Q&A: Cartel

Life isn’t always a picture-perfect mirror of what you want it to be as issues, stress and uncomfortable situations tend to arise but through perseverance and fighting the thought of quitting with passion, it can be. Understanding that is something Georgia quartet CARTEL have recently experienced and the end result is In Stereo, their latest self-released extended play that still sprints with their form of catchy alternative pop. One of music’s most underrated vocalists, Will Pugh opened up about the band’s most recent release and how capturing a raw sound has the group determined to continue to make music and leave a mark on those willing to listen.

How important is consistency to you?

It’s everything. When you think about it, it has a lot to do with the acceptance to progress as a musician or a band. Now, consistency has become a lot tougher because fans play a bigger part in the music you make. It really has become more complex because the music you create has to be something you love but it also has to connect to the fans and be something they like as well.
Is balancing the two now a priority for musicians?

Being a bit philosophical here, creating music people like isn’t difficult when you do it in the same vein. For instance in pop music, a musician just has to look at what others are doing – like Ke$ha, Lady Gaga etc. – and resemble them in a way when it comes to style and song structure. You see a lot of bands doing that now. They’re not necessarily copycats but that’s what the thought process is like, it’s just the pride you feel is based on impact and the songs you create. As a band, we have albums with songs that appeal to others so we don’t need to really dig down and look at others to write something good.

We’re more focused on pushing ourselves and that’s the difficult part. With fans being more involved in the process now, marrying what you love and what they like is tough because it means something different to everyone. Achieving that is life or death now for bands. If someone isn’t digging the CD you just put out, they’ll find something else to listen to and become attached to and will only think of you as that band who put out some great songs.

When you’re making songs, you really just need a band and someone to listen. We learned a lot over the years and though we’re not the best producers or the best engineers, we are qualified to release
an album all by ourselves.”

Do you think a real model of consistency is one of the things missing from music? There are bands out there that constantly change their sound, image and approach and the outcome isn’t always positive.

It’s a double-edged sword. Nine out of ten times a band will say they love their most recent work but it’s all dependent on the appeal to fans. Like look at Radiohead; you have a band that constantly changes their sound with every album and though one record may not sound anything like another, when you take away Thom Yorke, their fans still love the music. In that case you have to wonder if their listeners are committed to them or if all of their music is actually that good. The whole thing with consistency and fans could be a coincidence.
What influenced the decision to produce your latest release yourself?

Definitely experience. The group of us have been involved in music since 2003 and our initial release – not the recordings themselves – were DIY as well. We’ve also been around the block a few times working with different labels, different people and different influences and when March came around we were at a point where we asked ourselves, “what’s next?”. At the time our label was a bit shady and our main goal was to create a record and release it in stores. Not for fame but because we just wanted to make music.

When you’re making songs, you really just need a band and someone to listen. We learned a lot over the years and though we’re not the best producers or the best engineers, we’re qualified to release an album by ourselves. In that case, you can’t really ask for much more. You don’t need all the behind-the-scenes label stuff as though I hate to say it, everything else is bullshit.
Most have noted the band hasn’t lost its edge whatsoever; is that something the group is looking to develop a bit more or is your focus elsewhere?

Our focus has been entirely on making good music that comes out of speakers. In a way, there is a bit more edge and that’s because recordings are normal and we were focused on marrying our old records with our live sound. We did that because we wanted to achieve something realistic so when it comes out of an amp it isn’t coloured but sounds natural. Accomplishing that got a bit easier over time because we’re tight as a group and can play together and we know each others tendencies. Saying In Stereo is natural is a bit cliche but it’s true.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is your voice; with handling the creative process, do you hope to experiment more as a vocalist?

When it comes to Cartel, the way I sing isn’t really my real voice. I know that does sound a bit strange, but it’s specifically for the type of music we play as a band because my voice is actually delicate and soft. I found that out about a year or two ago when I was experimenting with different sounds and genres for my solo material. When you look at this new EP, you can tell that it is a rock record, not pop which is the way my voice was made to sound like in the past. We captured that style by trying to get that live feel because when you’re on a stage, you have one shot and one shot only – you’re not doing vocal takes. In doing that, you’re learning to trust yourself and let your voice go and that’s what I tried to do – just let go and forget techniques.
What has the experience been like experimenting with different genres?

It’s been like the excerpts you find in Guitar World; Keith Richards has his own gear but if you were to buy the same guitar and amp he uses, you still wouldn’t sound like him. That tone comes from the way the musician uses their instrument, whether it be guitars, bass, drums or vocals. Like Jack White uses shit gear for most of his projects but creates great music. For me, vocals are connected to emotion, and tones and pitch come from within even though sometimes you have to explore and revisit the past.

Cartel’s music has always been energetic and in a rush and can’t be softened up while the solo material I’ve been working on is a bit more reigned in and subdued while the vocals sit on top. When it does that, there’s a place for the voice and it opens up a lot more and I’ve connected with that a lot more as well. Vocally, Jeff Buckley is my muse – aside from Freddie Mercury of Queen and Silverchair’s Daniel Johns. He brought in a sense of technicality and broke rules without even knowing them. That’s kind of where my vocals go, even if it’s to the point of screaming in a different pitch or singing in a soft tone where it’s so quiet you have to really listen to hear what I’m saying.
Is there anything specific you’ve learned recently that stands out to you?

It’s funny that you ask that. I know it is kind of trite but I got my first tattoo last December and the thing with tattoos is I’ve always been into the whole tribal aspect about it. Since it first came about, tattoos have always been a cultural thing. As I’m very into philosophy and history, I got one with the words “know thyself” which comes from Greece and was inscribed in the Temple Of Apollo at Delphi. It stands out a lot to me and reminds me you have to know who you are and be aware of what you put out matters and starts with yourself.

Every new day is a new day and you have to know motivation is important. It has been tough the past three years for me, what with work and stress but right now (pause), it’s a rebirth of myself. I’m 27, I’m in a band and I can’t help but think about those that have died at that age (laughs) and it reminds me of what I hope to leave behind. Hopefully when I’m older, the tattoo will remind me of what I’ve done in this world and what I will leave behind.

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