Our Founder and Creative Director, Michael McCarron, had the opportunity to speak with producer and Cartel frontman, Will Pugh, about his forthcoming solo debut, Cartel, and LGBT+ issues. Check it out.
Interview by Michael McCarron
Michael McCarron: Tell us about what you’ve been up to recently with music.
Will Pugh: Cartel did the “Chroma” tour earlier this year. It was a great success. We were very surprised by the turnout. Not that we thought nobody would come, but it was probably the most fun we’ve had playing shows in five years. Because you see fans turn up, they’re all singing the songs and it’s kind of a throwback. And a lot of older fans and people we haven’t seen in a long time showed up, so it was a great success. Pretty much in the last year and a half to two years I’ve been wearing the hat of a producer. It’s been a lot of fun and sort of taken over from Cartel. The last two Cartel releases I produced and engineered, and I’ve always been involved in the production of Cartel records and learned the hard way with music production. So I’ve been doing that over the last seven years, acquiring studio gear, and I’m finally at a point where I don’t feel embarrassed to call myself a producer. I live in Nashville now and I’m writing and producing and probably going to do a solo project at some point in the next three or four months hopefully. I have a baby on the way in February, so…
MM: Oh, congrats!
WP: Yeah, I couldn’t be more stoked. It’s kind of put a very hardcore deadline for working on my own stuff. Unfortunately I can’t pay myself, so I’m trying to get my record out of the way so that I can work on other people’s records.
MM: So what about producing do you like?
WP: For me, being in Cartel, the most fun for me in the band – I mean traveling has been great, don’t get me wrong – but the most fun for me was when we were in the studio. When you’re starting out and you’re listening to all these records that you’re a fan of, and then you try to make your own demos and they sound terrible, and you’re trying to figure out, “well why does my stuff sound so terrible?” Going into the studio with all of the gear and the stuff you don’t get to see every day – for one, it’s incredible expensive, and two, a lot of the stuff is pretty rare – it’s not like Guitar Center where you walk and in and cool, there are guitars. You get desensitized to it. But with a studio, you kind of never really get used to how cool all of that stuff is, if you’re interested in it. So for me that was always the most fun, and kind of the mystery of how a song goes from an idea in your head to something people can hear. That’s always been the coolest part. So being able to step on the other side of the glass, so to speak, and help people create that idea in their head and put it down is so fulfilling. I didn’t even realize it would be. I started just because I liked playing with these toys. But this aspect, I’ve found that my creative outlet as an artist can be satisfied with other people’s music because I kind of dive in and become a member of that project for the time period that I’m working on it, and it really helps me get better as an artist and as a producer and engineer, and also I like to think that I help the people I work with kind of understand a little bit more about how to look at their music from a production standpoint in order for them to be able to get their ideas across better in the future. And also impart a little wisdom too. I guess the best part is meeting new people, hanging out with them, and really hearing all the consistencies that come in with various concerns and questions that every band has. I should write a list of the questions that I always get asked, as a “veteran.” People always want to know things like, “how do we tour?” and things like that. And being able to kind of know that from first-hand experience and include that in the production experience for the artist is awesome. It feels like I actually know what I’m doing.
MM: Do you take any inspiration from any producers that you’ve worked with over the years? Is there a particular producing that you emulate your style off of?
WP: Firstly, Zack Odem and Kenneth Mount, they did “Chroma” for us. The “Ransom EP” was a local guy in Atlanta named Matt Goldman, who’s worked with Copeland, he was in a band called Small Town Poets. I didn’t learn much from that experience because we had to do it so fast. But when we got to record “Chroma,” that was the longest I had spent in the studio at one time, which was like two and a half weeks. With Zack and Kenneth I learned a lot about the song side of production. The second record we got to spend more time with them, and I’ve gotten to pick their brains since 2005. Over the course of ten years at this point, I’ve become really good friends with them, and I would say the most important thing I’ve learned from them is the aspect of always brining a positive energy to the session. Our third record we did with a guy named Ross Peterson, who he and I basically co-produced it. He was the house engineer for Wind Up Records. We did it at their studio in New York. He was an assistant engineer for Rich Costey, who did “Futures,” Muse, John Mayer, and he just did the new Death Cab record. He’s been an inspiration. And Andy Wallace, he’s kind of an old school name. I know him from Jeff Buckley’s “Grace,” which I think sounds incredible. He’s also produced Rage Against The Machine. I think he did three or four of their records. Slayer, not that I’m a Slayer fan but I think it’s pretty hilarious that the same guy who produced, engineered, and mixed Jeff Buckley’s record also mixed Slayer records.
MM: And Puddle of Mudd…and Blink 182’s “self-titled.”
WP: Yeah! He’s a jack-of-all-trades. Also a guy named Andy Johns, who’s the son of Glynn Johns, who did Zeppelin. Glynn Johns we can thank for “When The Levy Breaks,” that drum sound that made everybody wet themselves…He kind of invented stereo drum recording. Kinda nuts. I always like the guys who kind of break new ground and figure something out. Like Brian Wilson, not necessarily an engineer, but he kind of had a weird LSD trip and decided that stacking stuff on tape, like multi-track recording and dubbing over was first done with Brian Wilson, which kind of came back to Phil Specter and The Beatles and they had that whole back and forth against The Beach Boys – I mean I like to think if The Beach boys hadn’t been doing what they were doing at the time that The Beatles wouldn’t be who they are now. Paul McCartney has said in interviews that The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” made them do “Sgt. Pepper,” and then The Beach Boys have said “Pet Sounds” was inspired by “Rubber Soul,” which was the previous Beatles record, so that several years in time was groundbreaking. All those kinds of things, like how studio work can have that sort of impact on the music community outside of the studio is always so cool to me.
MM: So it sounds like you put a value on learning the history of the craft, in terms of what has worked and what hasn’t worked and seeing where things come from. Now that you’re in Nashville, do you work with any country artists?
WP: I haven’t done any country producing. I would like to, just because it’s something new for me that would be fun, but part of the thing for me is when I look at a record and I see a band and say, “Okay, you’ve got an accordion. I’ve never tracked an accordion before but I can kind of figure it out.” Actually, the band I’m currently working with has an accordion. So that’s cool. But like banjo and dobro and all these things that come into the country scene – I’m not familiar enough with playing those instruments, or do know traditionally what you’re supposed to do. So I’d have some work to do, especially with all the A-list producers in Nashville. Blake Shelton’s not tracking his new record with me any time soon. Writing for country is something I’ve been doing. It’s cool. So that’s mostly what I’ve been doing. I’ve done some demos for country, and that’s been cool. Learning some of what they call the “fake book,” so all the signature licks that sound country. Also bringing a little of my rock influence into it. Country is certainly changing. It’s kinda nice to be somewhat on the forefront even though it’s not my main gig.
MM: Can we expect any country influences on your solo project?
WP: Absolutely not (laughing). I’ve been waiting ten or so years with Cartel to do a solo thing, not that I’ve been itching to do it for that long, but with that many songs and ideas that wouldn’t work for Cartel but could work for something else, having the world at my disposal now – to kind of betray that by doing country stuff would be disappointing myself. There’s nothing wrong with country but for me, that doesn’t really inspire me from a musical standpoint - lyrically, yes, but not musically.
MM: What kind of sound can fans expect?
WP: It’s kind of a mix of the energy and sort of the raw rock nature of like, The Strokes, mixed with the Death Cab sort of melancholy. Also bringing in some of the 90s rock influence that I have – kind of all over the place.
Cartel was never really my true voice. It was for a large portion of time, since that’s what I did most of the time, but that super high register, pop-punk sort of vocals, are not my main style. I found this out too late to change it for Cartel. I really want to use my voice as an instrument. The biggest thing for me was having the lyrically inspiration to actually start it. I’ve always had this want. And you can hear it in Cartel sometimes, but I’ve always had this desire to write songs that change the world. And it’s that artist thing where we hope our songs mean something to people. Putting all of that into words is hard, and I’m working on that now and synthesizing, like, how do I do this without making people that don’t necessarily want to hear that yet…make them enjoy it enough to where maybe down the line, a few months into listening to the record they’re like, “Hey, he’s saying some real shit.”
MM: It’s interesting you say that. From personal experience, I grew up on Bruce Springsteen – he’s probably my favorite artist. He’s also my dad’s all-time favorite artist. My dad is a staunch conservative. I ask him, “How are you a fan of Springsteen and not always all his messages and his activities outside of music, and he always says, “You have to learn how to separate your personal feelings from the art itself.” That’s something that Punk Out tries to push, for people who aren’t necessarily as open to different ideas.
In that vein, how would you describe the current state of our music community?
WP: I think it’s kind of searching for itself. There was a while where it was pretty bleak, honestly. People in the “download revolution” kept people from buying records and then obviously when the economy tanked it kept parents from giving them money to go to shows. So, there was a period of time where it was rough. I think now it’s really strengthened, a lot by newer bands coming up and pop punk obviously making a comeback with bands like State Champs and Neck Deep. That new generation of bands that kind of came from that down period. All of the old school bands, including ourselves, did it where we’re playing small shows and house shows and growing the local or regional fan base and then expanding there. Whereas 2005 to 2008, you could kind of come from nowhere and be something very quickly. Now you’ve got (bands) working the bottom level and working their way up “the right way.” I think it’s got a lot of promise and a lot of hope. What I’d like to see is more diversity in the music. Unfortunately, nowadays I don’t think people have the attention span as listeners to really give music a chance. It’s more about that feeling – whatever they’re looking for they want it and they want it now. They’re not necessarily willing to be challenged on that front in the sense of taking a chance on something new. It’s got to be immediate and popular amongst their peers for it to really catch fire and grow. In my opinion, that’s what I’m seeing. But I think there are days long past when artists were allowed to develop. Not by record labels but by their fans, to really develop and find their sound. I think now you make a record and people fall in love with it, and then you as an artist are progression and you change the sound, not purposely, and all of a sudden you’re a pariah. That ends up discouraging true growth or progress on a musical front.
MM: Cartel knows that first hand. Having a hit and then backing it up and becoming a band in a bubble. Buddy Nielsen from Senses Fail and I have talked a great deal in recent months about what the issues are facing musicians particularly. You mentioned Neck Deep and State Champs – these are young bands. They’re in their early twenties. And Buddy talks about how there’s a lack of a support system in place for these younger bands - a lack of role models for them and a lack of accountability. Do you agree with that, as a veteran of the scene? Is a support network in place for them to succeed in this music community?
WP: I really think the only support network these bands have is each other. They’re currently going through the same things. We never really had a band that was breaking at the same time as us that we were good friends with. Now, they’re going up at the same time and they tour together and it seems like there’s more camaraderie there on a real level. It does exist in that way. We kind of had that with older bands we toured with, and we felt like we learned a lot from them.
MM: Within that, do you think that the needs of individual musicians are being met? What are those needs?
WP: I think when you’re young and you haven’t been on the road for ten years, you’ll take anything that comes your way. As the years ware on and you look back you ask, “How did I even do that?” It sucks, and I don’t think people realize how hard it is to get off the ground. That’s the support that I don’t think exists, for the burgeoning artists or people just getting started. I think having a resource or an overall idea from people who are outspoken and know the business side of things and the artist side of things – I wish they had a bigger loud speaker for younger bands to hear what they have to say.
MM: So say a younger musician comes up to you and discloses that he or she identifies under LGBTQ – what advice would you give them?
WP: I don’t claim to have the answers, and obviously not being LGBTQ I don’t know all of the personal strife and hardship that goes along with that. But I would say you’ve got to be yourself. The only tattoo I have is a Socratic philosophy that means “Know They Self.” Know who you are on the inside and be true to that person. That’s probably the best advice I could give. People tend to fear what isn’t like themselves, and the biggest thing you can do is realize there are a lot of other people out there just like you. And without summarizing it too succinctly, fuck em! At the end of the day, all you have is yourself.
MM: I think “fuck em” is going to be the next Punk Out t-shirt! What’s one message you would give to your LGBTQ fans?
WP: It wasn’t necessarily a message I was trying to get across when we started out. I think it was much more human condition type of lyrical concepts. But going back, speaking with some LGBTQ fans we’ve had in the past, one fan in particular who had come out to his family and said that our lyrics had helped him get by, that’s really cool. I didn’t really ever think that that’s what I was really talking about, but some of the universal things I was speaking to translated and it made me realize that I had been sticking up for LGBTQ rights because we’re all human. Everybody has a different story. For our fans, just be who you are. Find yourself first and nothing else matters. Keep your head up and keep pushing forward.
Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed on our Artist Corner are exclusively of the author or interviewee and do not reflect the views and opinions of Punk Out as an organization. If you're a musician or an industry insider and would like to participate in our Artist Corner, email us at email@example.com.