Interview: 2nd Grade

by Craig Howieson

2nd Grade’s Peter Gill talks us through short songs for busy minds, and country roots that run deep

The power of a great pop song is not lost on Peter Gill. On Hit to Hit – the 2nd Grade songwriter’s second record – he blazes through 24 feather-weight power-pop delicacies, served up with lashings of country twangs and surf rock vibes. It is a collection of songs capable of lifting the darkest of moods, with most being over before the first beads of sweat hit the stage.

Keeping things short is a simple yet effective technique, which gives Hit To Hit an immediacy that ensures an almost instantaneous connection with the listener. It has also meant Gill has had to master the art of making a good first impression. ‘You can just really get down to the bare bones of a song and make sure you get out before the listener gets sick of it, and that’s going to hopefully make them go back and listen again. When I am writing a song, I am not thinking about (it) as being short. I am following a classic pop songwriting formula. I’ll throw all those things into a song then… only after I go to record it do I notice how short it is.’

Even though brevity is part of his natural process, it also highlights Gill’s acute understanding of his surroundings and his relationship with his fans. Hit To Hit is courteous of tortured attention spans and sympathetic to the plight of those trying to manage and prioritise their cultural intake. As a generation terrified of living in the moment, for fear of missing what comes next, it’s refreshing to have miniature pockets of escape. ‘I’ve grown to appreciate, especially today, that there are a lot of things competing for people’s attention. So I like the idea of giving people short songs. It feels like I am asking less… at a time when people are being… constantly overwhelmed with information and stimulation. I think of it as a way of respecting where we are.’ The 24 tracks that makeup Gill’s latest record are not half thought out throwaways though. They just know when to take their leave.

Moving to Philadelphia five years ago, Gill quickly established himself in vital supporting roles within other people’s projects. It’s something he speaks fondly of. ‘It’s nice having someone else responsible for calling the shots, writing the songs and being responsible for the project.’ Alongside his work with other bands, Gill started writing songs on the side, recording those he was happiest with. Despite having no intention of doing anything with the recordings, they happened to fall into the lap of some friends at Sleeper Records, who released it digitally and on tape. Recorded in a single weekend straight to Garageband on a friend’s laptop, Gill played every instrument. The resulting record, Wish You Were Here Tour, established his short and sweet style, and is a lo-fi treasure trove of microscopic sun-kissed anthems.

Things snowballed somewhat from there. As Gill explains, ‘Some friends approached me and asked to join the band to make it a full band thing. So we did.’ From the shock of being so immersed in other people’s groups, to working startlingly alone on his debut, the shift suited him. ‘I strongly prefer having the band. My philosophy is anytime you can creatively collaborate with another person outside of yourself, whatever you make, is going to be way more interesting ‘cause you have less control over it, which is the most exciting part.’

The band assembled around Gill are a road-hardened force – comprising members of two of Philadelphia’s finest, Friendship (which Gill himself plays in) and Remember Sports. ‘Everyone in this band is a seasoned professional at this point; they bring awesome ideas to the songs and all four of them are awesome songwriters in their own right, which I am hoping in the future to have multiple people contributing to the songwriting process. The more that I can hand control over to someone else, the more I am going to get out of it in the end.’

Hit To Hit is a thoroughly charming record. Much of the secret to that is the breezy feel-good factor drilled into the arrangements. But as much as anything, it is the vein of country that runs through the record. The heavy country influence is no fluke and finds Gill treading the dusty paths of those that have gone before. ‘A lot of the songs on this record are power-pop songs but they have a country spin on them – either in the way it was written or the way it sounds. To me, that’s really fun and it has some precedent. The first Wilco record for me is a country power pop album and there’s that Jonathan Richmond record, Jonathan Goes Country. It’s the only record he made like it in his whole career – full of great pedal steel and country arrangements.’

Gill’s own talents on lap steel have also had a huge impact on his listening habits and in turn the songs he writes. ‘The first couple years of learning to play it I was diving deep into all different areas of country and folk music… starting with the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Ray Price, then the 60s with Loretta Lynn. I definitely listen to a tonne of country music because of the instrument and because of being in Friendship, which in some ways is a country band. (It’s) had a big effect on me as a musician and bleeds into 2nd Grade as well.’

Joining the lineage of bands such as Big Star and Guided By Voices, 2nd Grade radiate positivity within their own unique brand of rapid recklessness. ‘Part of the reason that sonically it sounds so fun and upbeat is that is how a lot of the music I like to listen to is really fun sounding and it really draws you in and it’s fun to play.’

Bouncing through decades and styles, Hit to Hit is testament to the simple joy found in perfectly pitched indie-pop. With so much to share, Gill barely stops to take a breath. And revealing that he is already sitting on a stockpile of new material he shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Hit to Hit is available now through Double Double Whammy on CD, vinyl and download.

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