“You can’t second guess shit”: Greg Puciato on new solo LP, creative process, and his legacy in the metal scene
"Honestly? I'm exactly the fucking same."
Greg Puciato started creating art at the ripe age of 9. Being an introverted only child with undiagnosed ADD in Baltimore, art was something he could turn to and get lost in for hours on end, from writing poetry to making his music. Since then, he's toured the world in multiple projects, such as mathcore psychos The Dillinger Escape Plan, the synthwave city dwellers The Black Queen, and metal supergroup Killer Be Killed. Fast forward to 2022, and Greg Puciato is releasing his second solo effort, Mirrorcell. 33 years have passed and through all the balcony dives and fire breaths, Puciato insists on one thing: the years have not strayed him away from his goal for full artistic purity.
Purity comes second nature to Puciato. If nothing else, he is uncompromising, something he learned from growing up on the rough side of Charm City. "What shaped me the most growing up in Baltimore is how rugged it is." Puciato recounted to us, "For better or worse-and worse rather, there's a strong detestment for all things flashy here, so that taught me authenticity." This led Puciato to pursue his artistic endeavors with his integrity intact and gave him what he needed to make sure nobody would mess with his neverending goal to be the purest he can be. "I'm making stuff because I genuinely love it. It's the way I enjoy passing my time. I've become more protective over my motivations, and not doing shit just because people want me to do them." Becoming protective of his self-interest would lead him to form Federal Prisoner with fellow artist Jesse Draxler in 2018, a vessel focused on broadcasting art they loved over making a profit. "It's like finding a kid on your block that you want to keep playing with." Puciato spoke on meeting Draxler for the first time, "Jesse is one of the few people I met as an adult that I resonated with where you find that your frequencies make up and make the other's frequencies stronger. I knew him for five minutes and just knew we had to do more! He wasn't a musician though, so we had to figure out what to do. That drive to want to do shit together manifested itself into Federal Prisoner. Now, I don't need a label for anything. We can do anything better than I'd trust anyone else to do."
While Baltimore made him pure in his approach to art, and in turn life, it also brought upon anxiety in anything that could be perceived as narcissistic. "I feel guilty about everything I do." He admitted, "If you did well in school, or if you made a decent amount of money, you had to hide it. That thought process was beaten into my brain, and it took a while to shake off." Even when writing and recording his solo record, Child Soldier: Creator of God, this guilt that had been with him since childhood nearly shifted how the project was going to be released. Initially writing for the third Black Queen record, Greg realized everything that was coming out of him didn't fit in any of the projects he was in. "I had no idea what the fuck I was doing." Puciato reflected, "I didn't even know if it was going to turn into anything, because what I wrote didn't fit The Black Queen or Killer Be Killed. All I could do looking at it was groan and think I had to start another band for these songs to see the light of day. Then, it dawned on me that I was writing everything for this. Guitar, bass, vocals, and I programmed a drum machine to go along with it. I'm writing these songs front-to-back as it was, why the fuck would I need anyone else to do it?"
Though all signs pointed to this being a solo effort, he was still uncomfortable with the notion of releasing the project under his own name. "I could draw a direct line to why I felt so uncomfortable about doing so." Puciato proclaimed, "I was initially going to call this project Child Soldier, which would have been ridiculous and I'd have to commit to that. I had an issue with putting it under my name, even though it isn't weird at all! Every other genre of music has artists who are putting shit out specifically under their name, so why is it weird for metal and rock music to do that?" What would seal the deal for Puciato was advice from the legendary Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains fame, whom Greg had been providing vocals for on his latest solo effort, 2021's Brighten. "Jerry told me to own my shit. No more dancing around it, put the shit under my name and steer into it, and I'll be stoked I did. He was right, of course. Once I ripped off the band-aid that was my anxiety, I was fine. Now, when I'm 80 years old and putting out a harsh noise project or a piano ballad record, you'll be able to trace a straight line back to Child Soldier, and it'll be more cohesive than jumping around and putting something out under my 40th band name because I couldn't commit to owning this record."
Child Soldier: Creator of God was birthed out of a rush of inspiration; Puciato understood he had to release it into the world, even if he didn't exactly know how to initially. With the path cleared, he knew how to approach Mirrorcell. "Child Soldier was more all over the place because, again, I was all over the place recording it." he laughed, "It's like taking a Polaroid of what was coming out of you, and then just moving on to taking the next one without thinking about it too hard. Take the thing as fast as you can take it. If something's coming out of you, let it out. When you hit the end, you hit the end. Child Soldier is 15 tracks long because that's how much I ended up writing for it. Mirrorcell is only 9 songs because that's how long I wanted it to be." The shorter duration allowed Puciato to have more cohesion amongst the tracks in Mirrorcell's 44-minute runtime, with a focus on the grungier and mellower side of his efforts, including the down-and-dirty "Reality Spiral" and the reverb-soaked "Lowered" featuring Reba Meyers of Code Orange. Every track was written and recorded with one notion: they were snapshots of where Puciato was at the time. "You can't be thinking in the rain." he declared, "I don't hold onto anything, and I think young artists who do are making the biggest mistakes in doing so. Just fucking put it out!"
Over two decades into his career, Greg Puciato hit a new benchmark in his goal to preserve his artistic freedom with Mirrorcell, as his own artist on his own label with no one to answer to. The next goal for him is to continue on this path, wherever it takes him. "I don't see myself as a genre artist." he firmly spoke, "If I sat down and played piano for an hour and decided the next record was going to be improv piano, that's what it would be. Freedom is the most important thing to me in my life. I only care about the purity of expression and not being held. When you look back, what you did in your output was your life. If you wanted to make metal or country records, and you only wanted to do that, then you should. If you want to switch it up, then you move to the next thing. That's the path I chose." So long as he never views himself as a product, Greg Puciato is destined to keep releasing art into the world, finding new ways to reach higher levels of artistic purity.
"The second you make something that wasn't you, you are now a product. Now, the audience owns you. You let them take the one thing that brought you joy and personally connected to, and now you're a fucking clown that anyone can throw money at for you to dance. Don't do that to yourself."
Read on for more of our chat with Greg...
What was it like growing up in Baltimore, and how do you think that shaped who you've grown up to be, both as an artist and as a person?
There's a deep hatred for any success in Baltimore. If you do well in school, or if you make a decent amount of money, you have to hide it. If anyone in the neighborhood I grew up in got a nice car one day, that car would have a hole punched through its window and piss on the seats overnight. Growing up in an area like that makes you more real in one way, but conversely, I feel guilty about everything. It took a minute to shake that off and embrace the positives of Baltimore, which are many.
The music scene was essentially non-existent. There was a sort of grind, Relapse, Neurosis-esque thing that happened. It was pretty big in the Philly and Baltimore area, but not much else. It was nothing like New Jersey or New York in that period. The DC scene was what was popping off at the time, but when you're a kid, DC is far away from you. Even the local scene was hard to get off the ground. Nobody would remember any of the local bands I saw back then. A lot of cool artists have since come out and repped Baltimore hard. Turnstile, JPEGMAFIA, Beach House, Future Islands, all of them came out of there and made it seem like more was happening than there actually was. All of them seem to rep it harder once they leave it, though. I'm the same way.
What has remained a part of your ethos since the earliest days of being an artist?
From when I was 9 to now, I've been the same in my process of writing and making art. The only change is that people know about it now. My motivations are completely the same. The way I process and feel emotion and life is directly tied to sitting down and getting lost making art. The peace I find in that helps me deal with the anxiety of existence. I'll spend 13 straight hours not eating, drinking, or pissing, focused on a specific idea. It's all the same, though. I'm not doing this for anyone else. I'm not going to make music on commission or anything, I can't make things for non-selfish reasons. Maybe something I could have done in the past would've made me bigger, but I do not care. Not to be a douche, but I'm pure about my way of going about making art. This is the most precious thing in the world to me. Maintaining my reasons for making art and still having it be my place of happiness is crucial. I'm never going to allow anyone to fuck with that.
I feel everyone should be this way. What else do you have besides your way? Your vision, your personality, and your perspective? Especially as an artist, your value is your unique perspective. We're all unique as human beings. The fingerprint you leave behind with your work is the point. In an internal, private place, there's not going to be anything that matters. All you can do after a while is contribute yourself.
Every year, I think about moving to the middle of nowhere and only making stuff for myself and never releasing it. I have no fascination with fame or getting known, I feel weird even releasing this stuff under my name. It's cool to do these press releases, but this isn't what's keeping me going, making the art is.
What was the biggest feeling you felt after you walked off stage with Dillinger for the last time?
The part I remember was waking up the next day. I was in a hotel nearby, and feeling fine. Any kind of apprehension and anxiety was gone. It was a miserable process: we were basically on our funeral parade, where our audiences were sad and making us question if we were doing the right thing. The aftermath was me being here and excited about making music and art. The only change is one vessel ceased to exist, and that energy was transferred to everything else. If a dentist's office closes, the person is no less a dentist.
I didn't want to spend so much time on one thing anymore, and I think all my activity post-Dillinger is proof of that. I've put out books, solo music, Killer Be Killed put out a new record, as did The Black Queen. None of this would happen if I was out there playing "Panasonic Youth" 200 nights in a row again. We don't talk beyond catching up nowadays, but everyone's moving and doing something. Not necessarily musically, but they're all becoming who they're supposed to be. We've grown more in the last 4 years than in the previous 15, at least on a psychological level.
There has been zero conversation about reuniting Dillinger. If that were to happen, however, it would not be on a full-time basis. We have our lives that are more developed without it. We have a billion fucking other components to our life. When we initially walked off stage, I and everyone else was happy to be over with it. Now, I can perceive a possible situation where it would be sustainable for us, but I cannot stress enough that there has been zero conversation between any of us about reuniting or doing anything. I don't think, legally, there even is an entity known as The Dillinger Escape Plan anymore, so we are currently as dissolved as you can be.
There's a clear mission statement for Federal Prisoner to be a vessel for the art you liked more than to make a profit necessarily. What were some of the biggest obstacles to overcome when initially starting the label, and how did you manage to overcome them?
It all started because Jesse [Draxler] and I wanted to play more together. Recently, we laughed while we were doing the reissues for Poison the Well's Tear from the Red, remembering sitting around talking about doing a label way back when. I had no interest, he was the one leading the charge then. I was planning on self-releasing everything, and then he brought up the idea of doing this for other people. It was kind of an undertaking, but when you don't treat it as such and go little by little with it, it honestly feels like you're making a band. It takes up more time than anything else in my day.
This all stemmed from us playing basketball, on why we were gonna call this thing we were doing a label, and the vessel created its own path. We brought up the idea of making it a clothing brand too, and like, shit, why not? Who fucking cares, this is our project. The only real issue is not knowing what we were doing in terms of manufacturing. How to make vinyl, who to hire, who does what, how did we fuck up this time, how do we not fuck up next time? It's been awesome! Now, I don't need a label for anything. We can do anything better than I'd trust anyone else to do. Find people you love to be around and hang out with, and if you can work with them and make shit you can be excited about, it's the best feeling in the world. That never gets old.
You've been working with Jerry Cantrell and noted how his creative process inspired you, specifically the purity of what he does. When you look at the purity of Mirrorcell, is there any specific moment you're especially proud of how it came out?
This isn't an insane part or anything, but the vocal process for 'Lowered' with Reba [Meyers] was a microcosm of that idea of being in the moment. We wrote and recorded the vocals within 4 hours. I always write at the moment, but that was particularly in the moment. We recorded literally one minute after writing it, so when I hear the song I can remember the specific moment I was in when I think about the vocals. It was frenetic and exciting. We had an explosion of 'in-the-moment' energy, thanks to the deadline we had.
Solo work is all an exercise of trusting your instincts. I realized you can't second guess shit. There is a thin line between doing improvisation badly and over-processing everything. You need the middle ground because it's a field-based thing. You can't teach it: you need to trial-and-error it and trust yourself. In one solo record, you grow more than you did with a bunch for a band.
Any plans on what's coming in terms of The Black Queen or Killer Be Killed, or are you focusing on your solo efforts right now? Maybe some other unrealized projects further down the road?
I'm starting to book shows for the solo project right now. Otherwise, I honestly don't feel like writing right now and haven't since we finished recording Mirrorcell. Cantrell's project has been taking a lot of my time, and between that and the solo record happening at the same time, it's a fucking lot. So the thought of even writing music isn't even crossing my mind. I need to collect myself whenever I have downtime. There's some process with a Black Queen record, but nothing explosive or anything, just a bunch of starting points. They're waiting on me, honestly, but whatever. We have to move on things when they're hot. Killer Be Killed is impossible right now. I see Ben Koller all the time because we both live in LA. When things happen, they will happen, but everyone is too busy. That's the great thing about focusing on my solo outfit now: it moves when I want it to move.
Pick up Mirrorcell on limited-to-300, orange with white splatter vinyl.