Unsmug Pug: Sometimes, nice guys do finish first
Joe Pug is a nice guy. No, really. For as much as critics and reviewers like to roll their eyes at the prospect of a genuinely nice guy making waves in the music industry, we at The Hook can say, unabashedly, that Joe Pug is just a plain ole nice dude. Within seconds of answering his phone for an interview, the formerly Chicago-based musician sheepishly admits that he would need to take a five-minute break in the middle– as his old touring van, the one he drove solo around the country when he was barely making waves, was being donated and picked up by a tow truck that afternoon.
"It's kind of sad; it was the van I did all my first tours in," the 26-year-old singer songwriter says. "It's a little 1995 crappy minivan, but it doesn't really run anymore, so it's sad to say goodbye."
Yet once the moment was passed and the van went on to a better place, the previously-distracted Pug was all earnestness. Proper manners aside, Pug has certainly made a mark on the burgeoning indie folk scene with his straightforward lyricism and intense performance style– not to mention with melodies that often invite comparisons to Bob Dylan.
His story is fabled by now: he was attending the University of North Carolina for playwriting, only to pick up and leave before his senior year to head to Chicago and try out life in the music industry. Working days and writing music at night– not an easy task, despite his writing background– he turned a handful of songs into the Nation of Heat EP, which he then turned around and practically gave away to anyone who would hear it. In the early days, Pug would send out free two-song samplers along with a handwritten note to fans, to garner their trust and support. Now, he continues that trend by offering no-fee, low price concert tickets.
"I wanted to have a very honest and straightforward relationship with my fans, and I wanted that relationship to be a long-term thing," he explains. "I want them to experience and participate in an entire catalogue, so I gotta make it affordable for people to come to shows."
And if his often politically-charged and poetic songs– from "Unsophisticated Heart" to "Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)," his songs take cues from both his life experiences and current affairs– aren't enough of a draw for you, perhaps his performance style is. Although fans have swooned over his "emotional" shows, Pug insists his closed eyes and scrunched up face are emblems of intensity, not sentiment.
"There's a certain focus I bring to performance, but any emotions that people ascribe to me are things they've grafted on to me from their own experience with it," he says. "I'm very rarely emotionally affected by the songs when I play them– I'm in an emotional place when I'm writing, but I try to be a blank slate when performing. I'm never going to break down in the middle of a song."
But for all the work– self-promoting, releasing a full length album, Messenger, driving around in that old minivan, assembling a fleshed-out band– Pug is just another good 'ole Southern boy. With Austin, Texas, as a new home base and reviewers pouring out love for his current tour, the songwriter is free to keep doing what he loves. And, he insists, it's luck, not talent, that keeps him going– but, of course, what other answer can we expect from a truly nice guy?
"I really believe that no one is really special– it really all comes down to realizing yourself as a person," he posits. "I've had all the shitty jobs, I've done all that bullsh*t, I've made seven or eight dollars an hour, all to do what I do now. I've worked my way up from the bottom of the music industry, and I appreciate every small victory that I have. In the scheme of things, this is not a hard job– this is a great job."
Joe Pug plays at The Southern Tuesday, April 12. Strand of Oaks and Carl Anderson open. Doors open at 7pm and tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door.