Pujol: How on Earth Do You Write a 21st Century Rock Song? | Feature Interview

Nine tracks into Pujol’s most recent album, KLUDGE, you could say the record finally settles down.

To that point it’s been absolutely eccentric: clear-melodied, but muddly-executed theater. But as the Saddle Creek-released album turns to “Spooky Scary” — a folk song about a man who works the night shift when he really just wants to be in bed with his girlfriend — songwriter Daniel Pujol doesn’t seem to intend the song as a reprieve from the curdling rasp of what preceded it. The song is sweet and placeable on an album that doesn’t any use for tradition. And it’s hardly meant to last.

The “Spooky Scary” follow-up, “Small World,” is a pulsating sprint that rebukes the portrait of the frustrated man, hinging on the lines: “I don’t wanna mistake my world for the whole world.”

The effect is a character arguing with himself. But given the tenants of folk narratives, given how songs about people’s lives so often hit us with authority from songwriters’ mouths, it’s clear Daniel Pujol is also arguing with something else.

Before we go further, you can see it all for yourself on Sunday, as the Nashville band plays Slowdown with Oketo. RSVP here.

“There’s a massive cultural shift toward encouraging each individual person to present their own personal life … as being the impenetrable truth for themselves — that maybe they’re entitled to,” Pujol says on phone this past Monday. “But I don’t think they’re entitled to it. I just think we’ve been provided with the equipment to make it look like we are.”

He’s talking, in large part, about social media and the way it affects identity and human relationships in 2014. Granted, “Spooky Scary” began in a very songwriter-ly place, with Pujol driving home from the Mt. Juliet, Tenn., strip mall where he recorded KLUDGE, watching a 5 a.m. tributary of homeward night shift traffic. Many folk artists could write that song: the everyman growing callouses for the man, while his romantic life can’t be set right. Pujol, though, can scarcely wait a second longer on the album to point at the song’s fallibility.

One way of reading KLUDGE is that it follows one man the entire way through: from explaining he’s just had a shitty year, to describing an identity crisis, to the beautiful, but mangled feel of “Sacred Harp BFK,” which feels like a mucked up Graceland cast-off. We get to know the man pretty well because he’s emptying various sides of his psyche into our view. In a way, the fact that he’s having this realization about not mistaking his world for the whole world means he’s a step ahead of much of mankind. To hear Pujol talk about it is more cultural theory than it is a songwriting investigation.

“[On social media] we’re all performing for an algorithm,” Pujol says. “So it’s debatable as to whether or not performing this way is an obligation for being a part of society. I think [the man is] putting his faith in other people and not necessarily how he accesses other people. A lot of what ‘Kludge’ deals with is wanting to opt out of that … and rediscover what actual communication is.”

Kludge is Pujol’s sophomore follow-up to 2012’s UNITED STATES OF BEING, and it’s certainly for this particular moment. The conversations it tries to have are the ones you have with yourself and when you decide not to tweet something or when you’re deciding whether to eat at a chain or a local spot.

It’s not exactly open lonesome highways, riding the rails or wishing you could fly to your terrestrially-distant lover.

“You can’t solve a problem until you define it,” Pujol says, quoting the thinker and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. And so Pujol seems to resist a certain strain of poetics. Rhyme, meter and high diction are repeatedly crunched over by songs in a grody hurry to raise contemporary questions.

“I do think that there’s a lot of new, great, horrible, interesting things that are going on right now and they haven’t been necessarily written about in a way that’s easy to understand,” Pujol says.

And perhaps the most amazing achievement of this is that Pujol accomplishes it all without ludditism or a feeling of hermitage. He sets a scene for how tricky these rhetorical waters can be.

“Say, you’re driving down the street in Omaha and you’re going through a more developed part of town. Not like where the Saddle Creek office is. But like there’s a McDonald’s, a Subway, a Walmart. How can I address that without having to say these ugly words, like McDonald’s and Subway? The genius of the way the Western world is right now is that so many words and verbs are economic language. They’re brand names. Google is a verb, but it is also a website. So that makes it harder to try and write about the contemporary world and not be doing fucking cross-promotional work for free.”

There’s a line in the album’s second track, “Manufactured Crisis Control,” that Pujol gnashes on over and over in what sounds like punk opera: “The old me and the new me are in a fist fight.”

It’s a battle of identity that songwriters have written entire albums about. Take another Saddle Creek release, Tim Kasher’s The Game of Monogamy, for instance. That feeling of self-war is ripe on the languid 2010 album. Pujol, though, is shouting his logline as his chorus, as in, “Let’s get right to the spoilers.”

Furthermore, KLUDGE linguistically fights against a version of the American rebel troubadour that Pujol sees as entirely co-opted.

“Even the historical context of being a dude with a guitar who has something to say has been so McDonald’s-ed and Coca Cola-ed out, that who gives a shit, man? We’re allowed to do that. I could go out to the fucking capitol with an acoustic guitar and talk shit about every politician ever. What is the utility in that? If I’m gonna go up there in my Bob Dylan costume and using words and presentation style and tone that’s going to make people say, ‘This is like the ‘60s. I’m for the people. He’s for the people … ’ I don’t even think we live in that world anymore.”

For these very reasons, it’s difficult to categorize or outline contemporary peers for Daniel Pujol. KLUDGE is something massive that seems spit from of an uncommon mind. The explanation for the album has to be somewhat pedantic, even if it lands like a pile of perturbed pop music. On the phone, the expletives leak out more and more, as Pujol grows more and more self-possessed in his argument.

“The idea of some underground movement where the social deviant, hyper-beat poet, rock ‘n’ roll male dude with something to say might as well be a democratic politician getting out of limousine with piano keys on his fucking tie,” he says.

To prognosticate, by the time culture, at large, quite knows what to call songwriting this topical, Pujol may well have a reason for why its branding is insidious, and have written another throbbing album as contextually distinct and conceptually dense.