Heart to Heart

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

In a perfect world, the club would have been full of fans. There would have been a line out the door, snaking into the street. The first notes of each song would have been greeted with enthusiastic, knowing applause, each chorus met with a sea of closed eyes and a roomful of backup singers. Wouldn't be too much to expect. Shouldn't be too much to ask. After all, one of Dallas' best bands was onstage, playing songs off a brand-new album.

But we don't live in a perfect world; we live in Dallas. (Ha ha.) So Pleasant Grove's show at Curtain Club on December 13--a sort of CD release party for its new album, Auscultation of the Heart, just issued on Germany's Glitterhouse Records--was woefully unattended. We're talking 20, 30 people, tops. Looking at the stage, listening to the songs pouring out of the five men on it--singer-guitarists Bret Egner and Marcus Striplin, organ-pedal steel player Joe Butcher, bassist Tony Hormillosa and drummer Jeff Ryan--it was the sound and vision of all that local music could and should be. All that any music could and should be. Turning to face the near-empty club, however, it was a reminder of what local music too often is.

Not that Pleasant Grove always has that particular problem. Sometimes, they'll find themselves playing to too many people or, at least, too many drunks who'd rather yell to each other about the Mavericks/Cowboys/Stars/Rangers game than listen to the soft bulletins coming from the stage. Or maybe they'll get stuck opening for a crotchety singer-songwriter (James McMurtry, son of Lonesome Dove's Larry) who ridicules them--from the stage, no less--for playing "Seattle alt-country bullshit." The group's performance in late November at the Liquid Lounge, as part of this year's North Texas New Music Festival, was the exception rather than the rule, then. The room was almost uncomfortably crowded, yet so quiet it might as well have been empty, all eyes and ears on the band, each note and every word fussed over like an only child. But that doesn't happen very often.

"It's a rare, rare event when a crowd is listening listening, you know?" Striplin says a few days earlier at an interview that spills across Munger Avenue from Ships to Muddy Waters as the night continues. "Just imagine one acoustic, you singing songs that you've put your fucking love into, and then all of a sudden, you've got some jackass in back screaming about the fucking whatever game. Or the video games. Or the fucking television."

"We've gotten good at playing quiet music in front of a crowd that's like, 'Lalalala,'" Egner adds. "And we just don't care. That was the whole deal, when Marcus approached me about starting the band, because we both played in loud bands where we thought we had to be a rock band. Marcus was like, 'Hey, I wanna do this thing where we play just quiet songs, concentrate on the songwriting and stuff.' To me, at that point in my life, four years ago, I was like, 'That's a fucking great idea. No one's doing that. Everybody feels like they have to be a rock band.'"

"Especially in Dallas," Striplin continues. "Imagine singing a song about an uncomfortable subject in front of a bunch of people who've never even seen you before. To me, that's punk."

"It's got the same intensity," Hormillosa says.

Pleasant Grove has never succumbed to that pressure to be a "rock" band, even though they know they're facing long odds playing the kind of music they do in what they all acknowledge is a rock-and-roll town. They know there are places they can play and get the kind of crowd they want (Muddy Waters, Barley House sometimes, Liquid Lounge), and they know they have a loyal few who will show up no matter where they are and with whom they're playing. But they've never gone out of their way to get the big crowds, never changed their sound to sell more records or T-shirts, convince more people to pay the six bucks to see them. Though they've discussed getting more organized, focusing on the financial side of things a little better, the term "music business" has an extra word in it. They write songs they like, not songs they think other people will.

That has always been the idea: Doing something different because it's what they want to do, not just because it's different. Staying true to the songs. Since forming in 1998--initially as a three-piece, with former End Over End drummer David Mabry backing Egner and Striplin--they've always gone exactly where they wanted to, not worrying whether anyone else would follow. But more than a few people have, including many local musicians; one said recently that listening to Auscultation of the Heart made him feel as though his own group bordered on pointlessness.

That's probably taking it a little too far, but Auscultation of the Heart--with a title and cover artwork stolen from an old album Egner has that was recorded for medical students; "auscultation" is the science of learning the rhythms of the heart--definitely sets a high standard. Though the group puts on one of the better live shows around, given the right circumstances (say, playing in another town, perhaps), Auscultation of the Heart is the best place to hear what Pleasant Grove is all about. It's a rock record that doesn't, a country album that isn't, a soul disc just because. Butcher says it's "Willie Nelson meets Pink Floyd," and it is that, in a way, and so much more.

"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.

"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.

"This is really kind of our first album," Butcher says. "The other one still sounds like Pleasant Grove..."

"But this," Striplin says, gesturing at the other four musicians around the table, "is Pleasant Grove. The moment that I felt like it really came together, probably, was when we started recording the first Glitterhouse stuff. Like 'Fate Uninvited.' When we did that and it was committed to tape, and we were listening to it..."

"We had recordings that were so much better than anything we'd done before," Egner adds. "It was refreshing."

With the lineup settled in and with an album they're all proud of--and they should be--the members of Pleasant Grove are anxious for people to hear it. They're planning a tour with Slobberbone for early next year, and getting out on the road more has become one of their top priorities. "When we play out of town, people really get it," Striplin says, citing a show in Oklahoma as the best one Pleasant Grove has ever played.

Strangely, that anxiousness to be heard is part of the reason Auscultation of the Heart isn't currently available in American record stores. (Save for Good Records, which struck a deal with Glitterhouse so it would be able to carry it at domestic prices, avoiding the heavy import fee of a European release.) There was talk at one point that upstart local label Summer Break Records would put out the disc, and Last Beat was willing to release it as well. The band, however, decided it didn't want Auscultation of the Heart to be pigeonholed as a local release. They loved the album too much--they love this band too much--to let it be ignored. So, for now, it remains buried treasure. But that's usually the best kind.

"Fuck, man, if you're gonna put your art on the line--your love, your baby--you wanna make sure it gets some attention," Striplin says. "That's the entire point...not of it all. It's art and then beyond. If you can make someone else go, 'Oh my god, I can completely relate to that song,' or whatever the hell, man, that's the beauty in making music. Because that's the only reason why I know you write it"--he points to Egner--"and I write it, you know? It's the bullshit of life and the beauty of life. It's all the crap. It's true."

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