Todd Roeth
Having toured alongside acclaimed songwriters like Steve Earle, M. Ward and Josh Ritter, Joe Pug is carving out a niche for himself not


Tell Me About That Album: The Great Despiser by Joe Pug

Todd Roeth
Having toured alongside acclaimed songwriters like Steve Earle, M. Ward and Josh Ritter, Joe Pug is carving out a niche for himself not unlike that trio of storytellers. With his soulful voice as the hook, Pug's songs are filled with flawed characters that struggle to move through life just as we all do. This week he'll issue his sophomore record, The Great Despiser, which was accompanied by a move to Austin, where the songwriter hopes to soak up some of that city's rich musical history. We chatted with Pug about the move, his new record and his favorite Capitol Hill dining establishment, where you'll likely find him and his band before their show at the Crocodile on Saturday, May 5th. Here's what he told us:

Who is the Great Despiser? The title track of the album has a narrator in it. As I was writing it, he became someone who came into the world with a lot of very intense expectations. He quite expectedly became very cynical from it, and I think the song is about this person trying to finally let go of this cynicism and thereby let go of his expectations and meet the world and life on its own terms and flourish.

Are you cynical? The album's first line is "To meet me is to dare into the darkness." If you're really looking at any human being, there's both of those things. On a day to day basis, I'm actually a light-hearted guy and I think that has to do with the fact that I get to do work that really fulfills me and allows me to express those darker sides that are a little bit unconscious. I'm not the asshole at the dinner table expounding on existentialism, that's for sure.

So you think your ability to explore that stuff makes you less dark then? Definitely. And not for a minute to make a comparison between me and him, but I've always heard that Hank Williams was a light-hearted guy. And he wrote "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." It's one of the paradoxes of artists that write these very heavy songs. It's almost like that's their salvation, even if it makes listeners confront that darker place. When I listen to Elliott Smith songs, you could say that those are dark songs, but that's not the way that I feel after I listen to an Elliott Smith album. I feel great. It sort of objectifies those dark feelings.

You've mentioned Raymond Carver was a big influence on this record. What is it that you find inspiring about his stories? In a very technical sense, the economy of words he's able to use to evoke those huge ideas and emotions. But in a thematic sense, it's kind of what we were just talking about. You read some of his stories and it's as dark as it gets, but he evokes it in this very poetic way. Those feelings are there whether you want to talk about them or not and by acknowledging them we gain a little bit of power over them.

Are you an avid reader? Yes.

Do you read more than you listen to music? By a longshot.

Are you able to read on tour? On tour I don't get anything done. You always think, "This time I'm going to read these three books, I'm going to jog after soundcheck, I'm going to eat really well." Then the next thing you know you wake up hungover at a Motel 6 and you realize you ate a Philly cheesesteak and a large pizza before you went to bed. And even when there is downtime, you're surrounded by people -- you're splitting a queen size bed with your tour manager in some shitty roadside hotel. It doesn't really allow for much solitude.

Can you tell me about the cover art? This lone human figure in a great expanse, I love the notion that you genuinely can't tell whether he's going up or down. It's the same guy who's done the art for all of our albums up until now, Shawn Stucky. I'm such a fan of his work. I was on his site looking at some of his latest pieces and I saw that one and I had a very visceral reaction to it so I called him up and I demanded that we use it. And he was nice enough to let us.

What prompted your move to Austin? What were you hoping Austin would provide that Chicago couldn't? Chicago is probably my favorite city on the face of the planet. No knocks against other cities, but that's my kind of town. I'm still a young dude, I don't have any kids, I don't own any property. I wanted to move around while I still can and check out this country.

Was it Austin's musical history that made it more appealing than New York or L.A. or Nashville? Absolutely. Think about all the people that have come just out of Lubbock, Texas: Buddy Holly, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Billy Joe Shaver. It's endless, not to mention Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams. It's one of the few parts of the country that still has a regional music that I think is very important and I wanted to get closer to it. I thought it would be an important place to go for my higher education in songwriting.

Have been to Seattle much? I've probably played the Tractor six or seven times. And we play at this little bar up in Bellingham every time we're in town. We love it. We found that place, the Pike Street Fish Fry last time we were in town, and the whole band is chomping at the bit to get back.

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