STATE SOUNDS: Sitting Down With Greg Ormont of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong
By Margaret Cooper
Merging their funkadelic sensibilities with a hearty dose of deep jam, the raw energy that Pigeons Playing Ping Pong brings to the table is unrivaled. With impeccable dance moves and an incredible lightshow (looking at you, Manny Newman!), the Baltimore natives are sure to take you on a journey you won’t soon forget. We had the opportunity to sit down with P4 vocalist & guitarist Greg Ormont to talk tour, recording, and everything Domefest (May 17th – 19th, domefestival.com).
Can’t fight the funk? Catch Pigeons Playing Ping Pong at The State Theatre February 7th.
Tickets available now –>http://bit.ly/2zaw4HL
The State Theatre: Hey Greg, good to talk to you! Fresh off your DisNYE run in Covington, KY, I have to ask – how was it? I’ve been keeping up to date on Facebook and it really looked amazing.
Greg Ormont: It was definitely as magical as one could have hoped for, that music really took us all back to our childhoods. Whether you’re an older adult (or a young adult). We all grew up on Disney and it really hit home. It was also a really fun challenge to learn that material because it’s very complex. It’s super well-written, which is why we all remember it so well. So all in all, it went really great.
TST: I never really thought about that – Disney music does represent quintessential pop music, in a way. The hooks that we all remember forever.
GO: Yeah, it was a great learning experience digging into that material. It’s funny, you think songs like Hakuna Matata are these simple little ditties and you dig into it and it’s actually pretty complex. Nothing too crazy, but there’s so many nooks and crannies in that music that I really have an even further respect for Disney — which is something I already loved prior to this weekend. It was really magical, it was a really fun time.
TST: That’s awesome and great to hear! On the topic of covers — what are some of your favorite covers to play?
GO: The whole weekend was great. I love covering music in general because you don’t just adopt their music. We try to do our own thing and put our own spin on cover songs. I like to put myself mentally into that band’s headspace. When you’re covering certain bands as the lead singer, you may find yourself in some interesting minds. You may transport yourself to be David Byrne for a song or think about Jim Morrison if you’re playing a Doors song. I wouldn’t call it mental covering — but I definitely like to put myself in the place of the wackadoos that wrote this killer music and try to channel some of their energy while still putting our own spin on it (and stay true to myself). I definitely like to play Talking Heads music, Red Hot Chili Peppers music, Pink Floyd. I like trying to honor the people that were playing while spinning it our way.
TST: The ultimate homage, if you will.
GO: Oh definitely, yeah. You get in the right headspace and it’s a pretty cool thing. That’s why they call it a tribute. It’s more than a cover, it really is a tribute to musicians past. Just this past Halloween, our theme was R.I.P.P.P.P.: Celebrate the Musicians We Lost. It gave me an opportunity to sing as a bunch of different crazy musicians who have come and burned bright and burned out. We’re able to keep their music alive and I love getting in that headspace. As long as I can find my way back into my own head when we’re writing our originals — not get caught too much in their influence and remember to write my own story when it’s my turn.
TST: That energy — the spice — Pigeons can bring to the stage is really fresh right now. I think that’s something that the fans are really chasing after. Do you channel this energy each night? Or is this just something that is naturally a part of your existence?
GO: Well, I’ve always felt that when you’re on stage it’s time to “shit or get off the pot.” I’ve been to so many concerts where I’ve seen incredible musicians but I’ve had a harder time connecting to them on a person-to-person basis because maybe they’re just too invested in their notes or they don’t have the ability to look up and connect with the fans around them. Whenever I would see a musician not having an amazing time, it would confuse me. I guess after years of seeing a lot of bands, it ingrained in me the importance of just having fun and not taking everything too seriously. One way to do that is work really hard offstage so you’re prepared for each show and you don’t have to be looking at your hands or your fingers the whole time. You can look up and be there in the moment. When playing guitar or learning music or doing something that is challenging, looking up and smiling is something that we all can control. Whether or not I told myself to do it in the early stages, it definitely became ingrained in me to not get caught up in the technicalities of playing music and to just take a step back and enjoy the moment. I think we’ve all had some transcending, life-changing moments at live concerts that are just about the energy of the room and the people around you — not so much about the scale that was played over this key at that moment. It’s more about the visceral energy. The joy of smiling with friends and high-fiving strangers over a shared appreciation of music and escape. We also just love to play. I can’t wait to get back on the road and get back on stage in my happy place and play original music (which we are so fortunate to do).
TST: I think that joy and happiness translates well when seeing P4 live. That’s something that really seems to bring the old fans, young fans, and fans of all genres. It really is wonderful to see so many different people join together over such a beautiful thing.
Switching it up a bit — I wanted to talk a bit about your 2017 album Pizzazz. Featuring a lot of new songs and studio recordings of live songs, could you offer some insight on your recording process? What is it like transitioning a primarily live song into a studio recording?
GO: As a band that improvises a lot live, it’s always a challenge to go into a studio which is typically a more confined space that will result in more concise sections. There’s less freedom to see where the jam takes you when you are not only recording, you’re also paying by the hour. You just have a little less freedom. When you’re in the studio you don’t get the feedback of your crowd — that instant gratification of when the jam is going well. It pushes us harder to dig into what is going over well in the crowd. For us, I think we’ve improved over the years just getting in that headspace, that fun atmosphere, and making sure that the music we’re conveying puts us back into that happy place of being on stage in front of our friends. We try to mentally focus our energy and make sure that we are pouring ourselves into every take. When you record a take and you’re trying to record a song, you might do it four, five times. Every time you reset, you gear up to pour that energy back in with your take. Over time, it’s important to continually push that energy.
We also prepare quite a bit. In part of that, we record at our practice space and we’ll go back and listen to the recordings as if we’re listening to what the album might sound like in a rough, scratch setting. That way when we go into the studio and we’re actually making the album, taking the time of the engineer and using our resources to be there, it’s already our second or third time around the block. We know the kind of additions and subtractions we might want to make in terms of the structure of each song. Since we’re in the studio, that frees us up to add layers. I can play three guitars at once or our lead guitarist, Jeremy (Schon), can write harmonizing solos while also playing rhythm guitar. We try to make all those decisions in advance so once we’re in the studio we can be efficient. Basically the goal is to bottle up the energy. If you’ve ever seen the band you know it’s all about the visceral energy, the raw explosions of peaks and valley, the dynamics of the crowd and the band just right on together. We want to bottle up that energy and make sure it comes through with a punch and it’s clear We make sure the sound quality is as crystal as we can get it. I think our engineer, Steve Wright of Wright Way Studios, did an unbelievable job. I know that our fans that have listened to us over the years agree that this might be our best quality album in terms of production value. We’re thrilled with it — I could talk about this album for awhile.
TST: As a fan, I can say I am quite thrilled with Pizzazz. The minor differences in a lot of the more familiar songs seem to reflect the refinement process you’re describing. Pizzazz is a lot of fun, there’s depth to the jam — Offshoot specifically. I could go on a journey into that song.
GO: Right on. That’s a perfect example of a song that I think relies a lot on the crowd’s energy and putting yourself in that live setting. When I recorded it, I closed my eyes and pictured the strobing lights and the deepest bass shaking underneath my feet on stage — that raw energy. Hopefully that is bottled into the studio.
TST: I know personally when I close my eyes that song takes me right back to Domefest 2016 (May 17th – 19th), I’d like to ask about your experience planning and coordinating Domefest while simultaneously being the headlining artist.
GO: You can imagine with 100 and some odd volunteers, our vendors, staff, bands, and all the things that go into organizing a festival it has Jeremy (Schon) and I very busy throughout the year. While some people think off-time for musicians is just chilling, playing video games, and all that — not for everyone. Jeremy and I keep working, we have lots to manage. Just like on the Pigeons side of things, we’re working through these DisNYE recordings we put out for free on Bandcamp page.
Working on the festival is one of the most rewarding things I do and also one of the most time-consuming things I do. To be honest, no one works harder in the world than our guitarist Jeremy Schon. No matter how hard I’m working, I can always remind myself that Jeremy is working twice as hard on like, four different things. We motivate each other, I think, in different ways.
Fortunately Pigeons has played a lot of festivals over the past seven or so years, I’ve been to a lot where I’ve said, “I would do things exactly like this.” I’ve also been to a few festivals where there were some details I maybe wouldn’t have organized that way — maybe we can do our meals this way or whatever it may be. Jeremy and I have been to a lot of music festivals spanning back even before the band was really doing much. That’s why I think we’re so passionate about playing festivals and being in the band playing funk music just because we love it so much. If we weren’t in a band, we would be catching shows as much as possible. We’d be at the same venues, we just wouldn’t be playing. We try to pay attention to what the fan is going through at Domefest, from the minute they roll into town. They get their free koozie, no overlapping sets from start to finish — we put on what we would want to experience and I think people dig it.
TST: It’s great when you have a fan (in the band) planning for the fans. It really comes full circle.
GO: Yeah, hopefully people like our taste. We are also very open to feedback throughout this process. This will be our 9th Domefest and every year we’re trying to put on a smoother event that allows people to come enjoy a stress-free, fun, musical atmosphere that shows them new bands they haven’t seen before, has them making friends that last a lifetime, and they don’t have to worry about anything but having fun. We have an amazing team behind us, our staff is 98% returning for the past few years so we all kind of jell. There’s a moment during every festival that we all click and everything starts moving like a well-oiled machine. There are simply too many things to do to do it alone and fortunately we have an amazing staff of people that we’ve known for so long. Where the band has gone along with what they have accomplished over the years has been really fun to watch. We’ve all been growing up together — it’s a beautiful thing.
But, again, it’s a lot of work. It’s January break and people have snow days today and Jeremy and I are working on Domefest. We’re happy to do it. Hopefully we’ll get some time to jam and to make some new songs, too.
TST: Very exciting. Nine years of Domefest — that’s a lot longer than some larger festivals — do you have any crazy stories you would like to share with us?
GO: I definitely do, because for the first five Domefests I wasn’t organizing it. It was just Jeremy (Schon) and his college friend (and some years just Jeremy). I definitely had some fun as a fan of Domefest. In fact, a lot of people think I’m lying when I say this, but Domefest 1 was my first music festival ever. It was thrown by our guitarist Jeremy, and it completely opened my eyes and gave me that “a-ha!” moment about live music. We had an amazing first Domefest, it was a sold-out smash success. Everyone had so much fun and it was really just a big party with most of our friends (and their friend’s friends). Hopefully Domefest still has that vibe where people are inviting the right people. We never want it to be one of those festivals where it gets too big for its britches and the wrong people hear about it and try to add shadiness to what should be a positive, fun event. Coming from a type of “party for your friends” mentality, I think Domefest has kept it in the family (so to speak).
TST: Domefest does a great job of highlighting arts and workshops. What is the process of deciding featured guests?
GO: People approach us. I get a lot of painters who want to come and paint at the festival. To be honest, throwing a music festival there a lot of details. When you first get going, you have to prioritize the details that you need to focus your energies on. Initially, it was all just about the music, making sure everyone got there safely, everyone had a good time, and got out of there safely. We had killer bands.
Now that the festival has gained momentum, and our staff gains momentum, it frees up our time to consider more aspects and details overall. One of the things that has increased has been our live painting and our workshops. We’ve been able to have the big workshop dome (a big, 50-ft. geodesic dome in the corner of the festival) which adds a great aesthetic to Domefest. This year, for the first time, our drummer Alex “Gator” Petropolus will lead a drumming rhythm workshop. Ben (Carey), our bassist, will be leading his second year of Let It Flow Poem Tell. It’s a workshop on words and their various uses and benefits. Just trying to get the band more involved with it has been fun.
Last year, we had an amazing group of artists from Cincinnati area. One of which is named Gavin Gonzo Art, he did a great job painting on stage for some of the bands and creating an installation as you walk towards the late-night area by the campfire. I think we’ll be working with something like that again. We’re already discussing some collaborative art efforts that might bring the crowd together and tie in some more of the arts with the community around us.
Years ago, at the original Domefest site, the landowner let us paint the side of his barn. We had a community mural that transformed over the night — that was something that we have always wanted to go back to. That requires materials, time, planning, but that’s one thing we are considering bringing back. There’s always something to improve and I think that we can add more visual art to our festival as long as it doesn’t detract from the live show.
When it boils down to it, we love artistic expression, but our main focus is music. We want people to be watching the bands, especially being artists ourselves. You never want to have an artist installation that’s so epic that people are not going to be facing the stage. However, we want to continue to embrace our artistic friends and support their goals, too. We find a balance there. We’re not going to say something that we aren’t — we’re not like one of those super heady festivals that has 400 artists who burn their art. We’re a festival that’s about finding a new band, hanging with some artsy people, and maybe making some collaborative stuff together. But we’re all about the music and the friendships.
At other festivals the vibe is beyond the scope of music and we think it’s really cool. I love seeing intense, artistic displays and exhibitions. We’re all about that. In terms of our festival, we just love the local and touring bands and giving them a chance to make some new fans. Probably because we’ve been in their shoes. When we go to smaller festivals we hope to make a splash so when we come back into town and it’s snowing out they still come out to the venue. That’s what we really pride ourselves on. Our fans fortunately love music and they eat it up. I think they are the fans that go out in the winter to support the bands. That’s one of the reasons that these bands say yes to Domefest in the first place: the fans are so rabid and supportive. The bands report awesome sets and they have a good time and that keeps them coming back. That’s something we can’t control, we’re just appreciative that the right people are coming.
TST: The Domefest lineup seems to highlight more local and regional acts, focusing on some artists that aren’t as popular as others. Today, that can be a rare find at some festivals. Domefest has personally exposed me to many new artists that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise — which is a refreshing change in a world of big names and selling tickets.
GO: Being a band that has been in that situation where no one has a clue who you are, you have to play smaller festivals and you build your fans tens at a time. That’s the only way to do it in our scene. We’re just hoping to give each band a leg up in whatever markets they’re trying to pump up their fan base in. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Camp Barefoot (Elkins, WV), we used to go to that quite a bit. We eventually started playing it and it was very helpful for us to gain fans early on. I think Jeremy (Schon, who handles the booking of Domefest) always remembers how important those smaller festivals were for us. We just want to pay it forward.
The smallest bands are the best. They care, they pour themselves into it, and no one is jaded. Everyone is just trying to make it as a musician and collect fun experiences on the road. They have good hearts. All the bands that we book at Domefest are personal friends. It’s a small scene, so that’s kind of how it is anyways. But we love them like brothers and we encourage them to go into the crowd as one of the fans (and not hang out backstage). We like our bands to be one of the crowd — no VIPs — everyone is a fan of music, trying to have fun and enjoy the beautiful scenery we have. I can’t wait for it. Everyone is pumped for Domefest — I’d say that Jeremy and I are the most pumped.
TST: All this Domefest talk is getting me pretty excited, too. Reflecting on growth, the last couple years in State College, PA it really seems like P4 has taken off. About four years ago you were playing at a local bar — two years ago you moved up to The State Theatre. What is that like from your perspective to build your fanbase step-by-step?
GO: I think you might have a better perspective than us — we’re doing this every day. When you’re doing something every day, it’s hard to take a few steps back and look at the jumps. It’s a continual process. It’s really exciting to play these better venues, you end up with better sound and equipment. When the band has these tools to work with, they’re going to be able to play more intently with each other. As these rooms grow, you get to be a little more comfortable overall. That’s what’s exciting about scaling.
We recently went on our first bandwagon tour (which is basically just an RV designed for bands) when we went out West and we had a driver. Last time we went out West, we drove ourselves, and we all nearly went mad from the tight quarters, long drives, and no sleep. Fortunately, as things scale upward we’re able to get a driver for those tough runs. That just makes us all more comfortable, happier, and a cohesive unit. We’re able to focus more on writing music, which is what it’s all about. People don’t realize that when you’re in a band (and things are going in a more positive direction) there’s a lot of behind the scenes work and management that you deal with. We have our manager and we work with them all the time. It’s a lot of work that leads to more comfort — that’s what’s key.
These types of things don’t just happen overnight. Every week we play together and we jam together. We talk about the jams and we try to write new material and come up with new themes which force us to learn difficult music. I hope over time our venues continue to get nicer and more comfortable. We just try to focus on what we can control — the music we write and the energy we put into our show. We work with our booking agents to make the right decision when moving up in certain venues. But we’ve always felt that if we’re playing in front of ten or 10,000 people, if we pour ourselves into the show and have an amazing time then we’ll be fulfilled. We try not to get too bogged down by other various markers of success. We just want to be happy and make other people happy while doing something that’s genuine and real. Let the chips fall where they may. ⋆