I first encountered Little Rock native John Pugh — though I didn't realize it at the time — on a song called "Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story)," which my older brother's girlfriend put on a mix CD we listened to in approximately 2003. The band's name was !!!, which I found equally frustrating and funny. Pugh, the band's drummer, left the group after it had helped spearhead the New York dance-punk revival of the early aughts, and formed another band with Madeline Davy, Free Blood, which released its own brand of tense, wry, adventurous dance music via the highly regarded DFA Records. "There's definitely a party aspect," Pugh told New York Magazine of their music, "and probably a sex aspect as well." His latest project, Vision Control, further explores the outer limits of future funk and mutant indie rock. He'll be at Maxine's in Hot Springs at 8 p.m. Thursday (with The Bloodless Cooties) and will play a record release show at the White Water Tavern at 9 p.m. Friday (with The Bloodless Cooties and The Alpha Ray).
In the last several years, you've gone from being in a band with several members (!!!) to being in a duo (Free Blood) and then now finally a solo project. It's a clear antisocial trend. Is this deliberate?
Yes, very deliberate. But not for antisocial reasons. Going solo could be construed as pro-social since I'm not creating within the bubble of the "group." Instead I've tried to use Vision Control as an excuse to socialize and collaborate with friends and associates I admire and am inspired by, but who don't necessarily have the time to commit to a full-on band experience. For my upcoming releases I got Arkansas expat Ryan Seaton (Soophie Nun Squad, Rainy Day Regatta, Callers and many more) to play and help arrange saxophones. I'm conspiring to build a whole sextet of saxophones using him as well as other players I know. This is no doubt involving a lot of healthy socializing.
You've maintained a connection with Little Rock over the years, despite having moved away over a decade ago and having been part of other, more visible or celebrated music scenes since — you brought !!! to the Belvedere, contributed to the zine Fluke long after you left, continue to release music through Max Recordings and Fast Weapons, you're playing a Thick Syrup Records showcase. What is it about Little Rock?
I actually have only in the last few years reconnected with my Little Rock brethren after a decade of being absent. My folks moved to the U.K. in the late '90s, and I was bouncing around on tour so I never had the chance to swing through town and see people and keep up with who was in what band and who was dating who and who had a baby with who, etc. I felt really out of the loop and took it for granted that Little Rock would always be there in exactly the same state I left it in (in 1997). Well, time has marched on and my folks moved back to town, so now I'm making up for lost time, I guess.
Little Rock is, of course, very different, but the creative soil is so fertile that it is very familiar to find folks I know and some I'm just getting to know making noise that could only come from this town. It has always had a contradictory stripped-down/everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style that I just love. Vision Control is definitely directly influenced by all my musical and personal experiences I had while living here. I feel really blessed to have the support of folks like Nathan [Howdeshell], Burt [Taggart], Matthew [Thompson], Travis [McElroy] and everyone else who has helped me reconnect and contribute something new to the mix. Even though I've been in N.Y.C. for nearly 15 years, I'm still an Arkansan, dammit!
Here's a partial, likely inaccurate list of Little Rock punk bands you were in, according to the Internet: Jet Jangua, Rat Fink a Boo Boo, Red Brigade, Uptown Prophets, Crown of Glory, No City No State, The Freshmakers, The Divine Hookup, Rebel Android, Third Sleeper Is the Brain, The Ventilators, The Cutthroats, Basement Water Nightmare Band. How were you so prolific? Some of these sound fake. How was this possible?
That list is quite accurate (there are a few you missed) and all those bands definitely existed in the real world (and a couple in conceptually based alternate dimensions). There was a period of time between 1991 and 1996 that I was learning how to play the drums and the guitar and the bass and the microphone as well as songwriting within the punk underground of Little Rock. Luckily I had friends around who were willing to both teach me what they knew and let me show them some of my weird ideas. That was what it was to be in a band at that time: playing for your friends (or soon-to-be friends), then listening to them play while inventing new ways of interacting via sonic politics. Plus a relatively sleepy Southern metropolis with an abundance of restless kids makes anything possible!
Your first single as Vision Control, "Blaspheme Part I," was billed as being "based on events that occurred at the Little Rock Riverfront Park between the years 1991 and 2992." Care to elaborate?
The downtown "business district" of Little Rock seemed to always be struggling post-suburbanization to "revitalize." I grew up in the Quapaw Quarter, so I got to see firsthand these attempts. They paved Main Street and made it a walking plaza in the '70s, which only seemed to attract the homeless and intrepid skate rats. Then they came up with the downtown mall in the '80s, in which I spent a lot of time eating hot dogs and buying Far Side T-shirts, alone. Around that time they also created the Riverfront Park, which was beautiful but I suspect was only fully experienced by most folks once a year during Riverfest. In the early '90s it became evident that Vino's was not interested in booking punk bands unless Fugazi or Green Day was in town, and we were running out of church basements and women's city clubs to put on shows.
So one night someone (who is that person, I wonder?) suggested we try going down to the Riverfront Park where the homeless and skate rats had migrated and plug into one of the outlets that were everywhere. It worked, and so we kept going back, either to the amphitheater or the Belvedere, and doing our thing, for the most part unnoticed. Again it was a very open and supportive atmosphere to create in. Everyone was valued and encouraged to contribute, if not musically then through a homemade zine or taking photos or making videos or giving out super-dollared sodas or just maintaining the peace and having fun. "Blaspheme Part I" is a mini-tribute to that era and all the eras that followed and shall follow into the deep future. I was trying to encapsulate the feeling you get when you are getting ready to go out and meet your friends (or just dive into a crowd of strangers) for a night that seems charged with possibility and destined for L.O.V.E.
You're known for making dance music, though it seems like the Towncraft-era Little Rock scene you were a part of wasn't particularly danceable. Was there a Little Rock dance culture?
It's funny to think of Towncraft-era Little Rock as not particularly danceable, because we danced a lot! Just not so much at shows. After Fugazi taught us to stop slam dancing, punks spent most shows clutching their arms in a perpetual slouch as a form of appreciation for a band. But after the show or on nights we were just bored we would be in the kitchen dancing to James Brown's "20 Greatest Hits" or The Ventures or whatever Blues Explosion record had just come out. Still it took us a while to loosen up and figure out how to boogie to hardcore. Soophie Nun Squad definitely helped. Now it seems like the parameters are wide open and punk is less repressed. I definitely consider Vision Control dance music, although it is conspicuously drum-less. I am obsessed with repetition and polyrhythm and wanted to see if I could create a maximal musical landscape using only a minimum of elements (guitar, voice, feedback, pedals). The result is hopefully something you can move to. Not for the dance club necessarily but maybe for a house party in your kitchen ....
What is the Deep Stomp Radio Hour and, more importantly, what is the 24-Hour Sound Room?
The Deep Stomp Radio Hour is an online radio show I started this year that can be heard at mixcloud.com/deepstomp. It is music that I have found speaks to me on a spiritual level. Much of it existed in the 20th century, manifesting in a variety of styles such as psychotronic bop, boogie fuzz and first-wave trash. It is definitely built for both the dance club and the kitchen.
The 24-Hour Sound Room is a project I am working on that consists of a free-standing room that has speakers of varying sizes embedded in the walls, ceiling and floor. The idea is that sound wave frequencies are fed into the room, creating a sonic environment for the body rather than the ears. I've had some profound experiences at really loud punk shows and really loud dance clubs that have awakened me to the physical presence of sound. It started me thinking about the possibility of music as pure vibration and what kind of impact that has on us as humans. To titillate, to nauseate, to torture, to massage, to debilitate ... The first phase of this project is Vibrational Drum Tests, which Vision Control has been performing live as a kind of primer in pure vibrational music. The evolution of this project is posted on my blog (24hoursoundroom.tumblr.com). I encourage anyone interested in the details to check it out. And especially if there are folks who have expertise in acoustics, speaker-building, woodworking, sound art installation, etc. I would love to hear from you. I am operating in a field I refer to as "punk science," in that everything I am doing is based on what I have taught myself in cramped practice spaces full of speakers. I unfortunately have no formal training.