The members of PigPen Theatre Co. are driving from Tucson to Austin. It’s a good, long, fifteen-hour stretch they’re using as best they can. After all, this theater company and musical band — the two being separate artistic entities, pretty much — are so busy. With their second album, Whole Sun (out July 7), on the horizon and a tour in support of the three plays they’ve got in the works, time is precious, so on this long drive, they’re trying to work out harmonies and parts to some cover songs they must record for donators to their Kickstarter campaign. The thing is, though, it is designated driver Dan Weschler and Matt Nuernberger, riding shotgun, who are working out the song parts. It might be a good idea to not have the driver working on songs. After all, there are seven guys in this band, so it’s not like there’s any shortage of helping hands.
“Good point! We didn’t think about that,” jokes Ryan Melia. “He’s a good multitasker; it keeps him awake.” Plus, it being a wide-open desert-scape they’re driving through, they feel safe enough.
Whereas PigPen’s debut, Bremen, was basically music that came out of writing plays, the folk-rock-inflected Whole Sun marks a songwriting departure for the troupe. This time, the songs are personal, as each member was tasked to write about his own relationships.
“It is very different, but it’s a direction we all decided we wanted to go in,” says Melia. “We wanted the music to be able to stand by itself. The writing didn’t change, just what the songs were about. It was a departure to have the album deal with us, rather than characters in a play. It happened quite naturally, really.”
PigPen Theater Co. formed while its members — besides Melia, Nuernberger, and Weschler, there’s Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, and Arya Shahi — were freshmen at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in Pittsburgh.
“We were all in the same acting class,” recalls Melia. “Theater was the first thing we started doing together. We wrote our first play together when we were freshmen, the seven of us. It had a few songs in it, but mainly we were focused on writing plays. The music grew out of the plays, because people started asking for recordings of the music in our plays. We happily obliged and it sort of separated naturally, and now it’s its own thing.”
Nowadays, the seven twentysomethings are New York City–based; five of them still live together. “The other two live with their girlfriends. They can leave the situation behind…we are stuck with each other,” laughs Melia. “It’s pretty helpful being together, though. It means we have to do the work and there’s no escaping it.”
Playwriting has proven so successful for them — particularly their Off-Broadway run of The Old Man and the Old Moon, which also showed in Chicago and Boston — that music tends to take a backseat. Unusually, Melia combining the two and writing a full-blown musical isn’t in the cards, and PigPen the band and PigPen the acting ensemble exist separately, for now. There’s no doubting each influences and nurtures the other, though. Whole Sun might as well mark the next stage in the troupe’s playwriting, which Melia thinks will incorporate more of their personal stories, going forward. Plus, the discrete pursuits can’t help but to have widened PigPen’s overall audience.
“The audiences for theater and music are so different,” Melia says. “When we’re doing a theater show, we’ll set up a concert in that city as well. So people who like our music who don’t know we’re a theater company will find out about the play, and the theater people, who don’t know we’re musicians, will find out about the music. The cross-pollination is very interesting. The ages range so widely. What we lose not traveling as a band year-round, we gain from the range of people who get to see us. We try not to think about it as music versus theater; we try to see the two as feeding each other as much as possible.
“It’s the same ingredients — the seven of us,” he adds. “So that doesn’t change no matter what we’re working on. The biggest difference, the most jolting one, is traveling.”
Which brings them back to their current predicament of being stuck in a van and on the road, neither of which they mind at all, really. It’s just an adjustment. “It’s really down to a difference in the lifestyle. That’s probably the biggest difference to transition through. When you’re doing theater, you get to be in one place for a few months. Being on the road as a band, you show up to a different venue every night and you have no idea what it’s going to be like. Life’s a mystery when you’re on the road.”
PigPen Theatre Co. perform on June 18 at Rough Trade NYC, with You Won’t opening. Whole Sun is out July 7 on PigPen Theatre Co. Records.