Sounds of Summer: Pigeons Playing Ping Pong
“Let’s play this show like it’s Madison Square Garden.” In their early days, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong would recite this mantra before basement concerts and college bar gigs. It was a way to psych themselves up, but also a goal to shoot for. “That’s always been the pinnacle example of what a real concert can be,” says singer/guitarist Greg Ormont.
While headlining the world’s most famous arena is still on their to-do list, the quartet did technically break the contact barrier on March 23, playing a Knicks halftime show for a crowd of over 18,000 sports fans. “But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous for Madison Square Garden,” Ormont admits with a laugh.
In concert, Ormont’s onstage alter ego “Scrambled Greg,” plays off of lead guitarist Jeremy Schon’s mellow demeanor. The two longtime friends are the classic one-two punch: a showman on vocal duties and a virtuoso on lead guitar. Anchored by the rumbling low-end of bassist Ben Carrey and the hyped-up drum solos of Alex “Gator” Petropulos, the members of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong possess a sense of reckless abandon onstage, yet they are driven by their insatiable work ethic. Even lighting designer Manny Newman attends band rehearsals, to be sure that his live improvisations sync with their ever-evolving jams. Through it all, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong have one true goal, as Ormont sings on a fan-favorite track: to “put the ‘fun’ in funk.”
“A huge thing for us, since day one, is we need to connect to the audience,” Schon says. “We need to give them our all, whether we’re playing to five people at a crappy dive bar or at Madison Square Garden. We’re music fans first, just like everyone who comes out to see our show. We’re all cut from the same cloth.”
A few days after they play MSG, Ormont and Schon are still reeling from the experience, but they are also already focused on their next marquee moment. Domefest, the band’s music festival, is just a couple of months away and, as co-curators of the event, every small detail needs their approval.
“Domefest is our favorite distraction,” Ormont says. Today, he’s scheduling workshops, which will be led by a number of friends and colleagues in the band’s ever- widening network. Meanwhile, Schon is going over graphics for live releases and plotting out wristband designs. These, he notes, are just two of the “18 other things” he still needs to do.
Schon first conceived the festival in the band’s early days when they were gigging around the University of Maryland and, like PPPP itself, Domefest has grown incrementally; what started as a one-day event with 400 people, now includes over 20 bands with an estimated crowd of 1,500.
This year, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong will play five full sets at the ninth-annual gathering. “We had the first Domefest on May 1, 2010. It was the best day of my entire life,” Schon gushes. “It was, by far, the coolest thing I’d ever accomplished and it was just amazing seeing what we pulled together.”
But it hasn’t always been easy. After his original partner moved on to other projects, Schon ran the festival alone for two years, which, he admits, was “too much for one person to handle while keeping their sanity.” That’s when he enlisted Ormont as a co-curator. Apart from being a member of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, the singer had a special affinity for Domefest—it was his first music festival.
“Experiencing Domefest as my first festival is really all the drive I’ll ever need to pour myself into future Domefests,” Ormont says. “We’ve had some amazing things happen at Domefest, including engagements, weddings and bachelor parties—all of the things associated with love and appreciation of music. It’s just really exciting that this year’s going to be the biggest one yet.”
It’s already been a banner 12-month stretch for the quartet. Ormont jokes that he has to write a new bucket list because he’s checked off so many life goals already. They played their first Lockn’ last summer, made their first Jam Cruise appearance earlier this year, and eagerly look forward to their Red Rocks debut opening for moe. this July. The ensemble released their fourth studio LP Pizazz in October, which offers a focused blend of fun-filled lyrics and funk-laden jams.
But the group’s beginnings were much humbler. On his first day at the University of Maryland, Ormont wandered around his dorm with an acoustic guitar, looking for new friends. After a fun, but forgettable, rendition of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” with another classmate, he walked across the hall and met Schon. “We started jamming and goofing around and started making silly songs, which eventually led to us playing open-mic nights,” he recalls. In time, the duo put together a solid repertoire, including “No Woman/No Farmhouse,” a Bob Marley/Phish mash-up that gained them a decent amount of “dorm fame.”
Nevertheless, their first gig under the Pigeons Playing Ping Pong banner wasn’t exactly a barn burner. At the Santa Fe Cafe in College Park, Md., Ormont sang while Schon played acoustic guitar. They performed covers of hits like “Billie Jean,” and they still laugh about the audience’s reaction. “There was this screen that you could text comments to [and they would be displayed live],” Ormont remembers. Their most memorable critique? “‘If I had to choose between earplugs and a gun, I’d choose the gun.’ And that’s what we saw while we were playing our first show. Again, I thought it was hilarious. I remember laughing about it because it was so intense and we’re like, ‘This is a dorm thing, don’t stress out about it.’”
And that continues to be Pigeons Playing Ping Pong’s essence. Since day one, they just want to have fun. Over time, they have fostered not just a fanbase, but “The Flock,” a group of followers who travel to shows, make fan art and go bonkers over setlists. The Flock even funded Pizazz via Kickstarter, a release that, in the band’s eyes, is a commercial success and a creative breakthrough.
“The live music experience is everything to us,” Schon says. “It’s why Domefest exists; it’s really why our band exists and why we can play Madison Square Garden, Red Rocks, Jam Cruise, two nights at 9:30 Club. We really owe it all to The Flock for supporting us and giving us the chance to make this all a reality.”
This article originally appears in the June 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.