“Choir / Sing like an iris / See what I'm in need of", calls a voice in "Choir", the opening track of PigPen Theatre Co.’s sophomore folk-rock album, Whole Sun. “I think that sums up my relationship with music in general”, writes lead singer Ryan Melia. “Whether you're listening to or writing music, you want it to be a medicine. You want it to make you feel good, teach you, watch over you, wash over you."
The “Choir” lyric continues, “Sing like we’re family.” And they do. The band, seven male 20-somethings (Alex Falberg; banjo, Ben Ferguson; guitar/banjo, Curtis Gillen; bass, Matt Nuernberger; guitar/keyboard, Ryan Melia; guitar/banjo, Dan Weschler; accordion/keyboard, and Arya Shahi; percussion) who met in college and began writing together in 2007, function as a tightly knit unit. With a lush array of vocal harmony, at times culminating with all 7 singing at once, PigPen Theatre Co. often shifts in scale from the personal to the epic. The band of multi-instrumentalists trades off an eclectic collection of instruments, a banjo for a Telecaster, an accordion for a woodwind, that gives PigPen’s story-driven songs their wide-ranging, but always evocative, atmosphere. Whole Sun was written while the group was on the road cultivating its rapidly growing fan base.
Their debut album, Bremen, was named #10 album of the year in The Huffington Post’s 2012 Grammy Preview sending PigPen on tour playing to sold-out crowds at The Music Hall of Williamsburg and The Bowery Ballroom in NYC, Lincoln Hall in Chicago, The Echo in Los Angeles, Hill Auditorium and The Ark in Ann Arbor, amongst many others. Special appearances have included SXSW, The Ann Arbor Folk Festival, Dayton Folk Fest, and Milwaukee’s Summerfest, where PigPen Theatre Co. were winners in the Emerging Artist’s Series in 2013. They also performed a series of concerts that became one of the best selling residencies of the past decade at the legendary Schuba’s Tavern in Chicago.
While it is unusual for a band that’s been together nearly 8 years to only be releasing their sophomore album, that’s because this group has been making headway in other arenas, too. In addition to their work as musicians, PigPen Theatre Co. is a fully functioning (get this!) theatre company. The moniker isn’t just for the ironic hipster street cred. They’re a real multiple-award-winning theatre company. Their music-driven plays (written, composed, and performed by the band) have played Off-Broadway and to packed houses across the country, earning critical praise from The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Huffington Post, Time Out New York, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, and more, winning a myriad of awards for their original music, playwriting, and dynamic as an ensemble. The group’s theatrical appetite is healthy, too, with three new plays slated for development over the next three years. In 2012, The New Yorker called them “a perfect combination of original music, stunning shadow puppetry, and vigorous physical comedy. It’s like watching child geniuses at play.”
“The goal this time was to write songs that belonged to us, not our plays”, said Melia. Whole Sun was written over 18 months, many of which were away from home as the band members gave up their New York City apartments and performed all over the country. Weschler remembers, “we were kind of isolated for months, with a lot of time to think about the loved ones we'd left behind. Those first few songs had a lot to do with looking at our relationships and the ways they were changing, sometimes growing, sometimes dwindling. “Weathervane," "You Woke," “Mayfly" and “Shailene" (an unreleased track), are all songs addressed to someone important who's on the other side of a great distance.”
They were surprised to find large crowds in cities they’d never been before, and in some places, Gillen recalls, “people were singing the lyrics, and we could hear them from on stage. It was amazing.” More exciting for the group, though, was that the new material began to take over as their collective sound grew.“These new songs were more vulnerable and, in a way, the audience became our partner in composition. Our parts became a direct result of the conversation we were having with them night after night” noted Shahi.
They had amassed nearly 30 songs by the summer of 2014 when suddenly Melia’s father, a close and beloved mentor to the group, passed away without warning. Weschler recalls, “We all reacted differently, but the same inevitable questions arose for all of us - what were we doing? What were we trying to do? Why did it matter? How could we move forward?”
The answers started to come as they began writing again. The band entered an eight-month period of recording demos in their Brooklyn apartment. "We focused on each song as it stood on its own, and developed the world that each song lived in,” said Ferguson, “we wanted to step back afterward to see what kind of album we were making.” Then they moved to the recording studio, adding a number of new sounds and textures. “I think everyone is playing at least one new instrument on this album that they didn’t before”, said Nuernberger. “We used a lot of new instruments like flute, mellotron, hammered dulcimer, a Wurlitzer, organ, fiddle, saxophone, trumpet, melodica, accordion, and even a vibraphone.”
“Many of the songs were about growing up” Weschler said. “They were about moving through different phases of your life with open eyes and acceptance. Which led us to the title, Whole Sun, a lyric from “Teeth”, 'Give us a bite of that whole sun.' We see the world in different degrees of focus, sometimes the picture is small and highly focused, but every now and then it gets big and all encompassing and we feel ourselves as part of something infinite. That's the way the sun is all the time. It shines down on everything and it’s always full, always a whole sun. It doesn't go through phases like the moon, it’s just there, all the time, seeing everything and casting light on everything. In some ways that's the ideal way of being. Shouldn't we all be like the sun? But that would also require us to be on fire. So we settle for focusing in on our lives and the people in them, with the occasional bright, fiery glimpse into the infinite - often in the aftermath of a great loss."
(There is much rejoicing.)