Few bands in recent years have experienced growth as steady and sustained as Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. The jam-funk quartet first came together in the dorm rooms of their alma mater, the University of Maryland, and has gradually sprouted into one of the jam scene’s biggest touring attractions, selling out revered clubs and theaters nationwide and earning slots at countless major festivals.
At the same time, they’ve also grown their own festival, Domefest. Started by lead guitarist Jeremy Schon as a one-day event during their senior year of college, Domefest has blossomed into a three-day camping event, with its 9th-annual iteration scheduled for May 17th through 19th.
“The band started for fun, and it continues for fun,” explains vocalist/rhythm guitarist Greg Ormont. “We started in the dorm room just to become friends and goof off after going out and stuff. And I think we’ve always kept that honest, genuine appreciation for playing music with each other on the larger stages that we’re playing now.”
Just like the band, Domefest—named after the domed roofs on the original event grounds—began with an organic combination of fortunate circumstances nine years ago and has evolved gradually into a beloved tradition in itself, despite the various potential trappings of sustaining a small-scale festival over the course of many years. All the while, Pigeons has amassed a passionate following—affectionately known as “The Flock”—which continues to grow larger and more fervent with each show.
In many ways, that steady, sustained growth can be traced to the prevailing attitude of the band. Explains Ormont:
As long as every show is better than the last, we’re moving in the right direction. … It’s just really been all about the fun, and pushing yourself to be your best self. That’s something I think you would do no matter what job you have, or what life you’re leading. I think that’s just a good way to approach your passions. You almost can’t lose if you’re giving it your all and you’re having fun doing it.
Ahead of the 9th-annual Domefest this month, Live For Live Music’s Andrew O’Brien caught up with Greg Ormont and Jeremy Schon of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong to talk about the story behind the festival, what it’s like to pull double-duty as both performers and organizers, and how exciting musical moments like their recent one-song set came together.
Andrew O’Brien: Now that your spring dates are winding down, next up on the docket is your own festival, Domefest. This will be your 9th Domefest, which might surprise some people since that surely pre-dates Pigeons Playing Ping Pong’s more widespread fame in this scene. How did Domefest get started?
Jeremy Schon: When we were at the University of Maryland, I was involved in the Maryland Music Business Society, a student organization which was started by me and Greg’s roommate, who we lived with for many years. I was our concert director, and a big thing I wanted to do with that club was to throw a day festival. It was very challenging to pull it off on campus. We didn’t have any funding, but we found this cool property that was 15 minutes away from our college campus, and the owner was super into us doing something there, so we decided we’d do something small.
Then, at the last minute, we managed to get some funding from the school as one of their student groups. It was not a big sponsorship, but it was something. That made me think, “Okay, I can actually do things a little bit better.” I really owe it to them—it helped kinda start the whole thing. Because I didn’t have, like, a dollar. [laughs]
Greg Ormont: And obviously, he had been to a few festivals, and had a good time there and wanted to replicate it.
Jeremy: A big inspiration was definitely going to music festivals myself, starting with Bonnaroo, and then All Good. Then, I finally went to Camp Barefoot in 2009, which was the first small festival I went to. I was blown away by the intimacy, by the vibe. When the opportunity came to do Domefest, I wanted to capture that feeling as much as possible and introduce people to new music that they might not have known before, as I was introduced to tons of new bands at Camp Barefoot.
Greg: Fortunately, Jeremy has really great taste in music and is able to pick these up-and-coming bands, some of which you might not have heard of, but our fans all love listening to them at Domefest. So I think we’ve gained that trust from the fanbase where they look at the lineup, maybe they know a few bands, maybe they don’t know all of them, but they trust that at Domefest, they’re all gonna be great bands, good people, and it’ll be a great time. Which is really exciting, because that gives Jeremy a little more leeway on picking certain bands that might not have a great following yet in our area, but he believes in them and he wants to show our friends.
Andrew: Pigeons Playing Ping Pong was already up and moving at that point, but did you necessarily start it as a “Pigeons Festival,” as a “vehicle for my band?” Or was it something separate?
Jeremy: It honestly evolved into that. It was May 1st, 2010, when we had the first Domefest. [Pigeons] were just really getting started. We had been a band for maybe just about three years at that point. You know, we were obviously a core band [on the lineup] from the start, but I didn’t really think of us as a headliner. We just weren’t a headliner nearly at that point in [the band’s] life.
But we eventually realized after about three years that no matter who the headliner we were bringing in was, we were still one of the main draws of the festival. It sort of just made sense to make it a little more Pigeons-centric and help the two grow alongside each other, because, obviously, Pigeons started developing momentum as Domefest developed momentum. I brought in Greg to help produce the event with me after the third or fourth year—I can’t keep track—because I needed someone who shared in the artistic vision and detail-oriented nature of all the aspects of throwing a festival.
Greg: The first Domefest was the first music festival that I ever attended, which is kind of crazy when you think about it. I didn’t do anything to organize the festival for the first few years. I would see that Jeremy was always working and sending emails and stressing over details and be like, “Man, this is like a lot of effort. I’m curious as to what the payoff is.” And then I experienced it first-hand, and it was a life-changing experience.
I think that’s another reason why I was so on-board and behind this message once I joined the Domefest team. It just had such a profound impact on my life that I wanted to have that happen to my friends and even people I don’t know, to just have them experience that. It’s amazing to have that eye-opening experience and then be able to keep the tradition going. It kind of has always been just from Jeremy taking the lead, putting things on the way we like it. And it hasn’t failed us yet.
It’s an incredible thing to be able to do. We don’t take it lightly… and at the same time, we take it really lightly. [laughs] You work hard behind the scenes and then you get to enjoy the show, but once you’re playing music and you’re onstage, that’s the fun.
Andrew: It is definitely impressive that it’s you two handling the nuts and bolts of putting on the festival. That’s not always the case when bands “host” a festival.
Greg: Like Jeremy said, it’s a ton of work. It is wonderful to see when everyone’s there, but I mean, Jeremy and I are working on Domefest about nine months out of the year, every single day. We are masters of Google Drive, spreadsheets, emails. We live our lives online when we’re on tour as Domefest approaches. Sometimes our fans have been like, “I heard at Domefest, you’re actually working. You’re not being prima donnas, not doing anything.” And I’m thinking to myself, “I mean, someone has to throw the festival.” You know what I mean?
We literally organize everything. We’re the ones emailing and speaking to everyone who’s coming, and we see it through. As we get closer and closer, it becomes pretty intense juggling touring with Pigeons and, you know, lining up our staff and volunteers and vendors and making sure everything’s ready for the festival. And, at the end of the festival, if our cleaning crew has left and we see cigarette butts on the floor, we pick them up. Every year, we’re able to do a little bit less of the nitty-gritty stuff like picking up cigarette butts. [laughs] It takes a bit of sacrifice, but there’s nothing sweeter than seeing all your friends with that smile on their face at the festival.
Andrew: That personal touch you put into Domefest surely comes across to the fans, and probably has a lot to do with the event’s long-term success. You have to make it a tradition, make it something people look forward to in and of itself, not just for a specific band or set. That may be the biggest key to surviving as a festival, particularly a small festival.
Greg: I definitely agree. Domefest has really blossomed into something special with that in mind. People go every year—it’s like their kind of spring kick-off to the festival season. Last year, we had our first wedding on the festival property, which was beautiful! All of their vows were, like, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong lyrics, saying, like, “Ever since I saw you, I knew you’d be my ‘Julia’,” and it was really sweet. The year before that, some of our friends got engaged at Domefest. People are doing bachelor parties this year. … It’s definitely an honor to have those things happen at our festival, and I would be surprised if Jeremy expected that nine years ago when he started this thing—that people would be getting married at Domefest. That’s really special.
Jeremy: It definitely blows my mind. I never expected to be doing a ninth edition of the festival, that wasn’t even a thought in 2010. It never really dawned on me that this would become a thing.
Andrew: Another way you showcase your attention to detail with Domefest is with the inclusion of “Undercover” Pigeons Playing Ping Pong sets. At last year’s Domefest, you did a “Dead Phish” set, and mixed Grateful Dead and Phish songs with your own. Any hints on what’s in store for Domefest “Undercover” set?
Greg: We love doing themed shows, especially around Halloween and New Year’s Eve. This last New Year, we did a Disney theme, “DisNYE”. It was so much fun. We actually had that idea brewing for like three years. Just the “DisNYE” made sense and, obviously, their music is incredible.
A lot of the time, we try to pick a theme that will help us grow as musicians. One of our earliest themes was a Motown theme in Baltimore that really was like a crash course in songwriting, especially in the funk category. And we learned a lot doing the Disney thing. We have a lot of really good ideas that are in our back pockets that we’ll be un-rolling over the next few years. … We’re never trying to just sit on anything—”Okay, we just did the Disney set? What’s next? We just finished this year’s Domefest? What’s next?”—and I think that drive really keeps it interesting for us, and it keeps it interesting for our fans.
Andrew: A lot of times, small festivals have trouble sustaining over long periods for a variety of reasons, but you guys have managed to not just survive, but thrive and grow. The same could be said about Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. In just the last few years, you’ve gone from playing small rooms in minor markets to selling out multi-night runs in revered theaters around the country. Do you have any thoughts on that sustainable but rapid growth and the reasons behind it?
Jeremy: I think a big thing for us was that we always had this drive to push forward musically and professionally—to make our show better. Every time people see us, we want to have tightened-up songs. We want to have tightened-up jams, or make jams looser, in some ways. We’re never complacent on the product, so to speak. We always want to be better. We want to constantly improve, in big ways and in little ways. Since day one, that’s been our attitude. … I mean, we work hard. We put a lot into it. A lot more than meets the eye, I’d like to think.
Greg: Similarly, with Domefest, we’ve tried to be very patient and realistic as we grow and gain more attendees and fans and stuff. Sometimes, the smaller festivals, they’ll have a few successful years and then they’ll get a little too big for their britches, try to bring on some huge headliner, and try to jump from “small festival” to, like, “humongous festival.” And we’ve seen a lot of festivals kind of crash and burn with that approach.
Fortunately, Jeremy has had the foresight to sort of slowly build the lineups and trust in the process that people are there to see great music, not necessarily an enormous nationally or internationally-touring band. They just want an escape in the woods, to see some of their favorite bands, and, hopefully, catch some new ones. And as a result, Domefest is looking like it will sell out this year for the first time at this location. But it’s not our first time selling out Domefest. We’ve just had smaller locations in the past, and we like to slowly make it to that point and grow at a normal, natural, patient pace.
Andrew: What about your approach to planning Domefest is different now than it was nine years ago?
Greg: Over the years, Pigeons has played hundreds of festivals, small and big. So at this point, we’re really just kind of putting on the festival that we would want to go to, both as an attendee and as a band. So the bands make new fans, and attendees make new friends, and the camping is comfortable, and the staff works hard to make sure everyone’s happy and has everything they need. That whole mindset of “what would we want to experience at the festival” or “what would we want to experience at a show” is what we pour into Domefest and all of our Pigeons Playing Ping Pong concerts. I think that’s one reason fans are so strongly into it and getting [Pigeons] tattoos and stuff. We’ve always tried to reflect our fans and what they would want and, in that, what we would want.
Also, from the Pigeons side of things, after the show, we still love to talk to the fans and go out and sign stuff if they want us to, or just have a drink with them and get to know them better. And I think our fans appreciate that. Rob Chafin from The Werks told me a long time ago to “stay, homie,” and that was the best advice I’ve ever gotten. [laughs] You know? No matter what’s going on, just stay homie, be yourself, relate to the people around you, and appreciate what you have. So we definitely appreciate where we’re at, and we’re definitely pushing ourselves to be at our best at all times, whether it’s writing new songs, whether it’s working on jams, or even just on spreadsheets, phone calls, and emails.
Andrew: Speaking of working on jams, you guys did a bit of particularly notable jamming recently at Port City Music Hall, when you stretched out “Funk E. Zekiel” for an entire, hour-plus, single-song set of improvisation. Was that something you really planned to do ahead of time?
Jeremy: That wasn’t the plan for that day. At all…
Greg: We had a setlist written, but we didn’t play it. [laughs] And keep in mind, this also was a Sunday show… Apparently, you’re not supposed to miss any of those…
Andrew: I’ve heard that, yeah…
Greg: The sound was really good the night before. Kind of just on a whim, we said, “Let’s start with this song, and if it’s not going great, we can close the song and play our set, but if it’s going well, let’s take it out there and see where it goes.” … And fortunately, there weren’t many stale moments. And I think we all recognized as a group that if we reached the end of one section, one of us needed to make a move to change up the groove or change up the feel or the chords and let whoever’s playing most confidently at a transition point push it in a new direction.
Jeremy: A big thing about doing a super extended jam like that is that it puts us in a very vulnerable place to the fans. You know, like, we’re gonna make mistakes [laughs] … There’s usually one moment where someone doesn’t know what’s happening. If we were really nitpicking, and it was during a [regular] song, we’d be like, “Oh my god, we totally screwed that up!” But when you’re in a free-form improvisational moment, there’s no such thing as a wrong note. You could hit something that sounds bad for a second, but then you figure it out quickly.
Andrew: And it becomes the tension that leads to a release. It’s all part of the puzzle.
Greg: We jam at all of our shows. The majority of our concert is improv. This particular jam was just wide open, in the sense that sometimes when we’re jamming in a song, we’re aware of where we need to end up. If we’re gonna go back and close that song or if we’re gonna transition to the next one, you kind of need to be in the right key, or build toward the right chords, things like that. That’s what made this experience different—the fact that there was no destination in the jam made it all the more special.
And then what was really exciting was we found ourselves, about an hour in, floating around the key of “Funk E.”, the song we had started with, and we found our way back to it. That was really cool because that was not necessarily the plan. There was no plan. But the fact that we were able to close it was inspiring for us as a group and made it that tight one-song set.
Andrew: Definitely. It’s like in the movie, The Prestige, what Michael Caine’s character says about magic tricks: It’s not enough to just make something disappear. You have to bring it back to earn the applause…
Greg: That is such a great reference! There are some fans who take their notepad out, and they write down the set so they can post it in our Facebook group, The Flock. One of the kids’ notes was really funny. It was like “Funk E. … Is this still ‘Funk E.’? … ‘Holy shit, what’s going on?’” It was a good one. I’m really happy we made it unscathed, relatively, and were able to experience it and add that to our resume, of sorts. We are always pushing ourselves to do something different, to do something more. This was something we’d never done before, and I look forward to the next thing we haven’t done before.
Andrew: Speaking of the next things you haven’t done before…You were supposed to make your Red Rocks debut last year with moe., and obviously Rob Derhak got sick and that got postponed. Now Rob’s better, moe.’s back in action, the show’s rescheduled, and you’re finally heading to play Red Rocks…
Greg: Allegedly. I mean, we’re scheduled for it again. [laughs] … After experiencing getting the Red Rocks offer and then having it be taken away, for very good reason, it made me realize that you only “play Red Rocks” once you’ve actually played Red Rocks. So…[laughs]…July 12th, we’re both very stoked, and once it’s in the books, we will revel in it.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong‘s 9th-annual Domefest takes place May 17th – 19th. For more information, or to purchase tickets, head to the festival website.