Joe Pug remembers an Indy breakthrough 

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  • Joe Pug
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Much has been written about singer-songwriter Joe Pug's humble beginnings as a musician. He quit his college program at the start of his senior year, moved to Chicago and worked as a carpenter by day to support the seeds of a music career at night. That's all fairly far in the past now, as Pug has made another move - this time to Austin, to immerse himself in the folk traditions of Texas - and released two LPs and three EPs full of delicate, stirring folk. 

NUVO: Do you have any favorite memories of playing in Indianapolis, where you'll return this Saturday for a show at the DO317 Lounge? 

Joe Pug: The first website that reviewed any of my music is My Old Kentucky Blog. They reviewed the record, gave it a good review. It was mind-blowing for me that somebody had even heard the record or wanted to know about it. Then we came down and did a show for them at a place called Radio Radio. It was a weird showcase thing that they were doing. The headliner was a much-younger Justin Townes Earle, and Dodge [Lile] put me as part of the openers - three or four people playing music and switching songs in and around. And I was one of those people. So I guess that's a pretty rambling response to your question there - but that was my first experience in Indy. 

And I think the club that we're playing is not too far from Radio Radio. 

NUVO: Yeah, it's right down the street. And owned by the MOKB guys. It's their own space. So it all comes full circle.

Pug: That's right! The guy traveling with us is a guy named Denison Witmer from Philly. And he is on Asthmatic Kitty, which is based in Indianapolis. And he invited us to come do a taping that either his label or DO317 was doing in the afternoon there [at the DO317 Lounge]. We did it in this place, a really small little art space. 

NUVO: A little gallery space, almost - 

Pug: Yeah! That's what we did last time we were in town. 

NUVO: I'd love to know how Craig Finn got involved [in contributing vocals to "The Great Despiser"]. 

Pug: I've been into the Hold Steady for a long time. Over the course of the last three or four years, I had the chance to just meet him, in passing. He was, unlike a lot of other people I've looked up to in the music business, he was very approachable. I won't say that I became friends with the guy. I got to meet him once or twice - even acquantaince would be stretching it. But I've met him. 

When we were finishing up the song that he ended up singing on, a song called "The Great Despiser," we were talking about, the whole room, about what a debt, especially the way we recorded it, to The Hold Steady. I was just going to go in and sing the harmony myself and then we joked around about having him sing it. And then we were like, "Well, fuck it!" So we sent him an email, not expecting to hear back. But he wrote back and said, "Yeah, just cover the cost of paying for my engineer here in New York, and I'll definitely cut it." And he did, man. And a week or two later, he sent back the finished version of it, and I just sat there in the control room, with his voice solo'ed against the rest of the music, laughing hysterically. It was so unbelievable to me, to hear him singing some words that I had written. It was a special moment. 

NUVO: While we're talking about people that influence you, I've got another one for you. I appreciate that you're so outspoken about your love for traditional American folk music and its writers. I wanted to know, first of all, what you think makes a perfect traditional folk song? And second, how can we better educate kids on the legacy of the American songbook? 

Pug: I think one of the problems of trying to educate a younger generation on the legacy of folk music is that people who tend to be into folk music are music nerds. And I consider that label for myself as well. So you have kind of a tendency to ... you've heard all the standards before, right? So when you introduce people to the music, you tend to show them, like, deep cuts of folk music. And I  think that's really the wrong way to go about it when you want to bring people into the fold. It's less about educating people. It's about having music touch their heart. 

And to do that, you have to start at square one, with some really beautiful, simple folk songs. The moment that you make it like an academic enterprise, people, and especially kids, are going to pull away from it. Because it takes away the joyfulness that music is supposed to be. 

Sometimes when we have all-ages shows, we'll have 14- and 15-year-old kids come up and say, "Oh, I'm learning guitar, what should I do to learn guitar?" My deal is always, "Man, learn to play the songs that you love. That's it." Because you get such an immense joy out of playing those songs that you love that it will inspire you to educate [yourself] more. But if that original joy and love isn't there, than, you know. They'll just go into doing something else. Watching Netflix, listening to [sighs] I don't know, the new Skrillex. It's gotta be a joyful enterprise. You can't give them a fuckin' 7-minute story song about some fucking ship that crashed in Lake Huron somewhere. It's gotta be an interesting one. 

NUVO: Now I want to hear that ship song. 

Pug: Yeah, you do! But you have more of a history with music. 

NUVO: [Laughs] You're currently in Austin, correct? You make your home in Austin now. 

Pug: I'm actually in Austin at this moment. We did this really smart thing - we used to go on tour for seven or eight weeks at a time. When you do that, you save money, but you come back from a tour like that a different person than when you left, you really do. We're doing the same amount of dates this time, but we broke it up in the middle with a week off. We just finished the first leg on the West Coast and we're taking a week before we do the Midwest. And it's awesome. 

NUVO: How much do you go out and see music in Austin? Who are some just-beginning singer-songwriters we should keep our eyes on? 

Pug: I go out and see music quite a bit. But [outside of Austin] actually there's a guy from Bloomington, Ind., a really, really super young guy. He's maybe 20 or 21-years-old. He opened for us the last time we were in Bloomington, plays under the name Swales. He writes really cool songs and has a great voice. He came up with us to Chicago to open for us over the summer. He's got a long way to go, but he's super young and I think the sky is the limit for him. He's a really creative writer and he has a really idiosyncratic and beautiful voice. 

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Katherine Coplen

Katherine Coplen

Always looking for my new favorite band. Always listening to my old ones, too. Always baking cakes. Always collecting rock and roll dad quotes.

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