Greg Puciato and Rou Reynolds on balancing self-care with perfectionism—interview
The arrival of the Dillinger Escape Plan on the metal scene in the late ’90s brought a welcome change to the status quo. Unpredictable time signatures and vibrant influences from neighboring genres gave the New Jersey exports an edge to push the genre out of its restrictive box. Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, the outfit that later became Enter Shikari were gearing up to sow the seeds of their own nonconforming electronic chaos in the quiet town of St. Albans, 20 miles to the north of London.
While exploring the colorful spectrum of his local hardcore scene, Shikari mastermind Rou Reynolds made the pilgrimage to see mathcore outfit Sikth on tour in 2002 and discovered the fantastical metalcore elements of their headline act — none other than Dillinger, on their first full U.K. tour. Appreciating their refreshing approach to boundary-free metal and infectious stage energy led by vocalist Greg Puciato, Shikari’s early sound clearly takes its carefree and limitless inspiration from that fateful show that led Reynolds’ group toward the success of their heavy debut, Take To The Skies, five years later. They’d go on to share the Warped Tour bill with Dillinger in 2010.
“Dillinger quickly became a bastion of interesting, forward-thinking music for us,” Reynolds says, connecting for the first time 20 years later with the man who opened his eyes like never before. “I remember being utterly blown away by Dillinger — [they] had that same sort of technicality like Sikth, but it seemed to come from more of a hardcore-punk mindset, which I thought was really compelling as I was discovering our local hardcore scene.”
ROU REYNOLDS: Who were your first influences? What were the bands that got you into the broad alternative world?
GREG PUCIATO: I grew up in a really fortunate time for rock music. The time period we grew up in was so fertile for what we were doing that I can’t even process that it’ll never happen again to that degree. I sound like an old person, but from 1987 to 1994, there was so much new stuff happening all at once. Some of the most pivotal rock albums of all time came out within two months of each other: Metallica’s Black Album, Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Nirvana’s Nevermind. On top of that, the rap scene and the electronic scene hadn’t happened yet.
People these days can’t imagine a point in time that Rage Against The Machine hadn’t happened yet. It sounds like I’m 100 years old, but being a kid parked in front of the radio and MTV hearing all that in real time was so exciting. I was a sponge. There were so many bands back then that broke all kinds of stylistic boundaries.
During that time period where MTV and magazines were still so heavily influential, that’s all you had, so you’re kids getting a direct feed of all these massive seismic shifts happening in front of you. Imagine you’re watching MTV, and there’s a Mötley Crüe video, then a Nirvana video. Then suddenly, there’s a Dr. Dre or Snoop Dogg video! That time period changed me more than any one band. [As a band], we talk about it so much. Will anything ever again be as sick as we thought that was?
The one thing me and the other guys from Dillinger have in common was our childhood through that period. Time is different now than it was back then because when you were a kid, three years was an eternity, but Nirvana came into the public eye in 1991, and Kurt Cobain was dead by 1994. Three years is nothing now — that’s one tour cycle for our bands. In that time, an entire wave of culture came and went!
REYNOLDS: We [in Enter Shikari] always talk about how spoiled we felt, too. I wonder if kids now will be saying the same thing when they’re our age about their time or whether these times we look back on were truly special, the blossoming of art and its real breadth and variety.
“Limitation and boundaries are taught — you don’t come out of the womb thinking that you have to pick a group to belong to”
PUCIATO: The younger generation must be able to take in more information than we could. Their thing is more technology than music. Their generation is probably the closest to mine in the early ’90s because they really do not give a fuck about anything. They don’t see race, color or genre. I don’t know whether it’s because the internet has made everything happen so fast and there’s no time for them to develop separate scenes; they just come into the world like, “Bam, we’re into everything now.” Everybody looks like they fell out of a vintage clothing shop, and nobody looks a certain way.
Hopefully that will continue. Limitation and boundaries are taught — you don’t come out of the womb thinking that you have to dress a certain way or pick a group to belong to. I think they’re being bombarded with information at hyperspeed, so there’s nothing developing that they can’t access.
It’s crazy seeing all these dinosaurs headlining festivals these days, though. We didn’t have bands from our parents’ era headlining Lollapalooza when I was a kid. If I went to a festival at 13 years old and Fleetwood Mac was headlining, no matter how sick they are, I didn’t need that because there were enough sick things going on in my time that you didn’t need some reunion to headline a festival. Younger people listen to older music now, which we didn’t really do as much. The cool thing about the internet is they can say, “Why do people think Jimi Hendrix was sick?” Then they go listen to it, and suddenly middle school kids are listening to Hendrix.
Read more: Jacoby Shaddix: “If we’ve ever made a record that could be the final statement, this is it”
REYNOLDS: Nostalgia’s become fascinating. Did that sense of variety of culture and music that you were absorbing growing up play a part in not just Dillinger, but your whole life’s work?
PUCIATO: It had to! I really don’t see genre, and I don’t care enough to have a favorite genre. I don’t understand picking up a guitar or writing music with a purpose to write a certain type. Are you being commissioned by the genre people? Is the metal guy telling you to make a metal song? Is that really what comes out of you every time you play? That’s hard for me to believe unless you’re genuinely really amped on that one thing.
To me, I don’t see the person that’s making the music. If you’re an artist, what comes out of you is your genre; it’s an expression. Maybe you could get bigger faster if you force yourself into one genre, but in the long term, unless you’re really interested in being pegged as synonymous with one thing and you’ll be the anchor that everybody turns to — like Slayer are for metal — that’s never been my thing. And for better or for worse, it was never Dillinger’s either. We were lucky, and it’s not lost on me that I’m very lucky to put out stuff that sounds completely different from the last, and people are accepting of that, and we’ve gotten away with it.
REYNOLDS: I always say the same about Enter Shikari — the amount of gratitude I feel for the long leash that we have been given. People allow us to go sniffing into areas of the musical spectrum that so many other bands wouldn’t be allowed.
PUCIATO: The audience is capable and intelligent. That’s what annoys me. Because for whatever reason, this hyper-genrefication doesn’t happen in other mediums. In movies, people were totally fine with Robin Williams doing Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting. Nobody told him to get back into the comedian box.
REYNOLDS: It makes me think of Warped Tour. Our experience of that tour was so difficult because so much of the bill was so similar to each other. In 2010, it was Dillinger and a soul-funk-punk outfit called Bad Rabbits — those two bands kept us sane because, as artists, you want inspiration from your peers as much as acceptance and validation. My memories of Warped Tour were an emotional roller coaster, but you guys were the only two bands we tried to watch whenever we could.
I was reading interviews you’ve done over the years, and one great phrase stuck out for me because I’ve had a really difficult time over the pandemic. I’ve been sitting there scrolling through social media looking at all my friends in bands being so prolific over the past two years, writing so much, and I sort of dried up. You once described yourself as a “self-abusive perfectionist.” How is the process of songwriting for you, and how do you balance perfectionism with your own sanity?
PUCIATO: I think it’s a learned thing. When it’s time and you know something’s right, it’s a feeling. I’m not a person that writes a lot, but there are parts of the writing process that are really fast for me. I don’t second-guess things. I don’t write multiple choruses or melodies to pick the best one. Whatever comes out of me is it, and I don’t ever really change it. I think of it as running water over a rock until you get all the rough edges off, or hammering a sculpture, or whatever stupid analogy you could use.
One of the things they tell you in school when writing an essay is to write it over and over until you boil it down to the most economical, refined point. I spend time on textural things like tone and testing microphones or getting better takes. I never demoed in Dillinger, and there are no alternate versions of songs because I never did that.
The perfectionist side for me is when I have an idea in my head, I will not allow anything else to happen; I have to get the thing I’m imagining, and it doesn’t matter what we need to do to get there. It’s going to happen. It’s obsession vision execution because you only get one time to do your thing, so I’m the most precious about that than anything because you only get one album every now and then. Get out the thing you’re trying to say, and if you have to take longer, spend more money, get back in the studio or delete things you thought were good, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.
Read more: 20 greatest punk-rock guitarists of all time
REYNOLDS: I did a lot of pop writing in 2019, exploring that world out of intrigue rather than just pushing myself. It’s the only time I felt like I was writing fast, but the experience is having four hours in a room with people you’ve never met before, and you’re expected to write a pop banger. As an introvert, I found that so tough. How fast is writing for you, taking an idea through to completion?
PUCIATO: That sounds awful, being put on the spot like that. I never really sit down with the intention of writing. I just keep my schedule open and have instruments all over the place. When I was in Dillinger, I never really told myself I had to write. It came to me when it came to me. It feels to me like the way you feel before you sneeze: There’s a buildup, and I know what that feeling is now, and it’s something trying to work its way out of me.
Sometimes it might just be one thing, one riff or one line of vocals or one beat, but the important part is capturing that purity, that kernel. If the kernel is pure, you can add onto it later and build from it, but it has to come from a pure source. If I’m really depressed, angry or happy, I try to write because there’s an intensity of emotion there.
The times that are fast are like 20 minutes. The track “One Of Us Is The Killer” took 20 minutes, front to back. It’s almost like a weird possession because it comes out so fast. That doesn’t happen often — maybe once or twice a record — but it still takes four to five days in the studio to create them the way they already sound in my head. When I just scat an idea into my voice memos, I hear the finished thing and how the drums will sound and what kind of guitar sound to use, but other people hear me sounding fucking ridiculous, scatting into a voice recorder. All you’re doing beyond that is trying to make it sound to other people the way it already sounds to you internally.
REYNOLDS: I wanted to ask you about advice for this accelerating nature of how polluting this economy of self-interest has become and how diluting it can be to art. It seems large swathes of the alternative world have taken quite bad influences from mainstream culture and fervent capitalistic, narcissistic culture. From your experience and beliefs of art, what would you say to young bands who are perhaps really taken by the idea that being in a band is about fame, money and getting bigger, becoming utterly obsessed with getting bigger by any means necessary and raising themselves above their audience?
“There’s a culture that you have to be the loudest person in the room. But wanting to be heard is pointless if you have nothing to say”
PUCIATO: You nailed it. There’s a narcissistic culture that really bothers me about what social media and reality TV have done to the idea of being “known” not for anything in particular, but just being “known.” Wanting to be heard is pointless if you have nothing to say — it’s a cart before the horse to be obsessed with follower numbers. There’s a culture that you have to be the loudest person in the room and that’s the only way to get attention, but if you have something to say that’s pure and interesting and unique, that’s enough.
I don’t know how they could tap out of that mindset because it’s easy for me to say when I’m not 21 years old and haven’t spent my life bombarded with that as a metric for my success, but there has to be some pushback happening. I think we’ve reached the peak of it, and it’ll start to swing the other way — I can’t imagine it could get any worse or extreme than post-Kardashian and TikTok obsessions.
Really don’t know what I’d tell anyone because how do you tell someone about a chemical shift that’s trained their dopamine sensors to need the hit from posting something every day and getting followers? It’s all an illusion — you’re not getting bigger or more valuable as an artist. It’s a metric you’re chasing that serves the app company, not you. I see it all the time living in Los Angeles.
People ask what you do, and I just tell them I sell tacos so they don’t care anymore. Someone tells me, “I write music. I have 800,000 Instagram followers,” and I look them up on Spotify, and they have eight monthly listeners. How the fuck do you have those numbers? Oh right, because it doesn’t fucking matter. You’re chasing something that doesn’t translate into the actual thing you’re making. It makes me want to go into the desert like Obi-Wan Kenobi and just not give a fuck anymore, not play shows anymore. I’ll just put out music when I feel like it and never be heard from again. I just don’t care about any of that culture.
REYNOLDS: As an introvert, I always find it interesting that singers such as yourself who exert so much confidence onstage also exude confidence in your musical agility. You’ve got your solo stuff, the Black Queen and everything is very broad. Are you a confident person? Do you find it easy delving into new areas that you perhaps didn’t have experience in musically?
PUCIATO: Yeah, what’s there to worry about? If some fan’s not gonna like it, that’s their problem, not mine. Once you start thinking about things from that mindset, you don’t care anymore whether somebody thinks, “This is audacious. This is ridiculous.” There have definitely been moments where I’ve been fucking nervous that something was going too far. When we released the first Black Queen song, “The End Where We Start,” I was scared shitless the night before because it was so far out of the box. Even though Dillinger had done so many different styles, there’s nothing that had been that sensitive, vulnerable or romantic. I wasn’t worried if it was good because I knew it was good; I was worried if people were going to accept it from me. Once they did, it was a relief, and then I could do anything.
More recently, putting out music under my actual birth name was really weird — not being able to hide behind a moniker of any kind. Putting out music under Greg Puciato was really uncomfortable for me because that’s the name the electric bill comes to, merging the real person and making a product out of my name. As soon as I did it, it was so freeing that I couldn’t believe I was scared of it. It also made the band things feel less restrictive now because I love writing and collaborating with other people. That shit is still as cool to me as it was when I was 13 years old.
This interview appeared in issue 404 (The Modern Icons Issue), available here.