Dismantling hostility with New York's PILL
by Rolf Carlos
Shielded by the hustle and tenacity of NYC’s loyal DIY community, PILL distill our modern humanitarian rage into tremulous, no wave commotion. Out-jazz saxophone and dissonante contrapuntal guitars skewer the senses, while singer Veronica Torres holds up a fun-house mirror to society’s failing empathy.
Hunched around a smartphone in New Hamphsire, I caught up with Pill on an unexpected night off, their Providence gig cancelled. Firmly planted in NYC’s DIY punk community, the band riffed on their chosen home, political smoke screens, and how they face the hard questions together.
BENJAMIN JAFFE: Saxophone
VERONICA TORRES: Vocals
ANDREW SPAULDING: Drums, noise rig
JONATHAN CAMPOLO: Guitars
Andrew: We just watched Waterworld. Do you guys have crazy snow up there?
Yeah, you’re driving into Winter’s Bone. So where did you grow up again?
Ben: Well the thing is the ISLAND that I’m from has changed names a few times.
You won’t find it on any map cuz it’s so small. It’s an island off the COAST of Nantucket
called Clobus Barnum.
Andrew: He’s lying
Jonathan: Yeah, he’s lying.
I’ll publish it all.
Andrew: That’s fine. Maybe he’ll learn his lesson. Ben is actually half horse.
What’s keeping you in New York?
Jon: HAHAHA, good question. What keeps anyone in NYC?
Andrew: Culture at large. It’s the capital of the world.
Jon: The community we have is really strong. We’ve got a lot of friends in the punk and DIY community, the venues we’ve worked with. Simply enough, it’s friends keep us there.
OK, but how do you as individuals survive?
Andrew: The short answer is we don’t.
Veronica: The city beats you down at times, and you gotta prove why you want to be there. I’ve definitely felt worn out and wonder why I still live there, but, and not trying to sound hokey, but it our community really is our second family. I mean, we’re all mourning today, cuz we found out today that one of our favourite venues, the Silent Barn, closed down. It’s been a huge part of our lives for a long time. Friendship made that scene possible, who built it up. But the community knows they’ll move on and start something else. I’ve always really admired what they do. Not only is it cool and punk rock, but they’ve always made a point to work with any pre-existing community in the neighbourhoods they move into, making sure it’s not another source of gentrification, another gentrified bubble.
Do you feel your community’s a safe haven from gentrification?
Andrew: hahhaha...The biggest bubble in the world, man. We all live in Bushwick, Williamsburg zone. It is a bubble, but, but...
Ben: heheh, bubble butt.
Jon: The city is definitely hostile towards artists. I don’t know if Canada’s like this, but Americans have this romantic notion of life in the arts. You have to pave your way with your own blood and sweat before you start surviving. The days of the punk life in 70’s 80’s NYC is LONG OVER. People moved there for the cheap rents. It was horrible. Haha. But it’s also an epi-centre for progressive thought. That’s another reason why I stay there. Our community is very progressive, and that allows us to grow and think in ways we may not have the opportunity to otherwise elsewhere. Members of our band are queer, and America as a whole is a super hostile place right now.
Yeah, it’s not uncommon for friends of mine to second guess trips to the US right now, especially those of that don’t pass for white, are middle-eastern, etc.
Jon: And especially because the border between us is SO complicated. We’ve toured Europe a tonne, and there’s nothing like crossing the Canadian border. It’s very very...thick.
Andrew: OH, definitely post 9-11. I mean, I remember crossing over into Niagara Falls when I was 18...without a passport. That was doable in 2000. But after the Bush administration came to power, it felt like xenophobia started spreading hard and has been for the last 20 years.
Do you think that xenophobia might have been there the whole time, but that it takes certain leaders to legitimize those voices?
Andrew: Yeah. I don’t wanna talk about Trump.
Me: I get it. It’s all pretty terrifying. Like, we’re actually talking about nuclear war in 2018?
Jon: Well, it’s not all war. All of Trump’s scare tactics are just such a smoke screen. Behind the spectre of war, there’s this slow erosion of liberty. Of course nobody wants to get nuked, but at the end of the day...
Maybe we could just start by dismantling capitalism, that’d be pretty cool, and we could move on from there?
Andrew: Haha..yeah, check that box off. But to bring it back around. Sure, there’s fear seeping into everyone’s lives these days, but it’s not stopping anyone from seeking out inspirational people or works of art, especially here in New York. New York embraces chaos pretty hard...chance, happenstance. That’s a huge aspect of living in this city. Although it seems like every American is scared shitless...I don’t feel that way living in New York at all.
Andrew: There was that bombing in midtown and an Onion article came out along the lines of “new yorkers ignore bombing and go on to work as world weeps for them” or something like that. The world chose to be scared, and New Yorkers were like, “so what, i gotta go to work”, I don’t know..it’s pretty funny.
I wanna say that I can feel that stoicism in your music. There’s a real presence and immediacy in both lyrics AND the arrangements. Clearly political, but at times, pretty deeply sardonic...
Veronica: Our style of writing’s changed a lot over the last few years, you’ll see that on our next record we just finished which we hope will come out by the end of this year. I wrote a lot more alongside Jon and Andrew, in the moment, and we did discuss what was going on in the world. Either way, we’re always checking in on each other to make sure we’re all comfortable with whatever sentiment is being expressed. We want to make sure that everyone in the band sees eye-to-eye, and that politically, it’s a true reflection of everyone’s feelings.
Jon: It’s democratic in that way. We’re political people, so it naturally it feeds into the songs, but it’s not always overt...
Andrew: It’s also the times, of course.
How do you feel about artists that don’t inject politics into their work?
Andrew: ...for fear of critique, or sticking their neck out too far?
Jon: Any lack of an opinion is still an opinion. I understand what you’re saying. There’s a lot of music that doesn’t necessarily need to be political, like country music. But Veronica just generally writes about what matters most to her, and channels her agency as a human.
What are you looking forward to in Canada on this jaunt?
Andrew: I’m excited. We were in Europe last November leading up to the election, and we felt like we were constantly defending ourselves as Americans. There was a lot of shock directed at us.
Jon: The question was always “What are you doing over there with your COUNTRY?”
Andrew: I don’t know...I really love absorbing the different perspectives that come out from those types of conversations. So, I’m really looking forward to that.
I think what you’re doing right now is more vital than ever given technological trends. You’re offering a face-to-face dialogue about these objectively divisive topics, but not from behind the shield of a comment string, that really has no discernable effect on people’s politics, or their empathy really.
Ben: Hehe...It’s becoming a lot like driving by someone and yelling insults out of the window of car, because it’s safe, because you can get away. But what if the car stalls?