For over two decades, The Special Pillow’s string-driven synthesis of psychedelia, chamber-pop and new wave has delighted a coterie of fans, including local luminaries like Yo La Tengo, music publisher Lyle Hysen, and musician Karyn Kuhl.
On Friday, June 26, The Special Pillow will quietly release a six-song EP, “World’s Finest,” and – as the group frankly notes — find itself exactly where it started … flying below the radar in its hometown of Hoboken.
“Saying that we’re still under the radar was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also pretty factual,” admitted Dan Cuddy, who plays bass and shares lead vocals with violinist Katie Gentile. “This is our 25th year as The Special Pillow, dating back to the release of our first single in 1995. There have been a lot of different phases in the band, obviously. I’ve been the motivator, I guess, but Katie Gentile has handled the strings and also been part of it from the get-go.”
Besides the new EP, the group’s Bandcamp page features two full albums and several singles, dating back to 2014.
“But we don’t even have the full discography up there,” Cuddy said. “We had several different cello players early on, a couple of drummers, and several different guitarists over the years. When bands stick around for 25 years, you’re going to go through a few people.”
The current incarnation features Cuddy and Gentile, with longtime collaborator Peter Stuart (from garage-rock headliners Headless Horsemen and Tryfles) on guitar and Eric Marc Cohen (Fly Ashtray, Autobody) on drums.
The EP also features flute and horns, as well as abundant backing vocals from folk diva Debby Schwartz (who plays in Psych-O-Positive with Hoboken mainstay Kuhl).
“Hoboken has certainly seen a lot of changes, in fact there was a lot going on when we started the band,” Cuddy noted.
In the year The Special Pillow came together, Maxwell’s changed hands, becoming a microbrew pub for a short time.
“That was about when Pier Platters went under, too,” he said. “It’s challenging trying to live in a city that changes so much over time, but it’s especially challenging for a band to be around that long because the scene becomes so different.
“For example, Uncle Joe’s in Jersey City was a place we played quite regularly for several years. You get comfortable in a situation like that and then things change, because of economic forces in that case. The city designated that area as an art zone and then tore down the building where all the artists lived and tore down the place where all the bands played. That’s just one example of the scene changing around us. So you adapt.”
On the plus side, Cuddy noted: “We do have Guitar Bar here, which is a great resource for musicians, and the Issyra Gallery, where we’ve played several gigs. I know people are happy to write off Hoboken as a place that used to be hip and isn’t anymore, but I think there are still artists here creating good work.”
What hasn’t changed over the years?
The band’s approach, for starters. The Special Pillow has always used strings – violin, viola, cello – to create sonorous layers of sound. Also, the band has always evinced a keen sense of humor.
Psychedelic bands tend to play long songs, punk bands favor short ones. The Special Pillow has always liked to create both, like the new EPs punchy, bouncy “I Woke Up” (clocking in at a sparse 1:59) or the peppery title track, which lasts nearly seven minutes.
Hobokenite Lyle Hysen, whose Bank Robber Music handles The Special Pillow’s publishing, asked the band to contribute to the “Talk – Action = Zero” compilation benefiting Black Lives Matter. The band responded with “Activity 3, Insights 0,” a haunting, spacey jumble that only lasts 1:43 but leaves a lasting impression.
“That’s been our way, either keeping it extremely short or extremely long,” Cuddy said. “I have, I guess, a short-ish attention span, which is where the short songs come from. I don’t always think a song needs a middle eight, as long as it has a good chorus. It’s better to get in and get out. That’s my background in punk rock; if you can turn in a good song in under two minutes, I’m all for that. But it’s also nice to have a chance to space out, meditate, let a song play out for five or six minutes.”
That strategy is put to good use by Yo La Tengo, who covered The Special Pillow’s “Automatic Doom” in 2015.
Cuddy broke into the Hoboken music scene in the ‘90s band Hypnolovewheel, which boasted four songwriters.
“There was a label called 18 Wheeler that asked us to do a single, where every songwriter would get one side on a 7-inch record,‘’ Cuddy said. “Katie Gentile was one of my housemates at the time, and for my song, I thought it would be cool to have a violinist and do a kind of chamber-rock thing. Our drummer Peter Walsh actually recorded the session, and he knew a cellist named Cindy Brolsma, would would go on to play with Splendora.”
Cuddy also asked Dave Rick, a former member of Yo La Tengo and the well-regarded NYC band Phantom Tollbooth, to play guitar on the track. That side of the Hypnolovewheel record caught the attention of Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, who asked Cuddy and his new collective to open a show at Maxwell’s.
“I was nervous, but I did it, and since Dave Rick was off on tour at the time, I asked James McNew to fill in on guitar with us,” Cuddy said. (McNew would go on to become a full-time member of Yo La Tengo.)
The show went so well that Cuddy decided to keep it going.
“The name for that performance was The Secret Passage,” Cuddy recalled. “We were stuck between The Secret Passage and The Special Pillow, and we eventually decided on The Special Pillow.”
Over the years, Cuddy said, there were spurts where The Special Pillow would play a fair amount of gigs.
“But for the most part, I would say this has primarily been a recording project,” he said. “A DIY project, doing the best we can with what we had to work with, making low-budget records that try to sound good and have good songs. And we’ve been doing it.”
It looks like The Special Pillow has no plans to stop anytime soon.
The “World’s Finest” EP will be available on Friday, June 26, on thespecialpillow.bandcamp.com.
LOCAL MUSIC ONLINE
The Latest Noise, in conjunction with the Hoboken production studio The Cyclorama, will present a live event at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 26, featuring local bands Blue Ox, Desir Decir, Mike Kuzan, BWQ, and Julia Kirk.
The concert can be viewed at thecyclorama.com or fourth.media.
The Hoboken Relief Fund Music Festival will air at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 25, on the Hoboken Facebook page (facebook.com/Hoboken). Donations can be sent to HobokenReliefFund.com.
The concert will include performances by Marshall Crenshaw, Julio Fernandez, Freedy Johnston, Jim Babjak of The Smithereens, Graham Maby (Joe Jackson Band), N’Kenge, Mary Lee Kortes, Rebecca Turner, Frankie Morales (Tito Puente Orchestra), and more.