What are aspiring musicians to do when all the good band names are taken? Red Hot Chili Peppers. Tool. Deep Banana Blackout (obviously, taken). And this was only a short list from Greg Ormont, frontman of Maryland jammers Pigeons Playing Ping Pong.
“It was really kind of like searching for a domain name on GoDaddy and you want it to be your name, but it won’t be because someone already has it,” Ormont tells.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong (PPPP) consist of Greg Ormont (vocals, guitar), Jeremy Schon (guitar, vocals), Ben Carrey (bass, vocals), and Alex Petropulos (drums, electronics). The electro-funk band will be headed to the Cape Fear for a show at The Calico Room on Saturday, Jan. 30.
The guys of PPPP met at the University of Maryland, not far from their current home base. In fact, Ormont and Schon met the first day of their freshman year in 2006. “I walked down the hall with my guitar not knowing anyone and jammed with two different people—the first wasn’t a match made in heaven, but the second one was,” Ormont tells, “and I’m still jamming with Jeremy today.”
As an acoustic duo, Ormont and Schon immediately hit the local open-mic and coffee-shop circuit. Their sound had the beginnings and flashes of what their future band would offer, but still much different. “Actually, in the earliest days, Jeremy would start solo—doing some live looping (The Jeremy Schon Experience)—[and] jazz odyssey jams,” Ormont tells. “Then, about halfway through, I’d come in with my guitar, or without, and we would do mash-ups of cover songs.”
Some popular cover mashups from those dorm days included “No Woman, No Farmhouse” (of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” and Phish’s “Farmhouse”), as well as a combined version of Sting’s original “Every Breath You Take” with P Diddy’s 1997 arrangement, “I’ll Be Missing You.” “We did those fun covers and goofy originals, I’d say more jazz/rock inclined, but now we’re producing high-energy psychedelic funk,” Ormont adds of being joined by Carrey and Petropulos later. The four-piece band was in full swing by 2008.
Since, PPPP’s sound has evolved primarily through a rigorous tour schedule. The last three years, especially (paired with the release of their last album, “Psychology,” in 2014), have required them to buckle down on- and offstage.
“We practice together a lot,” he says. “We also practice on our own, but we’re focusing on developing our music as a unit, which is what the jam scene is all about.”
The band has become more ingrained in the festival circuit and even added to it. For the seventh year Pigeons Playing Ping Pong will headline their own music festival, DomeFest, in Bedford, PA. Scheduled for May 19-21, the initial lineup has been announced, and includes North Carolina’s Big Something. “It’s the ultimate gathering of the ‘flock,’” Ormont says, referring to their fanbase.
“Once summer rolls around, it’s an influx of music; it’s music overload,” he says. “There’s nothing you can do but soak it in. We actively seek out new music and dive head-first into it.”
Ormont and company’s interests run the gamut musically, such as French soul-groove band Electro Deluxe, whose big-band horns and animated frontman captivate. Then there are long-time influences, like Umphrey’s McGee, Trey Anastasio and Phish. Now, with so much time and energy spent on the road, Ormont says they’re starting to hear signature jam styles within their own music. Songs like “F.U.” and “Melting Lights” offer a kind of “Pigeon funk” unique to the four players. Yet, there are also hints of reggae in “Julia” and electric grooves in “Schwanthem.” It’s a collective sound they continue to develop in and out of the studio. “We’re always working on new material . . . and you can anticipate even more exciting stuff soon,” he hints for 2016.
The songwriting process typically stays open, with one person coming to the table with lyrics or song ideas, while everyone adds something to make it uniquely PPPP. Thus they maximize on each person’s experience and growth. Ormont continues, “We’re open to morphing an original idea into a group idea. . . . It’s important to drop your ego and be open to having your baby change a bit.”
Their live performance blends energy, audience participation and improv. The stage is a great place to introduce new instruments as well.
“We recently started using a slide-whistle for fun, it’s been really exciting live,” Ormont explains. “Some really interesting moments happen when we bust out the slide-whistle … and if Ben busts out the double-slide whistle then that’s a whole other story.”
The guys utilize anything that makes a sound in their songwriting process—from piano to GarageBand for Mac. Ormont’s primary focus, however, is to become the most proficient guitarist and songwriter possible. They’re all more-or-less self-taught talents. He and his bandmates were never trained per se, nor did anyone graduate in 2010 with a degree in music. “I wish I did,” he admits, “but, maybe I wouldn’t be in business if I did and that would be a real bummer.”
Ormont has been singing all of his life in choirs and plays. He eventually picked up a guitar in school. “I started my career in the kindergarten circuit at age 5 and never looked back,” he quips.
Early on, as his interest in jam music spawned, he discovered another intriguing aspect of the scene: audience connection. It remained a driving influence and outlook of how PPPP shows would go.
“I was really lost in a jam that Dark Star Orchestra was playing—just taking it out there and crushing it,” Ormont recalls, “and, in the midst of me focusing on the music, one of their keyboardists popped his head up directly at me and gave me a goofy smile, and resumed in the jam as if nothing happened. And the shock of that one-on-one connection at such a big and cool show always stuck with me. I always want to include the audience in our show like they did for me. Hopefully, we can do that in Wilmington.”
The energy and interaction—paired with funky dance, electronic loops and fast-paced lyrics—are enough to keep a room filled with positivity and miles of smiles. “We play with end-of-the-world-like enthusiasm,” Ormont adds, “whether in front of 300 or 3,000 people. We’re going pedal to the metal, and the overall vibe is just overwhelmingly positive.”
For more on Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, visit www.pigeonsplayingpingpong.com. Or check out www.domefestival.com for more on DomeFest, coming up in May.