The last Cartel release we were treated to was the In Stereo EP. It was a leap for the band, but not musically or lyrically. It was a leap because it was their first time releasing music independently. It was even more of a leap because it was their first time producing their own music. The production on that EP was less than perfect, but a year and a half later, after hearing Cartel's new album, Collider, self-releasing and self-producing suits Cartel well. Will Pugh has headed up the production of the most recent Cartel album and he’s more than gotten the hang of things.
Although the album took four months to record through the course of last year, it was really done in about a month and a half in 2012. Balancing recording with touring, Collider was produced by Pugh with the help of guitarist Joseph Pepper. Speaking with Alternative Addiction, Will dished on the production of the album and the band taking a more proactive approach to self-releasing Collider.
“I love it,” explained an excited Pugh on his trip home to Georgia after a short stay in Florida. “I would much prefer being in the studio all the time to most anything else. I love the process of recording. You have an idea in your head and then it comes into fruition. Especially when you’re doing demos and you’re not able to get the high quality you’re looking for. You’re always chasing down exactly what a song is supposed to sound like. Getting to actually put it down on record and hearing it done right is a really cool feeling. I’m sort of a nerd when it comes to having the computers and the gear and all that kind of stuff so it’s always fun to get in there and twist knobs and get better."
Zach Odom and Kenneth Mount have proven to be major influences on the band through the years. The production team worked on the band’s first two albums, Chroma and their self-titled release. The initial studio love that Pugh and the rest of the band developed started with those two albums. They branched out with their Wind-up Records release, Cycles. They worked with a few different producers for that record. Over the years all of the producers and engineers that the band worked with taught Will how to produce. Past all the technical jargon that he clearly knows a lot about, Pugh said watching people work taught him how to do it himself.
“We’ve done enough records at this point and I’ve been the guy sitting over the producer’s shoulder going, ‘what are you doing there?’ You kind of learn it. You buy the program and you sit in front of the computer and try and figure out how it works. Over the course of time things get easier and second nature; then you’re learning the hard stuff.”
That’s not to say that the first production experience for Will and company went smoothly. It was alright, but there were clearly some things that needed to be learned in order for the band to continue with the approach.
“We did the EP and that was kind of piecemeal there because it was really more of an experiment because we didn’t have a budget. The cheapest way to record something is to do it yourself, so we were like, ‘okay here we go!," said Pugh fighting laughter.
Will has produced two other bands to date. He produced the latest Cartel album and that first EP, but he also produced two Atlanta bands; Baby Baby- a band that Pugh described as a mix between The Beastie Boys and The Clash- and Audiostrobelight. When asked to differentiate between producing someone else's music and producing your own music, the Cartel frontman was candid in his assessment. Pugh, a self-critic of sorts, predictably said that his own music is a lot tougher to do.
“That second guessing is hard. When you’re producing someone else's stuff and you think something sucks you can say that in your own head because you didn’t write it. You don’t have that emotional attachment. You can go, ‘well that part can be a lot better, the rest of the song rules, but let’s fix that.’ When you’re thinking about your own music you tend to think everything is gold, so it’s like ‘I don’t want to fix that, I think it’s awesome.’ It’s kind of like having to step back away from it and look at it in different glasses on, it’s truly hard to do. Especially with the sounds. You’ve done the demos and you’ve go this idea in your head of what the song should sound like. Then it doesn’t exactly meet what you’re trying to get, then you have to re-track it four or five times trying to get the right sound."
So with Will in the producer’s chair did he have to take a stronger approach to recording with the rest of the band? Pugh said that isn't really the case because he’s not the only one with recording experience; they’ve all been through a lot of the same things.
“It wasn’t too bad trying to get them to do their thing," said Will clearly amused. "We’ve all done this so many times before it’s not like you’re trying to get a rook to record to click tracks. It ended up being a pretty painless effort.”
Obviously getting the right sounds is one part of making a record, but just as big, if not bigger, is song writing. The music and the lyrics are coming from a very genuine place for Cartel on this album. Will and the other guys are further along in life and at a more reflective point and thats reflected in the lyrics. Cartel also was also in a spot where they could do whatever they wanted to musically without having to worry about appeasing anyone but the fans who already like their music.
“It’s more natural and it’s more honest. Not that the songs in the past weren’t, but that last record was more goal-orientated. They wanted songs they could work to the radio. That kind of classifies what kind of songs you’re writing for the most part and you give them a whole batch of things. With this record, we were coming off of an EP that we self-released. It showed us how free we could be with the song writing and the content lyrically. Spilling over into this record, we kind of allowed ourselves to do whatever. I think there’s only one song on this album that’s about girls. It’s really more of an introspective/reflective record. We’re 28 and this is our tenth year being in this band. We reflected on our careers, our short-comings and successes, and what things we would have liked to change. Just kind of day-in, day-out feelings about life in general."
“Musically it was a lot of fun because we didn’t have to worry about somebody worrying about hits. A lot of times, especially now with labels, the idea of an album track doesn’t really exist. We wanted to make an album, not just a bunch of hits on a record. That’s not to say that they couldn’t be, it was just a lot more fun to make and a lot more uninhibited. And I think it comes across like that. It sounds like we had a lot more fun making it and there’s a lot of energy captured with this album.”
Going to this record from the EP and even from their past full length album, Cartel isn’t approaching this album as a return to form or a back-to-basics experience. It lies somewhere between making music for themselves and for their fans. It’s about making an album. That doesn’t mean they’re not trying to do well with this record, it’s just that they’re trying to do well on a different scale while getting more pride out of what they do. Look for Cartel to be aggressive on an independent scale with this new album.
“We’re doing it a lot more full tilt this time versus the EP,” said Pugh. “On one hand it was just an EP so we weren’t really throwing down the gauntlet on promotion or anything else. When you do a full record you have to do it right. We have a marketing team and we’ve been laying the foundation and the making the blueprints for this for the last six to eight months. Everything is very well in hand as far as planning and the timeline and all of that stuff so we’re very excited about it that way.”
Making the record and writing the songs, that’s the fun part. Working the record and planning the promotion around it is work. That’s not to say that it can’t be fun, it’s just a different kind of fun. Talking with Will, he said the band still has big plans with the album, they just don’t have to be as big as they’ve been. He said that it doesn’t make sense for either party for Cartel to release this album with a record label.
“With self-releasing, we own our own masters, we pay for the recordings and all of that kind of stuff and we're not really indebted to anybody. You can pay somebody to promote it. You can save up for videos and do that yourself too. Besides association with other bands, which we miss sometimes, at this point in our career it’s not really beneficial for us or for the label. If we’re self-releasing, we can sell 10,000 records and we can make more than a label would ever think of paying us up front. It’s nice controlling your own destiny and being your own critic.”
The independent tactic is great, but it works best for bands that have already been established over the years. There are always special circumstances and things like that, but because Cartel has been in the industry for a decade and they’ve been with three different record labels, they’ve seen it all. That experience was and still is extremely valuable for them in this process.
“You have to have a lot of experience and perspective under your belt," started Pugh. "We’ve seen literally every situation possible in the music industry with labels, agents, attorneys... everything. We have a lot of experience and we’ve made a lot of mistakes but we’ve done some things right too. We know the way to do it right; what’s necessary and what’s unnecessary. You make it cost-effective and not try to exploit your fan base for anything other than getting good music out there."
Still talking about that valuable experience gave Will a chance to look back at what Cartel has been through over the course of the past decade. A number of lineup changes, crazy tours, a reality TV show, hit singles, expensive videos and big records; it was clearly a little mind blowing for Will to look back on everything that Cartel has been through. When asked about what his favorite part about the whole experience has been, Pugh looked to the very beginning.
“The favorite part is definitely the come-up. Going from scraping change out of the back seat of the van to buy a Wendy’s cheeseburger to touring with The Starting Line. Then we got to do Warped Tour and we got a bus. Then touring with New Found Glory and playing with people we look up to and the reason we started this band. Then headlining and selling out 90% of those shows and then doing the MTV thing. Seeing that rise and how fast it can happen and how dynamic and crazy it really is... that was a gnarly roller coaster ride. That was my favorite part because that’s the dream when everybody looks at when they start a band.”
“But on the other side of that, the hardest part is figuring out how to keep that going. You get there, and then it’s like, ‘ah s___... how do we get people to keep caring?’ It’s been a struggle and I think we’ve done well to survive it. I think now it feels exciting again because we have our destiny in our own hands. We're releasing the record ourselves and having it be a record that people are singing and reacting to really well to too. It's really exciting again. I think we could be in for something a little more like that initial ramp up. It makes us very enthusiastic about getting the record out and moving forward."
As Will continued his trip home, just crossing the state line back into Georgia after his Florida road trip, moving forward was literal and figurative. Cartel’s been around for a decade. Maybe they won’t be king of the mountain like they were when their songs were in 2006, but they can still do a lot of the same things and they still get to connect to people with their music. At the heart of it, that’s what every musician wants to do.
“No matter what this does, even if it doesn’t sell a lot, as long as people react to it and enjoy it, that’s the payoff we’re looking for.”