Interview: Greg Puciato
I don’t really believe that the medium or the tool is important. If you give someone artistic a tool and tell them to channel themselves through that tool, then the output will resemble them.
Our interview was nearing the one hour mark, rich with insightful elaborations about the former Dillinger Escape Plan vocalist’s opaque inner-workings when Greg decided to flip our cordial discussion on its head. “Every single thing I say is deliberate, but not everything I say is true”, he declares with devilish delectation as I attempt an inquiry into deep Dillinger trivia. Old habits die hard, after all. At forty years of age, the man’s unwavering, uncompromising spirit has yet to show signs of fatigue. It’s one thing to live up to your past as a rock musician, but need I remind you that we’re talking about a reckless, fire breathing maniac in this instance. Here’s a man who thought that outdoing Jesus by running across a tempestuous sea of rabid fans would be a mere opening number for a shopping mall gig. Not the kind of specimen you’d expect to find so speaking so eloquently at the end of your telephone receiver, let alone self-release a book of poetry and still life photography, you’ll certainly admit. However, Mister Puciato belongs to that pesky breed of insolent artists whose medium relies not so much on set procedure as it does on the element of surprise, artists whose line of work thrives on the subversion of expectations. His latest creative endeavour and the main topic of our discussion is called Child Soldier: Creator of God, an exciting debut as a solo artist and my golden opportunity to go spelunking into the cavernous depths of a restless creative mind.
E&D: How has your year been? How have you been handling quarantine and the global pandemic?
Greg: It’s been a lot of work, so it’s been going by really quickly. My work didn’t really start to change until recently because I wasn’t going to be able to tour, anyway. I was going to be off tour until last month. I was dealing with record setup, with two records being done and released a month apart from each other. It wasn’t really something that I had planned, it just ended up that way. The whole year has just been nonstop work. I’m involved in every single aspect of every single thing that I’m a part of. I’m a control freak and I micromanage every single thing that I’m a part of. So it’s exhausting and it takes up most of my time. There was a lot of added stress with the Coronavirus, the political mess that we’re in, the complete destruction of our social lives and not being able to tour for the next year or so. With that being said, I still have tons of work to do each day. I’m really fortunate that I got those two records done before the virus hit. We mixed both albums at the same time around April too. So I’m fortunate in that regard, but I’m not in any different situation than anyone else in terms of the twilight zone that we’re all living in right now. It’s just a little bit amplified here, because of the Trump thing. You can’t go a single fucking day without hearing about some extreme version of a false binary, bipartisan issue. You’re bombarded every day with extreme right versus extreme left, some new thing that everyone is upset about, some new thing that Trump said or did… That’s the part of the year that I’m completely over with. I think everyone here has reached a point of exhaustion with it all. No one even talks about the coronavirus anymore here. It’s just a nonstop barrage of politics and even if you try not to talk to people about it, you can’t. Other than things on the larger scale, I think it’s been a pretty important year for me, especially with the release of my solo record. It’s like a lighthouse to me, something to focus on whilst the world around me is crumbling apart.
E&D: I understand that the songs on the album stemmed from a writing session during which you originally planned to write a new record for The Black Queen.
Greg: That doesn’t mean that was the first stuff, though. I ended up pulling things into it that had been written prior. ‘Fireflies’ has been around since before the last Dillinger record. ‘Down when I’m not’ has been around since 2010, parts of ‘September City’ have been around since 2006. There are things that are from before that I was hanging on to. I really believe that you shouldn’t just take what you have and dump it out. I like holding onto things for a larger, more focused thing. I’m not a big fan of just releasing stuff because you made it. I want to hold onto it and see where it goes. I want to make sure it has the best fit and the best vehicle. You want to make sure you have a focused, deliberate vehicle to deliver your output in. As I said, I had parts from 2006 that didn’t work for any other projects that I got involved with. When I started writing around may of 2019, I was writing what I thought was going to be the next Black Queen record, and it didn’t go in that direction. The more I wrote, the more I realized that it was making sense with these other things that I had kept around. When I put it the pieces together, it felt like the same “person”. It was interesting because they were written so far apart. That was the impetus to me to dig into things. I knew that it was a solo record, but I didn’t feel comfortable with it. It was hard for me to accept that and feel good about that. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s scarier than being part of a band. When it first dawned on me that I was making a solo record, my initial response was fear, not excitement. That took me a minute to get over.
E&D: Can you tell us a bit more about the creative workflow that led you to develop such a stylistically diverse project?
Greg: I’m a big fan of making albums as opposed to collections of songs. I don’t believe in making compilations. It’s not about making a bunch of songs, figuring out in what order they go in and giving it a name. That’s like saying that a collection of unrelated scenes can be stitched together and called a movie. An album is a deliberate thing from front to back. When I’m writing an album, I’m writing it as an album. I’ve been doing it that way since One of us is the Killer with Dillinger. I work on the album as a whole by zooming out and looking at the full picture. If there’s something happening in the first song, that’s deliberate. It’s not like I wrote it all and decided what song was going to be first. After I get a few songs in, I can see what puzzle pieces go where and I can build around them. I know what’s supposed to come before and after each piece. I can see the movie in my head and how it feels like. If you were doing something for commercial reasons, you would never put a two-minute noise blast in the middle of the second song on the album. That’s there deliberately. It’s a litmus test. It’s a threshold for people to have to get past. It’s a representative of a push-pull dynamic. If you can’t make it past that, then I don’t want you around. You have to be zooming in and out constantly and tweaking constantly according to that. It’s important that a song makes sense on its own and that it makes sense as part of the record. If it doesn’t make sense when you zoom out you can’t put in on there. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good song or not. You can’t throw a song in at a point where it doesn’t make sense and it fucks up your whole flow. Once I get the tracklist down, I can start to finesse the individual songs and transitions, even if I need to change the tempo of the song or add a part. I’ll do different things to make sure that it makes sense to me as an album. It doesn’t have anything to do with genre either. A lot of people talk about genres as if they’re separate things that are hard to switch between, but I just see them as different moods and emotions. If you have something that has distorted guitars and screaming, I hear that as being ‘aggressive’, I don’t see it as ‘metal’. It’s such a weird thing to operate in those terms as opposed to viewing sounds as emotions.
E&D: What is the story behind the album’s title? Where does it come from?
Greg: I think that “Creator of God” has been around for a few years now. “Child Soldier” has been around for a really long time. “Federal Prisoner” has been around since 2014. I knew that I was going to use “Child Soldier” for something five or six years ago. I thought that it was going to be the moniker that I would use, back when I was still afraid to use my own name. “Creator of God” was going to be the name of the record. When I decided to use my real name, I still really liked to use those two titles. I still had them attached in my head, so I just used both of them anyway and stuck my name in, which makes it even weirder. And that’s fine by me.
E&D: Since the release of Fever Daydream by The Black Queen, you have cultivated an increasingly hands-on approach in your projects both on the musical and non-musical side. What are the advantages of releasing some of your projects independently as opposed to soliciting a label?
Greg: The huge advantage is that I own my masters. That’s the main part for me. Everything that I’ve ever been involved in has come with complete creative control. We wouldn’t sign contracts if we didn’t have ultimate artistic control. We’ve never had anyone meddling with us, artistically. I’m just a big fan of enjoyment of process. I really feel that what makes you happy in life is finding enjoyment of process, not enjoyment of the finished product. For me, a lot of the enjoyment of process was born out of necessity. When we were doing Fever Daydream we needed some music videos, so Jesse Draxler and I started making videos. I had no interest in making music videos and I still don’t care about making them for anybody else, but we started doing it and we ended up liking it. The process of releasing Fever Daydream was born out of me really not wanting to deal with labels anymore, not wanting to deal with other people and arguing with them, having to police them, having to shoot down dumb ideas, telling them things I’m not going to do… It’s just endlessly emailing people and talking to them about why you’re not going to do this or that. I don’t want to have to deal with label people about putting in a noise part on the second track of my album. I don’t want to be in a contract with people that I don’t need. Do I need their money? No. I know how to press my own records, how to distribute. I know all the right people, I can hire publicists… We can do all of that. We did it with Fever Daydream. I fucked some things up and left some T’s uncrossed, but then I fixed them on Infinite Games. When we were done with that record, we realized that Jesse and I were basically operating a record label for one band and we’re kicking as much ass as whole labels. I didn’t really care about the idea of starting a label at first. But then I started thinking about it and picking people’s brains about it. I picked Patton’s brain, I picked my publicist’s brain… The more I thought about it, the more exciting it felt to me. Once you build a house, you start putting furniture in that house. As soon as we committed to it, I saw what it could be and I got passionate about it. Having something to be passionate about is what makes life worth living. Even if I have nothing creative to work on when I wake up in the morning, there’s something going on with the label that I have to tend to. And that’s exciting. It’s made me super passionate about artist-owned businesses and maintaining control in a business where you’re constantly being bought up by people who have nothing to do with art, by capitalists, business people and tech guys. If I’m going to sign some band, they know that I’m not going to fuck them over. I walk the walk. I’ve been hit in the face with guitars for the last twenty years. You can either listen to me or you can listen to some dude that just got out of school for business.
E&D: You probably would not have been able to react as quickly to the album leak, were you operating with a different label.
Greg: Exactly! That was a huge realization too. We wouldn’t have been able to react as quickly, had I been with a bigger, slower-moving label with eight million departments and protocols put in place so as to not piss of Spotify, iTunes and distributors. Labels are always trying to appease these different parts of the industry rather than lookout for what’s best for the artist. What’s best for me was to get ahead of that leak and to make sure that my fans that paid for the record had the first crack at it in its highest possible resolution. You can’t exactly go out and ask guys to wait for the release date and not download it when it’s already out there. It’s ridiculous. People aren’t going to do that and it’s not their fault. I wouldn’t do it either. I’d probably download it too. We were able to move quickly. I released the album on Bandcamp while I was still in bed, then I woke up, went on the computer and changed the release date to the following week and that was it. It doesn’t have to be some ordeal where I have to email twenty people who have to talk to one another about whether it’s a good idea. I can just do whatever I want.
E&D: You have been credited as a director for all four of the music videos released so far. What can you tell us about the album art and your conception of the albums’ visual universe?
Greg: It’s more about the feel and not so much about thought. I’m not sitting around thinking about what I want something to feel like. It either feels right or it doesn’t. It’s such an abstract notion, it’s really hard to explain creativity. I spent a lot of my younger years giving bullshit answers in interviews because there wasn’t much I could say. It’s some kind of wizardry, really. I don’t know what the hell is happening when you make something or why something happens. I don’t think about what to play when I pick up a guitar or a keyboard. I have no idea what kind of videos we’re going to make. I just go out and shoot a bunch of shit and put it together. I know that Terrence Malick is a big proponent of just shooting a ton of stuff and having the story revealing itself in the editing. That’s kind of how I feel about pretty much everything. I can tell when I have a creative need. I know when I’m going to make something. It’s basically how it feels to hold a sneeze. I feel like I have some type of creative anxiety and I have to have some sort of release. It can be a ton of stuff that can turn into an album or it can be one song, a video… Otherwise, I really don’t plan for anything, I just pick up a guitar and I start playing and see what comes out. I don’t say that I’m going to write a song that sounds like this or that. It’s the same thing when it came to the album art. I just started taking pictures, manipulating them until it “felt like” my record. I don’t know what people see when they see the album art, but it’s actually a picture of me. It’s a picture of me from when I was six years old, distorted and manipulated. The image is basically what the record is like. The record is about integration, integrating all parts of my life. So I wanted to have a picture from when I was a little kid and have it distorted beyond recognition. The music videos are more like creative exercises. Most of them are made at the very last minute. Sometimes Jesse and I have made a video with a day and a half before we have to turn it in. That’s when your brain kicks into high gear and you start realizing that you don’t have to have a story and a linear concept. If you take a camera and look through it, the world just starts to look different. You don’t have to know what you’re going to shoot ahead of time. You can just go somewhere interesting, shoot and start seeing interesting angles and ideas. You just need to get messy and trust your process, trust that your artistic taste will come through. If I gave David Lynch a flute and gave him a year to come back with something, he would come back with something interesting, probably even more interesting than the majority of what most professional flute players would come back with. The flute is just a tool for your artistic spirit to get out. I don’t really believe that the medium or the tool is important. If you give someone artistic a tool and tell them to channel themselves through that tool, then the output will resemble them.
E&D: Have some of these peripheral endeavours encouraged you to further explore these mediums further, independently from your work as a musician?
Greg: The book was independent. I didn’t feel that it was tied in. Obviously, there are a couple of songs like ‘Through the Walls’ and ‘Fireflies’ have tie-ins with the book but that’s because no one had heard these songs yet. I just fall in love with creativity and I just follow those paths. I don’t think about going out and taking photos. Sometimes I just make myself do it, but I would never call myself a photographer. I would never call myself a guitar player and I barely feel comfortable calling myself a singer. I feel like the way I process and respond to the world, the way I relieve myself of the anxiety of being alive is through creativity and artistic expression. It’s really exciting for me to find a new outlet for that. Maybe the solo record wouldn’t have existed, had I not done Black Queen videos and photography for the book, because they made me realize that if you put different tools in your hand and you have a strong artistic sensibility, it will come out through every medium that you do. It makes things exciting. It makes you want to buy a bass guitar even though you don’t play bass. I don’t consider myself a bass player, but if I pick one up maybe something changes in the way that I write. Maybe it will change my approach to composition. That’s how ‘Deep Set’ happened. It was written on bass. The guitar is in conversation with the vocals. It would have turned into a completely different song, had I approached it with a guitar. I tried to surround myself with different tools. I’ll buy anything that I feel like I can use to explore my creativity and start fucking with it. I’ll buy a trumpet, a harmonica… Buy tools and make yourself use them. That’s the benefit of having a camera instead of a phone. The camera won’t distract you with text messages, calls… You’re not able to do all of this post-production on the pictures at the moment. Your brain starts interacting with the medium and you end up capturing your essence. That’s how the solo record came about. It came from the sentiment of feeling free and limitless. Anything can start a song, whether it’s a drum beat, a bass guitar, a guitar riff, I can have a keyboard part or a vocal line first. You can even start off with a song title. It’s really freeing. That’s why the bulk of the record was so explosive. Aside from those three pieces that were brought from the past, twelve of these songs came out within a three-month timespan. I was just relentlessly outputting.
E&D: Last year, you released a book of poetry and photography titled Separate the Dawn, which was mostly done during the last year and a half of Dillinger. Did this come as a natural, effortless side-project from your musical output or did you find that it has affected your songwriting?
Greg: The book was such a necessity because the final Dillinger tour was such a negative period. It was a bleak time, I was going through a lot of stuff on my end. Being on tour with that depressed mindset didn’t give me any means of coping with life without creativity. You can’t write music on tour. It just doesn’t happen to me. You’re playing every night, the music is just blasting you in the face and your ears are fatigued. I hardly know anyone who comes up with new music on tour. So I brought my camera with me and started taking pictures. I was writing a lot of journal entries, and some of them happened to be poems. There are about 500 pages worth of journal entries from that time period that I’m sitting on. I extracted the things that were poetic from those journal entries. I compiled them all together and matched them up with photos and I realized that I had a book in my hands. It was similar to the solo record. It was a crazy realization. I had absolutely no preconception of doing that. I didn’t set out to put out a photography book or a poetry book. I was just capturing how I felt during those times through an image or through words and I realized that it turned into something. That’s kind of what art is. It’s a polaroid picture of where you are in your life, except that it’s some abstract image. You’re not writing a literal essay about how you’re feeling. You’re often representing something that cannot be written into words. That’s why it’s difficult for me to talk about songs and any type of creativity. I often cannot explain them through literal English. The thing is the thing. It feels like something to me, it’s not about something. It’s a snapshot of me at that time. When I came out of the other side of the Dillinger thing, the process was over. I couldn’t take any more pictures and I didn’t want to write anymore. I realized that was it. It seems the way an album was to me, except that it wasn’t an album. It was unusual and kind of terrifying. Everything builds towards another thing, so I don’t think I would’ve done the solo record if I hadn’t put the book out.
E&D: As with your photography in Separate the Dawn, the entirety of the art for this album is shot in Black and White. What do you think drew you towards this artistic choice?
Greg: I’ve thought about that, actually. I think it’s because I’m a fan of high contrast, and that part of me ends up manifesting itself artistically. There’s high contrast in the sound of the bands that I’ve been in. I work a lot with push-pull dynamics. People close to me would say that I’m extremely emotional. My emotional extremes are really wide. I don’t really motivate for medium-contrast things, I would rather do nothing instead. As a person, my personality, my interests and my emotions are high-contrast, and it ends up manifesting in my work. Your art is a reflection of yourself if you’re honest. I scream at people, bleed and set shit on fire and then I put out a poetry book. It’s absurd but it’s me. Even within monochromatic imagery, I prefer the contrast to be higher than lower. I like dark blacks and bright whites. It’s interesting because my partner Jesse also likes black and white imagery, only it’s for different reasons. He’s actually colour-blind, so he has limitations with working with colour that causes him to work with black and white.
E&D: As an artist known your live stage presence. In your opinion, what are some of the most spectacular live artists you’ve witnessed live?
Greg: That’s tough. I haven’t seen that many concerts that blew me away. I saw Prince a couple of times in small rooms, and that was crazy. I watch a lot of performances on Youtube. I’m a student of performance in the way that I like to watch people’s evolution over time. I’ll go down a wormhole and watch an artist from the time that they were young compared to their more recent performances. The one thing that constantly draws me in is how unconscious someone can get. It really sticks with me when someone can really get fully unconscious as they’re playing, more so than singing the right notes or playing the guitar perfectly. It’s about getting to the point where they’re completely a conduit to whatever is coming through them. It’s what you see when you’re talking about Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire, Prince playing, Michael Jackson dancing. You can see it with young Metallica. They’re fully unconscious. That – to me -is the goal. To enter a flow and become something else. Just look at young Chris Cornell or young Layne Staley. The sheer power coming out of these people is incredible. There are different things I look for in different people. I look at vocalists differently than I’m looking at dancers or actors. You can look at some people at certain points in time and see them reach a level where they’re unconscious. Even in sports; just look at young Michael Jordan. That is just as inspiring as art. He’s not thinking when he’s playing, he’s just some other being. That is my goal when it comes to performing. I have to get into the mindset where I cannot be thinking when I’m onstage. There’s a lot that goes into that. If your voice is a little bit fucked up, you’re screwed. If your microphone stops working, it takes you out of the zone. If you can’t get something out of your head before you step onstage and you’re thinking while you’re performing, it knocks you out of it. It doesn’t take much. I’m always trying to get to the point where I can go onstage and have the best chance of reaching that state. If I can reach that state, come offstage and not remember much about the show, that was probably a success. But it doesn’t happen every time.
E&D: Closing off with a quickfire round, I’d like you to name the first names that come to mind: name one of your favourite albums, movies and books.
Greg: Movie: There Will be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Book: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.
Album-wise, I haven’t had the time to listen to music lately, which is really pissing me off, honestly. I’m really looking forward to getting to the other side of these releases so that I can go back to it. This isn’t my favourite album of all time, but I’ll go with Prince’s Sign of the Times. I’ve been digging Peter Gabriel a lot too. David Bowie’s Low also had a bit impact on me for the record. I know for a fact that there are certain vocal aspects that I copped for the record.