Discussing obscurity in art can be an awkward business. It lugs a lot of baggage, especially in music: As a premeditated aesthetic, it’s often more hipster joke than highbrow, and even when backed by a deeper purpose, it can mislead those who unpack it. Beyond that, it’s hard to talk about it at length without feeling at least a little pretentious, and it follows suit that any work that strays too from the literal might risk getting written off that way.
The first thing to know about Pile’s trademark version of obscurity is that it’s none of the above. Over the past decade, frontman and guitarist Rick Maguire has charted a swerving course through Boston’s musical underground, starting as a solo folk act before enlisting three bandmates (guitarist Matt Becker, bassist Matt Connery, and drummer Kris Kuss) and plunging into heavy rock experimentation. Since then, the band has become known for complex, dynamically wild songs that tangle enough unrelated ideas together for listeners to get lost in.
But combing through Pile lyrics to hunt down some sort of internal logic almost always misses the point. Most songs work more like Magic Eye pictures; squinting at the details won’t reveal nearly as much as letting it all slide slightly out of focus and waiting for whatever’s lurking in the background to reveal itself. It’s dense out of necessity, but the cumulative effect makes Pile’s obscurity more functional than aesthetic. All those disjointed ideas puzzle together into an impenetrable wall that you can chuck any feeling at and know that it’ll stick, as long as it’s dredged up from somewhere dark.
Where the band left off after 2015’s You’re Better Than This, the idea of fully understanding a Pile record upon first listen was starting to feel like a radical notion, not for lack of substance, but for the time that it takes to calibrate to the ever-shifting time signatures, labyrinthine writing, and explosive arrangements tugging the band into the depths of post-hardcore. It was the latest installment in a musical arc that grew more aggressive with each album (previously on 2010’s Magic Isn’t Real and 2012’s Dripping), with the next step seemingly headed for brainy, brutal oblivion.
But Maguire had other plans. On You’re Better Than This, he’d taken that direction to its reasonable conclusion, and it was time to push the band toward a different sound — something less aggressive and more accessible. With that direction in mind, he got to work on Pile’s fifth (or sixth, depending on how diehard of a fan you’re talking to) album in a decade.
The resulting record, A Hairshirt of Purpose — out Friday via Exploding in Sound, with the hometown record release party Sunday at The Sinclair in Cambridge) — makes retroactive sense of the rest of Pile’s discography, dissecting the blues-folk of Jerk Routine and the hurtling noise of You’re Better Than This in equal turns and stitching the results together into a sound so natural that its very seamlessness feels like a plot twist. More eye-opening still is that it contains some of Maguire’s most straightforward writing yet. That’s not to say that he cuts the obscurity altogether — far from it — but A Hairshirt of Purpose offers a flicker of the literal amid all that symbolism, and it’s enough to illuminate the rest.
“Something that I’d wanted to do right after the last record was have lyrics be a little more cohesive, and have some sort of theme that ties stuff together, even if it was just within a song,” Maguire says over the phone. “I feel like I jumped around a lot on the last record and it was pretty disjointed both musically and lyrically, so I basically wanted it to just calm down a little bit… I’ve been asked about particular songs before on previous records, ‘what is it about?’ and it’s about, like, eight different things, cutting and pasting a lot of stuff, whereas this one I can actually point to specific things, like actual ideas or concepts, and it’s a little bit more of that.”
That thematic chaos had been partially intentional, but also came as the result of an unforgiving schedule that crushed lyric writing into last-minute business before entering the studio. It had been a pressurized process all along, but that stress came to a head with the writing of You’re Better Than This, which Maguire remembers as downright unpleasant. It had taken him a long time to feel satisfied with the record that resulted, and though he eventually did, the frustration it had entailed left him determined to tweak his process the next time around.
“I really didn’t want to go through all that again,” he says. “I tried to focus on being prepared. I think having recorded the record at home helped a lot. I think not having an insane amount of van trouble helped a lot. But yeah, I really tried to stay focused and take care of myself while going through this process. I guess there was a lot more self-care involved in writing this record, and that probably comes through, too, because it’s a little bit mellower.”
That mellowness presented a challenge in itself, since it emphasized Maguire’s vocals on a level that had been mostly absent from the two prior releases. It wasn’t a decision that he was entirely comfortable with, but he committed to it nevertheless: “Because I was focusing on actually being more coherent lyrically, [I thought] I should put the vocals up front a little more. That was maybe a little bit stressful, but I knew I was going to walk into it. I knew that that was the plan from the go.”
In that regard, A Hairshirt of Purpose gets straight to the point. The opening bars of intro track “Worms” find Maguire singing solemnly over simple fingerpicking; more conventionally Pile-ish follow-up “Hissing for Peace” howls in like a helicopter landing; the rest of the album strikes a balance veering between those extremes. But it’s single “Leaning on a Wheel” that feels like the clearest expression of the band’s development, balancing steadily building guitars with some of Maguire’s most direct writing yet:
“Head down a nice peel / I wouldn’t call it driving, more like leaning on a wheel / Not happy / Not in love / But let’s have a baby to save the marriage that we made up / Just getting in our own way.
Play in traffic / Have a kid / May every good deed be in self-interest”
“It’s kind of about a lot of things,” Maguire explains, “how people are sort of self-serving, they do whatever they do to get by.” It’s the kind of Pile track that couldn’t have existed on a prior album, but comes with a newfound comfort in letting a song’s meaning out into the open. And though they’ve never dealt in indie tropes, it’s an acknowledgement of the difference between age and maturity that makes perfect sense at the crux of this album, at this point in their career.
It’s no small accomplishment that, over the past 10 years, Pile have grown to thrive in a local scene that isn’t known for nurturing band longevity, but it hasn’t always been simple. Where You’re Better Than This framed the project’s internal pressures, A Hairshirt of Purpose often turns its gaze externally, and both perspectives factor in on hard-hitting track “Hairshirt”, during which Maguire concludes an exasperated intro by bellowing the line that the album pulls its name from: “…but I still have a hairshirt of purpose that I claim to love.”
You can practically hear the eye roll.
As he explains: “I guess the ‘hairshirt of purpose’ is the band, and it’s sort of sarcastic in that I have this thing that has the potential to be frustrating at times, and feels like my only objective as a human being, or has at times, to continue doing this thing and that’s so frustrating, and that i need to, I don’t know, kill myself for it… But it’s sarcastic because you’re doing it because you enjoy doing it, and nobody’s putting a gun to your head. It was sort of just talking to myself sarcastically, when in reality the point of me saying that is that it’s something I should be grateful for.”
He’s referencing gratitude for Pile itself, but he’s also alluding to its following, which seems to get drawn further into the band’s narrative with every new release. That fandom might be a symptom of DIY origins or connections made through a hard-touring lifestyle, but either way, it’s grown large enough to stand out beside the band’s humble demeanor. Boston’s homegrown rock scene offers a cozy enough niche to preserve artists as people instead of personas, but the national indie sphere that Pile are poised to enter more fully with A Hairshirt of Purpose’s release often demands more from its artists: Public stances on social issues, a certain level of social media participation, the illusion of knowing the person whose words are coming through your headphones, even if you’ll never meet them.
That visibility adds pressure and responsibility for any artist, but especially for the private individuals who are used to leaving the spotlight after their sets end. Though Pile’s genre-misfit charm has long encouraged punk status, in the past they’ve never been overtly political. But that, too, is changing. Maguire recognizes the power of the band’s growing exposure, and he’s looking for ways to use it for the better.
“I’ve been getting a little bit more comfortable with it,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, for obvious reasons. Donald Trump is our president. That’s such a time-machine moment. Two or three years ago, if you went into the future and saw what’s happening now, it would just be mind-blowing. But because of all that, because of there being an audience, I feel like I’ve got to say something.”
Pile never struggled to find its voice, but as the band continues to evolve, Maguire hopes to find impactful ways of using it offstage as much as on. So far, it’s resulted in plans for a directory-style zine of social justice organizations and diverse art platforms that need donations and volunteers, but they’re keeping an eye out for other opportunities, too. If there was ever a reason to get outspoken, this is it.
“It’s like, what are you afraid of by actually standing up for something?” he says. “If people just don’t like you for what you believe, then what kind of ground are you standing on by trying to do something you put your heart into, and then have people that totally disagree with you love what you do?”
It’s a worthy question for anyone — but as Pile rise to their own heightened expectations, it’s one that they’re no longer in position to answer.