Will Pugh - vocals, guitar, piano, programming
Joseph Pepper - guitars
Nic Hudson - guitars
Kevin Sanders - drums
Ryan Roberts - bass
Talk about building a buzz: by spring of 2006, Epic recording artists CARTEL had garnered coveted promotional slots from Yahoo! Music, AOL Music, and Clear Channel Online. That amplified the Atlanta quintet?s already-heavy online presence, as evidenced by more than a million streams on Absolutepunk.net and more than 50,000 plays in a single day on PureVolume.net. In addition, the companion video for hook-happy lead single "Honestly"-off sharply penned new album CHROMA-was in rotation on MTVU and Fuse, the band had secured on the spot on the 2007 version of the mega-popular Madden NFL video game series and were added to the 2006 Warped Tour lineup.
No wonder Alternative Press hailed them as "A Band You Need To Know."
Their story starts unremarkably enough in the town of Conyers, about 20 minutes outside Atlanta and a place that produces more insurance agents and bankers than rock stars. Drummer Kevin Sanders and guitarist Nic Hudson had known each other since third grade, while the rest of the group all became friends in high school. Sanders, singer Will Pugh and guitarist Joseph Pepper formed the original core of Cartel in high school, but it wasn?t until after a brief hiatus, in 2003, that the five current members banded together and made the band a reality.
"I always wanted to do it, and everybody else felt the same, but it didn?t get off the ground for a long time," recalls Pugh. Even after the group decided to pursue a career, it was difficult to get shows outside of Atlanta. "The only places to play are in the city," says Pugh. "There are no suburban venues, so you end up doing house shows, which always get busted by cops. Plus nobody takes you seriously if you play house shows. Yet getting people to come out to Atlanta to see you is a lot harder. So it was nice to finally get in there and make some waves."
They made their presence felt with 2004?s Ransom, a five-song EP released through the Militia Group. The EP paved the way for Cartel to hit the road and begin stacking up a considerable following around the country, all while becoming a road-tested and explosive live act.
"It?s so much fun playing shows, but I hated being away from home," admits Pugh about those early tours. "It?s hard for me. I was an only child and never really went too far past Georgia or Florida when I was a kid. But getting out on the road is fun, and seeing new things and seeing people I haven?t seen in a while is the best. It?s a blast, and it?s the only way to win fans and become a better band."
The group?s high profile on the road and online only fanned the flames of expectation for Cartel?s first full-length album, CHROMA, which was recorded for Militia Group but acquired for re-release by Epic Records, completing the band?s journey to the musical major leagues. "We just wanted to write an album that would on one hand set itself apart from everything else, but at the same time give everybody enough familiarity that they could latch onto it," says Pugh. "We wanted to write a record where kids didn?t have to skip any songs. I think that was our original goal, to write something that all worked together, not necessarily as a concept album, but that flowed and didn?t feel like a compilation of songs."
Cartel has, remarkably enough, achieved that goal. High-energy opener "Say Anything (Else)" sets that stage for the amazingly natural and undeniable hooks of first single "Honestly," which was written as Pugh was going through a painful breakup. "I was in a contemplative, reflective state, thinking about where this relationship had come from and where it was going," he recalls. "The chorus just kind of jumped out, and then the rest of the lyrics poured out and it was easy to write them from that point on."
Pugh says his spontaneous approach to writing lyrics keeps his songs and the feelings they contain as pure as possible. "Once I start lyrics, I can write a complete song pretty much in 15 minutes," he says. "And I kind of like to leave it at that, because I think that the first things you put on paper are the best things you?re gonna write. After that, you start looking at it and maybe you start to think, ?Oh, I don?t really want people to know that about me.? I like to leave the lyrics very raw."
As straightforward as songs like "Honestly" and "Runaway" are, Chroma also showcases the more expansive side of Cartel?s sound on tracks like "Burn This City," "Save Us" and the epic closing duo of "Q" and "A." The former features an anthemic chorus that builds to a powerful, inspiring finish, while "Save Us" begins with a lush piano intro made all the more moving by Pugh?s earnest, bittersweet vocals. "Q" and "A," meanwhile, is boldly experimental, combining two completely different musical ideas into a mind-bending collage of sounds.
"I think we all wanted to go out and hit a home run right off the bat," says Pugh of the band?s musical ambitions. "We?re different in that we?re striving to progress and be a good rock band, but still have those pop-punk roots in us. I think that we?re doing something that people might not have heard before. We?re just allowing the music to do its own thing, and not holding anything back."