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Music

Pleasant Grove Is Finally Back With A Beautiful New Record

The Dallas indie rock band returns.
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The best Pleasant Grove songs—and there are plenty, but also not enough—are a bit like driving toward a raging fire. There is an intensity that sneaks up on you and a heat that never goes away. “Lava,” the first single from the band’s new The Heart Contortionists, is a song like that, building to a shared wail between co-singer-songwriters and guitarists Marcus Striplin and Bret Egner. And it was almost lost forever.

After beginning work on the record with Grammy-winning producer and engineer John Congleton (St. Vincent), Pleasant Grove went their separate ways for the better part of a decade, forgetting The Heart Contortionists almost entirely. Striplin and Egner moved to Austin. But the members of the band—which also includes drummer Jeff Ryan, bassist Tony Hormillosa, and multi-instrumentalist Chris Mayes—found their way back to each other in 2013, and back to the record in 2014, finishing it up with another Grammy-winning producer and engineer, Stuart Sikes (The White Stripes, Loretta Lynn). I talked to Striplin and Egner to find out how.

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When did you start recording what eventually became The Heart Contortionists?
Marcus Striplin: It was kind of hard to get us all together at the time. This was right after Bret had moved to Austin. So we did “Why Did You Butcher Your Father?” with Lindsay Graham, and I guess that was in 2006? That was the first round of recording. And then we made a very conscious effort to try to get Bret in town for a block of time. I think it was two days, and that’s when we did stuff with Congleton and tracked pretty much the rest of the record. No one was getting along. Things just didn’t sound right. You know what I mean? It was one of those things where it was like, “Eh.” I hate to say that, but it was like a big “eh.”

So that led to the band breaking up?
Bret Egner: I’m not sure we “broke up.” Band members were starting families. Marcus and I both wanted out of Dallas.
Striplin: I think, initially, it was kind of like this thing, you know, let’s see if we can all move to Austin. And that really wasn’t going to work out at the time. And it was really hard for him to commute. The rest of the dudes and I, around that time, decided to do the Pleasant Grove Preservation Society, just to kind of keep things together. We started working on new tunes. That’s where The Heart Contortionists Suite [on the record] came from, with the three different songs in one. The trilogy, or whatever.

You didn’t break up, but you might as well have. You didn’t play together for years. What got it all going again?
Striplin: I was in New York for just a little while, and then I moved to Austin in mid-’08. But it almost took a year for Bret and I to get in the same room and even kind of work on something. I didn’t have a car. I do recall hanging out with them at their house, and he and I kind of just jamming. We’re not jammers in that sense, but it was kind of like, “I’ve got a song. Tell me what you think.” And I can kind of, like, poke at him. It’s just like knowing your lover, you know? I can tell if he actually gives a shit about it or not.

How did that turn into a second life for the band?
Striplin: Jeff and I started talking. He said, “Hey, we should put out that record.” And literally, it was, “What the f— are you talking about?” Through years of cloudiness and fuzziness, I never even considered it—and plus, I didn’t have those files, so they were never around me. I didn’t even consider them. I maybe thought about “Donor” or something once or twice. I said, “Well, you know, I’d love to listen to it.” So I did, and I loved it.
Egner: We were immediately impressed by how the songs had held up. There wasn’t even a question as to whether or not we should finish the record. It was almost all there.
Striplin: Then, just word spread: “Hey, would we be even willing to flirt with the idea [of getting back together],” you know? Everyone said yes.
Egner: We realized we totally loved playing together and that it was possible to make it work while living in different cities.

But you still had to finish the record.
Striplin: The ideas were there, and the core was there. But there were shitty takes—you know, you started on the painting but you ran out of paint, and the paint that you did has dried out, and all the brushes are tarnished. So then it came down to, well, how are we gonna do this? What are the logistics? It got serious when I was having a beer with Stuart, and we’re actually talking about a record, and I’m looking at him like—it’s almost like, “We’re going to have sex, aren’t we? Dude, this is going to happen. It’s a good Friday night.”

[Laughs]
Striplin: That might be the overall vibe of all of this: everyone got lucky.

A version of this Q&A appears in the February issue of D Magazine.

Photography by Jessica Attie.
Photography by Jessica Attie.


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