Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann once wrote, “I am writing with my burnt hand about the nature of fire.” In irony’s cruel thrust, Bachmann would later be rescued from a bedroom fire, but perish at the hands of doctors who were unaware of the substance abuse problems she had developed.
That quote is something Greg Puciato can most assuredly identify with, spending the last 16 years of his life as the fearless vocalist for multidirectional math-metal avatars the Dillinger Escape Plan. On a nightly basis, Puciato redefined intensity and danger in ways that would make street-level knife fights, multi-car pileups and wartime medical tents seem positively quaint by comparison. When Dillinger raised its final payload of hell at the end of 2017, rock music got a whole lot safer—and Puciato got a lot saner.
Last week, Puciato recently issued his self-published book, Separate The Dawn, a collection of poetry and photos created during the recording and touring cycles for DEP, as well as the Black Queen. The black-and-white photos he took on his Sony RX100 mirror the textures he was amplifying with his texts. Looking back at its creation, he describes the mindset of the book as “such an alien headspace.”
“At least it seems that way to me now,” Puciato says. “I look at it as a time capsule where something was coming out of me that took a form. The only difference I see between this book and a record is that almost every time I knew I was making a record, and this book was more like possession. I didn’t sit down and say, ‘I’m a fan of books. I wanna make a book.’ I already had the title. I thought I was going to use it for a solo album, but I wasn’t writing music. That would’ve been forcing it. But the more I looked at the title, the more I thought that it was going to be a book.”
During his tenure in DEP, Puciato seemed fearless and indestructible, routinely climbing up PA stacks and diving off two floors of upper balconies (“I’m deathly afraid of heights, by the way”). He once jumped into a tributary that ran through a venue in the Midwest, completely oblivious that the force of the water’s undertow could potentially have pulled him way below the surface, effectively drowning him.
He was physically looming and cut, bulletproof and cool, with the brooding intensity of Henry Rollins cloned three times. While he was certainly admired for following his ID, Puciato more often than not terrified some fans who were simply too frightened to meet him. Then he started to resent his position, hating himself, his various manifestations of aggression and the loyal audiences for applauding it nightly.
“Look, everything in Dillinger was very real to me,” he explains. “I really was that aggressive, I really was that unapproachable, I really was that pissed off. Even how I looked physically was offense to how I would protect myself to get people the fuck away from me. I hit a point around One Of Us Is The Killer. I really started to feel—and this is going to sound real hippie-dippie—like there was a separation between ego and your soul. That identity was rooted in the strength of feeling like you’re unafraid. It was almost comic: comically unafraid, comically defensive, comically aggressive. I felt if I don’t need anyone, I’m stronger; if I’m completely unassailable, I’m stronger. If I’m a ball of fire, it’s the best thing to be—you’ll destroy everything in your path.”
He pauses for emphasis. “And it’s not real. If you do live like that, you’re not living a real life, and you’re going to kill yourself.”
Puciato effectively built himself a suit of psychic Kevlar, something he thought was necessary for his artistic output. Separate The Dawn is a compelling read because the emotional arcs he describes are not exclusive to a touring musician. “Sometimes I Want To Go Back” frames hometown hatred in a way that maintains never-gonna-stay equilibrium rather than burn-it-all-down nihilism. A lack of intimacy is articulated in the meaningless sex vignette “Skate Ramp.” In a moment of clairvoyant psychosis, Puciato wrote the piece “Mangle” an hour before DEP’s coach bus was hit by a truck driver during their last tour in Poland. (“It shook me for three fucking days. Not only the actual accident, but how I wrote it before it happened.”)
The title refers to going through this ugly period and getting through the good on the other side, whether it’s integration or acceptance. Puciato says the time was illuminating for him, but it took its toll, with lots of references to panic attacks and hypochondria. Longtime friends were having WTF moments seeing him run out of restaurants and waiting outside before being able to return to a meal.
“The panic was coming because I was breaking the shell down, and without the shell, I was raw and vulnerable. There were all these emotions I wasn’t accustomed to, because I was hiding them under this very aggressive exterior. You feel the strength as weakness because you’re not running, you’re hiding.
“I had to relearn a motive for everything,” he continues. “I didn’t want to work out anymore. Why did I want to work out? That was the representation of me building this shell to somehow make me impervious to damage. That’s when I realized that every single fucking thing I’ve ever done came from a place of negativity, from feeling the need to protect myself or tell people to get the fuck away from me. That shatters your entire reality. I had to to find a new motive for creating. I had to find a new motive for working out. I had to engage with my love of creating. I had to consider how I loved how healthy working out made me feel. I don’t lift that much, but now I run more. Everything shifted.”
He watched Joe Rogan’s interview with boxing legend Mike Tyson and was completely floored when the champ told Rogan he didn’t watch boxing anymore. “He said, ‘I can’t watch boxing anymore. I know what my motivation was for boxing, and I don’t like that guy. I didn’t want to just beat my opponents; I wanted to kill them.’ I understood everything he was saying: I didn’t want to be mediocre; I wanted to blind people.”
Puciato says Dillinger had to end because this consuming mindset was taking over every aspect of his life, away from stages, tour buses and recording studios. “It had to die for me to get through this,” he explains. “What was causing me all the problems was that my motives for everything had been different than what I originally thought. When I was young, I would’ve idolized someone like a young Mike Tyson: He was 100 percent all in, a lethal killing machine, and I related to it.”
His transformation out of the self-programmed mindset of half animal/half machine has not gone unnoticed. When the Black Queen—his current outfit with multi-instrumentalists Josh Eustis and Steven Alexander—appeared at the Cold Waves festival last September, the change was immediately visible. Puciato went to sing into the mic, and it didn’t work. He sang another line, still nothing. He moved over toward one of the other mics downright gracefully, like it was a rehearsed action.
But it most certainly wasn’t. If it were five years ago, he may have taken the mic stand and flung it into a speaker cabinet like a knife thrower. He could’ve taken a swing at one of his bandmates as a haphazard method to vent the rage. The rest of the set went without incident, the trio’s electronic plateaus remaining as captivating and immersive as DEP’s multipistoned fear engine. After the set at a hotel bar, Puciato was positively beaming, like he faced down a psychic adversary as opposed to a literal one he could destroy with his bare hands.
“I am proud of the actual work that DEP did,” he says, acknowledging his past in the best way possible. “I am grateful and proud of the journey. I feel like I have integrated that person and that stage in my life. I can celebrate that as part of the greater victory of not killing myself or being that person forever. Just acknowledge that person is there and acknowledge it in a healthy way. As opposed to ‘Look at how powerful I am: I just burned that whole fucking landscape down!’
“The romanticization of negativity as the only place art can come from is not true,” he resigns. “Like people who wish their favorite artist from long ago would get back on the sauce so he can make that record you liked 20 years ago. The only virtue is being honest about where you are in your journey. I’d rather get to the point where I’d write children’s books and mean it than write viciously pissed-off records because I feel like I have to.”
The Black Queen are hitting the road this month in support of 2018’s Infinite Games. Tickets are on sale now here.
02/23 – Las Vegas, NV @ Db172
02/24 – Phoenix, AZ @ The Rebel Lounge
02/26 – Austin, TX @ Barracuda
02/27 – Dallas, TX @ Curtain Club
03/01 – Atlanta, GA @ The Masquerade (Hell)
03/02 – Ybor City, FL @ Crowbar
03/03 – Orlando, FL @ The Abbey
03/05 – Charlotte, NC @ Amos Southend
03/06 – Washington, DC @ Union Stage
03/08 – Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
03/09 – Philadelphia, PA @ Underground Arts
03/11 – Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair
03/12 – Montreal, QC @ Le Ministere
03/13 – Toronto, ON @ Velvet Underground
03/15 – Detroit, MI @ The Shelter
03/16 – Chicago, IL @ Subterranean
03/17 – Minneapolis, MN @ Studio B – Skyway Theatre
03/19 – Denver, CO @ Marquis Theatre
03/20 – Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
03/22 – Seattle, WA @ Chop Suey
03/23 – Portland, OR @ Dante’s
03/25 – San Francisco, CA @ Slim’s
03/26 – Sacramento, CA @ Holy Diver
03/28 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Regent