Interview: Joe Pug reimagines his Nation of Heat

Joe Pug

From his first ever tour of Australia, Joe Pug developed an instant affinity with audiences here. It’s been several years since we’ve had the chance to see him in person, but he has just released a vividly orchestrated reimagining of Nation of Heat, the recording that first put him on the map with songs like Hymn #101. The inspired poetry and seering intensity of his performances helped that recording sell 20,000 copies early on as well as attracting the attention and support of Steve Earle, who gave Pug his first US support tour. As an independent artist he has continued to put out astonishing albums and built a strong community of inspirational friends and fellow artists via his Working Songwriter podcast.

Les Thomas caught up with Joe to discuss his approach to Nation of Heat | Revisited and the unique path he has taken in applying his creativity to adapt, survive and stay inspired in challenging times.

Interview transcript

Welcome, listeners. My name is Les Thomas from Unpaved. And today I have the pleasure of interviewing somebody who’s very well loved on Australian shores, somebody who’s visited many times over many tours, the one and only Joe Pug, who has just put out a reimagined version of Nation of Heat, and with full instrumentation. It’s a great listen. And it’s a pleasure to join Joe today. Welcome, Joe.

Thanks for having me on.

My great pleasure. And yeah, I’ve really been enjoying hearing the treatments to each of these songs. Obviously, they made a really huge impression on people upon the original release. Maybe we can talk a little bit more about that later, But can you give us a sense of how you wanted to approach the arrangements and the kind of musical setting for these original songs?

Yeah, so the original Nation of Heat was an album that I recorded completely DIY. This would have been 15 years ago. So that was still kind of in the era where you needed a recording studio to get something done. Obviously, a lot of things have changed in the last 15 years. And you can do a lot with a MacBook and about $1,500 worth of audio equipment. But that wasn’t the case 15 years ago, so I was sneaking into the studios to get this done. After hours, it was very DIY. And the original album was completely solo acoustic and almost in some ways, I mean, to be blunt, it sounded like a demo, in some ways. Now, it ended up sounding like a demo that was very compelling to many listeners, because that was the album that kind of put me on the map, quit my job and go and tour and make a living as a musician, but it still sounded like a demo. Nonetheless, in my personal opinion, as even as endearing as some of it might have been, it just kind of sounded raw, and rough and unfinished in some ways. And it was sort of that unfinished quality that nagged at me for over a decade, and made me want to come back and revisit it.

Yeah, it sounds to me like you’ve completely dodged any use of acoustic guitar whatsoever, you’ve gone for really big drum and synth sounds as well. And I think that those choices have added to the anthemic quality of a lot of the songs.

Yeah, one thing that was very important to me was that this new album, not be the original Nation of Heat plus a rhythm section, basically, you know, like Nation, plus a bar band in the background, you know what I mean? And so, absolutely, I decided very early on, whereas the first album was composed of entirely acoustic guitar. I wanted it to be I have no acoustic guitar on this particular album. So there’s none on there. And I don’t know, I just really wanted to make some pretty aggressive choices. When I first announced the news, I got a lot of feedback from listeners who didn’t want to hear it basically, like they were kind of upset I, I had chosen to revisit this. And now a couple of months later, I’ve gotten emails back from them. And now that they’ve actually heard it, they understand a little bit more than they were worried that I was going to revisit it in exactly that type of way, the original plus a rhythm section. And that’s as, as you know, because you’ve heard the album guy, that’s that’s not how it sounds.

Yeah, definitely. Maybe there was also a bit of trepidation, Joe, because, you know, people hold that EP very closely to their hearts. You know, it’s a really moving, original recording. I remember, at the time, the kind of buzz that was around your EP, and having conversations with people about how intense and amazing it was, regardless of, you know, maybe if you look back and say it wasn’t perfect, or whatever, it had so much poetry and such great performance in it.

Yes, thank you. You know, and I think that, like I said, I do think there was something compelling about that original. And what’s ironic is as you get more seasoned at playing music, and the longer you do it, the harder it is to kind of find that sort of genuine inspiration, you know what I mean? That kind of intuitive sense of doing something that’s powerful. But then you also become better at your instrument, you’ve become better at singing. And so there is this tension between kind of becoming proficient as a musician, but then also staying in this kind of beginner’s mind, inspired state, which is the opposite of that. And I think any artists should be looking to exist in the middle of that push and pull as closely as they can.

Yeah. And what I hear listening to your vocal, it’s like the intention, the themes, what you’re saying is in the same spirit, but it’s with the wisdom of age, perhaps.

Yeah, it’s with the singing wisdom of singing in bars and theatres for 15 years, you know, and I think it’s just better, you become a better practitioner of your own voice, you can put more power and detail into it, you can really bring more nuance out of it. And, I don’t know, I just couldn’t help myself. I had to come back. And, and try these songs. You know, how often always jokes around, it’s like, if you hit 45 years old, you’re like, “Man, I wish knowing what I know, I know now. Like, I wish I could go back to 22.” And live that, well, this is sort of like my artistic version of knowing what I know, now, I would really like to go back and take a crack at the songs and, and luckily, they’d never been recorded in a full band type of way. So I had an opportunity to do so and not for nothing. I’ve always been pretty dang independent. So I still own all my masters and all my publishing. I could have ended up in some business arrangements where it wouldn’t have been legally possible for me to do this. But I just couldn’t help myself.

Yeah, it might be notable, for those who aren’t familiar with the story is that you had so much personally riding on what you were doing back in 2008, having left in the final year of university studies, and leaving your hometown, and it’s what we call in Australia, “a massive punt”. There was no guarantee of success. And you were also part of a pretty competitive, thriving music scene that, as I understand, it helped to inspire the kind of music you’re writing.

Yeah, I left university. I ended up in Chicago, where I only knew one person. I crashed with him for a week or so. And then I found a room out of what we call an America local alt weeklies. It’s like a newspaper that comes out that has kind of alternative content in it. I found a room, I could crash in for 300 bucks a month; I found a job. And I just started working during the day and playing basically open mics in Chicago for two or three years. Looking back on it now, I’ve been doing this for a living for 15 years. At this point, I have three kids and a mortgage that I support with music, you know what I mean? So it’s crazy to me to look back at it. And think that that’s how it started. I didn’t know anybody in the music business. I just kind of gave it a shot at some open mics. And a decade and a half later, here I am, you know, I’m not exactly independently wealthy over here, man. I’m not gonna lie to you, but at the same time, you know, making a living supporting the family and getting to make the music and the art that I love.

And another great part of how, I guess, we came to know your name is the fact that Steve Earle hand picked you to head out on tour. I can imagine somebody like Steve seeing, you know, the promise the passion in what you were doing, Joe, your direction where you came from in sentiment. I can see you being kindred spirits, basically.

He’s been a mentor to me for the last 15 years. I would certainly not be playing music and doing this professionally if it wasn’t for Steve. And the longer that I’m in the music business or whatever you want to call it, I realize actually how unusual and how unlikely it was, for Steve to give me that opportunity. Because a lot of times when people are going to come on a tour or something like that, you get some big opportunity. There’s some reason it’s like, you know, the bigger artists, their agent is also booking this person and they want to favor or this person is on the come up in some, some big label wants to put them on the ship. I was still working construction in Chicago when I got the word that I was gonna go out with Steve for six weeks in America, you know what I mean? Like I was still in my like, my car heart zip up at seven o’clock in the morning cursing myself as I went out to my truck at seven o’clock in the morning, you know, to go pound nails. So to say he plucked me out of obscurity would be too much. This is a line from a songwriter that I love named Slaid Cleaves, he would say in this case, “He plucked me from relative obscurity. No, I’m sorry, he plucked me from total obscurity to relative obscurity. And that’s a big thing, you know, and something that I’m forever grateful for.

Yeah. I guess it strikes me listening back to the songs again, it just sounds to me like, this is a huge powerful, kind of coming of age statement. But it’s not earnest in any kind of off putting away. I feel you’re in full sympathy with what you’re singing. And you’re living in this nation, as you put it, with so many contradictions and challenges, whatever word you want to choose. It’s not like this context that you’re living in has got any less complicated, Joe, over the years since the release of this initial EP.

No, and maybe it has more so politically in America. But to a point that you just made that I hadn’t even really considered, but that I think is corrected, there would be some things that I’d written when I was in my early 20s – and I think this would be the case for a lot of people who were creative at that age – that you would sort of cringe at, to a certain degree, to have to reinterpret, again, when you’re pushing 40 years old. I’m 37-38 years old now. So I hadn’t thought about this until you mentioned it, but I didn’t feel any amount of cringe returning to this stuff. Don’t get me wrong; there would have been plenty that I composed at that time that I would not feel cringy about, but for these particular seven songs I just felt like I was visiting with old friends, but that I could kind of have a new new rapport with in a way.

Yeah. It sounds like you’ve cultivated so many new musical friendships over time. And you’ve basically gathered in this amazing circle of artists that can take things in a different direction, maybe add flavors that can really bring a different angle to your work.

Well, what you’re saying in a very polite way is that I called in every favor that anyone owed me anytime for this album. [Laughs] I called everybody I knew!

That’s your interpretation, Joe. [Laughs]

It’s the true one. But yes, the other thing of playing music for all this time is you make friends along the way and lucky for me, I happen to to make a lot of friends whose art I really love and in particular, you have Carl Broemel from My Morning Jacket, plays guitar and pedal steel on the record and he is just full stop amazing. You obviously have Brandon Flowers from from The Killers singing on Hymn 101, who’s been a big supporter of my tunes over the years and who, you know, he wasn’t even in the studio at the time when I asked him to do this and he went out of his way to get this done for me. It’s just a guy with four kids and a huge career of his own to manage and he went out of his way for me to do it. So the contributions were really important artistically, but then also on just like a personal level, I was so touched that people took the time to contribute to the album in that way.

Yeah, amazing. And I’ve been enjoying quite a lot of your Working Songwriter podcasts. And what I find is an interesting aspect of who you are and where you come from is that you have genuine curiosity about what other people are doing artistically.

Yeah. I started the podcast five or six years ago, kind of on a lark, and basically, it was before I had kids, so I had a lot of time on my hands. I was like “Well, I’d like to hear what other people are up to.” And I love this medium of podcast; I listened to so many different podcasts, I said, “Well, I’ve dipped my toe in here.” And then it has just kind of ballooned into a project that I wouldn’t say competes with music and the amount of time that I dedicate to it, but that is certainly in the ballpark. I spent a lot of time doing the podcast. It’s the Working Songwriters Weekly now and it’s a cool journey to go on, just for the content and for the stories and the insights that you can get from people. And it’s a cool journey to go on because it’s been a very community building enterprise for me. Anytime I go to a festival now, like a place where there’s gonna be a lot of artists playing together, anytime I’m backstage in the greenroom, all the artists, they always want to come over and shoot the shit with me because they feel like they know me, because this podcast is listened to a lot by musicians. And I couldn’t ask for anything better. You know what I mean? I love going to a place and feeling like I’m at home immediately, because people are like, “Hey, Joe, what’s going on?” And they just kind of jump into a conversation with me, because they feel like they know me.

And you run a podcast as well. And it’s just a very intimate medium, you have people speaking directly into your ear for hours on end. And so you really do, you do feel like a sense of kinship and a sense of actually knowing the host. And it’s just been very funny to be on the other side of that, and have people feel like they know you. And, frankly, besides, you know, the 2% of the population who are complete psychopaths [laughter] which is, you know, that’s a real number there. 98% of the people that I’ve met because of the show, and then I’ve rapped with, it’s just been a joy to have them feel so familiar.

And would you say, Joe, that you’re basically better informed and equipped as a result of all of these amazing conversations you’ve had for your own work?

You know, so that’s what I would have thought when I started the podcast that I would get like a bunch of useful information for writing songs, or maybe even conducting the way that my business is run. And it it actually hasn’t been that at all. Because it turns out that not only when it comes to songwriting, and when it comes to having a career in the arts, not only is there more than one way to skin a cat, but there’s only separate ways of skinning a cat. No one can skin a cat in the same way when it comes to writing a song, or making a buck in the music business. So all I’ve learned is everyone has their own individual path in songs. Everyone has their own individual path to making a living. And what I’ve actually taken away from it is much more the sense of community.

Yeah, definitely. That makes a lot of sense to me. And just coming back to your point about, you know, the power of podcasts and verbal communication. This is something that I’m really new to. I’ve published a lot of text interviews. And I just feel like when having a conversation with somebody like yourself, if I’m looking at in black and white later on, so much of the expression is lost, compared to the recording.

It’s not only that a lot is lost, but also the person who’s taking it in, has to be paying attention to only that, right? Whereas when you can take it in, it’s an auditory thing via podcast people can take it in while they’re driving, people can take it in while they’re doing the dishes. People can take it in while they’re at work, driving a truck, or working a forklift or whatever the hell they’re doing. And I just feel like it intertwines itself. How often do you have a chance to actually like, sit down and open a magazine and read a long form interview? I mean, unless it’s like some massive artists you’re really interested in, chances are, you’re not going to do it. And so I just feel like it’s an excellent way to reach people, because you meet the listener where they are, you know what I mean, in their life, and they can actually take it in.

Yeah, I think people’s consumption habits are different now. They’re different in what they’re choosing to listen to, how we listen to our favorite songs via streams, and so forth. How have those changes affected the Joe Pug model of getting music out to the world now?

Well, I used to be the biggest proponent of Spotify in the world and now I’m somewhere in between. And I think that if you’re just like any other business, you have to have a diversity of sources of revenue. So like, Spotify was great for me with the original Nation of Heat album, because that album has just been kind of like grassroots streamed very heavily. It’s had like, 20 million streams in the last 10 years. No playlists, no nothing. It’s just like all people just seeking it out. And so that pays me very well. And then with other albums that aren’t as popular, you basically, you just make nothing off. I mean, you don’t make a significant amount. So then that undercut your ability to sell, like I sell a ton of vinyl. If people can just have it on Spotify, then that undercuts that. So I’m kind of in between, and I just feel like, well, you know what I like? I like having the revenue from selling all these other albums on vinyl. I like, you know, the original Nation of Heat album that people like to listen to on Spotify, like having that revenue as well. And you just have to continue to be very light on your feet, and very open to new possibilities for turning a buck. Because it’s pretty much impossible to make a living over the course of time doing creative work. It’s a really weird thing. And yeah, some people are Radiohead. And, you know, some people are The Killers, and some people are the Foo Fighters, and they make gobs and gobs of money. But other than that, if you’re a smaller shop, you really have to get creative to be able to do your art over time and continue to iterate it over and over again.

Yes, certainly, in my circle of songwriting friends, the single is taking over as the way of gaining any form of traction.

Yeah, I haven’t gone that route yet. But I have to admit, I release all my own music; it’s all independent. So for this latest album, you look at how much it takes to put it together. And I mean, not to get too in the weeds here, But it’s like, everything it cost to produce the album itself, which is in this case seven songs. So less than a regular album, so that’s kind of good. But then you have manufacturing of vinyl, which costs a lot of money, and you’re factoring in the CDs, you’re paying all the designers to put the CD stuff together, you’re paying the artists for the original artwork, the visual artwork, you’re then paying a publicist, you’re paying a radio promoter, you’re paying your different distributors around the world. And it’s just very, very, very, very expensive. And then if the damn thing doesn’t get picked up for playlists on Spotify, it’s maddening. And then you can see someone who’s like, “Hey, man. I pressed record on my MacBook in my dorm room, and I banged out a song for two minutes and 30 seconds and then I I uploaded it to Spotify via TuneCore and now I have 750,000 monthly listeners.” You’re like “What the fuck?!” [Laughs]

But at the same time, I’ve also been on the road with people who do it that way and just because you have a lot of streams doesn’t mean that people know who you are, or know that you have a show in town. You know what I mean? So those people struggle, they’re like, “Yeah, I get a nice monthly check from Spotify, but I don’t have any other sources of revenue. If Spotify were to take me off a playlist tomorrow, I’d be screwed.” So it’s like a live by the sword die by the sword thing.

I don’t know. I have considered trying to get lighter on my feet and started to just produce singles in the way that you’re describing. But I do think that there is something of value – and not even just artistically – but even business wise, is something of value of like, “Hey, every 18 months. Boom! I have a new album. Now, let’s talk about it. Let’s do some interviews. There’s a theme to the album. Let’s try to get this out to radio, tell them what the track is.” And I feel like listeners feel like there’s something … It’s like the difference between … Have you ever bought a product on Amazon? And it’s just like the first thing that comes up. You’re like, “I have no idea who this company is selling this. But they’re just like, cheapest thing on Amazon right now.” It’s like that versus, “Well, I want to buy this chair off Amazon and this is a company that’s been around for 75 years. And yeah, the chair costs 50% more, but I know with that company that I’m going to get something real. And I know if the chair is screwed up, and I pick up a phone or send an email that there’s going to be an another human being on the other side of the conversation to say, ‘Hey, we screwed up the order. We’ll make it right.'”

If you don’t mind me saying, I think you’re in a musical tradition where the album kind of reigns supreme and has for a very, very long time. One of the difficulties I guess, in releasing an album to streaming services now includes the time that we take to agonize over track order, is often thrown out the window entirely just by how these streaming services operate, and the enjoyment of packaging and all the rest of it just isn’t there. And I suppose yeah, we’re coming from a roots music angle, steeped in these album traditions. But still people are buying new cars without CD players and having very little choice really to find the newer music they want them to go on to streaming services, and therefore, yeah, listening out of order and listening to singles.

It’s really tough because on the one hand you want to kind of like lead your audience to a place and say, “Nah, man, you know, listen to it like this. The album was laid out like this. This is something that you need to listen to in this way. And then on the other hand, there is another part of me that feels like we need to meet listeners where they are. You have to go where the audience is through to a certain degree. So that’s a push and pull type of thing. I think in some ways, it would feel much cleaner to me, if I could just say, “Screw it! The release to Spotify for this album is not happening for another 18 months. And if you want this album, you buy it on vinyl, or you buy it from me digitally and that’s that.” That might feel psychologically satisfying, in some way, but I don’t know how many more people would actually buy the album because of that. And I do know that many, many, many people would not get to hear it at all because of that.

Another newer development in our world that you’ve taken up really successfully and professionally is live streaming shows. In this pandemic era in your in, it seems like you’ve put in a huge amount of effort into the best possible quality streaming. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Yeah, over COVID, as soon as COVID started, I just had this feeling it was gonna last a long time. And 70% of my revenue at that time came from playing on the road. You know, like I mentioned before, I got a mortgage in three kids. I was like, “I’m in trouble here”. So I immediately I spent about three or four months researching the best way to stream. And obviously there’s not that many people streaming in the music world and there’s certainly like zero people streaming in the roots music world; there was none, so I ended up on all these different blogs and forums like figuring out what video game guys were using to stream with [laughs] because they have it all dialed in. I ended up, after doing the research for you know, three, four or five months, I invested a fair amount of money into streaming. It’s not really necessary now that I’m back on the road now, obviously. It was a free show you Venom account if you dug this show and just doing that allowed me to [inaudible].

Do you have plans to present the revisited Nation of Heat Live?
I do. We ran into some snags getting this tour up for some reasons that are a little too inside baseball to get into right now, but I should be announcing a slew of dates in 2023 very soon.

Great, and we’re really hoping, Joe, that at some future date you can return to your Australian fans.
I will be there. The only question is when. We’ll make sure we’re there, for sure.

Nation of Heat | Revisited is out now on Love Police Records & Tapes
About Les Thomas 100 Articles
Narrm/Melbourne singer-songwriter and Unpaved editor