Roaring out of Baltimore, MD, comes the swirling, cosmic space funk of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. One of the most talked-about groups in the jam scene today, they are known for their raw, high-octane live performances and infectious grins. Their fan base, “The Flock,” can’t get enough of them, and they’re spreading their particular brand of surging, groovy electric funk.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong also have a reputation for their work ethic; as just one example, 2018 will mark the 9th iteration of their annual music and camping event, Domefest, in Bedford, PA. In addition, every year they take their music to new places, both sonically in the studio and new cities throughout the country. They are one of the most exciting bands around right now, with the feeling that they’ve only just begun to jam.
We sat down with the band to talk about their origin story, this year’s Domefest, and some new variations on their name.
I’ve read that Pigeons Playing Ping Pong was a “dorm project turned into the real thing.” Could you elaborate a bit on how the members all met and how it went from dorm project to touring band?
It’s interesting to look back on how all of the pieces fell into place. I met our guitarist Jeremy on the first day of college at the University of Maryland. I didn’t really know anyone yet, so I grabbed my guitar and walked down the hall of our freshman dorm with hopes of making a friend. I stopped by one dorm room and played some “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show with a nice guy, but it wasn’t a perfect fit. Fortunately, behind door #2 was Jeremy jamming out to some funky jazz. His playing style was way more in my wheelhouse so I sat down, excitedly strummed a few chords and sang some random lyrics over his groove, and thus, the dorm project was born.
We almost immediately started playing at open mic nights and coffee shops on campus under the name “The Jeremy Schon Experience.” Jeremy would start our gigs on his own with 30-40 minutes of experimental live looping, and then I would join for the final 10-20 minutes with my guitar and goofy vocals. We’d play silly dorm songs about nonsense and debauchery like ““Dutchmaster” and “Candy.” We also started mashing up covers like “No Woman No Farmhouse” (Bob Marley / Phish medley) and “Every Breath You Take” (Puff Daddy / Sting medley). In fact, we still mash up covers to this day, most recently “After Midnight” with “Thriller” during our Halloween run through Texas this year. Old habits die hard.
Fast-forward to sophomore year and as fate would have it, our original drummer Dan Schwartz was in Jeremy’s History of Rock class and posted “Drummer Looking To Jam” in the class’s online forum. To make a long story short, Dan brought his drum set to college and set them up at a friend’s house off campus. When we played together for the first time, one of the house owner’s roommates casually sauntered over and joined us on bass. Ben Carrey was the final piece of the puzzle.
Once we had our foursome, and a ridiculous name, we began playing bars and small clubs around Maryland, D.C. and Virginia while most of us finished school. Jeremy booked us for the first few years and had some difficulty explaining to venues that “Pigeons Playing Ping Pong” was aband and not a circus act. But as time went on, more people got to know us and we practiced relentlessly to improve as a group and as individual musicians. By the time we graduated, we had our weekends filled with gigs throughout the Mid-Atlantic, and it wasn’t long untilwe hired a booking agent, quit our jobs and hit the road full-time. We’ve been touring the country for about six years now and we love every minute of it.
You host the annual Domefest, which has a changing location. Can you tell me a bit about how that came to be?
Domefest also had a very natural progression to where it is now. Back in college, Jeremy had been to a number of music festivals that had a resounding impact on his life. During his senior year, he met a very cool local who owned a beautiful private property about 10-15 minutes from campus, which gave Jeremy the vision to organize a one-day, one-night music and camping festival for our friends to enjoy called Domefest, named after the land owner’s odd dome-shaped roof on his house.
The first Domefest was a smashing success. It was my first music festival experience and along with many of my closest friends, it completely opened my eyes to the powerful beauty of music, friendship and life. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. I’d never felt so welcomed and embraced by a community before and the fact that Jeremy organized it all was very inspiring. It’s no surprise that I became heavily involved with organizing Domefest a few years later.
Domefest sold out three years in a row at the original location, so Jeremy moved it to an incredible site in Terra Alta, WV called Sunshine Daydream Music Park and extended it’s duration to three nights. I began helping out as much as I could around then, and after
three great years in WV, we had to move the festival to our new home at Fort Royale Farm in Bedford, PA where Domefest 2018 will occur on May 17-19. It has evolved from a one-night party to the ultimate gathering of The Flock, our wildly supportive fanbase. We anticipate our biggest and best year yet with people traveling from all over the
country to meet each other and enjoy some high-quality music in the mountains.
If I’ve done my homework correctly, you’ve self-released all of your music. What have you learned through that process, both positive and negative?
Releasing an album is tricky these days. One thing’s for sure, people aren’t buying albums like they used to, but we embrace internet sources like Spotify and appreciate the extra reach we get online. We kind of missed the whole “record deal” thing but we’re happy and like having our hand on everything. Albums are still expensive to make though, so this time around we crowd-sourced the funds on Kickstarter, which was a huge success and super humbling. Our fans sprung to action and exceeded our goal for Pizazz within the first week, and I hope they’re as happy with the results as we are. We also released our first live album this year, which was a lot easier.
Could you walk me briefly through the songwriting process?
We’re playing so much these days that we never stop writing. Our most recent song came out of a jam during soundcheck that we ended up playing live later that week. We keep it pretty loose on and off stage, so when good ideas come along, we run with them. We write a lot at home too. Most of us practice daily and stumble upon fun ideas pretty regularly. I personally like to use my looping pedal to build ideas because it allows me to evaluate the parts without having to simultaneously play them. Listening back is crucial for me because
sometimes what sounds good in the moment doesn’t sound good the next day, plus it’s easier for me to sing or come up with complementary parts when I don’t have to play guitar at the same time.
Would you say your approach to songwriting has evolved or changed with your years of experience, or has it been more of a tweak-it-here-and-there sort of situation with the same basic goal in mind?
I just try to remind myself that new ideas don’t have to be amazing off the bat. Just let it flow naturally and tweak it later. Set consequence aside and see where it goes. Plus, it’s easier to mold existing crap than creating it out of thin air, so strike when the iron’s hot, and the more the merrier.
Do you find it more conducive to your material to rehearse in studio and then tour it, or debut it live and see how the song evolves from there?
We prefer to debut our songs live before laying them down in the studio because our crowd plays such a key role in the development of our songs. We learn more about our new songs when we see the effect on the crowd. If there’s a section in a song that gets the crowd going, we’ll be sure to embellish it in the studio. Conversely, if there’s a section that doesn’t seem to ignite the crowd, we’ll trim or cut it. We like to let the crowd take lead in a lot of ways.
What are some of your ideas for the future of Pigeons?
For starters, I think we should start playing more than just ping pong. I’m talkin’ Pigeons Playing Pinball, Pigeons Playing Parcheesi, I’d even consider Pigeons Playing Pumpkins, whatever that means. Beyond that, we’re going to keep pouring ourselves into our live
shows, write better music and challenge ourselves to be at our best. In our eyes, we’re just getting started.
What are some positives and negatives in terms of the way the music world has changed that you’ve noticed in your years of working as a musician?
It’s all about the live show now, which we love. We focus on touring, writing better songs and putting on a better live experience. And we’re beyond happy about it.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong performs at Theatre of the Living Arts in Philly on December 8 (click here for tickets), and The Stone Pony in Asbury Park on February 10, click here for tickets.