From 2008's folky debut, "Nation of Heat," to 2012's more rock-influenced "The Great Despiser," Pug takes the American experience and presents it in a way that sends shivers down the spine, spreads smiles or provokes tears in a single guitar strum or lyrical turn of phrase. Emily Dickinson submitted that such complexity of emotion was the mark of great poetry. I would argue it too is the mark of great music. But make no mistake, Pug's music is certainly a kind of poetry.
I recently interviewed Joe Pug by phone about his early career, his musical process, his opinion of musical theatre and his plans for the future. Through the course of our conversation, I came to understand Pug's inherent connection with art and his desire to share it with everyone he encounters.
Joe Pug returns to St. Louis for a headlining appearance at Twangfest 17 on Thursday, June 6 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room.
Will Kyle: What does the city of St. Louis mean to you past it being another tour stop?
Joe Pug: It is part of the Midwest, which has always been part of the country that has supported us the most. I always love doing tours through there. Chicago, Champaign, St. Louis and Indianapolis have all been great to us. We get there about two or three times a year.
Early on, how did you know music was something you wanted to pursue?
Well, I knew it was something I wanted to do just like anyone else knows what they enjoy doing. I certainly didn't know that I'd have any degree of success playing music, but I really enjoyed doing it.
At the beginning of your career, before you were playing a lot of shows, was it scary to take that fateful step into the dark of the unknown pursuit of your music?
By the time that I realized I was really doing it, I was pretty deep in and I had a good feeling. I was really proud of the stuff I was doing at that time, which has not always been the case with creative things I've worked on before. I felt like there was something that was more than the sum of its parts going along with the songs that I was writing. All I could do then was follow that as far as I could.
When you first arrived in Chicago, after you left college, were you still working on your play, "Austin Fish," as you began work on "Nation of Heat?"
No, I didn't work on that play after I left college.
But the elements of the play were rearranged and used to create 2008's "Nation of Heat?"
Yeah, I'd written it when I was still at school and then when I left, I gave up on doing a dramatic version of it.
Did you ever plan to have musical parts in it?
Oh no, it was just a play. I really like music and I really like theatre, but I can't stand musical theatre.
You were a carpenter, and as such, worked with wood. The acoustic guitar is a wooden instrument. Certainly, there is art in both fields. Has that ever struck you as some kind of synchronicity or an omen?
Well, the type of carpentry I was doing, it was framing and a lot of it was with wood, but it is not a very specialized field of carpentry. I wasn't lathing moldings or staircases or bending wood to make a ship. I was just putting studs onto sixteen's on a wall. By the time I finished, we weren't even framing with wood anymore; we were using those steel studs you screw together, because it was more desirable structurally and for fire codes and stuff. I can see where you're going with that, but I don't really think it's the case.
You seem to be interested in making your music, both live shows and recordings, as accessible to fans as possible. For example, you've found ways to circumvent ticket service charges, as well as making certain parts of your catalogue available for free on your website. What was the rationale behind this?
I did it for the same reason any other business would want to cut out the middleman if they could. We just want the straightest line from conceiving and recording an album to an album making it into the ears of people who might be interested. The straighter that line can be the better.
You fold timeless American tropes and themes in you music (rust, water, teeth, feet, wood, dust, the seasons, tracks, tunnels, drinking, drug abuse, industry, oppression, farmlands, love and death). Does this happen naturally or do you strive to make such inclusions?
I can't say that I specifically work to put those things in it, but one of my guiding philosophies for writing songs is that I don't want to put any word, phrase or reference into a song that is going to date it significantly if I were lucky enough for it be listened 10 years down the road or 50 years down the road. Working inside of that box, you're just by nature going to run into those things that have already been explored by a lot of people.
It seems that such a writing philosophy, while working to not date the work, also makes it feel timeless.
Yeah, that's true. I never want to push to do it, but more often than not, that happens.
Is the more rock sound you implemented in 2012 with "The Great Despiser" going to continue into your new work?
I don't know yet. I'm still working on the songs. It is just going to depend on what the songs end up demanding when we go into the studio.
Do you have dates for when you're going to hit the studio?
I'm sure it'll be sometime in the next year. There's no point in booking recording time if you don't have 10 or 12 really great songs ready, so I'll just wait. You can book studio time anytime you like.
Are your new ideas making their way into your current sets, or are they staying on the private side of your playing?
I'm doing at least one new song per set. I like to do that. I feel like it can be indulgent sometimes, because audiences just want to come out and hear the songs they've heard. I mean, that's what I want when I'm an audience member. But at the same time, I feel like in the middle of a set, I can get away with doing one or two new ones. It helps me see which lines are holding water and which aren't.
When you play new tunes, you must get some kind of audience response. Does that cause you to rework the songs actively?
The changes I make have less to do with audience reaction than that first moment when I'm playing a song in front of someone that's new. I speak all the lines of the song out loud, and all of a sudden, all the lines that are really bad or trite, the ones that really make you cringe, stand out. That's when I realize such lines are the ones that have to go.
Do you see yourself continuing to roam the country, playing music in the future?
I really enjoy doing this now, and this is what I'll be doing for the foreseeable future, but who knows what will happen one way or the other. I'll just keep on doing it until I don't feel like doing it anymore.
How long is your current tour going on for?
Not too long, we start next Friday (May 31), opening for Calexico for four or five days. We finish in St. Louis. I think it's like a total of a week.
Do you have any summer plans past that?
We're always on the road. We'll do some festivals this summer, and in the fall, we'll go out and do a couple small tours on the west coast and in the Midwest, as well.
Any good, new music you may be listening to that you can suggest us?
I like this band from Los Angeles, Lord Huron. Additionally, I really like an album that came out last year, "Fear Fun," by Father John Misty. I got to see him live in Austin recently. It was one of the best shows I've seen in a while.
If you could open for anyone alive or dead, who would it be?
Ah man, I don't know. I've already had such good fortune opening for so many people I admire. I've gotten so much more than I could ever ask for.
Joe Pug performs at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room on Thursday, June 6 as part of Twangfest 17, presented by 88.1 KDHX.