Not enough people love Pleasant Grove. On its albums, PG sounds like a band with a huge cult following: the kind with crazed Internet discussions, endless bootleg trading rings and packed club concerts. The Dallas band combines the thickly brewed melodies of Whiskeytown, the tempered melancholy of Morphine and even the onstage crescendos of Mogwai. Their music is a critic's wet dream: dreamy, sad and flat-out catchy Americana that drips with as much Neil Young as it does Sigur Ros.
But Pleasant Grove has been stuck. Their 2001 sophomore disc, Auscultation of the Heart, saw European release but never found a record label in the United States, and the lack of an album and national support on this side of the pond left the group unable to tour much beyond its home state. The stagnation made unfulfilled queries from labels like Lost Highway and Kindercore sting even worse, and before the guys finally found a home with California's Badman Records, multi-instrumentalist Joe Butcher left the band.
Pleasant Grove's response to such depressing stimulus? They chose to rock.
Pleasant Grove performs May 5 at Gypsy Tea Room, with the Red Thread. Marcus Striplin and Bret Egner perform at the Meridian Room on May 10. Good Records hosts the band's CD release party on May 15.
"Ben Harper sucks!" singer and guitarist Marcus Striplin says between sips of a margarita and explosions of computerized mariachi music near our table at Lower Greenville's Monterrey. Drummer Jeff Ryan and bassist Tony Hormillosa laugh in response, while Bret Egner, PG's second singer/guitarist, cuts Harper some slack. This is the closest the four guys get to a disagreement during our conversation.
"We know each other so well that it's ingrained," Ryan says. "We have a regimen of practicing, and I talk to everyone almost every day. We're connected communicatively, emotionally and musically, and that means we're at our top level."
The guys emphasize their unity repeatedly, possibly because the loss of Butcher still seems pretty fresh even after almost a year. Before I get a chance to say his name, the band talks about how the former member of Dallas pop-rock outfit UFOFU influenced the changing sound of Pleasant Grove.
"He was always hearing more [than we did]," Striplin says. "He could see more potential within the band. He pushed my buttons. I'm sure he pushed everyone's buttons."
"Once, we were in Chicago, and Joe said, 'We should start the show with a huge fucking bang,'" Ryan says. "We did, and it got everyone's attention. It was a huge explosion, and we played our songs from there. It was great."
But even though Butcher's experience and cheerleading planted some of the seeds of an increasingly louder Pleasant Grove, he departed last summer to play pedal steel for the Polyphonic Spree, currently signed to Hollywood Records and preparing for an album this summer, Together We're Heavy. Egner calls the loss of Butcher a "major blow," while Ryan says the band "misses Joe as a friend."
"Joe's a veteran, and he was watching us younger individuals go through something that he'd either seen or been through," Striplin says. "I'm sure that was frustrating to be run through the cycle again. I think [joining Polyphonic Spree] worked out for him. With Polyphonic, he's seeing the world, hanging out with David Bowie. It's not so bad."
The cycle Striplin mentions lasted almost two years, during which Pleasant Grove sat on a completed record and toured little outside of Texas and Oklahoma, aside from a brief and successful European tour in support of the overseas Auscultation release.
"When we're over there, things are different," Striplin says. "At one club, we walk in, say we're from Pleasant Grove, and this guy says, 'Oh, this is your room.' We go in, and I swear to God, there's a table that must have been 12 feet long, and the entire thing was covered with food and wine and water, and I'm like, 'Who the fuck are we?'"
"Then we come back a month later to tour with [Denton band] Slobberbone," Ryan adds, "and we're all sleeping on the floor."
Once back in the States, labels like Warner Bros., Kindercore, Jet Set and Lost Highway showed interest by giving the band nips or, better put, "we'll watch you" statements. Those nips never went beyond the watching, but luck struck when Badman A&R rep Susan Kim forced labelhead Dylan Magierek to listen to "Only a Mountain." The song could be called a mission statement for the band: It's an emotional explosion highlighted by confessional vocals and swirling guitars that change by song's end from Willie Nelson to Radiohead.
Magierek must've gotten the statement, because soon enough, the band flew to San Francisco, where Magierek recorded a few demos, and at that point he gave the green light for an album release. The first PG album for Badman had to be new, though: All parties agreed that Auscultation shouldn't see re-release in its entirety. Magierek was excited about the latest demos and wanted a new album, and the band was ready to leave Auscultation behind.
"In the long run," Striplin says, "I would hate to have that record out now, to be stuck playing those songs for another year and then have to wait two more years for another record to come out."
Magierek loved "Only a Mountain" so much, though, that he insisted the song get an American release on the album. After he convinced the band, they requested adding three other Auscultation songs, resulting in a not-quite-new LP called The Art of Leaving, released on May 8.
"I think [the inclusion of old songs] is going to cause confusion for people who know the band already," Magierek says, "but these are great songs, and there are a lot of people who haven't discovered Pleasant Grove yet, so I think [the mix] will best benefit the band."
At the very least, longtime fans who own Auscultation will find that the six new songs take Pleasant Grove to bigger, louder territory. "Elaborate Son" and "Tug of War" are deep, heartfelt rockers, and the keyboard-driven "Impossible" rides Portishead-worthy drums and pedal-soaked guitars into the sonic equivalent of a head massage. Hearing the new material come to life in concert, along with mind-blowing reinterpretations of older songs, is a testament to the brotherhood that the band continues to talk about. The music gains a new dimension with live improvisation, yet avoids the pitfalls of Ben Harper-esque jam cheese.
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This balance of exploration and restraint proves that these four musicians are finally reaping the fruits of playing together for four years. Even their personalities match up like artists working on a comic book: Ryan's the pencils guy, drawing every detail, and Striplin adds color to any leftover white space. Egner frequently quips like he's shading the comic, and Hormillosa, though quiet, wraps up the details by nailing the bottom line in ink.
Badman's support gives PG its first chance to take a break from organizing the nonmusical part of the business, and the guys are optimistic about that new freedom and where it may take the band.
"Now we can tour the United States, have some support and have [Badman's] people calling weeklies," Hormillosa says. "Our work is playing music. Jeff had been the manager-type in the band, but now we don't have to worry about booking and so on. We just have to show up and play."
"We've always been trying to get something out," Striplin says, "and now that the weight is lifted, we can play a song like Coltrane and Davis, play it for 35 minutes. It's amazing, because we all know that we're going somewhere else. We don't know where it's going, but we walk out of the rehearsal space afterwards happy as hell."