Analogue Music | Joe Pug

Joe Pug

By Matt Conner

The gap is shrinking.

At this stage of his career, Joe Pug says the distance used to be far greater between the random musical idea bestowed upon him by the muse and the final product fans might hear on an album. These days, with a greater knowledge of songcraft and more control over the process, that gap is thinner than ever.

That's good news for Pug's listenership—a fiercely loyal tribe he's cultivated with good ol'-fashioned touring—since that means the music is getting better. At the very least, it's standing truer to what he's wanted to make than ever before, and those songs can be heard in full on Pug's latest album, Sketch from a Promised Departure.

Shortly after the release of a new LP, we sat down with Pug to talk about the new album, how he cultivated his base of fans in the first place, and how he's trying to serve them today.

Analogue: You said you’re touring less frequently these days or in more selective bursts. You and I have connected a few times over the years and you’ve been such a road warrior through most of that.

Joe Pug: Yeah, it is the principal way I make my living for sure. If it were economically viable, maybe I’d do a little bit less of it. But I’ve found some peace with it and not having to do any long runs anymore has made a huge difference.

Analogue: Do you miss any of that aspect?

Joe: The longer runs?

Analogue: Yeah.

Joe: No, because that was even detrimental to the shows. I don’t miss that at all. You can’t put on the same show four weeks into a tour that you were putting on three shows into the tour. It’s just very difficult.

Analogue: What does the shift in touring mean for your own songcraft? If you’re at home more…

Joe: Good question. If I’ve noticed anything, it’s been slightly more positive. I’ve released music over the last five years at a slightly faster clip than I was releasing when I was touring a lot. So I think it’s made me a little more prolific on the writing end.

You know, you do these 10-week tours and you’re out of commission for those 10 weeks. Then you get back and you don’t want to look at a guitar for three more weeks. Then it’s time to go out for another 10 weeks. So it’s been a slight change and maybe it’s been to make me a little bit more prolific.

Analogue: Does that mean there’s more of a cutting room floor on a new album like Sketch of a Promised Departure?

Joe: Well, there is more of a cutting room floor now but that’s a function of me recording the albums on my own. There wouldn’t be too much of one before because I was making… you know, you go into a studio and whatever you get after two or three weeks there, you get what you get and you don’t be upset.

Now doing them at home, I’m still working with a shoestring budget but I have this newfound time because I’m making them at my own place and so I’m able to admit that a lot more stuff doesn’t sound good and I can leave it out because it’s not going to literally bankrupt me.

Analogue: You’re back with a new full-length album after some EPs and other music. Do you ever wrestle with the format of how to release music in this digital era? Are you firmly committed to the LP?

Joe: I struggle less with it than other songwriters because I still have an audience who wants to buy full albums, so it makes more economic sense for me to write and release a full album because there is a cohort of people for it. It’s a small cohort but it’s enough to make it worth it. Of course, I like writing albums as well. The incentive and the desire dovetail with one another and make it an easy decision for me.

"Sometimes ideas will come to me in the liminal space between being awake and lying down to go to bed right before I fall asleep."

Analogue: I love that new title, Sketch of a Promised Departure. Where’s that even from?

Joe: I don’t even know. Sometimes ideas will come to me in the liminal space between being awake and lying down to go to bed right before I fall asleep. Ideas will come to me right then and they tend to be pretty evocative ideas. It’s the same way I thought of the idea for the last record, The Flood in Color. It came to me at a similar time and I got up to write it.

I think it’s evocative because it clearly comes from a pre-intellectual place. It’s instinctual. You don’t know quite what it means. I don’t quite know what it means. Clearly when you hear it, it evokes something that’s interesting and impactful.

Analogue: So what has you the most excited about this new release?

Joe: It feels pretty cool to have produced it myself. I feel the space between having an idea and bringing that idea to sonic fruition—that gap which can be very large sometimes has really shrunk for me. I’m just feeling more and more confident that when I have an idea, not only will I be able to realize it but I’ll be able to do so pretty quickly and on my own and in house. That’s a very powerful feeling to have.

I spent a really long time working on the song “Treasury of Prayers”. It took me a long time writing and recording and then this time last year, I tried to mix it myself. I finally relented and sent it off to the mix engineer that I use and when I got it back, I knew that it was something. Well, as far as I was concerned, I was really pleased with how that one turned out.

Analogue: Is that normal for you to push through even when something isn’t clicking?

Joe: No, that’s actually very uncommon. Usually, I will give up on an idea that takes too long because I think usually when something takes too long, that’s indicative that it wasn’t worth it in the first place. But for some reason on this particular one, I kept seeing something was there and I just kept at it. So it’s unusual compared to how I normally work.

Sketch Of A Promised Departure cover art
Sketch Of A Promised Departure cover art

Analogue: I love the collaborations on this, too. How organic are the choices here?

Joe: As you mentioned before, I’ve spent a lot of time on the road and there are some tough parts about that, but the good part about that is that you end up with a Rolodex of a lot of really, really good musicians that you’ve met throughout the years. When I open up my phone, of course you have to pay people well, but I’m able to make phone calls to some musicians that I consider to be absolutely world-class. That is a real advantage to making a record when you can call musicians like that and they’ll take your call and record for you.

Analogue: By the way, I love this vault idea. I’d love to give you the chance to tell us what it is for those who don’t know and what went into the planning there?

Joe: Yeah, the vault is basically, at its very core, a subscriber product that I have for listeners of a podcast I’ve been doing for about nine years called The Working Songwriter and some other content like a monthly newsletter that’s aggregated.

I really think this is the way you’re going to see a lot of other musicians go. I love Spotify. I use Spotify. My music is up on Spotify. That being said, everyone paying $12 a month for all of the music in the world—that is just not going to hold. [Laughs] At a certain point, I think what’s going to happen is that the price will go up significantly, which it should for people. If it doesn’t, at a certain point, you’re going to start to see people pulling their stuff and going the private route.

Right now, I’m doing both. I have everything up on Spotify and I have some extra stuff available for subscribers. I just think this is the way the music business will be going and I wanted to get there before even really big artists have products like this available because it will be that much harder for me to compete with everyone’s hard-earned bucks at that point.

Analogue: You say that but I know that you’ve got a fiercely loyal audience and that you’ve really built this impressive tribe as they say.

Joe: Yeah, for 15 years, anyone who has bought a record from me or streamed a record at this point, it’s overwhelmingly likely that I’ve shaken hands with them at a show. Whether it’s California or Chicago or DC, for those who patronize my work, I’ve probably shaken hands with 60 or 70 percent of them. You can’t fake that amount of time in. By definition that can’t be manufactured overnight and that leads to a level of support that’s very deep for people.

VISIT: Joe Pug