Heart to Heart

On its new album, Pleasant Grove is happy to be sad

"I wish you were better/So when we're together/The magic that happened/Happens again," Egner sings on "Albatross," and it's a sentiment that permeates the entire album, the kind of happy-to-be-sad feeling Striplin refers to when talking about the songs he and Egner write. "It's all the good what-ifs," he says. "I look at you; I look at everybody. We're all fucking sad, and it's OK." And it is OK: Rarely is an album that, on the outside, appears so dark and despondent (after all, one song's titled "I Couldn't Withstand the Damage of an Evil and Wicked Divorce") able to fill the listener with so much hope 45 minutes later. Not in a it's-a-sunshine-day way; there's something in the music that says it all without spelling it out. It's the wordless finale to "Commander Whatever" and the climax to the album-closing "The Lovers, The Drunk, The Mother" that quietly crush you. This is not an album about someone on a downward spiral. If anything, it's about someone already down there, looking up, coming back.

Which doesn't necessarily describe the men who make up Pleasant Grove. As Hormillosa points out later, the songs on Auscultation of the Heart aren't a perfect reflection of the group. Not really. If you see the members of the band out and about, maybe standing back near the bar during a show--and if you see one of them, the others are probably somewhere nearby--they aren't the same people playing those songs. They're fun and fun-loving, quick with jokes and quicker with the next round. Pretty much the exact opposite of the impression they give onstage and on record. People don't understand this, Hormillosa says, but the secret is, "We don't take it all too seriously." Meaning, the songs may be sad, but the band that plays them isn't.

They're as apt to goof on their somber image as anyone else is. Striplin suggests changing the artwork for the American release of Auscultation of the Heart (which remains up in the air as the group "shops this bad boy," as Striplin jokes) to a group shot of "all of us in a hot tub, naked," like a 2 Live Crew cover. Later, Butcher proposes setting up "a hippie crash floor with, like, pillows and beanbags" at the front of the stage for all of the fans going to sleep at their serene shows.

A normal band practice: Pleasant Grove is, from left, Tony Hormillosa, Joe Butcher, Bret Egner, Jeff Ryan and Marcus Striplin.
Nancy Newberry
A normal band practice: Pleasant Grove is, from left, Tony Hormillosa, Joe Butcher, Bret Egner, Jeff Ryan and Marcus Striplin.

"It'd be like the chill-out room at a rave," Egner adds.

"I think we could do something like that," Butcher continues. "We could open up the sleepy-time clubhouse. For emo kids."

They joke, sure, but they're dead serious about the band and the music they make together. It's been a tumultuous journey to get to this point, one that has made the members of the group grow closer. Mabry left Pleasant Grove after recording their self-titled debut EP for Last Beat Records (later reissued by Glitterhouse with a handful of extra songs), and a revolving door opened behind the drum kit. Original bassist Tony Gattone quit to join Valve a few months later. Practices became auditions for new members, with work on new material halting as Striplin and Egner were constantly teaching new recruits old songs.

"Totally frustrating," Egner says, "because it seemed like we were ready to move forward..."

"...and how can you do that when all the pieces aren't there?" Striplin finishes the thought.

"Right, when you have no band," Egner continues. "It was us two, and Joe kind of hovering about after Mabry left."

Only in the last year or so has the lineup solidified. Hormillosa knew Egner and Striplin from their day jobs (all three work as bike messengers), and even better, he lived downstairs. Striplin asked Hormillosa, a guitar player, if he wouldn't mind switching to bass and joining the group. Ryan, who played with Fury III prior to joining the band, was more proactive: He e-mailed Last Beat's Tami Thomsen, letting her know that if Pleasant Grove was ever looking for a drummer, he was the man for the job. With Ryan on board, the band was finally ready to move forward.

"I think you have to imagine if you have a family, and it's a nice, tight-knit family, and then all of a sudden, someone wants a divorce, and they leave," Striplin explains. "Then another person wants a divorce, and they leave. Then it's all gonna get really scattered. And it takes awhile for us to come back around. It's crazy. That's the beauty in it, though, because we have come back."

"It really was the New York trip, being in a van together for 24 hours--straight," Ryan adds, referring to Pleasant Grove's excursion to New York to play the CMJ Music Marathon in October. "Because we didn't stop: We drove to New York straight, and back straight."

The difference between the lineup that recorded Pleasant Grove and the one that made Auscultation of the Heart is clear after one listen. Ryan and Hormillosa's rhythm section beats like a heart, and with the pedal steel and Hammond organ added by Butcher (who joined the group after the EP was finished), the songs make sense in a way they never did before. You didn't necessarily notice they were missing before, but now that they're around, it's hard to imagine Pleasant Grove any other way. (Though Hormillosa jokes, "We pretty much do whatever they tell us to do.") It's a much better band now, and they all realize it.

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