CARTEL have navigated their way past army recruiters, catalog listings alongside teen idols and a dis from the very magazine you are now holding. What could possibly hold them back?

INTERVIEW: Scott Heisel

Just because your band can sell out a tour doesn’t mean you can leave your room in shambles.
This is the first thing we find out from Cartel frontman Will Pugh, after the buzzworthy pop-rock band returned home from their recent sold-out headlining tour. “I’m currently cleaning up my room.” Pugh admits. “I’m picking up the havoc from being on tour.”

He better make his room extra tidy, because he probably won’t have a chance to in the near future. After signing to Epic Records (who reissued their debut LP, Chroma) and scoring a headlining slot on the Ernie Ball Stage at this year’s Warped Tour all summer long, it shouldn’t be long before Cartel–Pugh, guitarists Joseph Peppers and Nic Hudson, and drummer Kevin Sanders–completely blow up. And to those wondering where bassist Ryan Roberts is in the accompanying photos, he recently parted ways with the group to pursue other interests, but don’t think that will stop the band’s momentum. (Jeff Lett, a friend of the band, will be filling in this summer on Warped.)

How did Cartel form?

Well, we’ve all been friends from high school; Nic and Kevin have actually known each other since third grade. We all started picking up guitars and playing in bands in 7th or 8th grades. I was in private school at the time, so I didn’t come to the public school where they were until my freshman year in high school, which was their sophomore year. I had a band that didn’t include them; they had their own hardcore band, and then Joseph was in another pop-punk band. Then one of their friends joined my band-it was this whole incestuous thing-and Joseph, Kevin and I were in Last Chance, which became Summer’s Disregard, and Nic and Ryan were all, at one point in time, in that. So that would be the first time we were all in a band together. Then Nic went off to college, Ryan went to cut hair, and we reformed as Cartel in August 2003.

Originally, you had a different guitarist, Andy Lee, who left in 2004. What happened?

The four of us–Ryan, Kevin, Joseph and myself–were growing up friends for so long that we’ve become this tight-knit group. All of our communications and relationships were based on six or seven years of friendship. And when you have a relationship that’s been around for that long, having someone else come in the group-who we barely know and try to fit in the same dynamic-is a little weird. With someone like Andy, or anyone who hasn’t been friends with us for six or seven years, it’s gonna lead to peoples’ feelings getting hurt. Things just kind of collapsed with our communication and our relationship became not really friendship, more of just being in a band. From there, it just kind of became irreparable.

Was it a mutual decision for him to leave the band?

No. [Laughs.] I mean, he was kicked out, that’s the bad term for it. But it was something I think he knew wasn’t gonna work. It wasn’t mutual, but I think it would’ve eventually been anyway.
As far as solidifying Nic as a member, the second day after we knew Andy was gonna be gone, we immediately started covering our asses, and the only person we’d ever been in a band with that plays guitar who would fit perfectly was Nic. So, we called him and said, “Dude, what are you doing?” And he says, “I’m just chillin’.” And we go, “No, dude, what are you doing with your life? Do you wanna be in a band?” [Laughs.] He was actually gonna go join the Army a couple months later because he was done with being in school. So we kinda saved his ass from Iraq. [Laughs.]

Let’s talk about your signing to the Militia Group. The fairytale behind it is that the label had never even heard of you, then a punk-gossip website posted a rumor that you signed to the label, and they stumbled upon it, checked you out and signed you. How much of that is actually true?

Rory [Feldon] from the Militia Group has come to the Atlantis Music Conference in Atlanta for the last three years. The first time he came to see Copeland play, but he needed a place to stay. Andy was good friends with Aaron [Marsh] from Copeland, and didn’t live too far outside of the city, so Rory stayed with Andy. They kinda got to know each other, and Andy gave him a couple demos of a band he had been in prior to Cartel, so then it was in Rory’s head: “Andy has a band.”

When Cartel finally started, the only legitimate “in” we had was with Rory. So we sent our demos in, and he said, “I wanna hear a full version,” so we recorded the original five-song EP that didn’t have “The City Never Sleeps” or “Fiend” on it, and we sent that in. He said, “Oh, it’s pretty good.” He listened to it, but he didn’t really listen to it. But I guess Aaron was pressing him about it. I don’t know how it got posted on the internet that we were signing to Militia Group; the first I knew of it was when I read it myself on there one day, and I said, “Wha? What happened?” So after that, Rory sat down and really listened to it, then called Andy and said he wanted to see us live, so he flew out and saw us at Atlantis. It was done after that. How much of that one news post got his attention, I’ll never know, because Rory is a mysterious dude. [Laughs.]

You recorded Chroma at Treesound, which was made famous by Outkast. Did you have any run-ins with the duo?

André 3000 was in there all the damn time doing something. I wish we had some sort of sit-down with him, but it didn’t happen. The coolest thing for me took five seconds and it changed my life. I was walking out the front door on the phone with our manager, and I walked out, he was walking up with a keyboard in one hand and an ADAT [recorder] in the other, so I just held the door open for him–it’s just a Southern instinct. So in my head, I’m going, “Oh, it’s André 3000!” And he just goes [in perfect vocal imitation], “Aw, thanks, man.” And I was just like, “Wow! He really does sound like that. That is the coolest voice ever!” [Laughs.]

Your band have been forced grow up in public via the internet, from fans who gripe about your songs changing from their demo versions to people accusing you of studio tricks to your voice. Do ever want to just say, “Stop!” and throw away your computer?

No. I think it’s cool. As much as sometimes what people will say, you’ll be like, “That ain’t right.”

Like you look like Aaron Carter.

Yeah. I mean, I’ll take it; it could be worse. But that dude… Jesus Christ. He sang a song about “I want candy” and was serious about it. And forever, in the CD catalogs of any CD stores, as long as they exist, Cartel will be right next to Aaron Carter, alphabetically. Oh, God… Every time I go by that, it’s a haunting reminder. It’s why I stopped dying my hair. [Laughs.]

Panic! At The Disco opened for you on their very first tour. Why have they blown up, and not Cartel?

Truthfully, seeing that band blow up from kids who barely knew how to put their stuff onstage to having a gold record in less than a year kind of feels like spit in the face. Not from them, obviously; they really, truthfully, had nothing to do with it. So it’s like, “Man, I busted my ass and slept in parking lots for two years and they go on a tour with us and then open for Fall Out Boy.” Looking at that happen to a band who, for all intents and purposes, don’t “deserve it” as much as they didn’t put their hours in…

I saw Ryan [Ross]’ quote in their AP cover story that said bands only say you have to pay your dues because they had to pay ’em, and I was like, “C’mon, dude.” Every band–New Found Glory toured their ass off; Blink-182 were around for 10 years before they got really, really big. For us, personally, when something like that happens, or if it happens, I know we’ll really be able to appreciate it. I’m not saying they don’t; I’m sure they do. They better be kissing the ground their fans walk on.

What are your aspirations for this band?

You ask any of us, and we’ll tell you we want it to be as big as possible. If we could pull a U2 or a Rolling Stones, we’d surely take it. We’re not scared of being a band of that magnitude. But we know that’s not going to happen anytime soon. We’ll take as much as people are willing to give us, or want to give us. Whether it’s 10 million records and being in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, or it’s four gold records and you have a cult fanbase; either one. Of course, that’s still putting the least amount of expectation at four gold records. [Laughs.] I think the way we believe in our music and the way we critique our music, anything less than that is going to be a slight disappointment. But we’re not looking to put out records that are only gonna sell 50,000 copies; we think they’re gonna sell a lot. I think any band with real aspirations of being a big band think that way, whether they admit it or not.

Do you think there’s a chance of any band in your scene becoming as ubiquitous as U2? With U2, you don’t see Bono after the show, hanging out at the merch table. But this scene has been built on interaction with fans, and there’s not that rockstar/ fan level. You play on the floor; you shake everyone’s hand; you stay at someone’s house afterwards. Do you think it’s possible to become that big and still have that personal connection with your fans?

[Long pause.] I don’t think it’s been done yet, but Fall Out Boy sure are proving that you can sell a lot of records and get pretty big [while still keeping that connection]. If you look at the way that band communicates with their fans, I think they’ve gotten there largely because their fans feel some sort of loyalty to them beyond “They’re good.” It’s because “I met them at this show and they were really nice to me that day, so I’m gonna buy their record and their T-shirt.” I mean, U2 came out of small clubs in Ireland, so they probably had some of that back then. But that’s 20 years removed, so it’s hard to really tell. But I think it’s possible.

Bands realize there are more bands and music is way much more of an industry and popular mode of entertainment than it was way back then, that it takes a lot more work from a band to get where they are. And I think most of that work lies in creating a community and a niche for your fans. And the only way to do that is to get down and talk to the kids. Not even to say anything to them–they read your interviews, they know what you’re about–they just want to know you heard what they had to say.

Last year, Chroma got panned by this very magazine in its reviews section. What does that do to a band?

I think it’s somehow a good thing. I think any band who gets a bad review in AP somehow ends up doing something decent. AP is the Rolling Stone of the scene, so if you get a 2, you’re kind of like [whistles]. “How are we going to sell records with that?” But I think it lets the band have more to prove. Because when you see other bands who we totally disagree with getting better scores, you go, “And we got a 2?”

Does this interview feel like vindication to you?

I think it’s more like a… Okay, vindication. We’ll go with that. [Laughs.] alt

For the rest of the story, pick up AP 217 below…