Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cartel interview

(This article originally appeared in North County Times) Cartel performs at the San Diego Fair in Del Mar on June 25 and The Roxy in West Hollywood on June 26.

The recording process can often be a high pressure situation, rife with deadlines and conflicting opinions. Imagine doing it under the watchful eyes of an MTV film crew and two dozen Web cams.

That’s what Cartel endured last year while making their self-titled second album. As part of a Dr. Pepper-sponsored promotion and reality series, the musicians became the “Band in a Bubble.”

Holed up in a 2,000-square foot transparent bubble-shaped pad at New York City’s Hudson River Park pier for 20 days, Cartel completed most of the CD as their moves were tracked 24/7.

“We didn’t want to pass up an opportunity that could be really great,” explained singer/guitarist Will Pugh, 24, in a phone interview last week. “Even though it didn’t turn out to be this monumental thing – and wasn’t a failure by any means – we provided our fans access to a process they wouldn’t normally see.”

MTV producers sought a little extra drama, so they “tried to load us up with alcohol all the time. It backfired on them…we had a fun time. After the [crew] would leave and the computers shut down, we’d do all sorts of crazy things: food fights, hitting golf balls indoors, you name it.”

Although some fickle Cartel followers were quick to turn on the group for taking part in the series, plenty of others discovered them on the Web and TV.

“I definitely think we gained more fans,” Pugh said. “People who didn’t like the whole mainstream public side have recently started to come around on the record. They’re able to separate the music from what happened.”

Formed eight years ago, Cartel initially signed to SoCal indie The Militia Group. The band put out an EP in 2004 and issued debut CD “Chroma” the following year. Steady touring and intense buzz among social networking sites led to an alliance with major label Epic, which reissued it in ’06.

Cartel’s profile increased, thanks to well-received appearances on the Vans Warped Tour and tracks heard in a popular videogame (Madden NFL 2007) and TV series (“The Hills”). The CD moved nearly 250,000 copies and spawned a top 40 pop airplay single (“Honestly”). “Cartel” debuted at No. 20 on the Billboard 200 chart.

There are several instances on the eponymous release where the Atlanta pop/rock quintet display pronounced musical growth. “We leaned on a lot of ‘90s alternative influences,” confirmed Pugh. “The first records we cut our teeth on were Soundgarden, Radiohead, Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins.”

Two tunes (“I Will Hide Myself Away,” “If I Were to Write the Song”) seamlessly segue into entirely different compositions, a method also used to fine effect on “Chroma.” But the compelling “Wasted,” where Pugh sings about not taking life for granted, is the centerpiece. The rhythm and melody resulted from the frontman tinkering around with a new sequencing program.

“I put some autobiographical elements in there, like the time I was born and when I was [little] and my dad missed one of my baseball games. Being an adult, now I understand. These little vignettes of life are what I was trying to capture.”

A Harlem choir, string and horn players and a drum line are added to the mix a la Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.” Pugh admitted to being a marching band geek in school. “I played trumpet in middle school, so I have a big love for that, especially the beautiful way it is used in soul music.”

Wyclef Jean remixed “Wasted” and turned it into a cool dancehall number that appears at the end of “Cartel.” The band originally tried to get Outkast’s Andre 3000, a fellow Georgian. When he proved unavailable, Wyclef’s name immediately came up.

“We sent the song to him and he really liked it,” recalled Pugh. “We got a phone call in the bubble one night. I thought, ‘who has this number and what would a guy with a Haitian accent want to talk to me for?’ Wyclef said, ‘I wanted to show through the song that death doesn’t have to be a sad thing; it can be beautiful.’ He brought it in and we were all floored.”

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