Pigeons Playing Ping Pong: Sips from the Fountain of Youth
photo credit: Kendall McCargo
It’s a sunny day in Berkeley, Calif., and the Pigeons Playing Ping Pong tour bus has just rolled into town for a one-off gig at the UC Theatre. It’s business-as usual for the Maryland jam-funk quartet, as vocalist/guitarist Greg Ormont, lead guitarist Jeremy Schon, bassist Ben Carrey and drummer Alex “Gator” Petropolus mill about their green room, tinkering with their instruments.
However, the group permeates with a certain sense of gratitude. Like so many other bands in the jam scene, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong have returned to the road after two years of tour cancellations, stutter-steps, virtual gigs, drive-in shows, COVID tests (both negative and positive) and plenty of other pandemic stressors.
For Pigeons Playing Ping Pong—like many of their festival-scene brethren— the pandemic was a serious kick in the teeth. As their star rose through the late 2010s, they rang in 2020 by headlining the largest venue of their career, the 7,200-capacity Explore Asheville Arena in North Carolina. Their fifth album, Presto dropped a few weeks later in late January, and they celebrated with a key slot on Jam Cruise. All signs pointed to their breakthrough year.
Yet, in an all-too-familiar tale, by March 2020, their calendars were cleared indefinitely, and their careers stalled at a pivotal moment of growth.
Flash forward two years and the members of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong are sitting backstage at the UC Theatre. They’re older, naturally. But also a bit wiser—Ormont and Schon both became fathers during the band’s pandemic hiatus and Carrey got married.
“Talk about a change in perspective— having a kid will do that for you,” Ormont says while nodding his head. “Touring takes on an entirely new meaning. My family knows this is my passion and it means the world to me to play music and tour. I think there’s just an added reminder that, while I’m gone from home, I might as well make it count to the fullest extent because I also absolutely adore spending time with my daughter and wife. We’re growing up, and growth is a beautiful thing. It’s unavoidable and it should be embraced.”
And while the pandemic saw countless personal changes for the band, they did manage to double down creatively, take advantage of their time off the road and craft their sixth studio project, Perspective, a funk-filled odyssey which dropped in April.
“Ultimately, I think we wanted to inject a healthy dose of optimism back into the music community that we longed for during our forced hiatus in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic,” Ormont explains, with his usual wild-man curls pinned back into a bun. “Since we were taken off the road and since we missed playing shows so much, the studio was an outlet for all that creative juice and energy and excitement and all of the various emotions we felt during that time. As a result, [Perspective is] a big release of emotions that run the gamut. They are coming from a place of excitement and from an appreciation for being able to continue doing what we do and being able to continue playing music.”
In late 2020, as the pandemic raged on in the background, the quartet utilized the collaborative remote recording app Splice Studio to work on song ideas apart and, after a strict two-week quarantine, they made their way to their preferred musical playground, Wright Way Studios in Baltimore. They teamed up with their pal, studio owner and engineer Steve Wright, and mimicked the same conditions as their three prior records: Pleasure, Pizazz and Presto.
“It feels like ages ago because time has gotten weird,” Schon recalls of the Perspective sessions. “And it was obviously a little more challenging than normal times because we weren’t able to get together quite as much. There were a lot more restrictions in place and there was a lot more uneasiness in general about being out of the house.”
“We were ready to put together some new tracks and it was a way to use the time productively,” Petropolus says, his backstage drum kit not far from reach. “While, in general, it was a tougher time, what made the album go well for us is the fact that everything was pretty much the same [as the last album]: same studio, same engineer. While the world was changing, as far as the album creation went, we were fortunate that it was pretty much the same process.”
“We just couldn’t see our engineer’s nose and mouth the whole time, which we missed because he has a beautiful bottom half of his face,” Ormont quips, noting the prevalence of face masks during the sessions.
Another pandemic silver lining is that, while Pigeons Playing Ping Pong enjoyed some studio time, all of their musician pals were also at home, off the road and itching to play. So The String Cheese Incident percussionist Jason Hann lent his services to “Move Like That,” and ALO’s Zach Gill agreed to play keys on the decade-old, but newly recorded, album closer “Indiglo.”
Lead single “Elephante” also features the zany, and fully bandaged, horn section Here Come The Mummies—the members of whom had previously collaborated with Pigeons Playing Ping Pong on Presto cut “King Kong”—as well as at countless live gigs.
As Ormont explains, “Elephante” saw the band mark some new creative territory. In fact, the tune was completed during the pandemic and never road-tested.
“Normally, we let the crowd dictate how the song flows for a while and then we go back and record it. It was a new step for us to trust our instincts and put out a song for the Flock before getting their response,” he says. “And that was really exciting.”
The word “perspective” is dropped several times—intentionally and unintentionally—during the band’s UC Theatre conversation, both in reference to the new album and to their fresh outlook. The pandemic changed everyone’s perspective—on life, on work, on family. But, more than that, the past two years have also allowed the four members of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong to take stock of everything they’ve accomplished as a band during the past 15 years.
“The album being called Perspective is really fitting for a lot of different reasons, one of which is the span of the songs,” Ormont explains. “They go from 10 years old to completely unheard and brand new. We also had the added perspective of our colleagues and friends on the album, not to mention that everything that was going on in the world reinforced how much we love touring and how much we love playing—whether that’s in front of a big crowd or the four of us in a studio space just grooving to the music. It’s our life force. And it’s been a growing experience going through that as a society and as a band and as individuals.”
The sessions were also, at times, an exercise in restraint. The songs on Perspective span from 4-7 minutes, with standout jam sections still finding their way into cuts like “Sir Real” and “Su Casa.” The band also decided to include the groove-laden favorite “Whirled,” an instrumental that many fans—or “Flockers,” as they’re known—recall for its monumental, 60-plus minute version at Domefest 2018. And not unlike PPPP’s countless pandemic audibles, that definitive live “Whirled” was born out of less-than-ideal circumstances.
“We didn’t get any sleep. We were working around the clock and sleeping a few hours where we could,” Schon recalls of the 2018 event.
Schon founded Domefest during Pigeons Playing Ping Pong’s early years at The University of Maryland, and currently oversees the festival with Ormont. This spring, they will host the 11th iteration of their annual summit at Ohio’s famed Legend Valley, with Pigeons Playing Ping Pong slated to play six sets.
“Jeremy and I are the last line of defense,” Ormont says of Domefest, “but that does require round-the-clock attention to detail. And anyone who knows anything about singing knows that sleep is the number-one most important thing. You need to have a rested voice. And stress doesn’t help either. And, in 2018, my voice really started to go. In an effort to preserve it, and since I thought we were jamming pretty well, we decided to go instrumental for a set.”
For the band, it was a win-win: Ormont could rest his voice and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong could stretch their legs musically, giving the crowd something truly unique to talk about in the campgrounds the next morning.
“Since it’s our festival, we like to pull out all the stops,” Ormont admits. “Growing up in the jam scene, you gotta learn how to improvise. And when your voice starts to go, you play a full-set ‘Whirled’ instrumental.”
Now, “Whirled” has been born anew— not only because it was finally given the studio treatment on Perspective with horns, courtesy of the aforementioned Here Comes The Mummies, but also because it has found new meaning in the COVID era.
“Thinking about ‘Whirled,’ the pandemic was when the whole world got twirled around,” Carrey says with his signature Zen outlook.
In fact, the band members all agree that one of the most enlightening parts of the Perspective sessions was realizing how much their originals have grown and changed over time.
“All of our songs take on a slightly new meaning as life goes on,” Ormont reflects. “A song that used to be about one thing can now be applied to another. I’ll write a lyric—it meant something to me when I wrote it, it’ll mean something else to someone who hears it and then, 10 years later, it might mean something else completely different to me. We’ve gained immense perspective. When you look at the tracklist of this album, there is a tune that I wrote about an ex-girlfriend as a breakup song. I’m sorry to say that she has since passed away. And now, when I sing that song, it has an entirely different impact on me but the words are still the same.”
Ormont makes a point to send “deep love and condolences” to those who were hardest hit by the pandemic and expresses pride in how Pigeons Playing Ping Pong remained poised during one of their—and the live-music world’s— darkest hours.
The group points to their August 2020 drive-in run in Auburn, N.Y. as a pivotal bright spot during the pandemic— “The energy was huge,” Schon glows—as well as their fall 2021 tour, which saw them playing indoor shows for the first time in almost two years. Their creative, three-city “Daft Side of the Moon” Halloween run, which combined elements of Daft Punk and Pink Floyd, was also a cathartic experience.
“The world needs positivity, the world needs joy, the world needs live music,” Schon says. “Me, personally, even when I’m not on tour, my outlet is going to see live music. We think it’s always very important—no matter what’s going on in the world—to make a live concert a safe space and an outlet to express yourself in every way. I think the world needs that now more than ever.”
As they have worked their way through the jamband ranks, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong have been able to take some friends along for the ride. Jam sensations Goose were given an early boost with opening slots for Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and setbreak spots at Domefest 2019. On this current tour, jam-prog bassist Karina Rykman has been warming up the crowd and sitting in for covers like No Doubt’s “Hella Good.” Even backstage, Schon wears a Goose sweatshirt and Petropolus dons some Andy Frasco & The U.N. merch.
“It’s really important to continue to nurture the scene that lets us thrive and the community that supports us,” Schon says with a grin. “It is important for us to help the next band get in front of a new audience. We’re all in this together, and we all have to help each other grow.”
It’s that type of sincerity that has helped Pigeons Playing Ping Pong remain one of the most delightfully optimistic and genuinely fun bands on the jam circuit, riding a wave powered by an “extreme focus on writing music” and an ongoing “explosion of creativity.”
“Now that Perspective is done, we’re back on tour, and we’re playing stuff beyond Perspective; we’re playing tons of new material,” Ormont says. “We’ve already debuted some songs on this tour and we will continue to debut some new material. There’s a huge well of ideas we can pull from. It’s so exciting releasing tunes and knowing what’s to come. We’re fully stocked and loaded with new material.”
And while so much has changed both inside and outside of the band’s orbit, the members of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong are ready to embrace their next chapter.
“We’re not college kids anymore; we’re fathers,” he says, gesturing to Schon. “But what’s always there is that fun-loving spirit because when we’re raging onstage, and the crowd is in our face, it’s a fountain of youth. I don’t think I’ll ever feel old.”