By Brian Wise.
Joe Pug‘s latest Australian tour has been hit with a slight setback in that support act Ian Noe has been forced to cancel his trip to Australia, with dates that included the Queenscliff Music Festival, due to illness.
“After cancelling our trek to All The Best in the United States last week, his doctor has advised he immediately have his tonsils removed as this is a severe situation and would effect him down the line again and again,” said a statement. “Ian will be taking care of that this week and be focusing on just resting.”
Pug is due in Melbourne today to start a series of Victorian gigs, including QMF and spoke by phone to me just last week about his latest album, The Flood In Color, which was four years in gestation.
The new album – produced by Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids – was recorded after Pug relocated to his childhood home in Prince Georges County, Maryland after many years spent in Chicago and Austin.
We are looking forward to seeing you back. It’s a solo tour. Do you tour solo in the States or do you do it with a band or how does that work.
So, if I’m doing like an album tour in the States, I’ll bring a band with me, but other than that, when I’m off album cycle, I just tour solo and I do a show that’s on multiple instruments and is more of a storytelling show. I do a lot of the solo show in the States, frankly.
Let’s talk about the new album because, or the latest album, because I guess that’s what you’ll be showcasing on the tour. It’s your first album in about four years. Is that what they call a hiatus?
I guess so. I was working the whole time when I was on the road… when I was working on this album, but I got married, I had two kids, I moved from Texas back home to Maryland. I had a lot of personal life changes in the last four years. I was working on the album the whole time, but it just took a lot longer than ones had in the past because of just a lot of stuff from the home side happening.
So, had you been writing songs? I mean, what was the songwriting process like?
I was working with a producer, this guy named Kenneth Pattengale from a band called the Milk Carton Kids. The main reason that I was working with him was I wanted help with the repertoire for the album. So, I was writing songs and then sending him iPhone demos of the songs and he’d give me a thumbs up or thumbs down and then we met a couple times to edit and go over the thumbs-up songs and it was a pretty long writing process.
He and I worked on writing process for about two and a half years together and I wrote about 70 songs. We ended up keeping about 10. It was a pretty brutal process frankly. I was writing with him for about a year. It took me a year before he accepted a song. So, it took a long damn time and a lot of songs.
I see Kenneth a lot because I go to Nashville and Milk Carton Kids host the Americana Awards – or they have for the last couple of years. He has a very wry sense of humour. I would imagine he could be a lot of fun to work with, but he sounds as though he’s fairly demanding as well.
He is demanding from the work sense, but I don’t want to give the impression that it was drudgery in any way. It was really fun. He is just as fun as he might look like from the outside. What you have to understand from him on a personal level is he’s a very steadfast person. If he makes a commitment to you for something that he’s going to do, he really sticks it through. There was no reason for him to do that with me, really. He just loves the music and really believed in what I was doing. He gave me a lot of his time. I mean, we’re good friends, but the amount of time and energy that he put into this project… He could have worked a lot less hard is what I’m saying, and it still would have been legit, but he didn’t.
I think Kenneth is going to be a generational talent in the producer’s chair. I mean, he already is as a performer and a musician, but I think we’re going to look back a couple of decades from now and look at some albums that he’s produced and realize that he’s a talent in his own right as a producer as well. I just can’t say enough good things about the guy.
How did you meet up with him originally?
Man, I was doing a tour, I was opening for Justin Townes Earle ten or eleven years ago in Los Angeles, and this was before the Milk Carton Kids were a thing. I was opening act. I played at a club called the Echo and at the merch table this guy came up afterwards and he was like, “Hey man, I love that. That was great. I’m a musician too.” He was playing under his own name at the time, and then the Milk Carton Kids were formed a year or two later and I met them out on the road and was like, “Hey, you know, we met in Los Angeles.” We’ve just been friends for over a decade now. It’s cool to work with anybody who genuinely from the core of their soul wants the best for you and that’s what I felt like the process was like with Kevin.
It’s engineered by Matt Ross-Spang and Matt is a really well-known engineer. He’s already had some tracks on an Amazon series where producers produce special tracks. So, you’ve kind of got the best of both worlds here. You’ve got Kenneth producing and you’ve got Matt engineering and recorded in Nashville as well.
I mean, after working with those two guys and after working in Nashville with the musicians that I got to play with, particularly the bass player, Dennis Crouch, I told my manager after we finished the session, ‘Man, I’m never making a record outside of Nashville ever again.’ I’m just not. Everyone who’s the best at what they do are just right here.
I mean, they live three blocks away. I mean, obviously Matt lives in Memphis but he works out of Nashville all the time. It was amazing to work with Matt. It was interesting to work with him on this particular project because normally he produces but in this case him and Kenneth have a close relationship, so he was just engineering.
What was really interesting was Matt is a very accomplished producer at this point, but he understood that in the context of this session he was Kenneth’s engineer and so he never volunteered an opinion unless Kenneth asked for it, which was very interesting to me because clearly the guy had a ton of opinions because this is what he does for a living, he produces records for a living. He was completely overqualified for the spot that he was playing in our team and he embraced that and embraced that role and I think that is the highest mark of professionalism when you’re completely overqualified for a role and yet you still embody it.
What studio did you record it in?
We recorded it at the unfortunately named House of Blues Studios in Nashville. We were the last session in there before I believe Columbia bought it and now it’s a Columbia… either Columbia or Atlanta… it’s their house studio now. But it was a very nice studio.
So, apart from Dennis [Crouch], who else is playing on the album?
A murderer’s row. So, Dennis Crouch, who is a bass player who’s played on a lot of things, a lot of T-Bone Burnett stuff over the years. A huge sound of the record is a keyboard player and accordion player named Philip Krohnengold who has a lot of credits. He is mainly right now in the recording and touring band of Milk Carton Kids, but he was fantastic. Dom Billet was the percussionist. He plays on a lot of stuff that Andrew Combs and Aaron Ray do now. The strings were arranged by a fellow named Christian Settlemyer who’s played with a lot of amazing string players, and then Kenneth obviously plays on a ton of the record.
One thing I noticed about the album, Joe, is you have to listen turn the volume up when you listen to it. It’s beautifully produced but when you turn that volume up sounds great.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Throughout the last 20 years – I don’t know if you’ve done any reading on this – but there’s been this thing called the volume wars where basically people take these compressors and limiters and they want to make their music as loud as possible. But when you your make music as loud as possible, it becomes less dynamic. There’s less distance between the loudest sound and the softest sound. And I knew as we were making this record like, ‘Look, this is not a record that’s going to be played on commercial radio.’ It’s just not. It’s an acoustic folk album made by a 35-year-old dude with an acoustic guitar. Like, ‘Look, come on, this isn’t going to be on any sort of commercial radio.’
So, my thought was we don’t have to optimise this for radio. We can optimise this for the actual demographic of people that will be listening to it, which are just music listeners. And so every music listener, whether it’s your iPhone or a turn table or a CD player or whatever, is going to have a volume knob there, and so we mastered it in a way where the album is super dynamic but because it’s super dynamic you have to have it cranked. I mean, you really do have to have the volume cranked to get the full feeling from it.
Well, I have to say the best-sounding band I’ve ever heard was Leonard Cohen’s backing band and they played at a very low-volume, but they sounded incredible, so I can understand where you’re coming from there.
That’s it. That’s just it. I’ve had many friends open for Willie Nelson and the only thing you hear from people that have opened for Willie Nelson that the stage sound on stage at live shows at a Willie Nelson gig it’s just super quiet on stage. It’s so quiet on stage for those gigs. I mean, I think we can all agree how Willie Nelson sounds, so I’ll take it from there.
Can you explain the title of the album The Flood in Color and I notice the artwork on the cover seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the title or maybe it does and I’m not making the connection.
Yeah, it’s interesting, I had written most of the album and I was going to bed one night and that title just came into my mind as a title for the album. I’d written a lot of the songs and that seemed to me to be a unifying phrase for the album, and then right before we recorded the album, I wrote that song.
It’s strange, I had almost come up with the phrase as if it was a thesis for the record and the song itself, the title song itself, was one of the last ones that I wrote, and I almost didn’t write it. I didn’t want to have a title song like that, but I felt moved to do it.
I know what it means to me, that phrase, and I’m genuinely not trying to be coy right now, I generally don’t like to explain what things mean to me because it’s been my experience over ten or eleven or twelve years of doing this that people have vastly different interpretations than I do. If it was just me and you talking at a bar, I’d tell you what I thought all about it, but for purposes of print or public exhibition, I’m loathe to give my explanation because I just don’t think it’s that interesting. I think people’s own experiences with the song and the artwork themselves is much more interesting than the creator’s original intent.
Okay. I’ll tell you an interesting image that came to mind. The other day after I was listening to the album, I turned on the TV and they were showing the movie The Shining and there’s a scene in it where a whole lot of blood comes flooding down a corridor and I thought The Flood in Color. Immediately your album title came to my mind as soon as I saw that scene from The Shining.
Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you this. I mean, it did come from having kids and it did come from a place of having an epochal life change come upon you and sort of the epiphany of that and The Shining is so beautiful and the imagery of that movie. Anyway, I will say that, that it’s sort of a psychological understanding or psychological feeling of a new epoch in your life completely overtaking you, for sure.
We actually lost an entire business relationship because of that with the album. The person we were working with didn’t feel like it was long enough…….
The other interesting thing about the album is – and the kind of old-fashioned thing about it is – it’s really short. It clocks in at around 25 minutes, which is kind of what albums used to be a long time ago.
I know. Yeah. I’m so proud of that. We actually lost an entire business relationship because of that with the album. The person we were working with didn’t feel like it was long enough and I just kind of felt like when Kenneth and I started working on the record, one of the things I said to him was that there were all these Beatles records that I love and they used to list on the back of an LP, or whatever, in parentheses the time of each song. When you would go down to look at those song times for Beatles records, if it was a 10-song album, there’d be two songs that were over three minutes. Two, okay. And then there’d be like six songs that were in the two-minute mark and then there’d be two that were in the one-minute mark. There’s nothing over four minutes. You know what I’m saying?
My most popular song has always been this song from my first record called ‘Hymn 101’, which is pushing the five-minute mark. I’ve always loved it and I told Kenneth from early on like, ‘Man, I’m interested in this format. I’m really interested in getting in and getting out and having it be a very concise record and if people like it they can just listen to the damn record again.’ He was of that same mind and we made it like that.
We did get a fair amount of pushback from people that said, ‘This is not the length of an album that can be released.’ We were like, ‘How about this? It’s coming out on our own record label, we’re putting that on Spotify, and we can do whatever the hell we want.’ When you think that this is a fully realised work of art: it’s not that I think that, it’s that I know that.
This is four years of creative endeavour. This is two and a half years of writing. This is 70 songs condensed into 10 songs that take 25 minutes to get through. I just don’t think that song length is any indication of sophistication and if it is that it might be an inverse type of thing. It’s like Woody Guthrie said, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make something simple.”
I’m not calling myself a genius here. I’m just saying that to make something simple and short, that’s a hard thing to do. You know what I mean? I’m not saying that I hit the mark here, but I’m saying that’s what we were attempting to do was to really boil something down. You know, there’s a song on the record called ‘Here Again’ that’s a minute and fifty-two seconds long or something close to that and when I saw it clock in on that after the mastering I almost wanted to take myself out to dinner. You know what I mean? I was so thrilled that we were going to have a song on an album that clocked in with a one at the start of its writing time. So, it was very much intentional that the album was that short is what I’m saying.
I’d much rather have 10 really good songs in 25 minutes than 15 songs in 65 minutes, I can tell you that.
Fair enough. Thanks for that.
Let’s talk about a couple of those songs. The song ‘Exit’ sounds pretty much like it’s autobiographical.
Most of my songs are, I’ll be frank. I would like to be in a place and maybe as I mature as a writer I’ll be able to write from different perspectives, but I’m still in a sort of immature phase where I’m still writing pretty autobiographically. So, I’d agree with that.
While the album is largely acoustic it’s an interesting mixture of styles. It varies from folky to a little bit bluesy. It has an interesting mixture of styles there that you’ve put in.
Yes. I think the bluesy part of it that you’re talking about is some of the guitar playing. There’s a seventh in there, and I had written the song without that and then when I came to play it for Kenneth at one of our writing sessions I was just noodling on the guitar while I was waiting to play the song for him and he said, “Oh, no, no, no, no. That’s part of the song, what you just noodled on right there.” And that blue note certainly became a special part of the song and it’s due to Kenneth. If I had made this record by myself, it would’ve been an all major key endeavour. But he heard that blue note that was in there and he left it there and that’s what gave the song I would say a bit more depth.
Can you talk about the song ‘The Letdown’, which is one that particularly appeals to me apart from the music and particularly in the lyrics. It’s an interesting story in there.
That’s my favourite song on the album, myself, and it’s the most personally meaningful one to me. I don’t know. This is the method that I wrote it in. In the past I’ve always written song lyrics first and then I put the melody to them like that. With that song, the way that I wrote it is I was at my home studio and I had mics up and I had headphones on and I was recording and I was listening in real time as I was singing. I wrote the chorus to that song as I was doing it with the headphones on listening to it, and it brought me to a very emotional place. Frankly, it brought me to tears as I was writing it.
So, it’s a pretty impressionistic song and I don’t know exactly what it means myself, but I do know that the way that it was written. It was almost written as if I was a listener listening to it and I do know that it affected me personally as I wrote it. I mean, what I just said for print media, for how you’re going to print, is just a horrible answer. It’s just a very uninteresting answer, but I don’t know a better way to put it.
The songs that affect other people that I write, I do find are the songs that affect me. It’s strange. The songs that people enjoy the most that I’ve written, I feel no ownership over whatsoever. I feel like I’m another listener. I’m like, “Oh yeah, I like that song too.” I just happen to be the person that sings it. It’s a strange feeling. It’s as if the song comes from some sort of ether or some sort of inspiration or holy spirit of some kind. I don’t know. I think when I’m at my best as a writer, songs are coming from there, and I think when I’m at my worst as a writer, songs are coming from my intellect. I think any song that comes from the intellect is going to be a huge fucking bummer at the end of the day and songs that come from this kind of strange, subliminal level, even if you can’t make any intellectual or logical sense of them… I mean, we all feel them in the same way. You know?
Joe, your songs have always been very literary. Who are some of the writers you’ve been reading recently?
Brother, I’ve got two kids under the age of three. I have not read a lick of fucking anything for three years, man. I’m going on fumes, man. I listen to podcasts because that’s what I can do as I’m doing dishes as my kids are sleeping and my wife is asleep. It’s about where I’m at. I do read some poetry still, but I haven’t read anything since my son was born.
I can understand that. But you’ve got your own podcast series, haven’t you?
I do, yes. I have a podcast called The Working Songwriter where once a month I interview a songwriter that I love that has some biographical context for them and it usually has some accompanying essays that I’ve written or some poetry that I admire that I think dovetails with the writer that I’m interviewing.
Hey Joe, I’d better let you go, I’m well over time.
I’ll be there, man. Thank you for the very close listen to the album. I very, very much appreciate it. Thank you.
Joe Pug will be appearing at:
November 19 – Spotted Mallard, Brunswick
November 20 – Caravan Music Club
November 21 – Archie’s Creek Tavern
November 23 & 24 – Queenscliff Music Festival