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Q&A with Will Pugh of Cartel

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The pop formula has been around for decades, but Atlanta's Cartel are setting out to perfect the sound and, from the looks of recent record sales, they might be on their way to doing so. If you haven't heard of Cartel, just turn on your television. The youngsters from Atlanta burst onto the national scene with the release of their major label debut, Chroma, and can now be found in between your favorite episodes of "Punk'd" and "Pimp my Ride" on MTV.

Singer/guitarist/pianist and programmer, Will Pugh spent some time from the road to talk about the role the Internet plays for today's bands, growing up in a rap town and the pressures of being on a major label. You can catch Pugh and the rest of the band on this year's Warped Tour at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 15 and Nissan Pavilion on Aug. 10.

Metromix: The Internet has played such a huge role in establishing you as a band. What is your view on that situation ... file sharing, kids burning and whatnot?

Will Pugh: It comes from two different areas. As an artist, I feel it does jeopardize record sales to a certain point. Overall, I think, the music has kind of gotten lazy. Between the labels and just how we sell records now, the focus has kind of gotten away from the album and now it's about having that hit single or three singles. And, nowadays, you might not want to hear anything but those three songs. So, I know there's a lot of times I go to iTunes and preview a couple of songs that are pretty good and then I'll preview the rest of the album and realize it's not worth it. You just get those three songs.

So, I think it takes away sales, but at the same time it increases the artists' responsibilities to put out a quality record. It's definitely a lot harder to get somebody out to buy a record than it was a few years ago. I don't necessarily see it as a bad thing. I see it as a very good thing -- for smaller bands, especially. It allows you to get your music out there without having to really try to search it out.

Metromix: To an outside observer, Atlanta's known as a rap town. How tough an obstacle, if at all, was that to overcome?

WP: I think the harder part is just with the way Atlanta has grown as a city in the last 25 years. It's changed the way labels have viewed the music scene here. If we're just going to talk frankly, Atlanta's a very urban place. And, because of that, the suburban landscape outside of Atlanta is where all the kids who listen to pop-punk, emo, punk -- basically anything but rap -- live. Inside the actual city, where all the major labels are going on, the labels that thrive are strictly rap-oriented.

There's never been a problem when it came to the major bands. If Smashing Pumpkins came to town, everyone would travel inside the city to see them. But for smaller bands and local bands, it's tough to draw your fanbase inside the city. No one's going to give a s--t about your band if you're playing some little piece of s--t club they've never heard of. So if you're playing some little skate park outside of Gwinnett [Ga.] and drawing 600 kids, no one's going to care. And that's the really difficult thing. We've all been in bands since we were 16, playing shows inside the city, and having a really hard time getting kids out.

So ... with a brief history of the Atlanta music scene of the last 10 years [laughs]. Any band that's gotten 100 kids out to see them in the city has worked their ass off to do so. We've got a show coming up in a week and we're expecting 800 kids -- which is amazing for us. I think when you're able to do that, in a city like Atlanta, the labels and music industry can't help but take notice. And it just kind of went from there. I think the kids just saw the loyalty. We worked our ass off to get Atlanta behind us. And EPIC has seen how important Atlanta is to our success and they're having a film crew come out. And audio crew. The whole deal. And it's going to be a DVD coming out around Christmas. Just this Atlanta show. Kind of a get to know the band kind of thing.

Metromix: When your EP came out on Militia in 2004, you hit the ground touring and really haven't looked back since. How exhausting has that been?

WP: I think we're one of the lucky bands that has kind of taken off exponentially from where we were two years ago. We had a plan as far as what we wanted to happen and where we wanted to be. And, to some degree, it hasn't happened exactly, but we've been lucky enough to start with 5-to-10 kids at shows. And the next time we came through it was 30-to-40. And then 100. And, now, just on this last tour we saw 400-to-500 kids at every show. We've been really, really, really lucky. Everything's worked out so far.

To some degree, touring's the worst part of my life. To others, it's the best part. It's totally a double-edged sword. I think every band has that relationship with their touring life. They miss home and they're totally uprooted and their life is so unstable. But at the same time, this is what we signed up for. This is what we always wanted to do and I think every good thing and every dream people manage to realize is going to have its downside.

Metromix: Now you've got the relationship with EPIC -- a major label -- with that type of support behind you, is there pressure to be at a certain point in one year? Five years?

WP: I think it's more of a security knowing we can get there. I wouldn't call it pressure. As a live band, I guess that's how we've been able to gauge our capacity to play under pressure. In terms of record sales, to some degree we have a lot to do with that and to another degree we don't have anything to do with that.

As much as Militia has garnered our band up until now, they have ... I truthfully think they dropped the ball with Chroma, at the beginning. There was 3,000 record sales its first week and it was Militia's largest release. Could it have been better? Obviously, yes. Things can always be better. Could it have been worse? I don't really think so. I think we'd have done 3,000 just with the hype around it. After that initial release and EPIC optioned it, Militia saw they were going to get bought off and they started dropping the ball on promotion. They're an indie. They don't have the money to spend like a major does. From a business perspective, it made complete sense. From a musical standpoint, I feel we should be at 75,000 records right now. Not pushing 40,000 like we are. I digress [laughs].

Of course they want us to sell a million records, but every label wants that for every band. Right now they believe in us and believe that can happen. I don't think the pressure is really there. It's more of a security and a blanket that they offer.

Metromix: For the people reading this who may not know who Cartel is and might not see the draw in standing outside at the Warped Tour, give them one good reason to come check out the show.

WP: Within 30 minutes, you're going to get more 'bang for your buck' ... pardon the cliché ... you're going to get more out of our set than you will from anywhere else. I think Underoath is going to have one of the craziest sets at Warped Tour, but on the pop side of things, I think we bring it pretty hard live.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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