Pigeons Playing Ping Pong is a name fans in the jam circuit have grown familiar with over the past few years. The four-piece funk fusion band’s extensive touring and summer festival schedule is reflective of their hard work ethic. Sound-Fix had the chance to catch up with Pigeons [Playing Ping Pong] drummer Alex “Gator” Petropulous before their performance at Summer Camp to take a look inside what it’s like to soar with the flock.
Sound-Fix: It took a lot of traveling and not a lot of sleep but I’m excited to be here talking with Gator from Pigeons Playing Ping Pong.
Alex “Gator” Petropulos: Where are you coming from man?
SF: I flew from San Diego to New York and made the drive from there. It was about 15 hours but it was great, we had fun the whole way!
Gator: Oh cool man, yeah that’ll getcha. It’s a long ride but once you get here it’s worth it. We’ve had those times where we had a late night set that ended at 2 AM and then we packed and drove for almost 20 hours straight. We actually flew in yesterday after we had our festival, Domefest, which was a blast. We had a couple days to catch our breath and then we got on a plane yesterday. We got here in time to catch Umphrey’s [McGee] set. We’re all big Umphrey’s [McGee] fans so we came in last night so we could get to the Red Barn set.
SF: That’s sweet, so you’re all big Umphrey’s [McGee] guys?
Gator: For me personally, I’m a huge Umphrey’s [McGee] guy. I listen to everything, but growing up I was more rooted in rock and roll, metal and progressive metal. They have many sides, but they do like to keep it heavy rock so it was a great transition into the jam world for me. I used to have my mom take me to their shows when I was 14-15 years old in high school because I couldn’t drive.
SF: Did your mom have to chaperone you in?
Gator: (laughs) I don’t know how I got into those venues, but right, probably because of my mom.
SF: (laughs) That’s funny and leads me right into my first question. I wanted to ask you about some of your influences. I know you said heavy rock but more specifically can you tell me some influential artists?
Gator: I started listening to rock and heavier music but delved into every type from there. When we’re in the van and listening to new bands, we’re listening to everything from jazz to Afro-Cuban music to hip-hop to rap to southern rock to jams. We listen to Phish here and there, we’re all pretty big Phish fans, but we always try to broaden our horizons. Even if it’s something we’re not totally comfortable with we just try to listen to new stuff because it seeps into our creativity. If we’re on a big funk kick and we start listening to a bunch of Afro-Cuban music, you can kind of see it in our jams. It almost helps lead us to try and find new things musically. But as far as specifics Phish is a big influence, Talking Heads and Lotus have always been a big influence on the Pigeons [Playing Ping Pong] sound. There really isn’t any music we dislike; we love music man. We love coming to these festivals and walking around and seeing other bands and one of the main reasons why these are so great is because most the other bands are doing the same thing. You get to see a show and you’re like “Ohh, what’s up Joey Porter from The Motet?” It’s great, everybody wants to see music and that’s why it’s a good scene for us.
SF: You already said Umphrey’s [McGee], but what other bands are you excited to see?
Gator: Lettuce obviously killed it yesterday, we’re bigLettucefans. We just played with them a couple weeks ago, we funk with them often. I’m really excited they’re doing the Dennis Chambers and Victor Wooten set; I think that’s going to be a mind blowing set.
Gator: Yeah, Victor Wooten is arguably one of the best bass players ever and Dennis Chambers is arguably one of the greatest drummers ever so it’s pretty wild that they’re both in the same spot playing. There’s some friends of ours that’re good bands to check out like Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers are here, Mungion is a great upcoming band from Chicago that we just had at our festival. Obviously moe. and Umphrey’s [McGee] are huge. I’m forgetting a bunch of names of people that are actually here. It’s crazy when there’s so many bands. The Medeski set. They killed it on Jam Cruise, whichwas the first time I got to see Medeski, Martin, and Wood do a full set with Scofield and that set was very inspiring just how open they are. But it’s also cool that they have people like Action Bronson because I like to listen to some rap music too!
SF: Right, Summer Camp is well-known for having a little something for everybody. A lot of the friends we come with have vastly different tastes in music and we don’t see each other much except at the campsite but all still have a great time! So you had mentioned your festival earlier and I wanted to hear your take on that. From my understanding it was the first year Domefest sold out?
Gator: Yeah, it was the 9th Domefest which is wild. Jeremy [Schon] and Greg [Ormont] are the integral part for sure. Jeremy [Schon] threw a party one day in college at a place called “The Domes” and it just turned into a really great music festival where we’re able to showcase a lot of up incoming bands that have been killing it and have been working hard, and we play 5 sets of our own. It’s something the band, specifically Jeremy [Schon] and Greg [Ormont], work out all year long. It’s crazy and it’s very fulfilling for them running around like crazy hosting a music festival while also prepping to play 5 sets. It’s great and it brings our fans together. It feels like a big backyard party just as much as a music festival. Everyone is there to see music which is awesome. Rain or shine it seems like everybody there is there to check out music which is great. It’s something we take a lot of pride in and it’s something that is going to continue. We do themes, so there’s certain themes. Throwback Thursday, we played a bunch of old originals we hadn’t played since the college years. Flower Power Friday which is more of a psychedelic set. We also did a full improv set which ended up being a 60 plus minute jam which was great. Yeah, it was a lot of work, it’s exhausting, but Domefest… it’s great stuff!
SF: That’s awesome, for a small festival, it’s definitely gaining more attention annually. That’s a big accomplishment for you guys!
Gator: Absolutely, and we have plenty more festivals. It just doesn’t stop. Summer is great with the festivals. A couple first timers for us, we got Bonnaroo coming up which is spectacular. It’s funny, we love playing all sorts of festivals whether it’s a small little community festival or…
SF: One of the biggest 4-day festivals in the country? (laughs)
Gator: (laughs) Yeah, so awesome!
SF: What were some of your favorite moments from Domefest?
Gator: The improv set was great, I personally loved busting out the old songs because we have our general group of fans who are called “The Flock” which is based around the Facebook group which has grown immensely. Fans are on there posting and we’ll go on and check it. It’s funny when you start to recognize some repeating names on there, and they’re posting songs that they want to hear and stuff. It’s fun for me when we’re about to bust out these songs and in the crowd I can see the fan who I know he’s been waiting 5 years for us to play the song we’re about to play. So I loved busting out the old stuff, those songs were written before I was personally in the band. A big part of it for me besides performing it is just seeing the crowd reaction and just how willing people are. Festivals are amazing, but it’s tough to stand out all day and watch hours and hours of music and the people are relentless in the best way possible. Rain or shine, mud or not people are out there non-stop checking out new music not just the stuff they were planning on seeing. Just the general atmosphere is always the best part for me.
SF: We spoke a little bit about your musical influences and you mentioned being a newer member of the band, what impact do you think you had on the Pigeons [Playing Ping Pong] sound?
Gator: That was the thing, the prior drummer Dan [Schwartz] is an amazing drummer, but we had pretty different styles in how we play and approach different parts of the instrument. Neither of us are right or wrong, it’s an art and a style. But I definitely felt I had to make adjustments when learning all of the songs. Walking the line of knowing certain parts keep true to the song, however there are certain parts of the song I can add my creative flare to which the band was awesome with allowing me to do that. But being able to have that kind of creativity and then once the song gets comfortable, being able to slowly morph it into my style which has been awesome and I think it’s helped the sound. I try to bring a lot of energy to the table while also having dynamics. We’re all about the live show so we focus on balancing between having stage energy and actually focusing on the instrument. I think we’ve definitely been able to find a great balance and it’s been going great. The band was definitely on the up when I came in and it was great timing. Just the mixture of where they were at and I was obviously hungry to play and get better which I still am and everybody in the band is. That’s a big thing is that we’re always trying to get better and when we’re home from tours we’re practicing and doing improv practices because we know in order to keep it going we got to keep pushing. We’re all on a good wave length for that. It was a pretty easy transition surprisingly. A lot of songs to learn but that’s the easy part, honestly, because with our live show we’re trying to do so much more and try to open up jams and try new jams and stuff which that alone takes more time just getting comfortable with people and communicating on stage nonverbally.
SF: Right, that chemistry takes time to develop. What helped to develop that chemistry?
Gator: Yeah but it came pretty quick which was great and is something we’re always working on. And like I said earlier, listening to every type of music definitely impacts the band’s sound and our playing. It creates a melting pot, like cooking, it brings a bunch of ingredients to the table. One thing that I always try to take pride on and keep trying to push is developing new styles so when I am behind the kit, I basically have an ingredient book and we can kind of decide on the fly if we want to do a dance floor style jam or try an Afro-Cuban jam. I think energy is huge, which everybody brings to the table great. We’re able to bring it down and play low here and there but the way we bring it back up, our big builds and our peaks and the way we work together really works with us. I have to say a good balance of energy while still being patient in a sense. Being able to have those cool flashy fills but also knowing when they’re right for the music and I think that’s one thing I’ve always held in tact well which helps the music. A lot of times as a drummer you want to just whack away when you start to feel it but you have to ask yourself if it’s right for the music.
SF: It’s important to serve the song
Gator: Right, serving the song but also serving the energy or the vibe. If the crowd is going nuts, then it’s ok to throw in one of those crazy moments in. Basically patience is a big thing.
SF: I like what you said: “serving the vibe”
Gator: Right, they feed off of us and we feed off of them.
SF: And it’s an on-going cycle
Gator: Right, and we can definitely feel the big waves of energy from the crowd. That’s another big skill to have is being able to read that and having a feel for the environment you’re playing in.
SF: Thank you for your time Gator, I have one last question I’m dying to ask. How did the nickname “Gator” come about?
Gator: Ok, that’s a good one. Some people called me “Al” growing up, so because “Al— Alligator.” Then randomly when I was growing up my dad called me “Gator.” It was really just a funny thing with my dad mostly, nobody else really called me it. Then one day we were riding in the van and somebody was talking about gators and I brought it up and was like “Hey by the way my dad used to call me Gator, so I want everybody to start calling me Gator from now on” and it was half a joke thing but…
SF: Now here we are talking about it? (laughs)
Gator: (laughs) It’s great, and people love it! There was a funny Will Ferrell movie where somebody was called “Gator” so there’s a lot of quotes from that and people make signs based off it so I definitely embrace it now.
Stay tuned as Pigeons Playing Ping Pong is constantly announcing new shows. Just today they announced a west coast fall tour which will see the band playing some of our favorite venues up the coast of California. See the picture below for a full list of places Pigeons Playing Ping Pong will be stopping on their fall 2018 tour!