Puppy Are Ready To Confuse The Hell Out Of America
Listen to Puppy’s new album The Goat, and you’ll think one of two things: either this band is going to take over the world, or the world’s not ready for something this original and weird. To the former, the London three-piece’s mixture of dense, crunchy riffs; bouncing rhythms; and yearning, harmonized vocals evoke groundbreaking acts like Smashing Pumpkins, Faith No More, and Sponge. On the other hand, the band’s unique niche between rote genre delineations and their aggressively unorthodox aesthetic — there sure is a lot of pink on that cover full of black magic ephemera — seem perfectly designed to alienate the mainstream audience those bands all courted. It’s not a question of whether or not the band is great, only whether or not most listeners will get it.
If any critics doubt Puppy’s ability to stun the masses, it’s the band themselves. On the afternoon before their American debut at Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus, the band sit in our U.S. offices describing in great detail how they plan to botch tonight’s gig, baffle their audience, and leave America scratching its collective head. Not since Type O Negative have a crew of dudes in Brooklyn seemed so hilariously upbeat about their determination to fail.
“The act of playing music is quite physical, and quite visceral, and if it sounds dumb or antsy, it just sounds wrong,” says drummer Billy Howard. “It’s a very primal response. Whereas, with an aesthetic, we struggle with it. It’s a really fun part, but we have a lot of conversations about that side of it. With certain aspects of our songs, it might not sound a million miles away from some aspects of contemporary metal bands, but what’s different is the tone of it, the way that it’s presented, and the packaging. The way that we perform it.”
“Badly,” says guitarist and vocalist Jock Norton.
“Very badly,” confirms Billy.
Between tonight’s show at Saint Vitus and your upcoming sets at SXSW, what are you most looking forward to seeing or doing in America?
Jock Norton: I’m most excited to see people turning up to the show. That’d be cool! But it’s also one of those pipe dreams that you have as a band, to come over and play the states. It always seems like this crazy, far-away thing, so it’s cool to tick off having done it.
Billy Howard: Plus, we’re going to that Tony Molina show tomorrow night.
J: Yeah! Tony, Candi, and Nothing. I think we’re going to hit that up. We also found out that ICP are doing an acoustic show at SXSW, which we’re very excited about it.
Will Michael: We also found out Lil Ugly Mane is playing South By, as well as Nelly, Roky Erickson… quite a few people we want to see. And also just getting some time off in New York, and seeing the city.
B: It’s quite surreal being here, because culturally, this place just feels quite pregnant with history. To us, specifically.
W: Obviously, Nirvana are from here.
B: Yeah, Guns N’ Roses grew up in Brooklyn. And Black Sabbath grew up in Manhattan.
J: Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, actually, was born in this building as well.
B: We’re actually staying by the Flatiron building, where Jimmy Page used to iron clothes as a young schoolboy.
Your music is very heavy, but difficult to neatly fit into any specific genre of metal. Is that intentional, or is it just a culmination of your influences?
J: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think early on, there had been kind of a vague blueprint. Me and Billy’s previous band had been more like garage and indie rock, and we had an interest in heavy music but struggled to find a place for what we wanted to do. And then we hooked up with Will, who was doing, like, stoner doom kind of stuff, and he was interested in trying something as well that had a bit more scope in terms of songwriting.
B: We started doing heavier primarily because we all loved it, and because it’s a lot more fun to play. There are a lot more directions you can go, and you can play harder and louder, and it’s a lot more dynamic. And I guess if there’s any real blueprint it’s just to keep that ethos generally and try to do shit that’s more fun within that conceptual framework. And that’s served us quite well, in just how much we’ve enjoyed it, and how people have responded to it.
W: Speaking personally, my previous band was a stoner doom band, and there’s very much a blueprint laid out for bands like that — there’s a look, there’s a sound, there’s a pool of bands you can take influences from. And if you stay within those boundaries, you have a ready-made audience. You have shows and tours. It’s easy to get booked in support slots, because there’s already a scene. But you step outside of that, and there isn’t a perfect band to tour with.
B: You guys said you had trouble just because you didn’t have bellbottom trousers.
W: Yeah, we weren’t wearing ’70s fuckin’ period dress! It just breeds stagnation when you follow the rules of a scene. It’s refreshing to cast it all off.
J: You don’t think about it early on, but then people start asking you about your perfect bands for touring with, and your perfect labels… and you start to think, man, maybe it is a little bit different, because we don’t have the answers.
The cover of The Goat certainly plays with that idea — it’s very dark and occult-oriented, but super-pink. Are you aiming to make purists or traditional listeners uncomfortable?
J: Yeah, I think there’s an element of that. I don’t think it’s like a mission statement, but I think between us we trust that we back this, and we can get behind it.
B: I don’t know how provocative anything we do is, really. But finding a bit of a balance between all the shit we find cool and interesting, like finding a bit in a Weezer song where they reference a KISS album, it’s trying to find a place aesthetically and sonically where we’re happy with the balance. Which might often be a little imbalanced, in that it’s a bit awkward. The awkwardness is what we enjoy about it. And the name ‘Puppy’ is definitely a bit of that.
J: Yeah, we lose some people at the outset. It’s weird that, when you write a song or an album, there’s so much conscious architecture that goes into it.
B: Ooh, Conscious Architecture — album two!
J: Nice, we’ll go a bit proggy! But, like… I sing the way I sing. So playing heavy music, that’s going to go into that. All that stuff comes naturally. It sometimes feels like we’re fudging our way through it, because we’ll write a song the way we want to, and say, ‘All right, I guess that works.’
W: Fudging Our Way Through It is album three.
When preparing for this show, did you organize a specific setlist for what you wanted America to hear?
B: Shit, we should probably do that.
W: This is actually our first headlining show since the album came out. We’ve incorporated some songs that haven’t been played live before, so it’s exciting to be playing them live.
B: I think prior to this, so much of the album was, we recorded it a long time ago and it had been a while in the making. So we’ve played a lot of songs live that we’ve been playing for ages now. So it was nice to sit down and be like, ‘I’m really excited for people to hear this song now.’
W: It was cool to look at the full album, and look at some of the new songs, get rid of some of the old ones.
B: I think a large part of it is, what songs can we play? Because we’re not very good musicians.
The vocals on the album are so layered and full of harmonies — do you pull it all off live?
J: Yeah. From a writing perspective, we try to keep everything in the realm of what we can do as a three-piece band. And that’s why harmonies and such became such a big part of what we did, because when you only have one guitarist, you’re just kind of limited as to what tricks you can have up your sleeve. So from a writing perspective, it’s usually based on a lead vocal and a backing vocal. So we can pull of an approximation of it live. Obviously, it’s worse.
What’s the difference between a U.S. Puppy fan and a UK Puppy fan?
B: The only person in the U.S. who likes us is Jesse Leach from Killswitch Engage.
J: It’s a pretty cool person to like you! But yeah, that’s the difference. All our UK fans are not Jesse Leach.
B: Those cultural differences are nuanced, but they’re very much there.
Is there something you want to leave U.S. fans with after tonight?
B: A lingering feeling of disappointment.
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According to the band’s Instagram, the exchange appears to be all in good humor.