Interview: Greg Ormont of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong
Based out of Baltimore, MD, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong has an undeniable unique and versatile sound that ascends peaks of musical ecstasy. One of the fastest growing emerging bands in the jam and festival scene, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong is here to bring the party with their danceable electro-funk grooves and infectious ability to bring positive energy to any environment. Just last week, we caught up with Greg Ormont (guitar/vocals) to get all of the latest insight on the Pigeons.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong has seen drastic growth and success since hitting the road in 2009. How did it all begin, and what was that first year as a new band like?
GREG: It all began similarly to other bands’ stories. We met in college and it started out as a fun project between two guys: Jeremy Schon (lead guitar) and myself. We met freshman at the University of Maryland. We lived on the same floor, so the first day of school I walked down the hall with my guitar looking for a little help and someone to jam with. A union was formed that is definitely stronger than we anticipated. It’s always fun to look back at because it’s not something I planned for, in terms of becoming a full-time touring musician. However, it was a very natural beginning and smooth transition from two people to four people, from coffee shops to campus events, to local bars, to our first show out of town, to now full-time touring musicians. It was a very casual and natural growth.
Describing the first year is kind of hard to put your finger on because we started as a duo, so I’ll talk about our first year as a full band. The first time we left University of Maryland to play a show, we were all really excited to be travelling and playing and seeing the country. Watching that process develop into a profession has been awesome and a really cool insider’s look at the music business. But the first year, and really every year following, has really been about having fun and spreading good times to similar and different people.
For us, it’s always been about fun. I bet you can believe that from our name, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. While we do take ourselves seriously as businessmen and musicians, we love to keep more of a lax atmosphere on stage within the band. Thankfully we’ve never lost that thirst for having fun and spreading good music during our evolution as a band.
Before ever hearing your music, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the name of the band. Can you elaborate on the story behind Pigeons Playing Ping Pong?
GREG: Oh man, yeah that question always spikes the interviewer’s curiosity. The name came when we were still an acoustic duo. I was thinking about band names a little bit, because we were starting to play more shows, but it was still a dorm project. I mean, we were playing gigs, but it still had that super lax, natural, hang out feel. So I didn’t feel a lot of pressure in terms of coming up with a band name at the time. If I tried to come up with a band name today, it would definitely feel like more of a big decision.
So Jeremy and I were sitting in Psychology class, and I was looking down at my textbook, on the wrong page, and the phrase “pigeons playing ping pong” literally jumped out at me. There was either a fluorescent light bulb above me toying with the shiny textbook paper, or some other factor at play, but the phrase had gold behind it and straight up jumped off the page. I leaned over to Jeremy, pointed to it and said, “that’s our band name right there.” He simply replied, “down.” And that was that. I’ve told that story so many times, and the more I heard it come out of my mouth, the more it sounds like total B.S. But I’m telling you the phrase jumped off the page.
As I said before, I had begun thinking about band names and decided it should either be a one-word band name, like Tool or Radiohead or Phish, or it should be a catchy phrase, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Just some whacky phrase that bounces off your tongue. And sure enough, it was Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. I think it even has the same amount of syllables as Red Hot Chili Peppers; another band that we all mutually love. So that’s how it happened. Either that or some aliens gave me some advice, I’m not at liberty to say.
Last summer, you guys released your first full studio album, Psychology. How much original material had been written since the previous album Funk EP, and how did you ultimately decide which tracks would make the final cut?
GREG: That’s a great question and FYI, Funk EP is actually a full-length album. We had a song on it called Funk E Zekeil, so Funk EP was a play on words regarding that. Anyway, we recorded Funk EP in roughly one night in college at our campus radio station in 2010. Psychology came out in 2014, so we had a ton of new music to choose from. In those four years, the music we wrote evolved into songs more like our current sound. If you listen to the two albums, you’ll notice that the music is very different in many ways. Still the same funky vibe, but it takes time for a band to find its voice as a unit. At some point, probably around 2011, we developed our own signature sound; our own signature brand of psychedelic funk. And that just came from jamming together for so long.
So Psychology has music that is way more like our live show these days than Funk EP, although we still play a bunch of those early songs and even revamped a few to match our current vibe. In terms of choosing music for Psychology, we had to decide what should be on this album and what should be saved for the next one, because we have a lot of original music. Off the bat, we knew that a couple of our live heavy hitters had to be on there, you know, the songs that kind of sum up this era of the band. I tend to look at our albums as snapshots of where we are and what we’ve been playing live when we release the album. So songs like “F.U.”, “Melting Lights”, and “Julia” seemed like great choices for this one. Psychology was released right at the peak of those songs.
Secondly, we try to make the album as fluid as possible. Different songs serve different purposes on albums. Sometimes you need a song that’s a little more down tempo and chill, while other times you need a pump up, depending on the overall flow of the album. It’s very similar to planning a live show, except we don’t wait to play our “hits” at the end. Most albums tend to be slightly frontloaded. We like to hit ‘em hard right off the bat, and keep that great vibe going all the way through. So if we have three down tempo songs in our repertoire and space for only one cool down, we tend to pick the most appropriate and fluid option and save the others for the next album’s chill moments, if you know what I mean. We have our different styles and we like to spread them out logically for flow’s sake.
The song “Melting Lights” tells a very entertaining and honest story that I’ve wondered a lot about. Care to share any background on that particular song?
GREG: All I can say is that after my first few years of songwriting, I finally decided to tell it how it is.
The unique sound and high energy level of the band certainly plays in your favor. Who are your biggest influences, and how do you feel your sound has evolved over the years?
GREG: This is a tough question to answer, because I can only answer as an individual. If it was just one of us playing all the instruments, it would only be one sound, one perspective, one set of influences. We’re all different people raised on different music, and had different musical preference early on. After a while, you get the amalgamation of all of it as a band.
When it comes down to answering your question simply and directly, we’ve said in the past that our music is a combination of Phish, Talking Heads, Lotus, The New Mastersounds and Red Hot Chili Peppers. But I’ve been in 20+ musicals and I grew up on classic rock, whereas our drummer listened to more 311 and hip-hop. Our sound truly is a combination of all of our musical pasts. After you jam together for a while, those influences morph and take on a unique sound that the four of us are proud to put our name on.
What’s the usual practice behind a Pigeons set list? How do you guys go about selecting the songs on any given night? How much improvisation is involved?
GREG: Well, Jeremy writes the absolute majority of our set lists so you can follow up with him. But I can tell you that we have a document on our computer of every set list we’ve ever played so we can look back at what we’ve played in certain towns or areas the last few shows there. We tour so much that it would be unrealistic to remember what songs we played at every show so the database is crucial. We want our fans to see a new show every time with interesting song choices and fun surprises.
We recently have been fortunate enough to have some fans travel with us from show to show. It challenges us tremendously when we know that there is going to be groups of people seeing a bunch of shows in a row. It really expands our set list, and more so, it expands our jamming. It encourages us to improv more with hopes of creating new and exciting musical moments at every show. It also inspires us to write more music and to focus on making each song as great as it can be every time. I think our diehard Flockers keep coming back because we’ve never played the same set twice and plan to keep it that way. It’s a lot of work but it keeps our shows interesting for the Flock and ourselves.
Once we get a feel for what our repeat customers have seen recently, we build a high-octane, fun-filled, fluid set list to blow people’s pants off. As far as improvisation goes, that lies primarily in the jams. I mean, we don’t always stick to a set list. If the mood is right, we’ll bail on the set and take the jams wherever we want. There are no rules.
Looking ahead in 2015, what can we expect from the Pigeons? Are there any events that have the band particularly excited?
GREG: That’s an easy question for me. Jeremy and I throw a festival every year called Domefest and it’s the ultimate gathering of the Flock. It started with Jeremy throwing a raging 1-day 1-night music and camping party near the University of Maryland. It was so much fun getting our friends together that it blossomed into a full on festival, with this year extending to three nights for the first time. It’s May 28-30, 2015 at Trip’s Farm (formerly known as Sunshine Daydream Memorial Park) in Terra Alta, WV, a beautiful site that has played host to a number of tremendous festivals in past years including a young All Good Festival.
Domefest attracts Flockers from all over the country, and seeing our friends and fans meet is an amazing experience. We’ve seen new couples meet at our shows, new friends meeting and eventually becoming family… the list goes on. I think that’s what the jam scene is all about; bringing people together through live music. It’s the icing on an already sweet cake and Domefest is the ultimate launch pad for that special something.
We also use Domefest as an opportunity to show our fans all of the amazing bands that we have met on the road. We have bands from all over the East Coast and Mid-West who deserve a big stage with a thirsty crowd, regardless of how well known they are. A lot of bands go on to play successful shows back in this area and that makes us so happy. We travel year-round looking for Domefest-esque music fans, so we feel it’s our bandly duty to give other bands a chance to play for new fans and share a special moment in our neck of the woods.
That’s what our live show is all about. It’s about the connection and the shared human experience. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing for 10 or 10,000 people. It’s about surrounding yourself with positive people and surrendering to the flow. We’re proud that Domefest brings likeminded people together, give bands the stages they deserve, and lets people experience something truly special in an open and ultra-fun environment. I can’t funkin’ wait for this year’s musical madness.