Joe Pug got his start by giving away music. If you liked what you heard, all you had to do was email the Chicago singer-songwriter through his website, and he'd send you a physical copy of his five-song sampler. In fact, Pug, who is set to release his second album The Great Despiser in April, still offers that sampler via his website.
On Wednesday night, Pug returned to SXSW to play his new tunes at the Thirty Tigers showcase, inside the holy confines of St. David's Historic Sanctuary. "You've heard it here first, except for five really drunk people at a bar in San Antonio three nights ago," Pug joked. Assisted by stand-up bassist Matt Schuessler and guitarist Greg Tuohey, he performed some new tracks including the open-road ballad "Hymn 76" and "Silver Harps and Violins," which starts off as a quiet acoustic number and picks up with harmonica and electric guitar pulses along the way.
"At first, I was very uncomfortable with extraneous instrumentation," Pug told Rolling Stone before the set. His first EPs had been acoustic before he plugged in for his 2010 debut, The Messenger. "As a lyricist, I felt like it cluttered the song's message. Since then I've had the chance to play with musicians who not only have a masterly grasp of their instrument, they also have no greater goal than bringing the song itself to life. The better the musicians, the less needs to be addressed in the lyrics."
Case in point: the album's title track, which features Hold Steady's Craig Finn. "I had bumped into Craig a couple of times on the road," Pug says of the collaboration. "When we finished recording the song, it was clear that it owed a huge debt to The Hold Steady. Instead of running away from that, we embraced it and got a hold of him. He was gracious enough to lend his voice." Pug's trademark wordplay stood out on "Hymn 101," where he sounds like a character ripped from the pages of a Jack Kerouac novel: "I've come to meet the sheriff and his posse/To offer him the broadside of my jaw/I've come here to get broke, then maybe bum a smoke/Oh, we'll go drinking two towns over after all."
Ask Pug who his influences are, and you won't get a list of aging rockers. "When I wrote my first album, Walt Whitman was the biggest influence. 'Hymn 35' 'is the palest imitation of 'Leaves of Grass' in recorded history!" says Pug. "But part of being young is wearing your influences on your sleeve, and I wouldn't change a thing about it if I could. The biggest influence on the latest album is probably Raymond Carver. The remarkable thing about his writing is when you return to a piece of his that you read long ago and realize just how much of your own detail was placed in the gaps."
Like Carver, Pug paints a conflicted portrait of America. "When every revolution is sponsored by the state/There's no bravery in bayonets and tearing down the gates," he cries out during "I Do My Father's Drugs," a fan favorite. "If you see me with a rifle, don't ask me what it's for/I fight my father's war."
Some of Pug's best tracks are spiritual in name - "Hymn 101," "Hymn 35," "Hymn 76" – but he says he isn't preaching to a choir. "I come from a staggeringly irreligious background," Pug admits. "Never went to church as a kid, never read the bible. So I don't know where the idea came from to categorize the first one like that. But all the subsequent hymns have come from a similar place, so they deserve the same name."
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