ABOVE: THREE-QUARTERS OF PILL FRIENDS
Living in a Philadelphia suburb with a population of less than 3,000 affords a person a lot of free time. Away from the all-consuming bustle of the big city, things are staid, calm—maybe even more than a little boring. Ryan Wilson, principal songwriter behind Pill Friends, chooses not to take that time to indulge in prurient activities, as his moniker suggests—but rather, to look inward.
Bearing a striking vocal resemblance to a young Conor Oberst, a careful understanding of highwire rhythmic dynamics (no doubt cribbed from a childhood of Modest Mouse worship), and a dead-eyed, melodic catharsis all his own, the 22-year-old has set about churning out a series of increasingly compelling songwriting efforts. A couple of EPs released over the last year, It’s Kyle’s Birthday Everyday and Murder Me For My Sins, find Wilson using that unique blend to explore the uncompromisingly dark aspects of his psyche; spoken-word noise jams shared cassette sides with tender tales of narcotized escapism. Blessed Suffering, Pill Friends’ debut LP (due out tomorrow on Birdtapes) channels all of that promise into 10 focused tracks that probe the basest question of the human condition: Should I go on living?
In advance the impending release of that deadly serious record, Wilson took some time to talk to Interview about the band’s roots in small-town, high-school friendships and how a religious upbringing and his fascination with philosophy play into his anxiety-ridden compositions.
BAND MEMBERS: Ryan Wilson (guitar, vocals), Abby Trunfio (cello, vocals), Kyle Schwander (drums), Davis Cook (bass)
AGE(S): 22 (Wilson, Schwander, and Trunfio), 21 (Cook)
HOMETOWN: New Hope, Pennsylvania
CLASSIC ROOTS: There’s not that much music that happens in my family. It’s not that there’s not an environment for it, it just really isn’t promoted that much as sports or other things. No one really plays instruments in my family, but my best friend when I was 13 played bass, and he taught me how to play guitar. That’s when I started playing music for the first time. I was playing a lot of Neil Young, Black Sabbath and early classic rock stuff. I still really love Black Sabbath, and Neil Young is one of my favorites. I wrote a little bit early in high school. After that, I stopped writing for a while and then unlearned the guitar again. When I was 20, I formed a band for the first time, which became Pill Friends. We eventually started putting it all together.
HIGH SCHOOL SWEETHEARTS: In high school, Kyle and I would jam Modest Mouse songs; that’s how we became friends. We both moved away from our town to go to school at different places. I wasn’t around for a while, but then I hit him up because we were supposed to record some demos. My old drummer dipped out on me, so I kicked him out. I hadn’t talked to Kyle for two years, but I just hit him up out of nowhere. That’s where it all started. We all met in high school. We knew who each other was. It was a small town. We just didn’t become friends until afterward. We started jamming in November of 2011. We recorded some really early demos and we changed to Pill Friends the summer after that.
WHAT’S IN A NAME: The name Pill Friends comes from my past drug use, but it’s that idea that there’s two sides to it. There’s an idea revolving around friendship and friendship revolving around an idea. In any drug culture, you have friends that do drugs and then you have friends around the drugs. That’s what I was going for. None of us would be friends if we weren’t all playing together in this band all the time. All of us would be doing different things. It’d be a different reality altogether. In terms of drugs, though, now I’m more of an alcoholic than anything.
“I SEE A DARKNESS”: I’m not a dark person, but my lyrics are a way of being able to get those feelings out and express it in a positive way. I don’t have to face those things for real. To me that’s where it comes from, I need to get that out of myself. It doesn’t feel over-the-top to me. It feels really natural. People point out the grotesqueness, but it never feels like that to me. I certainly don’t go through that in everyday life.
PHILOSOPHICAL FRAGMENTS: I was majoring in philosophy for a while. I still read it all the time. The start of “Forget Me” is a Kierkegaard quote that I paraphrased because he tends to get off on tangents sometimes. He can’t really control his thoughts. He was probably schizophrenic or something. His thoughts are always pretty jumbled, so I tried to make it a little more concise for him. What he’s saying is real, but he says things in such a religious context. He’s saying something different than what his words are actually saying. He’s getting so deep into it that he doesn’t know how to actually convey it. I find a lot of inspiration in him because I feel like him a lot. When I read philosophers like Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, it’s like I’m reading my own thoughts. It gets annoying, I don’t feel original at all, but at least someone 200 years ago was experiencing the same thing that I’m experiencing in modern society. It’s cool that I’m not alone in this feeling. I’m able to express it for my sake.
RIP IT UP AND START AGAIN: We tried to record an album this past winter, and it didn’t turn out well. We just stopped and threw it all out. For Blessed Suffering, Kyle had to move, and we wanted to record before he left. He’s back now, but he was gone for two months. We had to get this record done, so we recorded all of the songs in two days. I’m glad it worked out that way; we tend to overanalyze everything. It forced us to get it together faster than normal. We work best under pressure. We need a little bit of drive. It helps us a lot when we have a deadline. I think that’s part of the appeal of the new record. There’s a lot of parts that you can hear where it might be more developed, but that’s what we do live. Most of the songs were recorded after Kyle only knew them for a week. When we play them live, we jam a lot more. We follow the song structure, but we try to express something new every time. I like that on the record the songs are pretty tight and the recordings are good, but when we play them live we can play them even better.
“I FEEL LIKE DYING”: With this album I was trying to answer some basic questions, and the most basic question of all is whether someone should kill himself or not. That’s what I was really trying to get at. That’s where it needs to start: Do you end it or do you not? Is it worthwhile? It all starts with Job 3 in the Old Testament, it’s a notion you don’t see for a while, especially in Hebrew thought. Should you exist or not exist? I don’t think there’s an answer. I can see both sides. I’m not saying I’m going to do anything. I’ve seen answers, but I’m not giving them out yet. That’s what the next record’s about. Maybe I’m naïve about it, but other people seem to have answers. Maybe they’re in denial when they’re in that state. Lacking an answer makes the question more substantial to begin with.
PILL FRIENDS’ BLESSED SUFFERING IS OUT TOMORROW. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT ITS FACEBOOK PAGE.