Words by Jonathan Stout
Philadelphia’s 2nd Grade started gaining a national buzz with the release of their debut Hit to Hit in 2020. This album presented a massive 24 songs, blazing past in a 41 minute blur of upbeat power pop in the wonderful tradition of Big Star and Guided by Voices.
2nd Grade’s newest album, Easy Listening, is just that in the respect that it’s highly accessible to anyone who enjoys sweet-toothed rock n’ roll. With hooks abundant, some songs might come with a smirk but are never smug. Even the songs that have a sense of humor still have a lot of heart and are delivered genuinely with lean, tasteful production that never comes off as bloated or over arranged.
We chatted with primary songwriter, Peter Gill, about 2nd Grade’s songwriting process, sources of inspiration and more.
Off Shelf: So the last couple years have been a bit weird, to put it lightly. A lot of bands that were going strong before the pandemic lost momentum and some threw in the towel completely. Your album, Hit to Hit, came out just as the pandemic was hitting. Venues closed around the country and touring was essentially shut down for a lot of bands. How did you cope with not being able to push the album as bands normally do?
Peter Gill: It was definitely a bummer to not tour for Hit To Hit, but luckily we weren’t a touring band yet at that point anyway, so it doesn’t feel like we lost any momentum when live music disappeared. It’s been a really exciting and creatively fertile time for us, even despite all the uncertainty. I feel like more listeners maybe went out of their way to find our music and champion us online than otherwise would have, which I’m very grateful for.
OS: How did the decision to reissue your first album, Wish You Were Here Tour, made? Was it to help fill in time between releases/pandemic related downtime or were there other influencing factors?
PG: I think the label and band were both already interested in reissuing the debut album at some point, and the timing just worked out. In a perfect world I would’ve wanted to put out an album of new songs in 2021, but the amount of in-person collaboration required for that was just logistically impossible at that point of the lockdown. I’m really glad we did the reissue instead!
OS: Your newest album, Easy Listening, is energetic and highly inspired. Almost like a celebration of returning to pre-pandemic life. How did you maintain enthusiasm and creativity over the last couple years?
PG: I settled into a more disciplined rhythm of songwriting and new music listening, which turned out to be quite fruitful. I treated it like homework in a sense, but it’s not like I was making myself do it really. I figured out strategies to have multiple new songs developing at once, and some songs like “Teenage Overpopulation” honestly wrote themselves. As for maintaining enthusiasm, I find it’s easy to feel inspired if you make an effort to frequently have your mind blown by what other artists are doing.
OS: I really like the subtle diversity of the new album, especially how the tracklist often alternates between bedroom lo-fi recordings and studio recordings. What was the recording and track assembly process of the album?
PG: The hi-fi stuff was recorded at a great recording studio called Headroom, and the lo-fi stuff was done at home with 4-tracks and shoebox cassette recorders. My idea was that the overall album would be glued together by pop melody rather than sonic consistency, so we aimed for lots of contrast in fidelity. The crucial step was figuring out the final track order, which took a couple days of banging our heads against walls.
OS: Your sound is definitely guitar-forward and referential to classic rock, power pop and 90s indie rock. There has been a lot of discussion over the past couple years about the absence of the guitar in pop music, as well as a repetition of the tired proclamation of “rock is dead!” What keeps you interested in and inspired by rock and guitar oriented music?
PG: Guitars and rock are simply what I know, kinda like how English happens to be the language I know. Is it a perfect language? Maybe not, but it’s versatile and durable and it just works, time and time again. My favorite musicians today are all generally working with guitars. Some of them are zeroing in on the perfection of the two-minute pop song, while others are breaking pretty much every rule in the book.
OS: “Beat of the Drum,” a really fun song that seems to blend The Ramones with The Jesus and Mary Chain, is probably the noisiest track on the album. There seems to be tracks of guitars simply feeding back throughout the song. What was your process for recording this song? Do you have any go-to distortion pedals when you’re looking to get extra noisy?
PG: We recorded the basic song as a full band, then the feedback guitars were overdubbed on top. We had the amps absolutely cranked to produce and capture that sound. It was crazy loud. And I’m not much of a gear head, I’ll generally make do with whatever pedal or guitar or whatever is within arm’s reach. Most 2nd Grade recordings have been made with whatever random instruments or pedals happened to be there.
OS: You reference Tom Petty, Seinfeld and more throughout your album. It’s assumed these things inspired your songwriting for Easy Listening. Was there anything else you were listening to, reading or watching that you gained inspiration from during the songwriting process of the album?
PG: I was listening to a ton of Guided By Voices and Outrageous Cherry which I think is pretty reflective in the songwriting. Lots of Miles Davis too, I love his thoughtful phrasing of melodies. I taught myself a bunch of songs by artists like Chris Weisman, Christina Schneider, R. Stevie Moore, etc. to try to figure out how their songs work. That led to “Kramer In LA” and “Controlled Burn”, both of which have all these weird chords that fit together in unusual ways but still work as pop songs. And I couldn’t go to the library during lockdown so I read basically every book I could find in our house, everything from “Infinite Jest” to “Into Thin Air”. I’m sure a lot of that rubbed off on the songwriting.
OS: Similarly, what is the band’s general songwriting process? Do you write everything and bring it to the band or is it more of a collaborative process?
PG: Yup! I write the songs and bring them to the band, and together we figure out how to make it work and get the ideas across in a convincing way.
OS: How would you describe the Philadelphia music scene? Do you feel like you fit in with the other local music of your peers?
PG: Philly’s music scene is big, diverse, and very inspiring to be a part of. There’s so much really cool stuff happening that flies under the radar, but I’m seeing more up-and-coming artists getting outside attention which is super neat. We fit in because Philly is a big indie rock city, but we’re definitely more pop-oriented than most rock bands here. In that sense I feel a closer kinship to a place like San Francisco than the emo/shoegazey/punky stuff happening in Philly.
OS: A lot of bands are just starting to get back out there and gig/tour again. I noticed you’ve just played a few shows this year, do you plan to tour more extensively next year?
PG: Yes, we’re definitely planning on hitting the road! We have three LPs now and have never ventured beyond the mid-Atlantic east coast, so we’re way overdue. Reader, if you live in the Lower 48 or Canada we hope to see you soon! And UK/EU who knows?!