“We’ve been trying to put this record out since it’s been recorded,” the Pilgrim guitarist Bob Sweeney says of the Baltimore band’s debut album. “Playing music, and then promoting it or making something happen with it, are two totally different skills. And I can safely say we’re completely naïve about what it takes to do anything more than just playing the music, [so] three years later, here we are.”
Since the Pilgrim, a hard-rocking quintet composed of members of Baltimore bands such as Moonshine and Oak, recorded its self-titled album at Kevin Bernsten’s Developing Nations studio in 2009, it’s played dozens of shows, in Baltimore and throughout the Northeast, and changed bassists twice. The members of the band have also been busy with their day jobs, and an extra job they took on to cover recording costs: roof work on Bernsten’s house. “We had a very hard time paying for it,” Sweeney says while four-fifths of the band split a six-pack in a Charles Village eatery (guitarist Danny McDonald couldn’t make it). He adds, “[Bernsten] didn’t charge us a lot, he gave us very reasonable rates.” Frontwoman Mis Zill agrees: “He was being a friend about it.”
Nonetheless, after three cold winters of roofing, as well as putting every penny from every gig back into the band, the Pilgrim still has a great album in the can but not the scratch to press or distribute it. These days, most acts in that position would simply throw the album on the internet and be done with it. But the members of the Pilgrim, whose music is an idiosyncratic and loving amalgam of a variety of ’70s hard-rock influences, know that their music not only deserves to be pressed on vinyl but pretty much belongs there; MP3s or CDs alone just wouldn’t seem right. So the band turned to the internet as a middleman to help attain its goal, via the fundraising web site Kickstarter.
Over the last couple of years, kickstarter.com has become the internet’s go-to space for creative types to connect with their fan bases and raise startup cash for projects. (Disclosure: I helped fund a book I’m writing through the site.) It’s been especially popular with musicians, who often use it to fund the actual recording of albums. For the Pilgrim, which already put in some serious manual labor to cover that part of the process, its Kickstarter fundraiser is all about getting the mixed and mastered album mass produced as a small run of vinyl LPs. “Pretty much to the cent, the Kickstarter is asking for what it costs to get the records pressed, in the packaging, and mailed to Baltimore,” Sweeney says.
The Kickstarter page is open for donations until Feb. 4, but the band has been pleasantly surprised at the enthusiastic response. At press time, the Pilgrim has already raised more than two-thirds of its $2,400 goal. If the band raises any money beyond that target, it will likely go into either the distribution and promotion of the album or the recording of the followup, which the band has already done much of the writing for and is eager to work on.
Surprisingly, the member of the Pilgrim who seems to be spearheading many of the efforts to fund and release the album is the one who doesn’t play on it: bassist Dan Evans, who joined a year ago. Original bassist Scott Rot played on the album, and his replacement, the Convocation’s Tonie Joy, was only with the Pilgrim for a few months as a favor to the band. Evans had just moved to Baltimore from Los Angeles and was playing in Sick Weapons when he came across the Pilgrim. “I remember seeing them and being like, Uh . . . I should be in that band,” Evans says, still marveling that he now is. “Whatever sound it is, that’s what I was looking for.”
But Evans didn’t even have to ask to be in the band. The night Joy told the band he needed to move on, the Pilgrim was playing with one of its more unlikely allies in the Baltimore music scene, country singer/songwriter Caleb Stine. “Caleb said, ‘Hey man, I think you guys are pretty good, you should be able to cherrypick anyone you want to play bass,’” Sweeney says. Drummer Derrick Hans adds, “And we looked at the end of the bar, and there’s Dan.”
At a time when heavy psych rock is experiencing something of a renaissance in underground circles, particularly in Baltimore, the Pilgrim has set itself apart with more songful and varied compositions than the doomy atmospherics and drones preferred by other bands. Songs like “Hey Freddy” are even downright radio-friendly, even if the radio stations that might have one day played them no longer exist. And while countless bands have based their entire careers on aping one particular Led Zeppelin song or another, the Pilgrim follows Zep’s example by filling its music with variety and contrasts, changing moods and mixing in acoustic textures. After the band hit it off with Stine, the five-piece plus Stine performed a stripped-down acoustic set together last year, with Stine harmonizing with Mis Zill on quieter arrangements of the Pilgrim songs and a cover of “Find the Cost of Freedom” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
The six songs on the Pilgrim’s self-titled album encompass all of the band’s many sounds and moods, sometimes within one eight-minute song. Halfway through “Cold Lady,” Mis Zill and a lone guitar vamp together for a moment, while the band whoops away in the background having what sounds like a drunken house party, before the song revs back into a bluesy raveup. The band’s de facto theme song “The Pilgrim” and the album’s bombastic closer “Gunpowder Memorial” feature twin guitar leads that would do Thin Lizzy proud. Although Zill’s big, expressive voice has in many ways become the band’s calling card since she joined in early 2009, the album doesn’t suffer when Sweeney and McDonald take occasional lead vocals, and the band talks excitedly of incorporating more harmonies and multiple vocal parts into future songs.
Far from vinyl snobs, though, the members of the Pilgrim will be releasing their album digitally and on CD, selling discs with homemade silkscreened artwork on the band’s upcoming tour in February, where it’ll venture into the deep South for the first time and play New Orleans on Mardi Gras. The band has been a healthy draw in Baltimore for a while now, and it’s eager to explore uncharted territory and win over new audiences, and perhaps the band’s families, with the Pilgrim’s heavy ’70s sound.
“My favorite compliment was, ‘You guys were really great but . . . my stepdad would really love you guys,’” McDonald says with a laugh. Sweeney adds, “We started telling people at shows, ‘Hey, if you don’t like this, maybe tell your stepdad about us.’”