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By Ray Chelstowski
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong are one of those jam acts who bring an energy and enthusiasm to their live shows that’s impossible to dismiss or ignore. It’s as important a component of their success as are their songwriting skills and overall musicianship. Through the medium of psychedelic funk they have been spreading a steady message of positivity since 2009. Pigeons met in college at the University of Maryland and have built their following through an approach that’s completely “grassroots.” They continue to operate outside of the label system, self-releasing records that push boundaries and test the limits of their collective talent.
This spring they released Perspective, their sixth studio album. There they present a collection of songs that are bright and bold. They’ll sit front and center on set lists as the band continues their summer tour into the fall where things begin with a trio of hometown shows, starting with a return to the venue where Pigeons first took flight, The 8x10. The appearance will mark the band’s 48th and 49th performance at the 350-capacity downtown Baltimore venue since their inaugural performance there in April 2009. This performance by the quartet ('Scrambled’ Greg Ormont – Vocals, Guitar; Jeremy Schon – Guitar, Vocals; Ben Carrey – Bass, Vocals; Alex 'Gator' Petropulos – Drums) may be the band’s most personal yet as the band readies to celebrate their 15th anniversary together.
Goldmine spoke with front man Greg Ormont about his musical origins, growing up on Long Island, what he thinks is the key to the band’s longevity, and what role Baltimore had in helping birth a band that continues to define “authenticity.”
Goldmine: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
Greg Ormont: Growing up on Long Island I got into a lot of the classics like Billy Joel and Elton John, Sting and the Police; Stevie Wonder, too. My parents were definitely into classic rock, so Q104.3 FM was the radio station that was always on in my dad’s car. I’ve heard the “top 1043 classic rock songs of all-time” countdown every year from when I can first remember until I was 17 years old and left town. I also got into musicals and musical theater. My best friend was very into plays and musicals and his mom directed them, so I ended up falling into that crowd as well. I went to tons of shows on Broadway and maybe the formative musical moment of my life happened when I was ten years old. I combined those two influences where I saw Tommy on Broadway and that night Pete Townshend was in the orchestra pit playing with the band. That combination of the theatrical and the amazing power of rock music blew me away and that night a light bulb went off.
GM: You proudly play rhythm guitar. There was a time where rhythm players like Danny Kortchmar were as revered as lead players. That’s largely changed. How did this become your calling?
GO: It kind was the result of the circumstances that I found myself in. I’ve been singing my whole life, since I was five years old. So I was very comfortable with that part of the gig. When I went to college I had only been playing guitar for like six months. On the first day of school I met our guitarist Jeremy Schon who at that point had been playing for like twelve years. He was able to rip solos and I was able to support him musically and sing. So we kind of developed a perfect marriage right off the bat. Since then I’ve really just focused on my side of the street. I am practicing more and I can take solos live and play lead in moments. But I’m a leader singer. I don’t also need to be a lead guitarist. There’s plenty to go around.
I do think that rhythm is a bit of a lost art. When I listen to other bands play, I try to pay close attention to “their comping,” that supporting layer they provide to the music. For example, Cory Wong has done wonders for rhythm guitar. He’s a great example of someone who doesn’t focus on the lead melodic solo. He’s brought a real spotlight to the power of what pure rhythm can deliver. I try to listen to the best examples of this, whether it’s Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead or Nile Rodgers from Chic. But I also found myself in a band that doesn’t have a keyboardist and there’s a lot of space to fill when that element is missing.
GM: As you approach your 15th anniversary what has been most important to keeping the band together all of these years?
GO: It’s all about open communication and a sense of understanding. We have grown up together. As I said I met our guitarist when I was seventeen and that was almost seventeen years ago. We’ve spent half of our lives together and now we both have kids. With that come life’s responsibilities. We used to stay up all night playing music and now we rehearse when we’re all able, which is plenty. Then when we’re home we’re fathers and husbands. I think it really feels more like a family than a band. There’s an unconditional appreciation of each other and an acceptance of who each person is. There’s also moments where we butt heads and wrestle like brothers. It really has been a wild thing to look back on because I can remember us not having much responsibility at all except for an upcoming mid-term. Now we’re juggling touring plans with family plans. This is like a marriage. I’ve been with my band longer than I’ve known my wife. There’s something about meeting in college. It’s a formative moment where the road can split in so many directions. It almost just felt for us like “what you do when you’re in college," just like joining a fraternity. I’m really thrilled with the twists and turns that got us here and I’m genuinely having as much fun today as we did in our earliest years.
GM: As a band you are known for relentless touring. How do you keep it fresh?
GO: We really love writing and playing music, seeing the country and eating food from every region. We also recognize that on the longer tours we all don’t have to do the same thing at the same time. We spend enough time together that if we just want to take a day and do our own thing that’s not only fine, it’s probably pretty healthy. We are just so grateful for this opportunity. We never want to play the same thing twice so we are constantly writing, testing new things, doing massive sound checks where we work on new transitions and new surprises for each show. Of course it’s for the fans, but it’s also for us so that we keep it fresh and exciting. There’s nothing better after all of these years than finishing a show that felt fresh and new. It’s the best rush!
GM: The new song “Move like That” borders on “disco.” How do you know where the line is where you can try something new and it still feels like a Pigeon’s song”?
GO: I’m not sure that there is a line. We don’t want to operate in a box. Some of our songs are very “rock,” while others could end up being “indie.” It’s boring to drop between the lines all of the time and if a song feels like it could be “dancier” and in the brink of disco then that’s what it feels like. We’re not going to resist the natural urge to let the song breathe and have a life of its own. That’s what makes it exciting, especially live and if the four of us are playing it it’s a Pigeons’ song.
GM: Incidentally, who played horns on the record?
GO: It’s an amazing band out of Nashville called Here Come The Mummies. That is one of our favorite bands. If you ever have the chance to see The Mummies they will blow you away. They deliver one of the most energetic, entertaining performances that I have ever seen. If you told me 10 years ago that these kinds of guests would be appearing on our albums, I’d pinch myself. It’s truly a dream come true to have them on here; to have Zach Gill from ALO who’s one of my favorite singer/songwriters on the scene, and then Jason Hann from String Cheese join on the song “Move Like That”; it was just perfect. Years ago when we didn’t know them if we had had this song in hand we might have said “you know who would be great on the song? Jason from Cheese!” Then we’d laugh and ask ourselves what the odds were of that happening.
GM: You are kicking off the fall tour in Baltimore, where it all began. Have you ever considered doing a residency at one of those venues for say a month?
GO: Well we had some plans going into the 15th anniversary that kind of got interrupted by post-pandemic planning where everyone is trying to get back on the road. We’re going to make the rounds and give a toast to where we started, and we have many more dates to announce. It’s funny that you bring up the idea of a residency. One of the things that got us rolling was doing residencies in Baltimore at the 8 X 10. It’s an amazing, fun, small watering hole that became the home of the blooming jam scene in Baltimore. For years we would do a summer residence for a month and play every Wednesday. To keep it fresh, each night was a themed night, and there was often an over-arching theme for the month. What it did was push us to constantly learn new material and stretch our own songs. That’s one of the reason it’s so special to go back there and kick off our fall tour. This our first proper return in who knows how many years. So this is a long overdue return to the room that made us.
Upcoming Tour Dates
SEP 02 | Lake George, NY - Adirondack Music Festival
SEP 09 | Oak Bluffs, MA - Martha's Vineyard Campout (w/ Maggie Rose)
SEP 10 | Oak Bluffs, MA - Martha's Vineyard Campout (w/ Eggy)
SEP 15 | High Point, NC - Ziggy's (Outdoors)
SEP 29 | Baltimore, MD - The 8x10 [SOLD OUT]
SEP 30 | Baltimore, MD - The 8x10 [SOLD OUT]
OCT 01 | Baltimore, MD - Union Craft Brewing (Flocktoberfest)
OCT 06 | Athens, GA - Terrapin Beer Co. (w/ Moon Taxi)
OCT 08 | Memphis, TN - Overton Park Shell (w/ Moon Taxi)
OCT 09 | Birmingham, AL - Saturn
OCT 11 | New Orleans, LA - Tipitina's
OCT 13 | Pensacola, FL - Vinyl Music Hall
OCT 14 | Orlando, FL - House of Blues
OCT 15 | St. Petersburg, FL - Jannus Live
OCT 16 | Miami, FL - Miami Beach Bandshell
OCT 27 | Asbury Park, NJ - Asbury Lanes
OCT 28 | Stroudsburg, PA - Sherman Theater
OCT 29 | New Haven, CT - College Street Music Hall
DEC 02 | Charlottesville, VA - Jefferson Theater (w/ Yam Yam)
DEC 03 | Charlottesville, VA - Jefferson Theater (w/ Dogs In A Pile)
DEC 30 | Pittsburgh, PA | Stage AE (w/ Magic Beans)
DEC 31 | Pittsburgh, PA | Stage AE (w/ Magic Beans)