fucking what I remember of it, that people are having an off day or whatever, that it could be vocalized. Maybe not initially, but at some point, if someone got to a place where it’s just like, “I’m tired of being on the road right now.” That doesn’t need to be perceived as, “Oh, you want to quit the band” or “You’re ungrateful.” People have bad days at work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to quit their job, or they aren’t happy that they have it. That’s also something that I’ve learned in just the past year about feelings in general, is just that you’re allowed to have them. You are entitled to feeling whatever way you’re feeling and you can find a healthy way to express that and maybe… at this point just parroting stuff that my therapist has told me.

Drew: But that’s great. I also have been going to therapy for the first time in the last couple of years, because I read this book, The Will to Change, and then All About Love by this author bell hooks, are you familiar with her at all?

Rick: You told me about her when we were talking in Nashville. I wrote it down, but I have yet to read it. My reading habits are less than something I’m proud of these days.

Drew: It’s funny how much perpetual motion that book afforded me in terms of like… when you bring up that dinner that our band has at the end of the year, it has become so foundational. Because we’ve also learned just as four adult men who have grown up in a world where I think, just through really weird, patriarchal and societal push, we’re taught not to be open about what we feel. And you’re taught that strength is derived from solemness. And so those dinners where you learn about people being hurt… I think we learned as a group of people that, just because you’ve hurt somebody doesn’t mean they think that you’re a bad person and sometimes you’re not even cognizant of your behavior and that’s another thing that makes it so helpful. 

I think the first time we did it, it was contentious. But the last year that we did it, we had an intermediary take all the complaints anonymously, and then we just read them, so we didn’t know who they were coming from. And when this person read them, they said, “Your band is going to break up if we have this meeting.” And we were all really fucked up about that. We were thinking, “Holy shit, what did somebody say?” And this person said, “Are you sure you want to do this?” Because they were coming to do it with us, just like someone we trusted to be in the room and kind of have a sense of celebration with the band at the end of the year, because it is mostly positive. And then we got through everything in it. And we were like, “So what’s the thing, why are we breaking up the band? Are you saving the worst for last?” And he was like, “We’re done.” It was so perplexing to me, because the things that were said seemed so normalized at this point, in terms of like, “Oh, sometimes you have a cagey demeanor in how you act around the band when we’re in the van.” You know what I mean, without getting into the weeds too far, this person literally couldn’t believe that we would say these things to each other. 

I actually wrote something down based around this because I think something that’s become important for me as an artist, especially now that people are starting to enjoy the band as a fan relationship, which is something I still have a weird time with and itself. But it’s become kind of important for me to demystify the magic a bit. Does that make sense?

Rick: Sure. Yeah.

Drew: I don’t know your experiences with people who engage with your art, but some people definitely, I think, because of some of the perplexity around what we do and because we’re not very active on our social media and stuff like that, kind of attribute this magic or solemnness to what we’re doing, or they think it’s unattainable. Young people have said, “I can never write music like that.” And I think one of the things around talking to people about this record has felt important to me is, “You can.” And it’s mostly just work and communication.

Rick: Or if you really can’t write music like this, then you can write music like I can’t write.

The idolization is weird. But it is the culture that  a lot of us have grown up in. It’s a perpetuated thing, so it’s a difficult thing to shake.

Drew: Yeah. I empathize with young artists who feel that way, because I felt that way.

Rick: I also felt that way. And pretty consistently, from top to bottom, zero people know what they’re doing. You may learn things, but nobody’s got it figured out.

Drew: I think that’s really important to dispel too, because I do think, locally at least, in the town we’re from, I know that there is a conception that we know what we’re doing and we’re doing it very well. Especially as a Canadian, when you go to the States, that’s a step. They’re kind of these milestones that I think you hit as an artist that might be skewed a bit when you’re Canadian sometimes. I suffer with imposter syndrome a lot. I’m like, What? I’m some guy who found some math rock records when he was 12, and that really fucked it all up on the guitar playing front. But that’s about it, other than that, it’s mostly just communicating and sitting down and writing and doing the act of it.

Rick: But it may be difficult for other people to articulate when they speak to you, that that’s what they want. They want to experience the results of somebody putting in their time and doing that and living through that. And that’s also something that maybe they want to experience. There’s an energy that’s being transferred. That happened to me when I was young, and going to shows, and seeing bands, and meeting bands, and talking to them. They were just sharing their expression through music, and then I took what I wanted from that and I’ve found my voice in that.

Drew: I think another one of the bigger misconceptions too about being an artist in general that has produced a body of work or has garnered some sort of attention in some capacity is the concept of time, especially if people discover what you’re doing at a much later date. I guess what I’m trying to get at is this whole thing, where it’s hard to illustrate to people how Blessed wasn’t the first band I was in. It wasn’t the first touring band I was in and when I talk to a lot of younger artists in town, sometimes they’re like, “How do I get straight up a level?” And there’s nothing wrong with that thinking, ambition is obviously great to have. 

But I do think one of the harder things to instill is that, I think if a career in the arts is something that you want, or however you want to define what it is you’re doing, because I know career is a loaded word for some people. But time is such a factor. Just not stopping has so much value in itself. If you just don’t stop, eventually you find a community. I feel community has kind of been the biggest plus of being in arts in any capacity. And that’s just a facet of time and not stopping.

Rick: You start to find your footing. And I think one of the things that I’ve really valued about having that time and still trying to take lessons from other people and learn about their path, is that it’s still not going to be mine. I’m going to figure that out as I go and it’s going to shift, it’s going to change. You can kind of crawl your way out of any corner that you might feel you’re in. And that is a pretty liberating thing. As far as the business stuff, I don’t know… It depends what your values are. Our squirreliness around press things, that’s just part of our deal. Some people love that world. I go through waves of being interested in the industry, or being curious about it, but it’s interesting to hear people’s process regardless. Career stuff is a little bit different, because it’s just like, Oh, I make myself available to this and then I just do it all the time. And then things end up happening. Because it’s usually not a straight line.

Drew: Career is a loaded term. I also feel how you react to that question depends if you’re talking to another artist or your family, or a friend who’s in a different field. And I think there’s a weird malleability with how you can define what you do. As Blessed started touring a lot more and being more active, I found it much harder to… People always have that question, “What do you do? What defines you as a human being that you gain monetary value from?” And you’re like, “I pretty much put all my money into this band that tours all the time.” And they’re like, “So that’s your job?” And I say, “I guess.” It’s hard because it fluctuates so much, depending on who you’re talking to as well.

Rick: Definitely.

Drew: How do you define your career? Are your parents chill with it now, have they settled in?

Rick: They’re very chill with it. I think they were nervous for a while.. They wanted to know I was paying attention and that I was going to be OK. And I think they got to a point where they knew that I took it seriously, or they knew that I was obsessive about it. This past year, I did a whole breaking down of record by record of royalties and finances, and having everything in all these spreadsheets. And that part has been cool to share with my folks. Because that’s a tangible thing that they can look at and say, “That’s so awesome that you care so much about this thing, and you’re nurturing it in that way.” But it definitely took some time. But I can see myself in a situation being like, “Oh, you’re a musician, do you make a living off that, you making a lot of money?” Which is a weird thing to say to anybody, regardless of what their answer is career wise, “Oh, you’re a doctor, do you make a lot of money?”

Drew: Even if it wasn’t monetarily successful, it’s not like I wouldn’t be doing it, and it’s not monetarily successful most of the time. I like that you made a distinction between taking it seriously and obsessive. I do think the right word to use early on when I was young would be obsessive, and maybe I take it more seriously now. But again, that is still tied to a weird capitalist way of thinking.

Rick: Also priorities change just as you get older. I think maybe the whole obsessive thing, that’s tied to a period where I was emotionally a lot more raw. And that was a thing I had to experience and go through and enjoy that period of my life. But there’s something nice about the refinement of all of that to say, “OK, I understand what that means and I understand its value, but now I want to tighten the reins on things and have a little bit more control and understanding of what it is I’m actually doing.” But yes, of course, it’s tied to a capitalist thing. 

Drew: We do have a forced hand. Again, I’m definitely not disavowing the fact that we definitely have a forced hand in the fact that we have to engage. You did say something that made me think, and it ties back to what I was talking about with the magic element of creating art. When you’re in an emotionally raw or vulnerable place, especially as a younger person, I think there’s a weird part of creating art that I’m curious if you had a conception of, which is, thinking that by trying to improve yourself or your surrounding, you’re going to lose that sense of being able to create great songs and art. I remember when I used to drink… I used to have this feeling where the art that I was creating and the value that it had was attached in some way to not having a clear head, which is a weird thing to try and overcome, because I think now reflecting on it two years later, I don’t know how I developed that notion.

Rick: I experienced something very similar with drinking, and there were other things too, unhealthy relationships, etc. I had those thoughts, even regarding  smoking cigarettes. It’s so dumb looking back on it to have believed that but I definitely did. Whatever state you’re in, that’s the thing that you’re enjoying. Maybe that’s too reductive to say. I don’t want all of my creativity to come from a bad place.

Drew: Yeah. I think that’s a very succinct way to encapsulate what I’m trying to get across. And when you use the word reductive, it is important for me to make a distinction that I’m talking about myself personally, and not the universal experience.

Rick: My way of talking about myself was a bit reductive, because it’s a complicated thing. It’s also a chemical addiction. People will rationalize all kinds of things to keep doing whatever that thing is.

Drew: I think a lot of this is hard to talk about at a surface level, because it’s super multifaceted. Just like creating art, trying to find a career in the arts, sobriety, and everything is just so multifaceted to try and succinctly get these things. And maybe that’s part of what makes doing press so nerve racking, because I feel like you have to really succinctly get your thoughts out. But these are things that I’ve arrived at from years sitting in my brain. It’s not something that I’ve made a worksheet of talking points from. And there is always this fear when I’m talking, especially when I know it’s going to be published, that’s like, “God dammit, I really hope this doesn’t come across like I’m some fucking ignoramus who thinks he has all the answers.” I feel like I have none.

Rick: But I think you have these foundational understandings of things about yourself, but then trying to articulate that deep foundational understanding is a whole different thing. You mentioned this earlier in regards to people asking you what you do. I feel a lot more confidence now in saying what I do because, “Well, this is my profession now. This is how I feed myself.” But earlier on, that wasn’t what it was. When people would ask, “Well, what do you do? What is it like?” Then I would rattle off a story like, “We played this show to nobody, so both of our bands set up at once and just played songs back and forth, and someone was pissed and asked us to leave or whatever.” Then I finish that story thinking it’s really entertaining, but it doesn’t exactly portray a sustainable lifestyle, and that’s generally the expected response when you’re asked what you do. “

Drew: That’s a level of commiserating I feel like you do with other people who go on tour. Yeah.

Rick: Yeah. I wouldn’t be able to articulate just what it was I was doing and where I thought things would end up and whether or not it was sustainable or whatever. Because yeah, me just getting drunk and staying at somebody’s floor after playing to two people, it’s not a sustainable model. It’s just weird how things change in terms of feeling that that was the path I had to go down, I’m happy it’s over, I learned some really valuable things, and now I would prefer to… If I’m going to sleep on a floor, I’ll bring a sleeping mat.

Drew: I think what you’re saying encapsulates really well the concept of you just keep doing it. It’s hard to distill into advice when you’re trying to talk to younger artists or anything, it’s like, “Just keep going. Even when you’re playing these fucking wacky shows.” But it’s weird how enjoyable it is in the moment, especially as you’re just growing. Because when you’re playing those shows, I do still hold a weird fantasy about even those two people, if one of them buys a record, and maybe it’s not a fantasy. Maybe what I’m saying isn’t wild, but if one of those two people that came to your show buys a record and tells their buddies that you were sick as hell, it was worth it. I think it’s all part of just that “time is going to keep unfolding if you keep going.” People aren’t going to unlearn about your band.

(Photo Credit: left, Jake Holmes)

Canadian art-rock band Blessed have released just one full-length record—their taut, spring-loaded 2019 debut Salt—and a handful of EPs (iii is the brand new one) and yet they’ve arranged themselves around a sound and aesthetic that is fully formed and potent, couched in a quiet reverence for their community in Abbotsford, a small, rural city in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. In line with the themes of collaboration and community that define the band, they also recruited different mixers for each song of the iii EP, including Corin Roddick (Purity Ring), John McEntire (Tortoise), Graham Walsh (Holy Fuck), and the band’s own Drew Riekman.

(Photo Credit: Jake Holmes)