Cartel: A Declaration of Independence

With the state of the music business today, a band almost doesn’t need the assistance of a recording deal anymore.  Recently declaring their independence from a record label, Cartel has been doing it all on their own, and has recently self-released a brand new collection of tunes entitled the In Stereo EP.   Delivering songs with more passion than ever, the six tracks featured are sure to enrapture both older fans as well as gain the band a whole new wave of converts.  In this interview, we spoke with lead vocalist Will Pugh about a good number of subjects, including their grand DIY spirit, the new songs, the “curse” of being known as the “Band In The Bubble,” Tiger Woods, kangaroo stampedes, and much more!

How does the music on the In Stereo EP compare to the previous Cartel releases?
I think it’s a lot of the same stuff, as far as an origin. I think it’s just letting Cartel be Cartel. I feel like it might be a bit more natural – a bit less forced. Not to say that we ever forced any music, but we didn’t have any constraints going into the recording process or the writing process. We didn’t have any goals other than creating music that we wanted to. I think with that, it came across a lot more natural and raw. And we tried to give it more of a live feel – as far as sonically on the record. I think we accomplished that. I think it’s in that different mode of trying to present a different sound.   Of course it’s a little bit different just because we’ve progressed, but I still think it’s a variation of the same thing – which I think all of our records have been.

How easy or difficult was it to go into this studio and release everything on your own without label help?
Overall, it was remarkably easier. But there are some things where it’s easier to do it with a label. Obviously you’re not worried about budget so much as a band. You’re kind of being involved with the budget talks and how we’re going to pull stuff off – seeing that we don’t have a giant budget as with being on a label or anything. There were some hoops to jump through in that regard, but I would say overall that the experience was better.

Tell me a little bit about the title track In Stereo. Is it an autobiographical song in a way, and are you “bitter?”
It’s actually funny. I only wrote about half the lyrics on that song. Our guitarist Joseph was the instigator of the lyrics on that. One of the riffs of the song had been laying around since the Cycles writing sessions. He took it upon himself at some point in time to make a demo. He wrote the lyrics and then some vocals and did it as a demo. I ended up really liking it. I wouldn’t say it’s autobiographical as much as it is more of an archetype for the way a lot of bands feel nowadays. It’s kind of an analogy – but a direct one – without the metaphor. And I wouldn’t call us “bitter,” but we definitely are experienced. We’ve been through a lot of things that could have made us bitter. There’s two ways to look at anything regardless of what the actual reality is. And we chose to live on the positive side of things – live for today and not live in the past. But there’s definitely a few things we could have been real angry at – and been a lot less positive in our music. But I think that really doesn’t do anything for us or for the people listening to it. We wanted to make sure none of that stuff came through, because that’s not really what our band is about. That song, I would say, I think it represents an era that’s going on in the scene right now that we wanted to voice out our feelings on,

That song features some of the most aggressive singing you’ve ever done. Is that a fair assessment?
I kind of wanted the song to have a little more of that snotty vocal flavor. I guess aggressive is a good word for it – but not crazy aggressive. I really don’t have that gear in my voice. I think it’s also due to the natural melody of the song being a little higher in my range. I think a lot of things that are a little higher in my range – especially with as many words as there are – it kind of takes more breath and more energy to get it out. I think that’s a natural thing from the song itself – having a lot of energy. I wanted to make sure the vocals were as strong as the rest of the song – very forward and very moving. I would probably say that and like Conditional Friend are probably the two most aggressive songs I’ve had on vocals. It felt good to kind of get in that gear again.

What inspired the lyrics for the song American Dreams?
Just real life man. I’m married – I’ve been married for three years. Life is great! But there’s also hard times and things like that – the current economic situation and things like that. It’s probably one of the more “real songs” besides like Wasted that I’ve written. I feel like sometimes you just want to get away from everything and stop worrying about real life. The American Dream is kind of like a double entendre – “has a house, has a dog, has a car” and things like that. But it’s kind of a dream state at the same time – it’s not ever really obtainable without some sort of sacrifice of reality. It’s really like a mild dive into that topic.

How close are you to recording and releasing a new full length Cartel album?
You know, we haven’t even gotten into the conversation of doing a full length. I think right now we just want to concentrate on getting more songs out and try to build a self-release catalog. I would say we’ll probably have another EP or something a little longer than an EP – not really a full length – maybe 7 songs – come out sometime in March, April, May – that arena of time. If we were going to do a full length, it would be the end of next year earliest it would happen. And that w0uld probably be just recording it, which would mean probably releasing it early 2013. In that scenario, we would have at least two more EP’s come out by then. There would be no shortage of music.

You’re about to go on tour in Australia. Have you ever played there before and what are you looking forward to the most about those shows?
We have played there before. We were on the Soundwave Festival in January of 2008. That was a lot of fun for us. It was a totally surreal experience to be in Australia. We’ve been to Japan before – and we had actually gone to Japan a second time right before we went to Australia that year. We kind of ran the full gamut of a world wide tour. But it was a lot of fun. We played five Soundwave shows and two sideshows. But pretty much the whole tour we’re doing now is kind of running over the same route we did with Soundwave, except we’re going to be in the cities this time instead of out at the amphitheaters and parks where they had Soundwave. So it’ll be fun to hit the other side of things and play a lot of club shows in Australia. I’m really looking forward to that. And I would say the most exciting part – between going to Australia and the UK – it’s awesome to go to a foreign country and have that foreign country experience, but also not have to worry about language barrier stuff – except the accent is different. It takes you a second just to get used to hearing how they speak. It’s a nice learning curve to go through – but it’s also having been to Japan and having no clue whatsoever what the language is – it’s nice to go somewhere and know that you’re not going to be way out of the park with the language barrier there.

Did you get to see any kangaroos?
Yeah, we did actually. We went to one of the wildlife preserves where you get to hold koalas. We wanted to take a picture, because obviously we don’t have koalas here. It was like I gotta go do that! It’s kind of crazy to do, because with the exception of the dangerous animals, you are allowed to walk out in their habitat. It was a preserve more so than an actual zoo. So we walked right out in the middle of this giant field with like 100 kangaroos out there. And not the giant kangaroos, but the smaller guys that are half the height of a normal person. It was kind of crazy, because there was a kangaroo stampede – something moved in the woods and all 100 of them came just roaring by us! That was kind of enthralling for a second, but it’s kind of very odd to see kangaroos bouncing along in front of you. “We’re definitely in a different world right now.” It’s pretty funny.

Cartel at the El Rey Theater - 11/19/10

At the El Rey Theater last year with The Ready Set, you had all these girls screaming at you. How does your wife feel when she sees this?
She makes fun of me. She’s like, “You’re such a loser! Look at all those girls yelling at you.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I know…”

How much of a curse has it been to be known as “That band in the bubble.”?
Pretty much every interview, that questions has come up – “What was it like?” I think it’s more of a talking point than it has been a curse so to speak. I think we’ve made it abundantly clear what our initial thoughts were on the subject and have addressed the different parts of the bubble that people wanted to ask us questions about. The all “selling out” thing – we’ve addressed that. I’m pretty sure we’ve squashed that. Logically you can’t really argue with what we’re trying to say here. So if you want to go on and call us “sell outs” and not listen to our band – that’s cool. Go have fun! We’ll see you later. We had a lot of fun and had a lot of good experiences and learned a whole hell of a lot. Probably more than we would have done just doing a normal record then. I’m proud of the fact that we went to do that and took the risk. And I guess that’s how we feel about “the curse,” if you will. I wouldn’t call it that. Most of the time people bring it up to ask “what was it like being in there” – cuz it is such a unique experience. It’s cool to have that story to tell people.

If they came up to you again and asked, “How would Cartel like to do Band In The Bubble Part 2,” what would you do?
Only if we had total control over the editing and the storyboard of the thing. If they wanted to go make a big production again and do all the pizzazz surrounding it – that’s fine – I understand they need to get their corporate fix – have all the ad mats and things like that to make somebody keep their job I guess. We’d probably let them do their thing and just make sure that our band is represented the way we want it to be. That’s the only thing that we didn’t like about the first time – that they didn’t portray what actually happened in there. They had to edit a bunch of drama together – and it wasn’t even good drama – it was fake ass drama – which was the problem – but there was none. We had told the producer’s before “You should make this a lot more like Jackass and a lot less like Real World, because we don’t fight like little bitches. That’s not what we do. We’re grown ass men. We’ve been friends for over ten years. We’re our best friends. We’re going to go in here and have a great time. So if you think we’re going to come in here and lose our minds, you’re barking up the wrong tree. It’s the wrong band.” And they’re like, “No, no, no! We definitely want to showcase your personalities and how much fun you guys have and the good spirits in there.” And I’m like, “Cool! Sounds good! We’re on the same page.” And then Noooopppeee! It’s didn’t happen. Besides that, we really don’t claim objection to anything that went on there. It’s the machine man! What are you going to do? There were some crazy experiences that I would have never gotten to do otherwise. So you can’t call it a loss in that regard. And that is my favorite record that we’ve done. There’s nothing that we would not have done outside of the bubble that didn’t across how I wanted it to. In that regard, it was great! So yeah, if we were to do Band In The Bubble 2, it would just be the ones editing it down and showing people what we wanted to show them.

What advice would you give to a new band looking for a record deal for the first time?
I would say that you would need to figure out whether or not you even need a record deal. As a new band, most of the things that make you want to have a label is really kind of based around money. And the reality of it is that a very, very small percentage of the bands that make music actually make any money. And the best way to do that is to NOT owe anybody anything. So I would say probably the best idea – totally aside from musicality – cuz if you band is good, your band is good – and on the other hand, if you band sucks, it sucks and there’s nothing that you could do about it. You could work harder – but that’s totally your thing, and nobody could tell you how to do that right. But on the business end, as far as looking for a label deal, I think you’ve got to make sure it’s the right deal – make sure that if it’s a small label, you’re not selling your total life away, as it would be with a large label – making sure that they’re not going to constrain you too much. The real reason why we’re self-releasing is because with the Internet and the way that music is consumed nowadays; it’s like what is the point? The only thing that we’re really missing is a big recording budget, which we don’t really need in order to be able to put out records. If we wanted to go and make Abbey Road 2, then we would need a big budget. But we don’t – we’re not trying to do that right now. So we’re not worried about it. We could do it for a much smaller recording budget. The other thing is lacking a big marketing budget, where you could put all the money behind ads and that sort of thing. But there’s Twitter, there’s Facebook – there’s all these different social media outlets – as long as you maintain them and cultivate the fan base through there. Of course it doesn’t have the same footprint as a major label or even a significantly large indie label would have. But it’s enough that you feel a sense of accomplishment, because it takes a lot of hard work to push through those barriers. Of course, it helps to have a name already – I’m not going to deny that fact – obviously that’s not the point here. But I would say try to do as much as you can by yourself, because ultimately if the worst case scenario happens, that’s all that you’ve got anyway is yourself and your own faculties. So try to grow those and be as confident in each area of business and outside of playing the music as you can. And that way, you know you’re only going and getting the help that you need – and not the help that you THINK you need.

Wikipedia, which can be highly inaccurate at times, says that you’re a big fan of Tiger Woods. What do you think of him now after all of the scandals?
I think it sucks for the guy. Obviously had he not been in a position of intense fame and success and things like that – I don’t know if that’s really the way his life would have unfolded as far as having so many mistresses or whatever like that. I have sympathy for him that way – it’s a total dirt bag move by the way to do that to your wife and kid and say, “Oh, yeah, that sucks.” My appreciation and admiration for him has nothing to do with his personal life or how he conducts himself off of the golf course. For me, it’s all totally about what he’s been able to accomplish as a golfer. But that’s pretty much where I draw the line. You know, it’s not my life. I don’t know your kids. I don’t know your wife. I’m not personally offended by what you did. He still does a lot for children without access to a good education with his Tiger Woods Foundation. So he’s not a total scumbag. Think about it. He’s a skinny nerd who grew up a skinny golf nerd. He went to Stamford a skinny nerd and then went on the PGA Tour as a skinny nerd. Then he destroyed everybody on the golf course and got a little bigger through working out and things like that and finally growing up. And then people started looking at him because he’s had tons of success – as much money as you could ever think to have – marginally good looks, and access to basically anything he wanted. So pardon the expression, but he’s probably going to want to get a lot of p*ssy – and I don’t blame him. From being a skinny nerd all through high school, I totally understand the mindset. That really isn’t a fair ball game anyway – I can’t even imagine what his life might be like. I would say that it doesn’t surprise me that that happened. It’s still a bad thing to do to your wife and kids. “Don’t get married and no one cares” is pretty much the answer to that – well for him anyway. But it’s all about the golf for me. And I’m just waiting for him to try to find his game and get back in gear so I could have a reason to watch golf tournaments.

So what is the most scandalous thing someone could ever say about you?
(Laughs) I gotta think hard about that one. There’s really not much scandal to me. I would say that the most scandalous thing anybody could ever say about me is that my dance moves are completely atrocious – and they’d be correct. So I would recommend that if there is ever a dancing environment and I’m around – it’s a crime against society for me to thus begin dancing. That would be a pretty big scandal – going to jail for dancing so terribly.

So we won’t see you on Dancing With The Stars anytime soon?
Hell no!

Do you have a message for Cartel fans here in the Los Angeles area?
We need to play Los Angeles! It does happen to be on the other side of the country. But still, I love L.A. Hopefully with this new wave of Cartel and the new phase we’re going through here – it will put us back out on tour a lot more often so we could get out there and play more shows. I would say thanks for the support, tell a friend, and bring a friend to a show, and we’ll have a good time – and let’s see this thing through.

(Interview and Live Photo by Kenneth Morton)

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