The Cover Story

Greg Puciato: “Art comes from a place of abstraction, a feeling that you can’t put into words”

Greg Puciato is a perpetual motion machine. His history with The Dillinger Escape Plan established him as a thermonuclear frontman, but his prolific solo work proves that he’s an unstoppable artistic force. As he prepares to release second album Mirrorcell, he pauses to reflect on vulnerability, time, and the importance of joy…

Greg Puciato: “Art comes from a place of abstraction, a feeling that you can’t put into words”
Kiran Acharya
Jonathan Weiner

Three years ago, Greg Puciato hoisted himself above his Black Queen bandmates and dangled from the second-floor balcony of Chicago’s Subterranean club. He saw 450 flashing faces under strobe lights below, and jumped straight into nothing.

“I don't really understand what was three years ago, and what was six months ago,” he says today. “Time feels really weird. It all feels like a big smear.” One week after the Chicago leap of faith, the world was suddenly mute with COVID caution and cancellations, but for Greg, who has spent more than half his adult life on tour, this forced stasis was a peculiar kind of blessing.

In spring 2019, Greg was touring with The Black Queen, for second album Infinite Games. One year later, he was finalising the second Killer Be Killed album, while his debut solo record, Child Soldier: Creator Of God arrived just as California announced the first of several stay-at-home orders.

“I look back and realise I actually put out a lot during that time,” he recalls. “You couldn't go out. You couldn't make memories. But it felt like I really never stopped writing. What else are you gonna do? It was sort of necessary for me to be home anyway. I had a lot that I wanted to do.”

Child Soldier leaked before release in 2020, almost undoing all the work that went into it. And with the possibility of touring still non-existent at the tail-end of the year, Greg wrote, produced and performed the audio-visual package Fuck Content, which formed the seed for his second solo album, Mirrorcell.

“I just couldn't stop,” he explains. “We’ve all spent a lot of time with ourselves in the last two years, three years. We've all had to really sit still. That's the meaning of the title, Mirrorcell: being imprisoned and forced to look at yourself. You don’t have an option. You can’t be in motion. But now, I'm moving again.”

'Moving' means touring the United States with Jerry Cantrell of Alice In Chains, who has become a mentor, inspiration, and brother-in-arms since inviting Greg to sing alongside him at the Pico Union Project in Los Angeles in 2019. Jerry’s third solo album, Brighten, arrived last year and features Greg on vocals throughout.

Any downtime the vocalist claims to have enjoyed in the past couple of years has consisted, he says, almost exclusively of online gaming as an excuse to hang out with people while stuck inside. It might be Fortnite, occasionally Mario Kart, or with Jerry, Call Of Duty.

“That's the real answer,” Greg laughs. “I’ve spent the majority of my time writing, demoing, and recording Mirrorcell. I'm a hermit – I'm extremely introverted, which a lot of people don't know – and I’m an only child. When people say, ‘It’s been this crazy two years…’ I realise I can go long, long periods of time without talking to another human. Someone calls me on the phone, and if I decide to answer I realise I haven’t spoken in three days.”

Greg describes himself as ‘a goldfish’, in stark contrast to the raging, coiled, fire-breathing cobra of a persona that roared the songs Panasonic Youth, Milk Lizard, or Farewell, Mona Lisa over the course of 16 years with The Dillinger Escape Plan.

“I'm a space cadet,” he says. “I’m extremely internal. A lot of it is self-analysis – thinking about how I feel about something – or observing my surroundings, or feeling the way air feels on your skin. I'm very sensory, and those things are a big component of creativity. Whenever I do have free time, I just want to do something mindless like go for a run, play a videogame, hang out with someone, or smoke enough weed to kill myself.”

The panic attacks, dysregulation and barely-existent impulse control that Greg has previously discussed with such candour are – for the time being – a ghost of a memory. Finding a therapist following a 2017 tourbus crash in Poland led to an ADD diagnosis, the identification of which allowed Greg a degree of self-acceptance while dispelling the horrifying highs and lows he experienced as a younger man.

“Thankfully, that phase of my life path has passed,” he says. “I've come to terms with a lot more. I have less toxic energy around me, and less stress. I have less interpersonal friction. And a lot of it came from me.

“Maybe you're just afraid to let go of things,” he continues. “And that's part of your psychological journey. Trying to move towards harmony and away from dissonance.”

One aspect of ADD that he’s conscious of is ‘object permanence’, which inspired the 2020 song Temporary Object, from Child Soldier: Creator Of God.

“Object permanence means that when something's out of sight, you forget it,” he says. “A lot of people that have that component of ADD end up with shit all over the place, because the only way they can remember they have something is by being able to see it.

“So I’m a clean person, but my surroundings are a fucking mess. To combat that, I try to live as minimally as possible. I have to have everything out and around me at all times. Almost all of the clothes I own are visible. Every musical instrument is visible. I have two forks, two knives, two spoons, one bowl and one plate. I'm super minimal. If I get more than that, it just piles up really quickly.”

The minimalism that characterises home life extends also to relaxation. As an artist, Greg is not someone who’ll binge a series, obsessively consume, or lose a weekend to Netflix.

“I was reluctant even to come back to Instagram,” he admits. “I really had to have my publicist twist my arm. I felt like, ‘What am I gonna do? Post pictures of myself and shit?’ In the last few years I’m less influenced by outside artistic input. I don't think you need to read a lot of books to be a good writer. I'd rather spend that time trying to make sure the relationships I have in my life don't die. I've been trying to keep the relationships that I do have from completely falling by the wayside.”

New York City was quiet beneath snow when the Dillinger Escape Plan arrived to perform their three-night farewell in December 2017. The celebration, at Terminal 5 in Hell’s Kitchen, was nothing short of emotional. An apex, an ending that brought two decades full-circle and saw Mike Patton, original singer Dimitri Minakakis, and original bassist Adam Doll join the stage. There was no conversation beforehand, as Greg and his bandmates “tried to process the black hole in front of us”.

It was also a new beginning. For two of the shows, Greg had invited Pittsburgh hardcore firebrands Code Orange to open, as he knew drummer Jami Morgan. He was then introduced to guitarist Reba Meyers…

“I remember going out while Code Orange were playing,” says Greg. “I was watching from the stage-right balcony, which is Reba’s side of the stage. I remember hearing her and I went back and got Liam [Wilson, Dillinger bassist], saying, ‘Yo, dude, she's badass!’ You can see when people have the fucking thing. She has the thing. Really unique voice, really unique tonal qualities – I just recognised it in her instantly.”

That inspirational moment resurfaced in Greg’s memory when he was struggling with the Mirrorcell song Lowered. He had no lyrics whatsoever. He and long-time producer Steve Evetts were feeling the pressure.

“Mirrorcell was the last thing to be recorded in the studio we’d used for like 15 years,” he explains. “Steve actually had to break down the studio; he was moving, and was like, ‘I gotta get out of here. We’ve gotta figure this fucking song out.'"

They were about to abandon Lowered and leave it off the album, when Instagram finally paid off.

“This is the best part, so far, of coming back to Instagram,” smiles Greg. “They start recommending people to you. A video popped up of Reba going apeshit onstage and I was like, 'Oh, fuck, right?'

“She replied like, ‘Yeah, I'm actually in town. We're finishing up Knotfest in LA. So if you need me to come to the studio, I can.' She came to the studio on Monday at 7pm. By midnight we had written and recorded everything.

“She was fearless. Not intimidated at all, and telling me what she thought: ‘When you did this, it was better than when you did that.’ I was like, ‘Who the fuck are you, coming in to tell me what you like and don't like?' (Laughs) But that was badass. It ended up being the highlight of the whole recording, to me. If you heard that Greg from Dillinger and Reba from Code Orange were making a song, you’d think it was gonna be a very heavy thing…”

As Mirrorcell’s beautiful font-piece, Lowered shows precisely where Greg Puciato is in 2022. A vulnerable duet with guitars stretched to sounds like dark synthesisers, it begins with Chris Hornbrook’s velvety drums and – to echo the chorus – leaves you wanting more. Reba’s voice finds a new grandeur as she rises to roar, ‘It’s inevitable… But it makes you feel alive.’

The energy that Reba brought to the Mirrorcell sessions was a high point, but Greg says that Chris’ contribution was also crucial in keeping him alert and creatively on edge. “It's really important to keep that collaborative thing around you, even in solo stuff,” he begins. “Steve Evetts has enough skin in the game and history with me to push me. Chris throws things at me that can change my vocal a little bit. The drums to Lowered are different than I’d written – his drumming was instrumental to the overall feel.”

“If you heard that Greg from Dillinger and Reba from Code Orange were making a song, you’d think it was gonna be some heavy thing…”

Greg reveals how Reba Meyers saved the song Lowered

But Mirrocell has been influenced by nobody more than Jerry Cantrell. Not necessarily in terms of composition, but in terms of confidence. Working with Jerry has allowed Greg to make peace with releasing music under his own name.

“Some people feel guilt for releasing things, or they feel bashful,” says Greg. “Jerry was instrumental in me making the decision to use my own name. I’d thought of myself as a ‘person in a band’, the whole time. Doing something where you're not in a band felt a little egregious to me, at first. He was like, ‘No. Fuck that, dude. This is you. Own it.’”

Singing classic Alice In Chains songs Rooster or Man In The Box granted the musician technical lessons that could not have been learned any other way. “Analysing the Alice In Chains stuff under a microscope to learn it really made me aware of new things,” Greg explains. “Little harmonies and little textures, things that happen in the mix that you don't really pick up on until you're listening to the song for the hundredth time in headphones. There's a lot going on in those early records that's really complex. Not complex in the way I’d talk about a Dillinger song or a Meshuggah song, but complex in a textural way. Wrapping my brain around all that changed Mirrorcell fundamentally.”

The song No More Lives To Go shows the subtle but essential lessons gleaned from Jerry, whereby Alice In Chains would record multiple stacks of the same voice, and multiple stacks to create what sounds like a single guitar tone. “And then there's a rhythm guitar comprised of two or three different tones, and a lead that's comprised of two or three different tones. How do you get all that to play nicely? It just changed my brain completely.”

No More Lives To Go sounds like one of Mirrorcell’s more straightforward songs, but like Lowered, its simplicity belies its construction. “When I'm listening to it in my head I'm like, ‘Oh wow – there’s shit I don't remember doing there!' A wah pedal, a TalkBox, some clean guitar you can barely hear, stacked on top of the heavy guitar to provide more articulation. Weird shit like that, you know?”

Throughout the process, Greg allowed for happy accidents and rough edges. It’s possible to make things sound perfect, he says – but like shiny CGI in cinema that suddenly breaks the spell, overly-processed music sounds suddenly obvious and out of place. “Once you go down that rabbit hole it's hard to stop yourself,” he says. “You really can just shine everything into garbage.

“Before you know it, you've made every single note perfect, quantised every single drum. A lot of older recording techniques are coming back into vogue, and it's because older music was not perfect. Robert Plant sung brutally out of tune a lot of times, and you never know, because it sounds like a human being. You know he's not fucking awful – he’s fucking great.”

“Robert Plant sang brutally out of tune a lot of times – and you never know, because it sounds like a human being”

Hear Greg describe his love for chaos, happy accidents, and the human element in art

When Greg first moved from Baltimore to LA, he accidentally attempted the Cannonball Run, America’s unsanctioned coast-to-coast speed race. Dillinger had just confirmed the chance to record their third studio album, Ire Works, with Steve Evetts, so the frontman jumped into his car with Liam Wilson, but didn’t realise that the 2,900-mile journey meant leaving home for good.

“Liam and I had to get from the east coast to the west coast for what ended up being me moving to California,” he remembers. “I knew we were going to be there for like two months. There was no way I was going to rent a car for two whole months. So I drove, but we waited until the last minute.

“We had to get there in an obscene amount of time, we would not be able to stop. We're not gonna be able to get a hotel room. We're just gonna have to fucking gun this. So that became… well, how fast can we get there?”

When you’re young, Greg reasons, you don’t care about speeding tickets. You don’t care about police, and you don’t care that you might be moving too quickly in pursuit of the things you need to create.

“There’s so much I don’t remember," he says. “But yeah… those days. At one point I was going so fast they almost arrested me on the spot. In Texas they actually put me in the cop car for driving 130mph on some freeway. I was like, ‘Fuck, man – you’re really trying to arrest us just for trying to get to the studio?’”

“I was going so fast they almost arrested me on the spot”

Greg remembers Dillinger’s Cannonball Run to California to make Ire Works

Greg returned to Baltimore most recently with Jerry Cantrell, singing at the Ram’s Head, and felt a small tug towards home. “I like to be there and walk around, or drive through my old neighbourhood,” he says. “I miss it. I don't want to live there permanently – but I’m definitely trying to bounce back and forth. The weirder shit gets, the more I find I want to touch home base, you know?

“So much time is passing. Like, I'm singing Man In The Box next to Jerry Cantrell. I'm in a twilight zone. That’s the thing: I’ve never gotten cynical, or jaded. I love this just as much as I did when I was 15. And it just keeps getting deeper.

“I feel like I've chosen to live an artistic life,” he adds. “Once you’ve made that decision, and realise that's what you are, that how you interpret the world and your means of dealing with life is by making stuff – then you're kind of… obligated to live that way."

Whether in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles or Baltimore, Greg seems to be meeting the obligations of the artistic life with an aplomb unmatched by anyone else in his field. The key, he says, is to surrender to yourself and commit to your own ideas without hesitation. What matters is leaving something of yourself out there for other people to find.

“It's hard to talk about this kind of stuff without sounding insanely pretentious,” he begins. “But ‘art’ is… So there's two ways you can take a picture of something. You can take a picture of something that tells me about the thing that you're taking a picture of, and then you can take a picture of something and it tells me about you.

“If you're telling me something about you, then it becomes art. There’s a million people you can ask to play Rachmaninoff. They can sight-read. They can play. But they didn’t write it. They're not telling me anything about themselves by playing Rachmaninoff, except for the fact that they practice a lot. Art comes from a place of abstraction. A feeling that you can't put into words.

“That's really the thing I try to tell people,” Greg concludes. “Find the joy. Even if something is fucking laborious, or you're dealing with really difficult subject matter, or you're dealing with something that's a real undertaking from a technical standpoint: find the joy in the process of it. Stay tuned into that joy. Keep following that joy.”

Mirrorcell is out on July 1 via Federal Prisoner. Greg Puciato appears alongside Jerry Cantrell on the Brighten tour in UK throughout June and July.

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