"I feel very close to who I was at 15, before I ever thought of myself as a singer." That's Greg Puciato talking about the origins of his debut solo album, Child Solider: Creator of God. "Back then, I just loved playing guitar," he says. "But I never considered myself a guitar player, either. And then I started singing. At some point, you start to integrate every part of yourself and stop trying to define yourself. Maybe I'm just me and I don't need to pick a fucking thing."
We're at the Golden Gopher, one of the oldest watering holes in Los Angeles. Originally called the Golden Sun Saloon, the place was famously purchased by Teddy Roosevelt back in 1905. Today, it's just reopening after months of lockdown. (Less than a week later, L.A. bars will shut down again due to a spike in COVID-19 cases.) Puciato and I sit at a table — actually it's a repurposed tabletop arcade game — across from the bar, wearing bandanas over our faces. It's the first time I've been in a bar since March, and it's strange getting used to the new protocols: no ordering at the bar itself, keep your mask on when you interact with your server or walk to the bathroom, mask off when you're enjoying your cocktail.
Pandemic awkwardness aside, the occasion of Puciato's first solo record is a significant one. During a recent creative spurt, the former Dillinger Escape Plan vocalist found himself writing music that wasn't appropriate for either of his current projects — the electronic-based the Black Queen or metal supergroup Killer Be Killed. At first, anyway. "Some of these songs could've obviously been Black Queen songs, but if I did that, it would've defeated the purpose of what I'm trying to push against," he explains. "I wanna resist the idea that a certain song needs to be for a certain project."
Puciato plays everything on Child Soldier except drums, for which he enlisted his Killer Be Killed bandmate (and Converge drummer) Ben Koller, his former Dillinger bandmate Chris Pennie and his friend Chris Hornbrook of Floridian metalcore stars Poison the Well. The songs run the gamut from industrial ragers and electronic pop to Nineties-style alt rock and spare acoustic balladry. Which is one of the reasons why Puciato recently started his own label, Federal Prisoner, with visual artist and frequent TBQ collaborator Jesse Draxler: "I'm aware that there's people who don't know what to do with artists who write all different kinds of music," he says.
In a wide-ranging conversation, we spoke with Puciato about the inspiration behind Child Soldier, his newfound friendship with Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell (with whom he performed both Cantrell solo songs and AIC classics in December) and his reflections on his time in the Dillinger Escape Plan. "Not being married to band members means not having to compromise," he points out. "But that also means that you're not able to benefit from where that compromise might take you — which is often a thing you wouldn't have thought of yourself. But the flipside is being able to do whatever the fuck you want."
YOU DIDN'T ACTUALLY SET OUT TO WRITE A SOLO ALBUM. HOW DID YOU END UP WITH ONE?
GREG PUCIATO We had just finished the new Killer Be Killed record, which I wrote more for than I ever have in the past, and I just felt like I wanted to keep writing. I didn't have a specific idea of what I wanted to do, but the songs that came out didn't feel like Killer Be Killed. They didn't feel like the Black Queen — well, a couple of them did later, but not at first. They didn't feel like anything I had a vessel for — and they started to accumulate. So I felt like, OK, now's the time to open up a lane that's like a catchall creatively that doesn't have any pressure. There's no limitation. Because as crazy as Dillinger was, there was still limitation — which is obviously why something like the Black Queen started. So I wanted ultimate freedom. I wanted to make something without prior expectations, without commercial expectations.
YOU WERE ORIGINALLY GOING TO PUT THIS RECORD OUT UNDER THE MONIKER OF "CHILD SOLDIER" INSTEAD OF USING YOUR OWN NAME. BUT NOW CHILD SOLDIER IS PART OF THE ALBUM TITLE. WHAT HAPPENED?
I was going to use the name Child Solider because I've always felt guilt about becoming a focal point in Dillinger Escape Plan. There was an inordinate amount of attention on me — and on singers in general, whether it's fair or not. So I was gonna use a moniker for this record, even if I'm doing all of it, because I didn't wanna be like, "Hey, look at me!" But I also kinda thought how silly it would be if Nine Inch Nails was called "Trent," you know? [Laughs] But if you look at pop, country, rap — any other genre — people have zero problems using their own name. It's only in rock and metal that people feel like they have to come up with this moniker.
HOW DID YOU TURN THE CORNER?
Jerry Cantrell convinced me to use my own name, which was a huge deal for me. When I started doing shit with Jerry, I thought how silly it would be if Jerry Cantrell's solo record was called "Chainsaw" or "Garbage Man" instead of his own name. I felt like I needed to break out of that, but I still just couldn't get used to the idea of using my own name. When I asked him about it, he was like, "Why wouldn't you use your name?" It didn't even cross his mind to do it another way, you know? And he was right. This album isn't a collaboration. It's me. So it was time to stop hiding.
THAT WASN'T THE ONLY WAY CANTRELL AFFECTED THIS RECORD, RIGHT?
I had to put this record on hold to sing with Cantrell, which took me out of my comfort zone in a way that I never anticipated. When I got back to my record, I was in the best vocal shape I'd ever been in because for a month and a half straight, I had to do 20-song rehearsals with Jerry and his band. It was like vocal boot camp, because Jerry will call you out if you have just one weird note. He's a pitch-perfect singer himself, and I've never been in a band with someone like that. It's a whole new level of magnification. He knows exactly what he wants, so I had to really tighten my shit up. But it made me — and my record — better.
WHERE DID THE CHILD SOLDIER NAME COME FROM? IT WAS OBVIOUSLY SIGNIFICANT ENOUGH THAT YOU KEPT IT AS PART OF THE ALBUM TITLE.
I don't know … I had that part a long time ago. It's fucking aggressive — that's how I thought of it at first — but you're also kind of a product of whatever you went through when you were a kid. I feel like most creative people are working through things that are the results of roots that were placed when they were a kid in some regard. So that's the title — you fight on and you can create anything. You can create the life that you want. We're all obviously God, so you can create the universe that you want. You just might have to take things that you might've thought of as struggles or hindrances and use them to your advantage.
YOU HADN'T SPOKEN WITH CHRIS PENNIE — YOUR LONGTIME BANDMATE IN DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN — FOR OVER A DECADE JUST PRIOR TO RECORDING THE TWO SOLO SONGS THAT HE DRUMS ON. IT'S INTERESTING THAT YOU WERE IMMEDIATELY ABLE TO CLICK MUSICALLY AGAIN.
It's totally interesting. The passage of time doesn't matter. You can have that spark with someone and pick it right back up. I hadn't talked with him since like '06, and then I reached out to him at the end of Dillinger — we did this with everyone who'd ever been in the band — to ask if he wanted to come up and do a song with us on the last tour. He was like, "Nah, I'm good." [Laughs] But then the Black Queen played New York on the Infinite Games tour and he showed up. He and I were super good friends in Dillinger, so it wasn't just a creative loss — it was a personal loss when he left. But it's hard to have a relationship with someone when you're in a professional situation that puts you on different paths.
So we hung out backstage after that Black Queen show, and we got obliterated to the level where you can't even stand up. We were laughing about shit that happened 13 years ago as if it were yesterday. And it was so interesting to have that level of personal chemistry with someone I hadn't spoken to in so long. So we just kept it going over text, but we never talked about music until one day I asked him if he still played drums. He has a different life now — he scores commercials and video games and does a lot of VR scoring where he's got, like, 14 different monitors in front of him. So I sent him a couple of tracks that I thought he'd be good for and he did it in, like, two days. And we still talk all the time now.
DILLINGER PLAYED THEIR LAST SHOW AT THE END OF 2017. DO YOU MISS ANYTHING ABOUT THE BAND?
I don't miss the expectation that you have to make a record and go on tour for two or three years. It's like a time warp, dude. You make a record when you're 30, and when you finish touring it, you're 33. But you didn't grow — you only played a bunch of shows. So you end up becoming psychologically trapped at age 24 when you're really 38 because all your life has been in this bubble with these other people who are trapped in there with you and no one's able to grow outside of the bubble.
No matter who I meet from other bands, that's what happens. You only grow as a person when you're not on tour or in the studio, and that's not that much time. You're trying to cram all this growth into the four months you're home, and it's unrealistic. You meet other people your age who have had all this life experience and all you've done is play "Panasonic Youth" 2,000 times. [Laughs] You have all these sick memories, but it's a different reality. So I feel like we've all grown more in the last two years than we have in the previous 10.
But I do miss the intensity of the shows, when we were all in synch and we could all objectively say, "That was sick." And there weren't that many of them that all of us would say that about. But I don't miss being in an active band that takes up 200 percent of my life. And I don't miss the expectation of, "This is your full time thing, and everything else is a side project." Because right now, nothing's a side project and nothing's a full-time thing. So when the inevitable question comes up, "Would you guys ever get back together?" the first thing I say is, "If you knew me, you wouldn't ask that."
YEAH. IT WOULD NEVER OCCUR TO ME TO ASK THAT.
But the other answer is: If it were to happen, it would be in such a drastically different context than what a fan would be thinking of. It wouldn't be about turning a full-time thing on and off. At some point five or six years from now, maybe there will be room in all our lives where this thing can live and we can all be happy with where it's living, but that time does not exist right now. I'd never make one thing the main thing for me ever again. What's exciting to me now is not doing the same thing over and over again. I want to see how I can grow and learn and make myself uncomfortable.
SPEAKING OF NOT HAVING A MAIN THING, TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT THE NEW KILLER BE KILLED RECORD.
We recorded the music in March and April of 2019, and we recorded the vocals in January of this year. So I stopped my own record twice — once to do the Jerry stuff and once to do the Killer Be Killed stuff. The last KBK album came out seven years ago, so the amount of new influence and new things we all brought to the table make it a much more mature and confident record. I barely played guitar on the last Killer Be Killed record, but I played guitar with Max on every song this time, and every solo is me — and actually there's one song that Max doesn't even play on.
TO THAT END, IT SEEMS LIKE YOU'VE BEEN ON A ROLL LATELY — STARTING A LABEL, DOING A SOLO RECORD, RECORDING A NEW KBK ALBUM, PERFORMING WITH JERRY CANTRELL. YOU EVEN SELF-PUBLISHED A BOOK OF POETRY AND PHOTOGRAPHY, 2019'S SEPARATE THE DAWN ...
When I was a kid, if you told me that in 2020 I'd be in a band with Max Cavalera and sing with Jerry Cantrell, I would've been like, "What — am I in a coma? Am I hallucinating?" But it's come from putting myself in a position where those possibilities are there, and striving to better yourself so you create those opportunities and you're ready for them when they come. You have to stay in love with the thing that you're doing so you're not forcing yourself to do something that you hate. You can hear it when good bands start making bad records. It becomes a way of making money, of paying the bills. They're not committed to it as a life. But I feel just as amped about writing songs and recording and playing shows as I did when I was a kid.