High Sierra: Pigeons Playing Ping Pong — with ‘Pizazz’

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong are hardly poseurs.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Tony Contini

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong are a funk foursome hailing from Baltimore, Maryland. They say it’s an intimate place, and nicknamed it “Smalltimore.” All the music fans know each other by name and show up to the same shows, especially in their jam-band niche.

They followed in the footsteps of Cris Jacobs Band, another High Sierra performer this year. Jacobs was the leader of another Baltimore band, The Bridge. PPPP would watch them play every Wednesday at a club called The 8X10, which features a spring-loaded dance floor.

“The whole room is bouncing as the crowd dances together,” singer/guitarist Greg Ormont said in an interview at the High Sierra Music Festival. “It was a smaller venue with an energy exploding through the roof. We eventually started a weekly residency ourselves.”

They flew in through Vegas and into Reno on their way to High Sierra. This meant each airport had slot machines. Most of the players are down, but one member managed to cash out a quarter richer. They hope he hasn’t caught the bug. Last time they came through The Biggest Little Town, they played a set at the Crystal Bay Casino.

When picking a proper product persona, they knew they needed to pick one letter.

“There’s no letter quite as beautiful as the ‘P,’ ” Ormont said. “And it’s kinda like a flamingo, if you were to draw it with an open mind. And we love birds. From there we had a ‘P,’ it looks like a flamingo that has feathers… Oh! Pigeons Playing Ping Pong!”

PPPP blend puns with precision. They have an open and collaborative songwriting process. Someone either brings a cool riff to the table, Ormont comes in with a funny rhyme or they experience something together on the road.

“We try to keep our ears open always,” Ormont said. “We are inspired by everything.”

The other day, Ormont was at the pool for the Fourth of July holiday. He watched people play a log-spinning game where the victor is left standing. Ormont could barely stand on it for a second, but there was an “8-year-old dude killing everyone.” He was focused and started to showboat.

“This kid was like 40 pounds,” Ormont said. “He’d be spinning off kids twice his size, then staring us down afterward. The whole time I was thinking of song lyrics for him. Verse 1 – His training process. Verse 2 – He’s starting to get good. Verse 3 – It’s the log roller we all see now. He seems so tall up there!”

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

Be on the lookout for “Log Roller.”

All of their albums have been self-released. The most recent “Pizazz” was crowd-sourced on Kickstarter by their fan base dubbed “The Flock.”

“When the crowd sources your album, you want to make it even better,” Ormont said. “You have all these people who donated their money and support and we wanted to make them proud.”

They put time into their albums, but most of their energy is devoted to live shows and touring. Ormont connects with his audience and tries to predict their feelings.

“Honestly, I just keep my eyes open and look at the crowd,” Ormont said. “A lot of bands don’t look up. My head is always up and I’m reflecting energy. I love to see the response to our music as it’s happening.”

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

Ormont has a perma-smile while performing. Every lick he plays or vibe change his funk band makes is like a gift he’s presenting a child on Christmas or water for someone lost in the desert. During trippy interludes, he waves his hands around like Wayne and Garth during a scene-change dissolve.

Lead guitarist Jeremy Schon matches Ormont’s energy with manic, often clean, shredding.

Ben Carrey lays down bold funky bass. Jam bands have to be able to transition, and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong  can change directions on a dime.

They practice improvisational playing at home. They want to surrender to the flow of a show, while also paying attention and listening to each other to pull off the peaks as a pack.

“We practice active listening,” Ormont said. “We build parts together at home so the focus is engrained.”

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

Despite everything about the band being manic and borderline insane, their sets are still tasteful and pleasant. Drummer Alex Petropulos said with improv-base jams, it’s a balance between energy and execution.

“We like to be silly and goofy, but we also want to show the crowd we can play,” Petropulos said. “We want to make people laugh and have a light-sided connection with the crowd while putting on a good show.”

During their late-night set at this year’s High Sierra, Ormont held his nose while singing to make a DIY analog lo-fi tone. Singing, playing and connecting with the audience isn’t enough. He has to pace the stage or run in place throughout the set.

“We live out loud,” Ormont said. “We give it our all every single time. We appreciate the opportunity to be goofballs and play our music. I think it trickles down from the zany band name to the intense eye contact to the explosion of energy onstage. This feels like what we are supposed to do in life.”

                                                                                                                                                                — Tony Contini

Tony Contini / Tahoe OnstageTony Contini / Tahoe OnstageTony Contini / Tahoe OnstageTony Contini / Tahoe OnstageTony Contini / Tahoe OnstageTony Contini / Tahoe OnstageTony Contini / Tahoe OnstageTony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

About Tony Contini

Photographer and journalist Tony Contini graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in art photography. He loves working with bands and telling stories. Photography portfolio: https://www.TonyContini.com

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