Pigeons Playing Ping Pong just wrapped up their biggest year ever in 2018. Now, as they set their sights on 2019, they are looking to capitalize on their continued momentum, stepping up to new markets and bigger venues with storied histories. On January 26th, Pigeons will continue their skyward ascent with their sold-out debut at one such venue, Port Chester, NY “rock palace” The Capitol Theatre.

Ahead of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong’s debut at The Cap, we sat down with drummer Alex “Gator” Petropulos to talk about the high points of 2018, “graduating” to new, hallowed spaces, how off-the-cuff jokes become actual performances, and more.

Live For Live Music: Let’s dive right in with the latest. How was your New Year’s run?

Alex Petropulos: The whole run was amazing. Started with a couple of nights in Nashville which is just such an awesome music town, awesome city in general. We dove right in, we walked around, I went to some music shops, I went to a couple of those little vintage drum shops. And the shows went well. Then we went to Covington, Madison Theater [on 12/29], which is a place we know well, and that was awesome too.

L4LM: Last year, that was where you had your NYE show—the big thing you built up to at the end of the New Year’s run. This year, you got to take it one step further and bring it to Pittsburgh for an even bigger blowout. What’s it like to see that kind of progression?

Petropulos: The Madison Theater [is] a place where you can see that growth [over time]. Because they have a smaller club, Madison Live, which is a sweet spot, and we started there and made our way up towards the theater. So that was another city where we were able to ride that momentum and growth. And then even having Madison earlier in the run [this year], it was so cool have it be a part of it. Then it all built up to the Pittsburgh show [on New Year’s Eve] which was just unreal for us. That’s definitely our biggest headlining show ever. Sold out.

L4LM: That’s like a 2400-cap room, right? That’s no small feat.

Petropulos: Yeah, just the feeling walking out was just wild. I mean, we had played there once opening for Lotus on a prior New Year’s run, which was awesome as well, but it was just so cool to be able to go from the transition just from going to opening there to headlining there.

L4LM: That always seems to be the story with Pigeons. Consistently taking that next step, and then another one beyond it. And the New Year’s stEve theme concept was hilarious, and really opened up a lot of doors for the band to get creative. How did that one come together? I know Greg [Ormont] and Jeremy [Schon] mentioned that you have a bunch of these kinds of ideas in your back pockets from over the years. 

Petropulos: Yeah, you’re right. It’s kind of half-and-half. Some are kind of funny joke ideas we’ve had up our sleeve for a while where you go “one year we should do this,” and it gets to a year where you can’t think of something and you’re like oh yeah, remember we were talking about doing Red Hot Sgt. Peppers, or something like that.

And then other times, it’s super spontaneous and you’re at band practice taking a break and something comes to mind. We do that a lot with our songs, too. We’ll be jamming, Greg will just start singing funny jokes or lines we’ve been saying at practice and a lot of the times they end up being lyrics. As far as New Years stEve, I want to say someone just blurted that one out. I think that was more of a spontaneous one at practice where we were just talking.

L4LM: The whole idea sort of sounds like that. And as a listener, I think you kind of hope it’s that. Just a silly joke that you thought was funny but then turned into a real thing at a sold-out 2,400-person theater.

Petropulos: Sometimes we’ll come up with some where just the name itself is funny, but we’ll actually think of the music and we’re like, well, what are we actually going to do? So this one, at first, we thought was just, “Oh, that’s just going to be a silly one that sounds cool.” But then we started brainstorming Steves… and there’s actually a lot of good Steves out there.

We were just trying to brainstorm them on our own, which was fun. It kind of brought out different stuff that each us definitely listen to. Some of us are more into the classic rock stuff so it was really great doing Abracadabra and the Steve Miller stuff, Fleetwood Mac. Some people are more into the blues stuff, so it was fun to do Stevie Ray, a little “Lenny”. That one kind of pulled at a lot of different directions, but it was a lot of fun for us, and hopefully for the fans.

Phierce Photo | Keith Griner

L4LM: It’s always fun to sort of chart how these kinds of ideas go from inside jokes to actual material and themes. That was my first thought when you debuted that new song “Yo Soy Fiesta” a little while back—that must have been just a silly thing that turned into an actual song.

Petropulos: Yeah, it was. I’m a big Pats fan ’cause I’m from just north of Boston, and I love Gronk, he’s a character, big fan of him in general. I remember that famous [“yo soy fiesta”] interview. That was just a jam we did at a sound check one day before we began the song and we were doing that Latin kind of sound. Greg just ended up spitballing some Spanish lyrics because it had that vibe. I’m pretty sure he just ended up using “yo soy fiesta,” and then he needed a follow-up lyric, and I said, well, “Party is my name!” So that one, with Gronk, he was a heavy inspiration, but that’s a good example of us taking something funny that we just joke around about and utilizing it in a song.

L4LM: That kind of attitude and approach, I think, is what a lot of fans love about your band. Even if you hadn’t told me that, that vibe comes off in your music and your shows. You come up with this thing that you know is going to be fun for you, so you’re going to share it with everyone. 

Petropulos: We definitely try to keep it positive and keep the fans hyped. Ride that energy from our fans.

L4LM: 2018 was clearly a big growth year for you guys. What were your top three highlights from the year?

Petropulos: Oh man. If I thought about it for a while, I might have three different answers. But as far as stuff that comes to my head first… Bonnaroo was kind of a bucket list event for us. We got fortunate enough to play big festivals like The Peach and LOCKN’, which are huge, playing to over 20,000 people. But at Bonnaroo, that’s closer to 100,000 people, and it’s just wild. Not even just playing, but the experience of walking around a festival with that many people was mind-boggling. And there was some great music there, too. Seeing Anderson .Paak and Eminem and Bon Iver and all those artists in that giant environment was insane.

I think our first play at Red Rocks was definitely a highlight too, just ’cause it’s Red Rocks. It’s kinda the Mecca for us especially, and another one of those bucket list places. We had our family there, too. So not only playing there, it was being able to soak it in with all the close Flock family, and our actual families as well, made it even better.

And then… a third? There’s so many to choose from, but one that pops into my head is LOCKN’. There are so many good moments for us, festivals especially, but playing the LOCKN’ main stage was just really awesome for us. That was just another one of those things where it’s about the environment. They have that stage with the divider wall that they spin around.

L4LM: That thing is crazy to watch!

Petropulos: It’s crazy for the band as well! ‘Cause you can peek up there, but you’re pretty much not getting a full taste of what the crowd is like until you actually turn around. We were getting so pumped up, that whole experience of the anticipation for that was just mind-boggling. And to spin around and see the amount of people we were, fortunately, able to have at our set was just unreal.

L4LM: It’s cool to hear how a lot of your most memorable moments from 2018 sort of centered around the experience of getting bigger, moving up to these bigger venues and events with their own bigger legacies.

Petropulos: We definitely don’t take it for granted, and we are aware of those things. We love graduating to new venues, and it gives us the drive to keep pushing harder, too. That also comes into play with our next shows coming up, especially at The Capitol Theatre. That’s definitely another one of those pinnacle venues to graduate to.

L4LM: Absolutely. That’s a really special place. So much history. There’s that Jerry Garcia quote where he says it’s one of his two favorite venues in the country. Have you been before?

Petropulos: I have never been there before. There have been plenty of shows there that I’ve wanted to see, and I grew up in New Hampshire so it wasn’t too, too far, but, I never made it over there. But everyone I’ve talked to just says by the time you walk in you kind of just get it. All the history, you just kind of feel it when you walk in.

L4LM: Totally. The sound is great. The lights are great, too, because they have that big area around the stage to project onto. I bet [lighting designer] Manny [Newman] will have a blast with that.

Petropulos: Manny is going to have a field day there [laughs]. He’s already prepping. I just went over to hang out with him earlier, and his bedroom looks like front of house. He’s already working his butt off getting ready—for all the shows on this upcoming tour. But we’re all doing a lot of prep for that one, especially.

Oh, and speaking of The Cap—on New Year’s Eve, we were fortunate enough to have the West End Blend horns join us on that show, and they are just so talented. Not only will they learn whatever, but they’ll also just come up with great lines just even on the spot. And now I can share that we are actually going to be having them join us for some features at The Capitol Theatre as well. I’ve been getting some feedback about people being especially pumped for that one, and we are, too.

L4LM: You guys are going to have a great time with that one. OK, last question, and this one’s mostly just for me. Word on the street is you’ve been known to go by “Gator.” How did that get started? Is it a reference to The Other Guys?

Petropulos: [laughs] Its funny because I’m very aware, of course, that you’re speaking of “Gator don’t play no shit.” I love that scene and I love that it’s happened many times now where people yell it at shows. I’ve seen it on signs at Domefest. I’ve seen it on t-shirts…

But at the same time, it actually didn’t start from that. It started when I was really, really young. Just from being named Alex, some people kind of turn it to Al, and then to Alligator. My dad, specifically, called me Gator or Alligator a lot, but then it kind of went away [as I got older]. And then, funny enough, when I first joined the band, one of my first band rides or something, as a total joke, I was just like, “Guys, by the way, I want you all to start calling me Gator now…” They were like, “You know what’s going to happen now, right?” And it absolutely took off. They’ve been relentless since.

L4LM: Well that’s how it goes with Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, right? Whether it’s New Year’s stEve or “Yo Soy Fiesta” or Gator not playing no shit, you find something fun and you roll with it. You make it a thing. Here’s to the next Pigeons joke that takes on a life of its own.

Pigeons Playing Ping Ping will make their highly anticipated, sold-out debut at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY on Saturday, January 26th (with, as Gator tells us, some help from the West End Blend horns).

For a full list of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong’s upcoming tour dates, head to the band’s website.