I didn’t get to go to the Grand Ole Opry the Saturday night after George Jones died, but I did get to visit our city’s legendary listening room, Moonlight on the Mountain in Bluff Park, to hear Joe Pug play, and it had the same salubrious effect. It gave me hope for the future.
Joe Pug writes excellent songs, redolent of Dylan and Springsteen, Whitman and Frost, but what sets him apart from many other aspiring troubadours is the absolute certainty with which he performs those songs. Ably accompanied by bassist Matt Scheussler and guitarist Greg Tuohey, Pug onstage is in thrall to his music, a gaunt sage on the verge of revelation. Offstage, he is a thoughtful conversationalist with a clear view of the road he’s on.
WELD: I’m guessing here, but as an artist of Irish and Italian descent, you must find guilt to be a great catalyst for your work.
Joe Pug: It can be, but there’s a line. It gets to a certain level, I think it’s crippling.
WELD: Dylan Thomas is my favorite example of that. Enormous guilt started him off on a truly lyrical career, and guilt finished him off.
JP: He is the only poet that I truly like everything he did. I have his Collected Poems and I read that front to back. … Portrait of the Artist As a Young Dog? Awesome. I like it better than Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It speaks to me a little bit more.
WELD: And other writers influence your work as well.
JP: All the big ones. Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Hemingway; I know it’s trite to say it, but they loom large. Later, guys like [Raymond] Carver. I got into Carver pretty deeply over the last couple of years and he inspired the last album. It’s so dark that it’s light.
WELD: There’s Biblical language in your work, too.
JP: I’m not a Christian, but I read that book a lot. To me, the cool part about the Bible is these timeless psychological stories that don’t change from generation to generation. The Bible is clearly not literal, though America could stand to learn that. … I’ve read a lot of Carl Jung, and his deal is that, look, if you can believe in this as a well-adjusted adult, this is actually a very helpful ethos.
WELD: We talked to Justin Townes Earle not long ago, and he was so effusive about your work, I just assumed you must be part of the new Brooklyn folk axis, but in fact, you come straight out of the great Midwest, and now you’ve got a Texas thing going on. How do you compare and contrast the two music cities you hail from, Chicago and Austin?
JP: I think the sad fact of the matter is, there’s no place in America that’s different from any other place anymore. I really don’t think there is. There’s a surface difference that every tourist board in every town will trumpet, like, “Austin: Live Music Capital,” “Chicago: Blues,” but it’s all the same to me. It’s different from what I grew up with and what I understand the past used to be like. Like, it used to be that if you wanted barbecue, you had to go to Texas. If you wanted Mexican food, you had to go to California. If you wanted good fish, you had to go to Washington state. Now, a corporate culture has made it such that you’re going to have the same things everywhere. The Internet, which is a wonderful thing, has made it so that the conversations are the same. Different groups of people pick out their herd on the Internet and they can be there. I do the same thing.
WELD: I want to ask how the Internet has affected your working model as a musician, because you’ve embraced, maybe because you had to, the paradigm of “Here’s my music for free on the Internet, come see me at the club.” How’s that worked out for you?
JP: It’s worked good. It’s the only reason I’ve any semblance of a career like I have now. I won’t lie to you, man. If I had had the chance for this to be 1975 and for me to have a record deal and a tour bus, I’d be there. This is not a moral stance I’m taking. This is just what it has to be now, and that’s fine. Even though it’s not what I would have chosen, it’s really grown on me. We travel around like it’s 1950, like bands before the radio, before the Beatles broke. They’d drive around in a Cadillac with the teardrop trailer. I’ve read Levon Helm’s book; I know how it goes. They’d go to every market and play places and do it and they got good. They got good. We’re not good yet, but we’re getting good. If we keep doing this, this band will get good, and when we’re all 35, we’ll make a great album like the Band did.
WELD: I don’t think you’ll have to wait that long, but gelling as a performing unit is a different thing than mastering the recording process. As a former carpenter, do you find a corollary between building a structure and building an album?
JP: No, I find a corollary between building a house and building a song. Not so much with the album thing. I am so lost in the woods, still trying to figure out each song that…when I’m putting an album together, I put it together like I’m doing a set list, which is maybe not the best way to do it.
But I think there is a very interesting parallel between carpentry and writing the songs themselves. When I first got on the job, in Maryland where I first started, I was with this guy and we were doing this remodeling thing. He looked at the plan and he said to himself, “Okay, how’re we going to do this?” I remember thinking to myself, as this apprentice. “What do you mean, how? You do this all the time.” What I didn’t understand then was that every house is different, every scenario is different, and while you’re going for the same end result every time, there’ll be things you repeat, but you have to figure out how to build every house. You don’t figure out how to build “houses,” you figure out how to build this house. It’s the same for songs. You never learn how to write “songs.” You spend so much time figuring out how to write this song, share a part of yourself, and then you walk tall to the next song, thinking, “I know how to do this,” and you get laid low again.
WELD: In your set, you alluded, in a most amusing way, to the difficulty of writing songs on the road. That would seem to be a significant problem for people having to tour all the time as part of their business model.
JP: And we do have to tour.
WELD: So do you have to make time in your schedule to get off and create?
JP: Yeah. And not only to create. My girlfriend and I have been together forever, and that is the most important thing in my life. She is really good to me, to support me and allow me to go out here, but I need time to go back and be a human being, to be with the person I love as well. You really have to make it a point to go back and do that.
WELD: How are you, then, able to differentiate between art and craft — the craft of songwriting, the artistic intention of a song — in the context of having only so much time for that work before you have to call the guys in the band up and get on the road again? I ask because I hear artistic aspirations in your music. I think you’re reaching for a higher level than a lot of songwriters are.
JP: You know what I think will happen? I think about ten years from now, we will see a level of success where we can finally go in the studio and have all the time in the world we want, and not spend as much time on the road because it’s better, and really think that that was it. Then we’ll realize once we get there that, because of the constraints put on us from this, that this was really the time right now. You know what I mean? That these requirements of commerce actually edited us in a way that was desirable. That once we actually get the amount of time we want, we’ll just spend ten months in the studio jerking off, being terrible.
WELD: It’s happened to a band or two. The thing about record label patronage, from back in the day, in the ’70s, and why a lot of musicians wish for that, is not necessarily because they got a tour bus, but because they got economic support for the creative process.
JP: I completely agree.
WELD: Warner Brothers was an extraordinary example. They rolled out new artists like Randy Newman, Neil Young, Van Morrison, who might sell only 20,000 units at a time, but the label stuck with them because they were making their big money off established hit makers like Frank Sinatra. I fear that new artists not getting that kind of support, outside of touring constantly, bodes ill for the music business altogether.
JP: They’re finding it. And here’s where they’re finding it: from a Nike commercial. From a TV show. You’ll hear people bitching and moaning about selling out. And you say, “Look, man. If you don’t want to pay for music, it’s cool. That’s your choice. That’s how life works. But you made your choice, and these artists have to get their money from somewhere.” And that is the new patronage.
You know what? I hear Neil Young bitching about [selling out] all the time, and it’s like, “Great, man! You know what? If I had the situation you have, I wouldn’t sell my songs for commercials either. You’re absolutely right. But you can’t say that from a mansion, with an electric car and Daniel Lanois and that secret cave somewhere.”
WELD: Have you been touring extensively behind your new record, The Great Despiser?
JP: We just kinda tour around. An album cycle doesn’t really matter to us, because our fan base…we’re the type of band that will put a show on sale and sell four tickets. Then, as soon as we e-mail our people, a whole bunch of tickets get bought. We kinda exist outside a lot of traditional structures, and because of that, we don’t need a bunch of press to get people out for a show. It’s word-of-mouth and it’s people identifying with this kind of music and feeling like they have a relationship with me, which they do. Every CD that we’ve sold for the last five years, I think I’ve handed every one to someone.
WELD: You actually gave your CDs away at first. You’d press up a box and just send them to people.
JP: And we’d send them as many as they wanted, to pass out to friends. It became a little cost-prohibitive after awhile, what with people asking for 20 CDs and the postage and all. But that, for us at that time, got our foot in the door. That’s the whole hard thing, getting that first foot in the door. It happened through that program and it happened through Steve Earle taking me on my first tour. Steve Earle opened up the door for me. Steve is amazingly generous, and Justin’s the same way. The deal is, the two dudes are music listeners. I’ve spent an hour talking to Justin about George Jones and I’ve spent an hour talking to him about the National or Radiohead. Look, this is the only thing you need to understand about Steve and Justin Earle: they are the smartest people. They are obviously not without their flaws, which they would be the first to admit, but they are smart men.
WELD: Speaking of George Jones, do you think what is categorized as country music anymore trafficks in the same sort of emotion that Jones or Haggard or Lefty Frizzell did? I don’t hear that in the current crop of interchangeable radio favorites.
JP: On a certain level, this is who America’s voting for right now. In the same way that I felt, in the W years, that America had exactly the president it deserved, people listening to country music today have exactly the stars that they deserve.
WELD: You’re a George Jones fan?
JP: Massive. Besides Hank Williams, who had a very different sort of Appalachian voice, that’s a totally different thing, you talk about a country singer with a rich voice and he’s it. And I’ll listen to some George Strait here and there; I like George Strait. But Jones was the one. You watch videos of him playing and communicating to the camera and the audience — he meant that, man.
WELD: Let me ask one last thing. The care you take with your lyrics indicates to me that you respect language, because you use it skillfully. What do you feel your responsibility to language is?
JP: None. I don’t have any responsibility to anything, but I think my relationship to language…there’s this woman named Annie Dillard; she wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Pulitzer Prize-winning. She wrote another book called The Writing Life. She had a quote in that book that said, okay, you’re reading your favorite author. You love this person, you look up to them. Everything is clicking for you as you read paragraph after paragraph, and then the starting line to one paragraph, you read it and you think, that’s kinda clunky: that, right there, is your writing voice.
WELD: You’re not just a writer. You’re an editor.
JP: That’s my relationship to language. I read a lot of people that I really admire. I write as I go along and I throw out much more than I keep, because if it doesn’t ring true, it can’t be around, you can’t have that there.
WELD: The constraints of a song’s structure might actually help you create?
JP: Necessity, the mother of invention and like that. You’ve got your people who are really — genuinely — visionaries. World-changing, genre-changing artists, your Salvador Dalis. But you know what? I’m not that guy and you’re not that guy. None of us are that guy. The rest of us have to be content with working within a trope, and I’m cool with that…but I believe I’m good at doing this, I really do.
WELD: And you have the potential to transcend what you’re doing on stage now.
JP: Well, we’re giving it a shot. We get out on the road and we’re getting at it, and we get to come play places like [Moonlight on the Mountain]. Who said you have to get rich playing music? We don’t need to be in the mainstream. We’re making a living.
WELD: And making artifacts for people to enjoy.
JP: Yeah. It makes you feel that you’re part of something larger than yourself, and that’s what we’re all looking for, right?