Peanut Butter (Photo: Beth Howe)

Peanut Butter (Photo Credit: Beth Howe)

I first spotted Peanut Butter guitarist/singer Paul Bugala during my freshman year at Ohio University.  He was hard to miss since he was basically the college age doppelganger of Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and “The Sweater Song” was blaring out of almost every dorm room window.  Somewhere along the way we became fast friends, road trip buddies, and requisite wingmen.  The girls and beer didn’t last, but our friendship and love of music kept us in touch over the years.  So when I heard Paul’s band with drummer Dave Diaz had an album on the horizon I was naturally pumped.  When I heard that Devin OCampo (Beauty Pill, Faraquet, Mary Timony) was at the helm I lost my shit.  And when I finally got a copy of the record it was everything I hoped it would be; a skilled exhibition of thoughtful songwriting with gangbuster instrumentation that balances carefully between 90s indie rock, and classic modern rock.

 

I caught up with Paul and Dave to ask them some questions about their stellar record, their gang of live contributors, being in the studio with OCampo, Henry Rollins’ birthday and the differences between making music a decade or two ago vs. today.  Here is the result of that meeting of the minds.

 

You Indie: How did you begin playing music with Dave?  What is it about his style that compliments your strengths as a musician and songwriter?

 

Paul Bugala: We met through Dave’s fiancée Beth, who goes to the same church (St. Stephen of the Incarnation in Washington) as my wife and I did.

 

I am very intuitive as a musician and songwriter. Dave has this really unique ability to pick up on what I’m trying to do, give that structure, and then tell a story of his own (and on a two-piece kit, no less).

 

You Indie: Peanut Butter has invited a few collaborators to share the stage with you at live outings right?  Can you tell us about those folks?

 

PB: Yep. We have lots of talented friends. We’ve played with Toby Fallsgraff of Daddy’s Gonna Kill Ralphie (myspace.com/daddysgonnakillralphie) several times and he is on the new record. Toby is a fellow Ohio University and Cleveland guy who is a fantastic songwriter with an amazing ear. Becky Warren of The Great Unknowns (greatunknowns.com) has helped us out a few times and is on the record as well. She is a remarkable singer and songwriter and just a force of nature. Our friend Paxton Styles has chipped in at a couple shows. He has more or less just jumped up on stage and flowed over what we were doing, which has been amazing. Of course, my ambassador of quan Josh “The Communist” Slobin of Conspiracy of Beards (conspiracyofbeards.com) sang with us when he was in town in December. Our friend and guitar wizard Keith Slack has also lent a hand and we’ve had folks from the bands we’ve played with sit in here and there. I have a list of other folks around town whom I hope we can rope in sooner or later. So, this is fair warning.

 

You Indie: How did you decide that Devin Ocampo was the right guy for the job?

 

PB: Our friend Matt Johnson from Imperial China (impchin.com) suggested that we should work with him. He has done an amazing job on their records, particularly Phosphenes and Methods, and has he been one of my favorite musicians since I heard him first in college.

 

You Indie: Were you nervous to put your songs up for review and possible critique by a guy whose personal output you’ve been a fan of?  Was it intimidating to be in a studio that had been used by so many of your favorite bands/musicians?

 

PB: I definitely was nervous at first, but we have a lot of confidence in what we do and once we got down to work making the record the best it could be was all that mattered.

 

David Diaz: The first thing you notice at Devin’s studio (Treehouse Studio – myspace.com/devinocampo) is how absolutely absorbed he is with the business of music and recording.  While this is probably true of many studios, Devin takes it to another level.  The fact that he’s not just an engineer, but an active musician, really adds to the vibe.  He’s got drum, guitar, and bass equipment everywhere, and it all appears as if it has just been played. The one thing that makes it especially intimidating is that he’s not just a musician — if you listen to any of his recordings on various instruments – he is a damn near virtuoso.  This is true both technically and creatively — on vocals, drums, guitar, and bass. He knows the tricks and short-comings of every player who’s involved in the process.  At the same time, there’s a certain comfort in that you know you’re in good hands. 

 

You Indie: Did I hear that Devin Ocampo played on a couple tracks on the Peanut Butter record?

 

DD: Yes, he played beautifully on it.  We knew going in to the recording that the album would need some bass.  We envisioned just laying some simple lines that basically follow the root notes of chords and whatnot — just to give it some decent bottom end.  But Devin went nuts with the bass and added a whole new dimension to some of the songs.

You Indie:  The album is self-titled, correct?  Is there an underlying theme that runs through this record?

PB: Yep, the album is self-titled. Musically, I tried to do something I’ve never been able to do before on every song. So, what you’re hearing in terms of guitar and songwriting is us trying to challenge ourselves to think differently and grow a little. Lyrically, both Dave and I are big fans of the unreliable narrator. So, while there are some songs with pretty straight-forward lyrics like “Hey Kids” or “Mothers and Daughters,” there are others like “Slope” or “Francis Xavier” in which you can’t trust everything you hear. With all that said, it was really important to us that the vocals served the song melodically before we got to wrapped up in any deep meaning. It has been a while since the days when either of us got really worked up about pop music lyrics. Instead, we wanted to share the fun we had making the record without weighing it down with our unsolicited opinions.

 

You Indie: I don’t want to be presumptuous but I hear some Superchunk, Pinback and Pavement influence in your sound.  Who would you say are your primary musical influences?

 

PB: Wow, thanks.

 
Honestly, I’m not very familiar with Pinback, but I’m a fan of Superchuck and Pavement. When I think of those two bands what springs to mind is the ability to carry strong melodies and songwriting through some interesting and, especially in the case of Pavement, sometimes challenging musical terrain. I definitely think those are things to which we aspire. We don’t really capture what these bands do, but some of what we try to do comes from listening to XTC, fIREHOSE, The Jam, Billy Bragg, CSN&Y, The Band, Thin Lizzy, The Police, maybe a little Elliott Smith, Geoff Farina, Cash Money, Throwing Muses, Husker Du, J Robbins, Devin Ocampo or the Sea and Cake. I don’t know. Of course, Dave was in a prog rock band in Pensacola called Shut Eye for a long time, so if you asked him I’m sure he’d have a different list. With that said, we’re a two piece. Dave plays a two-piece drum kit and on most songs I’m finger-picking an electric guitar.  So, while our pretty diffuse influences may be more obvious in certain songs, we hope our set up and arrangements put a distinctive mark on what we’re doing.

 You Indie: Who is singing the lead line on “Slope”?

 

PB: Mr. David Diaz, Esq.

 

Peanut Butter (Photo Credit: Beth Howe)

Peanut Butter (Photo Credit: Beth Howe)

 

You Indie: “Francis Xavier” is significantly heavier than the other songs on the first half of the record.  Was the placement of that track in the middle of the record purposeful?  Who is the song about?

 

PB: “Francis Xavier” is where it is to provide a little balance. The track sequence reminds me more of a set list than your old fashioned album sequence in which you have an A-side and a B-side. So, “Francis Xavier” is intended to pick up the pace a little bit between “Breathe” and “Children of the Vanguard.”

 

The music for “Francis Xavier” came first. In fact, parts of it are from a song I used to play in coffee shops. Dave and I tinker with songs endlessly and we decided to play “Francis Xavier” really fast and to throw a bunch of overdrive all over it. My old lyrics didn’t fit the song anymore at that point. So, I just pulled some ideas together that corresponded to what I was hearing melodically. So, as it stands, it’s more of a really short story about a father and son than a portrait of any particular person.

 

You Indie: “Children of the Vanguard” is sort of a country/bluegrass rave up, and pretty different from the rest of the output on the record.  But it doesn’t seem out of place for some reason – maybe because of the Neil Young-esque bridge towards the end of the song?  Where did the idea for that one come from?

 

PB: Thanks.

 

“Children of the Vanguard” is a revision of a song I used to play in a little project called Go Slow Children (myspace.com/goslowchildren) with a former contributor to Bettawreckonize and current member of the fabulous Leonard Cohen tribute chorus Conspiracy of the Beards by the name of Josh Slobin.

 

This song was one of the rare occasions where the words came first and amounted to a really clear narrative. I had just read a book about the Battle of Blair Mountain and another book by a professor at Ohio University named Geoffrey Buckley called Extracting Appalachia: Images of the Consolidation Coal Company 1910–1945 when I wrote the lyrics. So, that really needed music with a bluegrass feel to it. I don’t have a lot of experience with bluegrass, but I did hear some in Athens, especially when this bluegrass radio show would broadcast from the Front Room on Sundays. So, I just came up with something and worked in a little bass line, as we didn’t have a bass player.

 

We had so much fun recording the ending, which has a riff that’s sort of a classic rock bass line with an overdriven drone. Becky Warren and Toby Fallsgraff helped us with harmonies and whole thing just sends chills down my spine.

 

You Indie: When is the official release date for the record, and where and when is the release party?

 

PB: The record is available now at our bandcamp page peanutbutterrocks.bandcamp.com. The official release will be Friday, February 25 at out show at Velvet Lounge in DC. We’re playing with Toby Fallsgraff and other friends in a band called the Crash Take-off. Of course, we’ll have lots of guests during our set. We’ll also have physical copies of the CD on sale for any donation and free t-shirts.

 

You Indie: In your professional life you are very involved in humanitarian efforts and causes?  Do these efforts ever show up lyrically in Peanut Butter’s output?

 

 PB: Not directly. That is, Dave and I are both really grateful to have the opportunity to play in a band at all and I hope that appreciation for and joy about what we’re doing comes through.  

 

You Indie: Is it tougher being in a band in the pre- or post-internet age?  How about navigating Cleveland or Pensacola’s underground as a teenager vs. DC as an adult?

 

 PB: I don’t think the Internet itself makes things harder. My experience in bands has always been that most of your support comes from your social circles and then grows out from there. I haven’t noticed a big change with that. Of course, it’s an amazing time to be a music fan and that could mean that folks are a little more distracted, but I think all the options folks have may also be opening their minds to different kinds of music.

 

Cleveland and DC have some interesting similarities. Neither has a music industry to speak of, on the level of New York and Los Angeles, but both are sort of regional destinations for creative people. So, while there are talented people around, it’s pretty easy to avoid the careerist sort of folks who have been deluded into thinking they need to “make it” as musicians at all costs.

 

Plenty of bands in DC like Medications, Imperial China, Hume, and Connect the Dots (La, La, La, La) are doing really interesting things. It’s just that the cost of living and lack of a strong youth culture makes building community and supporting creativity more difficult than how I remember things in Cleveland. The scene is further threatened by venue consolidation, booking that favors national acts, and policies like paying bands only based on the number of folks they bring out. All of these things pit one band against another and emphasize being a good marketer over being a good musician.  I know it’s cliché to be down on your local scene, but that’s how I see it.

 

DD: I think it so much harder now, if for no other reason than young folks are just saturated with so much new and diverse kinds of music that they are simply numb to it all — this really hurts the “live experience.”  When I was coming up as a teenager in Pensacola, it was such a big deal to see a live band play, especially an “underground” band because all one could hear was the crap played on top-40 radio or on MTV.  To get access to underground tapes, you had to be involved in a “scene.”  And you had to go to shows, which were very often magical experiences.  Part of that is just being young, but back then, live music from small touring underground acts and even good local acts was SO SO different from what you could hear commercially.  You really felt like you were involved in something important and subversive in a way. Nowadays, kids and young adults can hear and see anything and everything.  You really have to work hard to make your show worth anyone’s while… and I’m not sure if anyone’s got that quite figured out now, given the trouble that so many bands are in these days.

 

Peanut Butter (Photo Credit: Beth Howe)

Peanut Butter (Photo Credit: Beth Howe)

 

You Indie: Henry Rollins turned 50 this year and it got me thinking about how relevant and irrelevant a lot of my punk ideals and idols are to me today.  Are there people or ideas that still resonate with you?  Does the DIY spirit of punk have a shelf-live for you?

 

PB: I think the best aspects of punk ideals are a response to necessity and limitations more than just rebellion. Practically, that means people with a creative imperative finding ways to share that regardless of whether they have the equipment or training that has validated music in the past.  I see that all around me in many different types of music and other walks of life.

 

So, for me punk ideals are about thinking for yourself and moving beyond the things that may hold you back from being honest with yourself and others. I think Devin Ocampo is a good example of someone who combines a commitment to himself with immense talent to create something beautiful that isn’t propped up by the self-destruction or insecurity with which the word punk is too often associated.

 

DD: For me, I don’t know if the DIY principles have held up in any meaningful way.  Getting older and seeing all of your heroes struggle to make a living or to continue to play music really hits home the reality that DIY is a young man’s game, and that eventually, you just have to get a real job…which is a sad thought.  I think all that’s left really is the idea of preserving the live performance as something unique and worth pursuing.  How to continue the pursuit of the live performance I suppose will be a question I’ll continue to ask for as long as I want to keep making this noise.

 

You Indie: I read a recent review of your show at Rock and Roll Hotel where the critic raved about you guys, but also described you as nerdy and said you sound like They Might Be Giants.  Was that an accurate assessment?

 

DD: I think this was totally fair.  Sometimes Paul’s lyrics touch both the emotional and left-brained “logical” description of a subject. This is much harder to do than one might imagine.  We have a song called “This is a Song About Hearts.”  Paul sings about valves and ventricles and the actual shape of a heart. He seems to be flirting both with the literal and figurative aspects of the organ in a somewhat humorous/somewhat touching way.  When you add in our “accountant-like” appearance, and the upbeat punctuation of our tempos, it’s easy to see the comparison to They Might Be Giants…though all of this is an accident, as I wasn’t a major Giants fan growing up, and I don’t believe Paul was either.

 

PB: I agree. Good or bad, it’s just neat to hear someone’s honest response to songs that mean a lot to us. I think it’s especially cool when someone responds to our live performance. As Dave mentioned, we take our live performance very seriously and when that enthusiasm is reciprocated that makes it all worth it.

 

Check out Peanut Butter’s self-titled record here: http://www.peanutbutterrocks.bandcamp.com. And if you are in the DC area head to the Velvet Lounge on Friday, February 25 to see what surprises the band have up their sleeves.  They’ll also be guest DJs on DISSONANCE Radio/Podcast on March 15!