As part of the release of Digcast X, the third installment of my NYC music series, I’m posting on each band in the podcast. Today we continue with The Pine Hollows.
Follow the link above to listen to lead singer & guitarist Gianni discuss “Go And Tell Him,” confidence-boosting songs, Freaks & Geeks and some things he digs about NYC.
Also, come check out The Pine Hollows this Friday at our next TWD Presents showcase!
It’s difficult to not be excited about what’s in store for The Pine Hollows. Lead singer and guitarist Gianni Napolitano is twenty years old and he and his bandmates already have two albums under their belt. The scary thing with so much time for future growth is how accomplished they already sound. Actually, it’s not scary so much as it is an amazing gift to all once and future listeners. The newest album Something My Heart Understands feels well-crafted and accomplished, like the work of seasoned professionals. That could be derived from a little trickery in how these young men have utilized a sonic template that was popularized many years before they were born, but it sounds undeniably natural. And relatively speaking, Gianni is a seasoned professional. As a member of the School of Rock (yes, that School of Rock), he’s already toured globally. I won’t be surprised if he’s doing that again soon.
Like many of the classic albums it evokes, Something My Heart Understands is brisk and enjoyable. It’s also nuanced and exploratory. If the first half is like the early pop part of a 60s band career, the second half of the album is those mid- to late career moments when horizons are expanding. What’s cool about this to me is that when a band channels a previous sound, they often have a more limited scope. Like, it’s either Meet the Beatles or Sgt. Pepper. It’s not Help! and Abbey Road. But I don’t want to focus on this too much lest you think The Pine Hollows are derivative. To me, they are clearly working within an established and common sonic template, but it is being channeled with a unique spin. Gianni is taken what always spoke to him and finding his own voice, and this is always something that I enjoy hearing.
He has a real gift for melody. The first track “All You Gotta Do,” establishes that pretty much instantly. There plenty of immediately satisfying songs, such as the upbeat and rocking ones like “I Can’t Make Her Smile,” the title track, and of course “Go and Tell Him” from the podcast, but Gianni can slow things down and still retain his earworm abilities plus add a layer of poignancy, like he does on “Anyone” and “Don’t Forget.” “She’s Gonna Break Your Heart” is especially interesting to me because it incorporates some extra instruments – horns here – that give it some more pomp and feels playful. Gianni and I discuss this below, but the last few tracks are exciting in how the sound opens up. It isn’t a total departure to what came before, but it is a clear progression towards new frontiers. The sequencing being the way it is a sign of attention to the album as a whole, making the individual shining gems of each track all the more satisfying.
The album is available for purchase on bandcamp. You can follow The Pine Hollows on Facebook and Twitter. You should come see them play our next TWD showcase Friday at Muchmore’s in Williamsburg. Here’s their website once again and you can watch the video for the podast track “Go and Tell Him” below.
I talked with Gianni for a little while at the Golightly Media office. We delved into his background in music, the importance of family, and stories on some of the songs. Oh yeah, we talked about Freaks and Geeks, too. I was struck by how thoughtful he is and even if he is humble and down to earth – which he is, very much so – his drive to make a life out of music is evident. Here’s our interview.
Steve: Could we start with a little of your background and how you got into music?
Gianni: I started playing guitar at around 11 or 12. My sister actually got a guitar for Christmas and she didn’t end up playing it, so the following year I picked it up. I was pretty clueless about it so I started with lessons. Those were good and led me to this music program called the Paul Green School of Rock. The Jack Black movie was actually based on that school.
S: Oh ok. That’s awesome. That’s a great movie.
G: Yeah, it was pretty crazy and really fun. We got to do a lot of really cool things with Paul. We went to Germany a few times for this Frank Zappa festival, and then we toured with the Butthole Surfers, and I got to LA a few times. It was cool and definitely important in learning how to perform or at least getting comfortable doing it. It’s definitely a lot different than just playing in your room.
S: How old were you?
G: I was like 14, 15 when that started so I had only been playing like 2 or 3 years.
G: That ended pretty much right when high school ended, like 17, 18.
S: That’s a lot of cool travel experience and such at a pretty young age.
S: Did you travel much before you did that?
G: No, I feel like Long Island has this pretty sheltered vibe and people from Long Island are always afraid to go into the city, it seems. It took a lot of convincing the 14 year-old me to be like “Mom, let us go to this music school” and take the train to the city and do all this crazy stuff. When it was really just going to music school. But we hadn’t really traveled anywhere. It was a first for my parents to go those countries too. They came with us.
S: Your name is pretty Italian. I read that neither of your parents were born there, but your grandparents or grandparents were.
G: There’s actually some confusion as to who came over, I should clarify that but I forget (laughs). I think it’s my great-grandparents who came over.
S: I have a similar background, though just my mom’s Italian. Her mom, my grandma, was born in Italy and then my grandpa, his parents were born in Italy. So it’s either first or second generation there. But only one side. You have both.
S: Did you get to go to Italy at all?
G: No actually, I’ve never been. The closed we were, we passed through France.
S: The Butthole Surfers, I just know that song “Pepper.”
G: Yeah, I learned the whole discography. We kind of got them back together actually. The School of Rock did a tour with Gibby Haynes, the singer, just solo. He was so happy with it, he was like “Oh, I’m going to call the other guys and get us together.” It was like the first show they played in like 10 years.
S: Was this before or after the movie?
G: That was around 2008.
S: Ok, the movie is earlier than that. But the school had been in existence for awhile?
G: Yeah, the Paul Green School of Rock had been in existence since 1998. And then Paul left the school around 2010, so it’s a different thing now.
S: Oh ok. That’s interesting. It would be a great background, you get a lot of good experience. It was probably a lot of fun. Do you stay in touch with the people?
G: Yeah. I feel like it’s sort of different than a lot of other kids high school experiences. I just got into that show Freaks and Geeks, have you heard of that?
S: Oh yes. I love Freaks and Geeks.
G: When I’m watching that show, I’m like “Oh, that’s how I grew up” because that’s all we were listening to is all that old shit. It wasn’t like now. Paul sort of encouraged us to be like these ’60s, ’70s personalities. We all had long hair.
S: That’s interesting. So that was your high school?
G: It was an extracurricular program. It was busy.
S: This is your second album that just came out. And that’s something you’ve only been doing since college, recording albums?
S: And the band lineup has changed a little bit?
G: For sure. The albums themselves have the same lineups, interestingly enough. But right around the time we were finishing the recording of this one, things with the bass player got a little strained. And my sister, right before we started recording this one, wasn’t really interested anymore in being in it full time. It sort of ended up being almost the same lineup because that’s how we were performing the songs.
S: But you write all of it?
G: Yeah, yeah. For better or for worse. Like “Play this or play that.”
S: Would you ever be interested in a more collaborative writing approach?
G: Definitely! The reason why it’s not just my name or not like just a solo project is because that’s what I wanted. I was trying to foster that but it didn’t really happen that way. So I was just like “Well, step up to the plate.”
S: I think you’ll have time to develop that. It’s only album two. And it’s impressive. It’s a very good album, you’re very talented.
G: Thank you.
S: You study musicology at school? What do you do with that exactly?
G: It’s really like music history, music theory, but there’s not really any performance. Which is fine for me because I’ve had a lot of experience doing that. I wouldn’t want to go to school for classical guitar or voice or jazz. On the one hand, I feel like that would strengthen me as a musician, but on the other hand it would have taken all my time out of doing this. It’s good to be aware at least of things that were happening in the classical sphere because I don’t have any history listening to that stuff.
S: Yeah, not a lot of people really do. Like you said, listening to stuff from the 70s was already a long way back compared to your peers. I find it hard to imagine making a whole album and also going to school. What’s your way to balance everything?
G: I think I sort of drive myself crazy, but that’s ok (laughs). I don’t know. I think I’m just used to, ever since high school, doing things all the time. In high school, it was like I went to school from like 7:30 AM til 2:16 or whatever and then straight to the city to practice for the School of Rock. And then now it’s every waking hour I’m writing or sending emails or doing whatever. I’m not used to just relaxing.
S: How much more school do you have?
G: This is my last full-time semester. I only take 6 credits in the fall. I’m definitely excited because I want to get out more and do normal people things.
S: Then you’re going to focus on the band, that’s the plan?
G: Yeah. I don’t really know how it works. It’s kind of scary. I’ve only started to listen to more contemporary stuff around now because I was learning classic rock covers. I don’t know, it’s sort of a mystery to me how you make it. So I just keep trying.
S: You’re not alone in that regard. I think you just have to do what you like doing and hope it takes care of itself. I mean, you have to put effort into that, but…
G: Yeah. There’s something else.
S: I’m sure you’ll do well and have a good chance at making something of substance. Let’s talk a little about the album. The title track “Something My Heart Understands” is followed by that line, “…Before my head can know.”
S: I wondered, where do you sit at the head vs. heart, feel vs. think split? What are you more inclined to be?
G: I guess more heart, or I would like to be. I feel like I do things that aren’t necessarily rational, but I sort of have to do them. And I think that’s been the whole journey with this music experience. In a way it’s hard to talk about because I know these particular people are going to read it. I could have just been like “Oh, we’re all friends, I’ll just accept that fact that you’re going to miss shows or rehearsals.” Sort of bite the bullet and keep it going. But I was like “No, I’d rather be here.” In a way, I feel like I sort of alienated myself from those people, one of them being my sister. But I was more attached to the music. I don’t know if that’s a selfish thing or not.
S: Being creative in any way is inherently selfish in a sense because you have to produce something. It’s tricky. I did see in that last interview how your sister left the band and how you’re twins. I thought that was interesting because I think the regular listener could hear the album and think it’s more about a relationship and break-up, but when you know that, it adds another dimension of how much this is about that. Obviously having that ambiguity is good and listeners can bring any number of things as well. I did think that was kind of fascinating and feel like that would be very challenging. It’s one thing for a friend you’ve been working with, but then on top, you’re family. Is your relationship ok?
G: Yeah, definitely. I feel like we’re getting along better in a way because now things are just out on the table. But it is hard. To sort of put it simply, we had a difficult time growing up and we had different experiences to deal with. When you’re twins, or even when you have a sibling, you go through that together or make sense of things together. But when one goes in another direction, it’s kind of scary. I don’t know, I’ve always been used to having something to think with because we share all of the same experiences. She was in the School of Rock too. So we have pretty much all the same friends. It’s kind of weird, sort of like your second self.
S: That’s interesting. Does she still play music?
G: Not really. She’s doing more visual art now. It’s interesting because I started drawing when I was 2 years old and I made a portfolio for art school because I was thinking about it. She had been more of a singer. I only started singing around three years ago. She had been singing in high school and before. So we switched.
S: Maybe it’ll flip back. You already released a video for “How Can You Tell Her?” That was the first single. I thought that was a cool video. I’m a big music video fan and think it’s cool bands keep making them even though there’s no MTV in the sense of everyone knows what videos are popular or interesting. How was that made? What was the conception behind it?
G: My friend Frances Chen, who actually directed our first music video “You Got Me Running” from our last album, she directed it and her friend Raymond Wei edited it and my friend Sarah Awad choreographed it. That was one of the things where I was like “Music videos aren’t really watched the way they were, so I gotta do something that’s different.” Or try to. I thought for me, and my group of friends, one of the strangest things would be to see me dancing like that. I had seen a few Beyonce music videos actually and I thought “Oh that’s cool. It would be fun to do something like that and see what happens.”
S: So Beyonce was a big inspiration for that, that’s cool.
G: The video “Countdown.”
S: You had all the moves down. It was pretty well-choreographed. I like stuff with split screens. It also fit the vibe of the song, there was a certain aesthetic of it that worked. Was the choreographer the dancer?
G: Yes. People, like Paul Green, thought it was Mariella in the video, they thought it was my sister. It’s pretty funny.
S: Oh. She does kind of look like you. Does she look like your sister?
G: She does a little bit.
S: I read you had said that song was written as kind of your ideal, how you want to be in a way. Sort of aspirational.
G: Yeah, I think that’s what it reflects more than any sort of romantic thing. And I think it also reflects what I was listening to at the time. I was listening to a lot of Shirelles or Crystals, girl groups. That’s sort of how I write, I’m inspired by something and in a way try to imitate it. There was something about those simple, direct songs that sort of intrigued me.
S: It seems like your background with the School of Rock and maybe your upbringing, a lot of that classic 60s pop and the Beatles get mentioned a lot, the Stones, Buddy Holly. What is it about that style that makes you feel comfortable as musician?
G: That’s a good question. I’ve always really liked songs, the idea of them. Pop songs more specifically, as just lyrics and music not too ridiculously complicated and accessible, you know? For a lot of that stuff, the Beatles, the Stones, and Buddy Holly, that’s what resonated with me. You can still play rock and roll music and do that and not have to be Led Zeppelin. Who I love also, but I don’t feel like my singing is screaming or more like Robert Plant and that kind of thing. At the same time, I love Led Zeppelin just as much as I love those three. I don’t know.
S: The album as you go through it, I feel towards the end of it the last four tracks “After Dark,” and “You Know Best” and “Memory” and “Everything’s Going to be Alright,” you’re starting to open up the sound a little bit. Most of the tracks before are more tight, upbeat ones, though there’s a few slower ones. Then I feel like there’s a bit more texture coming through with those last ones. The very last one, “Everything’s Going to be Alright,” I thought it had sort of a lullaby feeling with the slide guitars and then you have that really distorted jagged guitar. And it’s like “Well, is it going to be alright?” “Memory” you have more horns, it feels like there’s more space.
G: I definitely wanted to have that arc for the album. That’s the thing, one of my favorite albums is The White Album because it does that. It shows more than one dimension to the music. That’s the thing, I think the tighter ones are just as important as the looser ones because they give them context. So that’s what I wanted to do was give that depth at all levels.
S: I saw in that other interview that the Beatles song that first spoke to was “Because” and then the song from the White Album that hit you most was “I Will.” I am curious what was that moment, more so for “Because” I guess since that was the first one. I love those stories when a song just hits you and you’re in this moment.
G: There’s this Emerson quote I really like, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I’m probably going to a bad job paraphrasing it but it’s like “Every work of genius represents our own rejected ideas that came back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Or something like that. What I mean is not to imply that I felt like that was something I would have written or like I’m that good or done something of that quality. But there was something in me that I heard in that song that blew me away.
S: So you’ve been spending a lot of time with Beatles ever since.
G: It wasn’t that long ago when I first heard all that stuff. That’s one of the things I’ve been learning as the Pine Hollows goes on. Everyone else is maybe jaded to that sound or that experience in a way and it’s sort of naive to think that you can just sort of imitate the Beatles and convey what they conveyed. That’s a lesson I’m learning, but it’s hard for me to digest because they’re so new to me.
S: I think with a band like the Beatles it’s so hard to make it personal because they’re everybody’s band. Millions of people love them and know them. But I do think when you find that entry point where it hits you on a personal level because there’s so much in there that can. That’s where it gets interesting. Any musician is going to listen to a lot of music and filter through it and experiment and come to their own sensibilities.
Anyways, the song “She’s Gonna Break Your Heart,” the message of that, I always find that interesting. If you’re really set on something – it doesn’t necessarily have to be romantic – and everyone else can tell you that it’s wrong and can see it, but you’re in the moment of it and don’t. Do you find that you’re someone that can listen to people or do you have to find out for yourself?
G: I definitely have to find out for yourself. I think that’s part of what this is. Ray, who is one of my best friends and plays drums on the record, he always takes me down a few notches at times. Like, “We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that, we’re going to tour the world,” and he’s like “Why would you want that anyway?” Or “Why would you want to be signed to a major label?” And for me, I’m like “Oh I just have to find out for myself if I would hate it.” I’d rather see and then take the experience and turn it into something else.
S: That’s a great attitude to have. It’s easy to dismiss things because you’re afraid you might not get them or look bad. In the song “All You Gotta Do” I like that line about how “Growing up is never very hard when you have a friend beside you.” It’s funny that you said Freaks and Geeks because that’s such a great message of that. High school really sucks and you may not fit in but if you have that circle of friends. Have you seen the whole thing?
G: Two days, I watched the whole thing.
S: Ok. So I thought of that scene when the bully Alan switches the peanut in Bill’s lunch and then he talks about how he’s jealous of Bill because he’s got good friends. Do you think you’re a person that has had good friends around?
G: Yeah, in a way. I feel like it’s going to sound like this weird thing about me and my sister (laughs) but I think it’s just she’s my best friend. Her and I have like 20 something cousins, too. Family has always been a big part of my life, for better or worse. I’d even extend that, we have a cousin Nicole who we went to high school with too. So the three of us, we’ve always had family and social life in common, so there’s a lot of shit we talk about.
S: That’s good. It sounded like you are already starting to think about more recording. Do you have any ideas of some stuff you’d like to try musically now that you’re listening to some new things?
G: Definitely. I’m sort of addicted to writing songs and recording them. One way I’ve been calming that down because I don’t have the money to record now, is I have this little Pro Tools set up at home. The things I’m doing at home have been coming along pretty well and I’m actually very happy with them. The thing I’ve been thinking about is doing maybe one-off songs as opposed to albums for a little bit, or maybe an EP. I feel like it gets, I don’t want to say outdated, but I finished recording Something My Heart Understands at the end of August and so now it’s half a year later. I’m already in a way onto different things. I definitely want to push things in a quirky direction more, sort of “After Dark.” The album ends that way, it’s what it’s pointing to.
S: That’s cool. I think all the songs are all really good. Can you talk about the writing?
G: Yeah. For me when I’m writing, sometimes the words will come first or sometimes the music will come first, but sometimes they’ll come at the same time. I feel like that’s always the best because I learn. I have the same experience with the music too. “Oh, that line is perfect for that.”
S: Words and music, it just depends. Do you write on a particular instrument?
G: Yeah, guitar for sure. Sometimes I’ll play piano. “Something My Heart Understands” I wrote on piano actually. It’s funny because that’s so guitar heavy.