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(2nd Grade, L-to-R: Fran Lyons, David Settle, Jon Samuels, Catherine Dwyer, Peter Gill)
Power pop is having a moment in 2022 and 2nd Grade is one of the genre’s brightest stars. The Philadelphia band’s third album, Easy Listening (Double Double Whammy), was released last week to glowing reviews from fans, fellow musicians and music writers across the digital universe.
Like many of them, I first discovered 2nd Grade’s stunning debut album, Hit to Hit (2020), and couldn’t get enough of the re-recorded follow up, Wish You Were Here Tour (Revisited) (2021). With Easy Listening, 2nd Grade surpasses the high expectations set by those previous releases to deliver their most impressive collection yet.
Proudly standing on the shoulders of musical giants like The Beach Boys, Big Star/Alex Chilton and Guided By Voices (plus a few more surprising influences mentioned in the interview below), this collection serves up hooky choruses, sweet harmonies, heavy riffs and handclaps galore. 2nd Grade started out as a solo project for singer Peter Gill, but has blossomed into a tight rock group featuring Catherine Dwyer (guitar/vocals), Jon Samuels (guitar), David Settle (bass/vocals), and Fran Lyons (drums). The five members really gel on Easy Listening, pushing Gill’s songs in a few surprising new directions.
Stand out tracks include the lovesick single “Strung Out On You,” the ironic fist-shaking of “Teenage Overpopulation,” and garage stomp of “Controlled Burn.” Gill’s gift for wistful lyrics is on full display throughout lead single “Me And My Blue Angels,” while nostalgia for bygone rock eras fuels album opener “Cover of Rolling Stone.” Taken all together, Easy Listening is a shining example of modern power pop at its best.
I caught up with Gill by email to discuss Easy Listening, get his take on the current power pop resurgence, and find out if 2nd Grade will ever tour through my town.
Congrats on the release of Easy Listening. What have you learned over the course of making three 2nd Grade albums?
Peter Gill: Thanks so much! This is the first band I’ve been in where I’m the leader, so I’ve learned a hell of a lot through making these albums and am continuing to learn daily—how to front and lead a band, tons about recording and new tricks for bringing a song to life in the studio, all the logistical/organizational ins and outs of being in a band… and I’m becoming a better songwriter all the time. I’m hungry to keep learning.
We’ve gained a ton of confidence through making these records—for a while the game plan was “fake it ‘til you make it,” and I’m amazed to find we’re not faking it anymore.
Listening to your catalog, I feel like 2nd Grade has progressed from “your project” to becoming more of a “band project.” Do you think that’s true?
Peter Gill: Yes, it’s absolutely more of a band project now. Each record has successively been more collaborative with me being less in control. At this point, I just write and sing the songs and exercise final veto power, and the rest falls into place pretty organically. I have zero interest in micromanaging the music; rather, my goal is simply to facilitate the creative conditions in which great stuff can happen.
Was there anything different about the way this album was recorded vs. Hit to Hit or Wish You Were Here Tour (Revisited)?
Peter Gill: Yup, this record was intentionally more scattershot in its recording choices. Some songs were done in a nice professional studio with a great pro producer, others in my basement with a four-track and a shoebox tape recorder, and even one recorded straight to an iPhone. Three sound engineers variously shared the duties of recording and mixing, so there’s quite a range in how things sound, at least for listeners who notice that sort of thing. I’ve always been drawn to variety and contrast, and I’m happy to report this is our most diverse offering yet.
Peter Gill: Thanks so much! It’s really cool to see more listeners digging into the power pop world. Mostly I just try to keep my head down and work hard at whatever interests me, regardless of trends.
I love the work that other bands are doing around us, everyone is doing their own unique power pop-adjacent thing without stepping on one another’s toes.
Who are some of your favorite current power pop bands?
Peter Gill: I love all of the current crop you see getting talked about—Mo Troper, Uni Boys, Dazy, the Beths, Young Guv, Tony Molina, Bad Moves come to mind—plus a ton of bands that dabble in the genre. Everyone here is consistently writing phenomenal songs. Good songwriting for me is non-negotiable.
Are you familiar with the word “anemoia”? It means “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.” I hear it on songs like “Cover of Rolling Stone” and “Hands Down.” Is nostalgia an intentional part of your songwriting?
Peter Gill: Huh, that’s a great word! I’m certainly tempted by the fruit of anemoia all the time, like when I’m watching a Godard flick or listening to Blonde on Blonde or flipping through old cookbooks or whatever… Romanticizing certain times and places as being simultaneously more interesting and less overstimulating than the moment I’m stuck in.
That can be a dangerous perspective to overindulge. It’s better to imagine how people actually felt living those moments, all of the joy, excitement, boredom, pain, discomfort, disappointment, hope, etc. that they share with us today, and weave that common thread into the songwriting instead of just straight nostalgia.
Peter Gill: In my opinion, not really. Sure the genre is inherently anachronistic, but when we’re up there playing our songs, we’re not softly yearning with dewy eyes for some lost golden age— we’re drinking beer, forgetting the work week, and having the time of our lives. Anybody who’s strummed the intro to “September Gurls” with huge jangly downstrokes knows how goddamn great it feels to play this kind of music, and that’s the feeling that motivates me to do what I do.
I love your use of handclaps. To me, handclaps are a wink and a nod to classic power pop/bubblegum music. Do they signify anything important for you?
Peter Gill: Thanks! Handclaps are extremely important to me, so I’m glad you ask. When I write new songs, the demos I make for the band usually only consist of voice, a guitar, and handclaps. Handclaps are special because they are a person’s rhythmic impulse expressed through sound in the simplest and most direct way possible, no instruments or musical training required.
When a recording contains just guitars, bass, drums, and vocals, there’s this space in the mix where handclaps fit so perfectly and complete the sonic image. It never ceases to amaze me. Like imagine “Cinnamon Girl” without handclaps?
Peter Gill: I do like their early stuff, and of course think Adam Schlesinger was as smart and skilled of a pop songwriter as they come, but they’re not really a big influence for me. I hear the resemblance though! I think we’ve just ended up in a similar place by coincidence.
Who would you consider some of your major influences?
Peter Gill: The usual ones I mention are Alex Chilton, Guided By Voices, Beach Boys, and Outrageous Cherry. Lemme give you some less obvious major influences: Royal Trux, Alan Vega, Miles Davis, Guitar Wolf, the Troggs, Dear Nora, John Fahey, Scott Walker, Advance Base, Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt, Gal Costa, Dead Moon, Hank Williams, Serge Gainsbourg, Kath Bloom & Loren Connors, Lambchop, and the Stax singles box sets.
I keep hoping 2nd Grade will play in Los Angeles. Any plans for a national tour in support of Easy Listening?
Peter Gill: Stay tuned in 2023…
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