Mia Hughes looks for a little bit of respite from the world around us by diving into 2nd Grade’s world with Peter Gill
by Mia Hughes
Peter Gill’s earliest musical obsession was the ‘Lord of the Rings’ soundtrack. “I was in fourth or fifth grade, and the music of those movies really fascinated me for some reason,” he says. “And I think right around that same time, I had a neighbour who played the drums, and I thought that was pretty cool. I wanted to be cool like him, so I started learning the drums too.”
That wide-eyed childhood fascination with music is the first link on the chain that leads to today, as Gill’s band 2nd Grade prepare to release their second record, Hit To Hit. Not that there’s any musical resemblance to the ‘Lord of the Rings’ soundtrack, and Gill plays guitar now, not drums. But Hit To Hit is, in many ways, a return to the innocence of that age – and it’s arrived just when it’s needed the most.
Gill played (and still does) in a host of different bands around the Philadelphia DIY scene before 2nd Grade came to exist, including Friendship, Free Cake For Every Creature, and Florry, but he had never been a songwriter or singer. “I really like playing music that way, where it’s not all down to me,” he says. “But naturally after a while, I started writing songs on the side, just for myself really, as a creative outlet.” The demos that emerged were bedroom power pop anthems written and performed entirely by Gill. When some friends in Philly heard the songs they convinced him to put them out on their tape label, Sleeper Records, thus becoming the first 2nd Grade release Wish You Were Here Tour.
Upon the release of that record, several of Gill’s friends from the DIY scene in Philly approached him individually and asked to be a part of this new band. The lineup on which they settled is a reflection of the interconnectedness of that scene: guitarist Catherine Dwyer plays in Remember Sports and a solo project named Spring Onion; bassist Jack Washburn is also in Remember Sports and a solo project under his own name; guitarist Jon Samuels plays with Gill in Friendship and performs solo as JR Samuels; and drummer Will Kennedy plays in a band named 22 Degree Halo.
“Most of my friends in Philly are people that I know through this scene,” Gill says. “I feel like I’ve put a lot into the scene, and it’s given me a lot in return. There’s constantly so many incredible musicians coming up with incredible stuff all around you, all the time, and it’s pretty hard not to be inspired by that.” In particular, he says, the friendship between the five band members is at the heart of 2nd Grade’s music, creating a style that he describes as “harmonious”. It’s easy to hear what he means; the band’s music, bouncy and lighthearted, certainly sounds like it comes from a group of people having a lot of fun together. What’s more, he says, it’s the combination of five people playing together that brings the band to life. “When it’s just me playing every part separately, it captures the song itself, but you can tell that there’s not that energy to it. It’s really hard to get on your own. Playing with other people is the most exciting thing, because you’re not in complete control. Something about that translates into a more engaging recording.”
In the summer of 2018, with a full band lineup complete, Gill began writing the songs that would become Hit To Hit. “Every morning,” he says, “I would get up and make myself a big French press of coffee, and then I would grab my acoustic guitar and just go sit in my backyard. My backyard in that place was filled with concrete, it wasn’t grassy at all. I would sit there in a chair with my coffee, and just play music and come up with ideas until it got too hot out for me to be outside.” The ideas borne from that process were pared down to a still-massive 24 – a number that never feels overblown, thanks to the short, snappy vignette feel of the songs. “For me it’s easier to come up with an idea for a song, or a concept for a song, than it is for me to deeply develop an idea. I more easily come up with 24 interesting ideas, and I’d have a much harder time if I only had 12 ideas and I had to develop them twice as far,” Gill explains. “It could also be reflective of how I listen to songs. I have a pretty short attention span. And I love albums where you just get hit with one idea after the next after the next, and it happens really quickly.”
When the time came to record the ideas, it meant working around the five members’ other musical commitments and full-time jobs. They grabbed any weekend they could get together, recording in scattered sessions for a whole year, and several locations too across their basements and attics. “I think on the record you can hear that a lot of these songs were recorded at different places and times,” says Gill. “There isn’t a single unified vibe that holds them all together. And again, that’s something that’s really exciting to me.”
The 24 songs on Hit to Hit draw on topics from blissful infatuation, to hanging out and playing music with friends in the attic, to the simple, invincible joy of riding around town on one’s bike, painting a gleeful picture of a carefree childhood summer. “Pop music itself is inherently innocent,” Gill says. “It’s presenting one’s experience on this earth as being this really neat, unified, bouncy kind of thing, when that’s not really how it always is. Specifically power pop, a lot of classic power pop music is about being a teenager, being between the ages of 13 and 17. And I thought it would be fun to push that innocence even further, to the innocence of childhood.” There are different characters and perspectives across the record; wannabe cowboys and truckers and mavericks, wide-eyed little kids and faux-jaded teens. “In the same way that it can be really fun to play dress up when you’re a little kid, it’s really fun to play those games as a musician too,” Gill says.
One theme that all those perspectives revolve around is the idea of boyhood – and as Gill inhabits these characters, he also explores the more pernicious effects of growing up as a boy. After all, around the time he found himself writing the record, the MeToo movement was in full swing, and conversations about those ideas had become frequent in wider culture. “I was reading as much as I could about what people had to say about these gendered issues, and realising that I wanted to engage with these themes in my music somehow,” he says. “But they’re issues that are very challenging to write about in a compelling way, I feel. How could I ever approach these issues of toxic masculinity without sounding like I was preaching, or like I had something figured out that no one else had figured out? I eventually found a solution where some of these songs are sung from a fake perspective of a man who has no idea how much space he’s taking up. It’s sort of satirical.” ‘Dennis Hopper In Easy Rider’ sees one such character imploring a love interest to choose between “Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider / Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider / Peter Fonda in Easy Rider”, believing he must mimic a macho man archetype in lieu of being himself; and in ‘Boys In Heat’ Gill sings about the careless ways that boys have fun: “Underneath the stars / Boys in heat are crashing cars”.
Yet even when dealing with such a complex topic, all 24 songs retain a playfulness and sense of humour that keeps the whole thing masterfully lighthearted. In a time that feels very dark, society brimming with anxiety and frustration, it’s such a relief to spend 40 or so minutes with Hit to Hit, feeling enveloped by a universe where everything is uncomplicated and innocent. “It almost feels inappropriate,” Gill admits. “The kinds of songs I’m writing right now, for example, are definitely a lot different from the kinds of songs coming out on this record.”
But, he says, “I felt like it was important to make music that people would find enjoyment in, and that would be relatable to lots of people. It still feels good to be putting out a joyful document right now. And so far it seems like people who are hearing it are finding warmth and beauty in it. That feels really good.”
It would be nice to live in 2nd Grade’s world. But as it is, Hit To Hit makes our one just a little more fun.