An Interview With Joe Pug

A couple of months ago, I was driving somewhere with my twin brother.  He’s yammering on and on about this new songwriter that I have to listen to.  Now my brother has pretty good taste and has introduced me to many if not most of my favorite artists, but he’s still my brother–so I mostly ignored him.

As the summer weeks passed on, that CD never made it out of my car.  I  became entranced by it, often spending my lunch breaks with the air condition blasting and that CD spinning.  The CD was Joe Pug’s debut EP Nation of Heat, plus a motley collection of live bootlegged songs (which I hope will appear on his forthcoming LP).  When I saw Pug’s name appear on the line-up for this year’s Newport Folk Festival, I knew I would have to catch his set (even if it was stacked against Guy Clark’s).  Sometimes a new, young artist can be disappointing in a live setting–after all, they don’t have the years of experience, the well-worn stage persona, or the crowd-pleasing back catalog that an older artist would.

Photograph by Todd Roeth

Pug was staggeringly good.  Performing with an intensity that was broken only once (by a nearby kayaker’s air horn), he pounded his guitar, wailed on the harmonica, and blew away the crowd, one poetic line at a time.  With a line-up full of legends, contemporary stars, and killer songwriters, Pug stood head and shoulders above anyone else I saw that weekend, and was one of those shows that makes you remember why you fell in love with music in the first place.  I met with Joe afterwards (as did much of his audience) and asked about interviewing him.  The result is before you.  It was conducted while Pug was on break from his marathon summer tour, resting back home in Chicago.

So how have you been enjoying your break?

Well, you have to get use to just going to the grocery store and making dinner, but it’s nice.

So you were at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill studying to be a playwright and then you moved out to Chicago…..what happened?

Yea for 3 years and the more I learned about how to write plays, the worse the plays got in my estimation.  So, I was really kind of finished with it.  So, I just left there, not with a plan to go out and write songs, just with a plan to get away from that.  And I sort of fell into writing songs a couple of months later.

Why Chicago?

Well, I visited a friend out there and he had just moved out there.  So before I left, I went to see him.  And really, it’s just a great city.  I fell in love with it and made plans to get out there as soon as possible.

As I understand it, the Nation of Heat EP was recorded kind of low budget sneaking in between other artists recording sessions and filling in for cancelations.  Was there any sort of theme to the record or was it more of a let’s just get these songs down kind of thing?

No, it was a lot more….a lot less calculated than it might have seemed.  It was just 3 or 4 sessions spread out over 5 or 6 months.  I was just going in and recording songs I had written.  There was no real attempt to make like one cohesive thing.

It just worked out well I guess.

I recorded a ton of songs up there for the record and I just ended up choosing the ones l liked the most.

Do you have any favorites among the seven?  I tried to make a list myself and couldn’t do it.

Thank You.  That’s sort of like a parent choosing a favorite child, you could definitely do it, but it would lead to problems.

You’ve got a ton of new songs you’ve been playing in concert (I listed off a half dozen before asking this question) are those all going to be on the new album?

They will, yeah.  They’re all recorded and done.  Now I’m just trying to figure out how we’re going to release those.

So you don’t have release date set up or a label or anything?

No we don’t.  As of now if we were going to release the record tomorrow, we would do it ourselves.  But, I’m not sure what’s going to happen.  We were going to release it this fall, but then I got invited to go out with Steve Earle in Europe for a month and a half.  We couldn’t be in the states to support the release, so we pushed it back.

You excited about Europe?

Yeah man.  I’ve never been.

Pretty cool and with Steve Earle nonetheless.

It’s a hell of way to go for the first time, I’ll say that.

I saw those Steve Earle dates.  You’ve also toured with M. Ward, Robert Randolph, Josh Ritter, how cool is it tour with those people?

It’s really cool.  Especially with guys….I mean Steve is the guy I’ve went out with most.  I’ve learned a lot from him, watching him from night to night.  But all those guys, you know there all a little bit older than me and I get to look at them and just learn, soak it all in, see the way they do things.

So like you know, I saw the Newport show this year, which was stunning, and I know you played Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and other summer music festivals.  Have you been noticing a big push from those sort of things or has been more gradual?

Yeah.  I mean when you’re doing things in a grass roots sort of way there’s no one thing that opens the floodgates and a ton of people come out, like a hit single on the radio or something.  What’s really encouraging about it is that it’s more people every time and it’s always trending in a positive direction.  And it can be very incremental.  Sometimes, it’s doesn’t move forward as fast as you’d want it to, but as long as it’s inching forward.

Seems like you’ve gotten a lot of buzz on the internet recently, how long have you been headlining shows and touring nationally?

I’ve been touring nationally for about a year now.  A couple of months after Nation of Heat was released, we got picked up by a booking agent that has done great by us.  I sort of hit the road hard about a year ago.  I had only played in Chicago and regionally before that, so it was a big lifestyle adjustment.

I understand you have a band in Chicago.  Do you have any plans to take them on the road?

Yeah.  Since I’ve funding everything myself, I’ve got to do it very wisely and very slowly.  So I can take them to places that are strongholds for me, where I know I will do really well, make a buck, and be able to pay the guys well.  It’s a little bit different being a songwriter with a band as opposed to a band.  When you are part of a band everyone can sort of work for not that much pay, because everyone stand to cash in on the gamble.  But me, because I am hiring guys to come out with me, I have to make sure they are well taken care of just right now in the interim.  I think we will start seeing the band moving farther and farther out as time goes on.

Are they playing on the new record or is it more staying with the acoustic harmonica set up?

The new record is about half and half, but all the parts that there is a band on they play those parts and they sound great.

A lot of reviews compare you to an early Dylan type thing with the harmonica and everything.  How do you feel about that?  Complimentary or missing the point?

You know I understand that.  A lot of people of people do that. They are trying to describe what they are hearing and with that first record it might be pretty accurate, but I think with the new record people might think something different.

Lyrically you seem to cover different ground from Dylan, at least early topical Dylan.  Your songs seem to be more speaking more about life and your place in it.  Do you feel like that’s a big deviation point for you?  Or do you know what you’re going to write about when you a write a song?

I’ve always found that it’s best to just get in there and write the song and try not to make it anything.  Decide afterwards if it’s about anything or decide afterwards if it’s even worth playing for other people.  I think once you, if you sit down with a pen and a page and you sort of have an agenda of what you’d like to get down or where you would like to go that’s the surest way to make sure nothing happens.

Would you point to Dylan as an influence or would you point more to other people?  I’ve noticed you’ve covered Gram Parsons and Tom Waits.  What would you say your main influences are?

Well definitely those two guys you just mentioned, but also other guys John Hiatt, Warren Zevon, Lucinda Williams, but the list goes on and on if you know what I mean.

At Newport you gave away, I think, every CD you had on you.  On the website, you have kind of this tell us how many CD’s you want to give away and well send them to you.  You have a new EP available for free download.  Was this kind of your idea initially, let’s get as many people taking about it as possible, or was it someone else’s idea like hey you should do this?

Well I think, I came up with that….well I certainly can lay claim to being the first person that came up with that idea, I think it was like a year ago that Radiohead did their big pay what you want thing.  Um, I think things were heading in this direction for awhile, but for emerging artists like me I think it’s just best to get it out there and see if people dig it or not.  And to bring those people who dig it along as fans, right now at least.  If no one knows me from Adam, they are going be reluctant to plunk down some money to hear it, so let them hear it for free at first.

Do you think that it has given you a bigger push then normal or how do you feel about the success of it?

Well I don’t know how it compares to other forms of marketing, because this is the only one I’ve ever  used.  But I have been very happy with it so far.  It’s comparatively cheap to other forms of marketing, and it I think it has been very effective.

It probably gets the point across a lot better too.

I think so.  I think just the spirit behind, I really like.  It sets a nice tone with the fan base that I am trying to build.

I kind of asked you before, but do you think the new record will come out on a label or self released?

Still not sure, we’ve certainly had interest from a couple of labels, but nothing that’s really struck our fancy yet.  Like I told you, if we were going to release it tomorrow we’d do it ourselves.  But ask again in a couple of months.

Is that something you think you would like to see happen or would you like to keep hoeing your own road here?

I can’t tell.  It is just such a trade off.  Right now it’s just so much work.  Like when you called me right now, I am upstairs trying to get better at using excel.  And learning how to budget things and pay people and myself and all that. So, that time could be spent with a guitar or piano. So you might say I’d like a label, so I don’t have to do all this work.  But at the same time, it is really nice having complete control of everything.  And I think it would be very hard, if I began working with someone to give up that control.

So are you still working another job when your home or are you making it work with the music thing, it sounds like your trying to make it work anyway?

Well, I’m kind of making it work right now.  I haven’t had to swing a hammer in about a year now.  And as much as I like carpentry, I’d like to keep it that way.  It’s really given me a better chance to get better aligned and get my voice a lot better and get my writing chops up to speed.  I mean if you want to do this professionally and you want people to come out and plunk some money down to see you play, you have to be playing at a pretty high level.  There are a lot of good people doing it and there are a lot of very good people doing it.  I just don’t see how you could play at that level if you working forty hours a week doing something else.

Pug’s probably playing a town near you soon, check for tour dates here and here

and download this for free in the meantime….

Joe Pug- I Do My Father’s Drugs

About the author:  Specializes in Dead, Drunk, and Nakedness..... Former College Radio DJ and Current Craft Beer Nerd

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