This July, Pile turns 10. Well, almost. Singer and guitarist Rick Maguire, the band’s recluse frontman, released his first record under the moniker back in 2007, but the rest of the band members—guitarist Matt Becker, bassist Matt Connery, and drummer Kris Kuss—didn’t climb aboard until over a year later. Still, for fans, it feels like a surprising marker, and yet remembering a time when the band’s music didn’t soundtrack their lives is just as difficult to recall, too.
Though a handful of other Boston rock acts have gone on tour tour internationally or achieved critical fame, few hold the hearts of locals quite like Pile, a quartet that floats between robust rock and post-hardcore thanks to its unmistakably, entirely original sound. Over the course of the band’s career, it’s never left its DIY roots, with members who often book shows themselves, answer emails without an assistant, and sell merch at their own table. The only exception is them teaming up with Exploding In Sound Records, a beloved New York-via-Boston label created by co-founder Dan Goldin in part to give Pile a larger platform.
It feels overly-comical that Rick Maguire and I meet in Austin. What better place to talk about that band’s growth than in the back corner of an east side coffee shop, a neighborhood that’s gentrifying as quickly as, if not quicker than, the area where Pile comes from? Maguire just finished playing several solo shows at SXSW, a festival that never quite lined up with the band’s ethos and, realistically, will never get to host the band again. Pile isn’t trying to get famous. Pile isn’t looking to find new fans. Pile isn’t looking for a big break. The only thing the four-piece wants to do is create its own music for a living, and to this date, it teeters on the edge of being able to do so.
The sole weakness of the band is that its members are too modest (if such a limit exists). A decade into its career, Pile has amassed the type of dedicated, cult-like fanbase DIY bands can only dream of, yet it continue to sell its merch on a sliding scale. The four talk to anyone who comes up after shows—bearing a forearm with one of the album covers tattooed on it or a story about how the band’s music saved their life—with total sincerity. They continue to be baffled, genuinely so, about their success. Then there’s their personalities. Kris Kuss is a real-life Hagrid, complete with curly dark locks and a friendly, patient demeanor. Matt Connery becomes the joker, upholding the grimacing tone of his bass while cracking jokes and making each member smile. Matt Becker backs into the shadows, staying quiet in conversations but letting his guitar howl in a fever onstage. Maguire upholds the humble flag without flinching, taking a swig from a brand-less gallon of water onstage and seemingly stepping back from the hoards of fans shoving one another in the mosh pit before him.
At one point, the conversation steers towards politics—as all conversations rightly do nowadays—and he begins talking about his selflessness as if it’s a negative trait. “Even being empathetic can be selfish because it can come from a place of not wanting to feel the way someone else does. People don’t acknowledge that: you’re still trying to make yourself feel better,” he says. “If someone in the van was sick on tour, you want to take care of them so you don’t get sick. That’s something we all have in common, that we’re all looking out for ourselves, but it’s interesting how different people do it and with various levels of awareness. I’m saying I should hang out with people that are different from me, but I’m also hanging out in a cabin alone by myself. Maybe this is how we connect with people.”
Maguire’s personality makes the title of the band’s sixth album, A Hairshirt of Purpose, all the more fitting. The title is a sarcastic swing at the burden of feeling obliged to do something, mirrored by the album artwork: a man slouched in a bathtub, exhausted, as he gazes out a pastel-colored window. Maguire isn’t riddled with privilege, but he does feel caught up in guilt: as a straight, white, cis man, as a musician with a following like theirs, with a relative type of stability that allows him to tour regularly. He tears himself up for feeling comfortable in life when so many others can’t, and yet that very habit separates him from the thousands of others in similar situations who don’t. “It’s a guilt thing when you make yourself really uncomfortable to atone for the bad things that you’ve done,” Maguire says of the album title. “With past records, I spin off—like, a lot—trying to figure out what I’m going to write, and I feel crazy about it. On this record, I realized sarcasm is me making fun of my former self; I was trying to make songs complicated just to make them interesting, or make them objectively better, which is impossible. Then I had this realization that I don’t need to write at the expense of my sanity.”
The more he talks, the more defined his self-applied pressure becomes, from anxiety over the timbre of his voice or self-consciousness surrounding his lyrics—the latter of which explains why Pile albums often bury Maguire’s vocals in the mix. “It’s a weird misconception,” he says. “I think that’s accepted by a lot of songwriters, that you have to go through something awful in order to create something good, which is not okay. People may go through traumatizing events, sure, but when it becomes a self-imposed hardship, how genuine is the stuff you’re writing?”
The pressure Maguire applies winds up making Pile all the easier to fall in love with. Pile’s importance in the Boston scene isn’t because the members are heroes to most of their listeners, or because it’s most bands’ favorite band, but rather because it keeps improving, and rapidly so. Instead of rehashing formulas that work, Maguire pushes himself to outdo the band’s last album. Instead of growing weary of playing old material live, Pile ramps up its energy over the years. For all intents and purposes, a band of its sheer force and large-heartedness shouldn’t get exponentially better, but it does, and it’s by a sizable amount each time. It doesn’t just have a cult following. It has a fanbase that grows each year—and never once does it go to the members’ heads.
Pile’s last album, 2015’s You’re Better Than This, sparked with mania and intricate, post-hardcore extremes. A handful of things broke the four’s spirits before recording that album: a drive from St. Louis to Nebraska where they could only top out at 40 miles an hour, a studio session inside a brick oven, and recording sessions from midnight to 9 am. “It was a fun process, it’s always a fun process, but there was a level of self-imposed stress during every part of that album,” says Maguire. “But god, that drive. You could see smoke coming out of the back of that van and I’m just, like, compulsively eating snacks and seasoning my clothes, so when we showed up it felt like I’d already lost my mind.” On record, you hear it in the tangled mid-song breakdowns, the mid-verse tangents, the uncapped hollers. It’s a powerful album, but there’s a shakiness that it seems he couldn’t dust off.
So for a moment in 2015, it seemed like Pile reached the end of its rope. You’re Better Than This, quite literally because of its title, seemed to suggest the band may be forcing itself down the wrong path, that it shouldn’t be pursuing music after all. Lyrically, the record hinted at disillusionment with life as a musician, but beyond that, the band members went into hiding, Maguire took off for the south, and Becker was busy raising his child (who was born shortly after Magic Isn’t Real). They had five impressive full-lengths to their name. If they wanted to move on in life, now was the time, and a sparse show calendar suggested that was the case.
Thankfully, Pile entered a period of self-care instead. Maguire quit smoking, took a long break from drinking, and started spending more time alone. “I was being really social all the time and going on lots of dates, but then I realized I didn’t really want to go out. I wanted to enjoy my own company. There’s plenty of books in the world; that’s a better use of my time than going out on a date,” he says. “Going to shows, selling merch, and having the same conversations over and over—I’m grateful people are so kind, don’t get me wrong—can be exhausting. To have that be your everyday made me start to enjoy places that had central air, low lighting, silence, and nobody else. As far as being confident and calm, I needed to take some time to figure out at least some parts of who I am before I’m going to be good enough to hang out with anybody else.”
He swears that he will hide out once this album’s tour cycle ends, but seconds later, he starts detailing other plans. He wants to rent a bunker for the top of the van. He wants to camp in national parks. Above all else, he wants to change. A decade of habits and exhaustion creates motivation to follow a new path, and he has several goals lined up to get there.
“One: hang out with people who aren’t like me, which is something I’ll have to seek out. If I’m playing shows, I’ll have the same interactions and it’s under this pretense that I’m in a band, you’re in an audience, and as much as I love hanging in that setup, it’s a routine that draws like-minded people. I need to focus to put myself into situations to get to know people who didn’t go the same way as me, that come from different backgrounds, different ages, older folks, younger people,” he says. “The second thing is that playing music, at the end of the day, is pretty self-serving, even if these songs connect with people. I’m very happy with my life, so if I can use that to help people in other ways, either through my time or energy, then that’s what I should be doing. This is a negative way of putting it, but I want to figure out how to be a less shitty person. It’s this ‘going along to get along’ way of living. People from my background get sensitive when they’re told that stuff isn’t okay, so it’s about being open to change and figuring out how to help in whatever ways you can.”
By the time they prepared to work on A Hairshirt of Purpose, the four musicians found themselves ready to give it all they had. They recorded at The Record Co., a local studio with big rooms and the rarest of studio items: windows. “I was definitely able to notice the more beautiful things around me because of it. Whereas I didn’t really have that sort of focus before, now it was just everything right in front of me,” says Maguire. “I also spent the last year trying to spend more time in nature in general. That is—especially with everything going on—a pretty regenerative thing. It didn’t provide an optimism per se, but having that beauty within reach definitely had an impact. I may not be able to say this, but we would go out on the roof after we’d record every night, and this would be right when the sun was going down. That felt like such a moment for us. I don’t know how to explain why except that it was so amazing.”
Filtered light through the window seems too symbolic because it is. There’s levity on A Hairshirt of Purpose, but it’s still rooted in dark thoughts and mid-tangle imperfections. Writing it as such allowed the band to start separating its recorded sound and its live sound, something that exists to date, but only in that its aggressive material can’t match the unhinged fervor of its live shows. “For the longest time, I’ve wanted to be able to write songs that we could play as a band and then record completely differently,” says Maguire. “We weren’t able to fully accomplish that on this record because I haven’t really quite figured out how to navigate it. I’m teaching the band a song, we’re arranging it together, and then they’ll all ask, ‘Why are we even learning it this way if we’re going to just not … record it at all?’”
It wasn’t all in vain. On the album, it works. The strings (played by Elisabeth Fuchsia from Footings) beneath Kuss’ drumming on “Dogs” gives the song an unexpected intensity verging on an emotional breakdown. The clunky piano on “I Don’t Want to Do This Anymore” feels like a sarcastic prod at their own maturity. Every detail elevates the sound from a rock act that hugs its guitars to a band intent on growing, even if it meant sneaking a Mellotron in last minute. “As we were listening to the mixes, I was sitting around cleaning my email inbox, and the boss of the studio wasn’t around,” says Maguire. “The guy mixing it for us said the studio boss said no one could use it, but he brought it in, pressed record, and was just like, ‘Do it, do it, do it now!’ There’s two songs that it’s in, and I probably screwed it up, but I was pretty stoked regardless.” Though it should sound out of place, the Mellotron, like the rest of the instrumental additions on A Hairshirt of Purpose, works. Perhaps the biggest perk for fans is that recording this album made Maguire eager to get even weirder with instrumentation on the next record.
It took 10 years, but it finally feels like Pile is reaching a point of perfection, where its upward momentum is rocketing at a faster pace. For one thing, Maguire listened to friends and fans who wanted to hear his voice mixed louder. “It made me focus in what I was saying lyrically—not that I didn’t before, but I felt like I could say some real rackety stuff and then after the fact just be like, ‘Just push that back.’ So I feel like I was little bit more thoughtful with what I was saying.” He takes a pause, seemingly to think about the lyrics on this album, and nods. “It was nice to actually feel really confident about what I was saying.”
If nothing else, that’s what A Hairshirt of Purpose allows: a listening experience for listeners and the band members alike to feel proud of Pile. It’s been a long time since 2007. It feels like the band is at the peak of its career, but, knowing the four members, this is just another step in the ladder. Next time we see them, they’ll be pushing themselves to limits we didn’t know existed, because no other rock band got as far as them. But don’t ask Pile what it’s like. They’re too humble to admit they’ve come as far as they have. So when asked what advice he would give Boston acts who want to follow in Pile’s footsteps, Maguire advises patience for your career, kindness towards your bandmates and show crews, and gratitude for whenever someone cares about your music. “If you want to get attention, do what you want to do, not what’s expected. How else will you stand out if you’re doing what others have done?” he says. After pausing, like clockwork, he shakes his head at the brief amount of time he stood on a pedestal. “That’s a lot of advice; I shouldn’t tell anyone what to do.” To seal the deal, he tells a story about nursing a 12-hour hangover in Ireland because of poor flight planning and the time Pile ran out of gas on the highway and pushed the van to a gas station.
In the last few years, it’s been easier to catch Pile as a solo act rather than a full band. In theory, that may be a saddening image, but live, seeing Maguire perform proves he’s still having fun. He performed covers by The Zombies, Ween, and The Nerves in Austin and seemed to glow during all three songs. Apparently the band is gearing up to perform two different covers on tour, too. “We’ve thought about doing a Thin Lizzy cover set,” he laughs. “The thing with covers with the band is that we have such a finite amount of time together, if we’re working together to make a good song sound crappy, we should just work on our own stuff. I get a bit too serious, I guess, but hopefully we could pull that off.”
So yeah, it’s been 10 years, and yeah, it’s strange to realize Pile has existed for that long, but it doesn’t mean anything has drained from them. It seems they’re only getting stronger. Maguire starts talking about how all four guys have a soft spot for one another. They still hang out outside of the practice room. They meet up in other states. For that, all four members are grateful. The fact that they’ve been able to make Pile last that long is just the cherry on top. There’s no other way they would want to spend their time.
“It makes sense: I’m 31, I’m wearing this [button-down] shirt, and I can’t stop making songs,” laughs Maguire. “Before Dan [Goldin] came around, I was content to put out our own records, maybe start a label, and grind it out to be the band that did that. The only way I would sign to a label is if it was someone who was legitimately a fan of the music, and Dan is exactly that. It’s been awesome. We went swimming yesterday. We’re friends. There’s a lot of ladder climbing in the music industry, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t care about the career part of playing—I’m getting older and I’d like to buy property one day, or live in a place and afford it, or, who knows, have kids?—so there’s parts like that I have to think about, but not at the expense of doing things the way I want to. I have no idea to sign to a bigger label to advance my career. Bigger labels exist to serve themselves. Dan started existing to serve the bands. We can all work together to play the long game. Might as well stick it out with someone that you trust and retain the freedom to do what you want. I hope when I’m 50 or 60, I’m putting out the most interesting stuff that I can.”
PILE, GNARWHAL, THE KOMINAS, KAL MARKS. SUN 4.2. THE SINCLAIR,15 CHURCH ST., CAMBRIDGE. 7PM/18+/$12. SINCLAIRCAMBRIDGE.COM