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On Integrating Vintage Vibes into Modern Recordings
Gianni Napolitano is a young songwriter and indie pop bandleader from New York City. His group, The Pine Hollows, recently released their first full-length LP, Something My Heart Understands, embarked on their first tour and dropped their first official music video. All these firsts before his 21st birthday – not bad, eh? We recently spoke with Napolitano about his songcraft, the band’s use of vintage gear and retro studio tricks, and the challenges of being a DIY artist in today’s market.
So let’s start with your background in music.
I started playing guitar at 11 or 12. My sister got a guitar for Christmas the year before, but she never really picked it up. So I started trying to play it, and took lessons soon after that at the Paul Green School of Rock in Manhattan. That was a really cool experience, going into the city two or three times a week and playing with kids my age; it was really great.
And you’re how old now?
And you’re actually a student of musicology at NYU, right?
Yes, it’s my last full-time semester and I’ll be graduating in the fall.
For those who don’t know, can you explain what musicology actually encompasses?
Definitely – it’s really a music theory and history-based curriculum. There’s not much performance to it, which is OK because that’s what I do full time outside of school. So with the major, we’re studying whatever part of music history we most enjoy and we delve deep into that with an anthropological focus.
And for you, what would that period be?
For me, that’s early rock and roll, the late-’50s stuff.
Do you think what you’ve been studying has informed your own songwriting?
Absolutely. It’s sort of funny because in school I got into Buddy Holly; it just happened to be synchronicity. It changed me so much as a musician and a songwriter, because I heard so much of myself in his [material]. It was really cool to hear songs that weren’t very complicated but were still very guitar-oriented.
So how did the band come about? It that a real group or more of a solo project?
I think it’s more of a collective, with rotating musicians. It sort of became a pseudonym for me, and it started the summer before I went to school with Ray Belli, our drummer, who’s also the only other constant in the band beside myself, interning at this recording studio. That kind of fell apart, but at that point he was the catalyst for it, and we actually met at the School of Rock – so we’ve known each other for five or six years now…
How do you approach collaboration, then? Is it mostly your ideas and arrangements?
It’s pretty much my arrangements, my songs. And it sort of just came to happen that way. With the original lineup we had, I was trying to foster a more collaborative approach, but it wasn’t really happening.
And for me, I’m an impatient person, and I got to a place where I said, ‘If I have to do it myself, I will.’
Can you take us deeper into you songwriting process?
I have this little cassette recorder that I use to noodle on the guitar. Originally, when I got into songwriting I was just playing and singing and hoping for the best. Maybe mumble some words and try to figure it out and write something down later. But as time went on, the music and lyrics started to happen at the same time. And now I write when I feel like I need to, which is quite often. It’s usually a way for me to try and figure things out, mentally. One of my favorite writers, Joan Didion, once said, ‘I write to figure out what I’m thinking.’ And I really find that to be true for me, too.
As far as the songs go, do the music and lyrics evolve in the studio, or are the arrangements set when you go to record?
It depends on the song. On this album, a lot of them were fleshed out before we recorded since we did some demos at NYU first, so we knew what they were going to sound like [already]. We maybe changed a little in the arrangements, and some that really took off in the studio were songs like ‘After Dark,’ which is a chaotic one. But it’s definitely fun, trying to capture all those weird noises on guitar. Will Salwen played double bass on it, and he was doing interesting things with the bow, so we were trying to outdo each other in the studio [laughs].
What were some of the weird sounds you were doing on guitar?
One thing I did, which the other guys hadn’t heard before, is something that happens in Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes,’ where David Gilmour reverses the input and output on his wah-wah pedal.
And what exactly does that do?
It makes this screeching…it sounds like a bird, almost.
Do you still get a wah effect at all?
No, it completely bypasses that and it sounds almost like a synthesizer at times. It’s just a really weird noise.
Speaking of your sounds (and sound), you have this really cool retro, yet contemporary style. Do you think your gear or your songwriting approach plays the biggest role in that?
I feel like it’s both, as well as my history with the School of Rock. That definitely informs the sound when I’m writing, since we studied and played so much classic rock. And I have a 1966 Fender Pro Reverb amp that I use for pretty much the whole album, as well as an old 1976 Les Paul; so I sort of consciously go for an older sound.
How does touring work for the collective?
We just went to Florida and Georgia in January for our first tour. That was seven shows in eight days. So that was pretty crazy – but life on the road was a lot of fun. One of the craziest things that happened, since we’re all so young, is that we had problems getting a car rental. So we almost didn’t have a car, and they gave us this tiny sedan [to tour in]. So we got this car top carrier, and we built the thing in the parking lot of Walmart so we could cram all the suitcases and amps in.
Does your age ever present any problems getting booked at clubs?
I feel like a lot of times the club will ask how old we are when they’re booking, and the few times we played at Rockwood [Music Hall, NYC] they said, ‘Oh, you can stay but you have to leave when the show is over and you’ll need to wait next door until it’s your turn to play.’ Things like that…
Do you plan on hitting the road again?
Yeah, definitely. We’re thinking about another tour, but we’re not sure what that’s gonna be yet. We’re definitely gonna play more in New York this summer.
Are you working with an agency right now or are you booking your own stuff?
It’s all me for now. We have a booking agent that we’re thinking of working with for [an upcoming] tour, but I’m not sure that’ll happen due to funding and [other factors].
What are your thoughts on being a DIY band in today’s market?
I think one of the pros is that in a way you can do whatever you want, and that you own the art you make and have the final word on everything. That part I really enjoy. I think the cons are that it’s a real challenge to figure out how you’re gonna do something.
But those limitations can lead you to good things that might not have happened otherwise.
photos by Jennifer Painter