How much can a band do with three chords? After all these years of rock
Sugarcult shows us that there's LOTS of life left in the old two guitars, bass
and drum format. Say what you want about attitude and posturing, one listen to
the jumpin' power punk pop energy of their first major release, Start Static,
will tell you that Sugarcult has the mystery ingredient that makes a great band.
Oh and the name of the band? It seems that once upon a time there were seven
lesbians living across the hall from Tim. Their name for themselves was, you
guessed it, the "Sugar Cult."
Citing influences like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, combined with the strong
melodies and simplicity of early 90's grunge, Sugarcult is composed of lead
singer and songwriter Tim Pagnotta, guitarist Marko 72, bassist Airin and
drummer Ben Davis. Each perfectly complements the others in a whirlwind of
teenage angst and garage band frenzy, except that they're not a garage band
After getting out of the Start Static sessions in June they've spent nearly all
their time on the road, first with the Van Warped tour, then warming up for
Blink 182 and currently they are co-headlining with Home Grown on a tour of the
West Coast. Another step up in public awareness will come when their song
Bouncing Off The Walls is featured on the soundtrack for the new National
Lampoon movie, Van Wilder. A newly re-recorded version of "Bouncing" with the
help of Marc Trombino will be released as a single February 5th.
Singer songwriter Tim was good enough to talk to Cosmik in between all these
events, in one of those rare moments he's not driving their van to the next
venue. That's right, they still drive their own equipment van themselves! You
gotta love 'em.
Cosmik: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I reviewed your album
in Cosmik's in December's issue...
Tim Pagnotta: Oh really? Did we get one star, two stars or what?
Cosmik: Oh you guys were one of the best albums of 2001! I think
that qualifies as four stars.
Pagnotta: Are you sure it's the Sugarcult record?
Cosmik: Yeah! Why, have you been getting bad reviews?
Pagnotta: No, I'm joking. Most all of the reviews have been
pretty good, the only bad one comes from my mom.
Cosmik: Oh really?
Pagnotta: Yeah, she's not really too stoked on the first seven
Cosmik: Has she ever seen you in concert?
Pagnotta: I think she tends to like things that are more mellow
like Yanni or Enya... She doesn't understand the rock. Women sometimes don't,
but she's seen us a couple times in concert. It's pretty funny, the last time
she saw us play was in San Diego at this show, it was sold out and it was one of
the few times where I was really conscious of the fact that I swear a lot on
stage. I'd swear and in the back of my mind I just thought, "Oh, my mom's
watching!" And then after the show she didn't say anything about the swearing.
The only thing she said was, (shifts into Mom voice) "You've got to be very
careful when you jump into the audience. If they don't catch you, you can break
your neck!" Really funny!
Cosmik: Do you do crowd dives often?
Pagnotta: Sometimes. Usually I try to when there's
some people I
know up front 'cause a lot of times there's like small girls are the ones that
push their way to the front of the crowd. I won't land on a fifteen year old
Cosmik: They can be a little on the scrawny side. By the way my
daughter is nine and my boy is twelve and they love the record as much as I do.
I played the
Stuck In America video for them the other day, and now every time
they get on my computer it's like, "Where is the Sugarcult video?"
[Ed.Note: First link is to the sound clip, second is to the video.]
Pagnotta: Oh cool!
Cosmik: I wanted to ask you a couple of general questions about
the band and how you guys came together. First off when I think of power punk I
don't think of Santa Barbara. How did you guys start out there?
Pagnotta: I don't think we sound anything like Santa Barbara.
Some bands have a regional sound; I think our sound is defined by our record
collections rather than by our living a couple miles away from the beach. Santa
Barbara is just a place where we all kind of met. I moved there from the San
Francisco area and our drummer moved there from Colorado. Our bass player was in
Ventura. The only person in our band that's actually from Santa Barbara is our
guitar player, Marko. We all got together in Santa Barbara, which seems pretty
small. There were a few bands playing around town and I met the guys outside a
class on a cigarette break. Then we met up with Marko who's our fourth guy and
rented out [the practice space for] the band a few months later.
Cosmik: What year was this?
Pagnotta: This is like three years ago, '99, '98. Then we started
playing a lot, playing anywhere we could. We played at weddings. There were a
couple of gigs, or actually a lot where our drummer was playing jazz, he was the
drummer in a jazz band and when the other jazz musicians were out of town we
would secretly book this gig at this hotel. We'd bring our home stereo speakers
as our PA because we were so cheap. We would play lounge-jazz versions of our
songs. We have newspaper clippings and pictures of us playing these really
mellow bossanova versions of our songs at the time.
Cosmik: Like a bossanova "Stuck in America?"
Pagnotta: We didn't have that song then, but we had
songs that we
still play live now like "Debby Was A Lesbian." It was cool; we can still
probably play those in that style. It was a blast because it happened to be that
our look back then, small suits and skinny ties like a late 70's new wave punk
kind of image, it lent itself perfectly to playing in this hotel bar up on State
Street in Santa Barbara, a couple miles away from the beach. It was pretty fun.
At the time I was a little embarrassed [thinking] "Omigod, we're doing anything
for money!" because we were so poor we needed to pay for our rehearsal space.
Cosmik: I'd love to hear some of that bossanova stuff on a
record! In general I think there needs to be a little humor, a short ditty or
something tossed into every record because most bands take themselves SO
seriously and never crack a smile.
Pagnotta: Entertainment isn't supposed to be all that serious, I
mean it can be, but it's not the kind I like.
Cosmik: I'm always interested in process, how a song gets from
here to there. How did something like "Stuck In America" get written?
Pagnotta: "Stuck In America" came together so fast! [It] was
written one morning. I guess I really wrote it in a couple minutes in the
bathroom. It was written so fast, sometimes you take a guitar into the bathroom
[when] you know you're going to be in there for a couple of minutes. I think
from the time that I strummed the first chord to like the finishing, exact same
arrangement and everything that's on the record, was like fifteen, twenty
minutes one morning. I was so pissed off that was the single because as a
songwriter some songs come together over a period of a couple weeks with bits
and parts written here and there, and the band and I work our asses off to make
them what we thought would be perfect songs, you know, with fine tuned little
segues. We'd really spent a lot of time on them, a lot considering we were a
Cosmik: One of the things I like about a song like that is that
it's really crisp all the way through, it doesn't waste any energy at any point,
it's always pumpin'. Something that bothers me about a lot of songs that are
designed for radio, I hate fade-outs, and yours has that nice crisp ending to
it. It's complete and there's nothing that needs to be added to it.
Pagnotta: Fade-outs can be a little Daryl Hall and
You listen to a Rick Springfield record, actually I like him a lot, Working
Class Dog is a pretty cool pop record, but I think every song is a fade out.
Cosmik: How long does it normally take the band to dial in a song
like "You're The One" or "Bouncing Off The Wall?"
Pagnotta: "You're The One" was pretty fast. I write the songs and
bring them to the band, you know, on acoustic and I think my attitude is usually
that if the song is good it's pretty much implied or a no-brainer putting the
rest of it together. You can't really fuck up a good song.
Cosmik: Do you always start out with lyrics first?
Pagnotta: Um, the vocal melody and the lyric idea is the first
thing that comes down. And maybe the lyrics won't be entirely finished, but
there's a pretty good understanding of how the syllables are going to scan.
Pretty much it comes together all at the same time. I'll sit down and write a
song and kinda jam it out with whatever comes to mind at the time.
Cosmik: A lot of the lyrics in your songs are about busted
relationships or somebody doing somebody else wrong. Is there a particular
relationship of yours that provided inspiration for all those songs?
Pagnotta: (Answers slowly) Yeah there was one that left me a
little bitter. But I think I pretty much try to write about life as a social
business and a lot of people can understand being burned in a relationship. You
know um, sometimes it feels a little hokey to write songs about being in love,
at least for me it is. Sometimes it sticks and sings a little bit better when
it's more negative.
Cosmik: One of the other things about "Stuck In America," does it
feel strange to sing a line like "everybody's talking 'bout blowing up the
neighborhood," in the wake of September's events?
Pagnotta: No. It doesn't feel weird to sing it
because it has
absolutely nothing to do with that. And I don't feel like, you know... (pauses)
sometimes I have two different opinions. I am very sensitive right now to
obviously what's happened on September 11th and we had to change part of the
line in the song because I knew that people were going to be really sensitive
about it. I didn't want people to get the wrong impression of the song. At the
same time the song has absolutely nothing to do with that. It's not really an
anti-American song. It's a song about being young and bored and kind of a pissed
off, confused adolescent. "Stuck In America" is something that everyone can kind
of relate to. It's just really an observation of how discontent you can be in
your town. You feel bored. We travel a lot and it seems like no matter where we
are, we can be playing in Bakersfield where in the summertime there's an odor
that's disgusting. It gets hot out there all the time or when we're playing in
Santa Barbara a mile away from the beach, there's just kids that are feeling
bored and pissed off, that are feeling real misdirected and don't know really
what they want to do with their lives. There's been times, I'm in my twenties
and I play music for a living, [that] I feel that same way. And like I'll ask
myself, "I wonder what I'll be when I grow up?" So that's kind of how that song
came out and that's what I was trying to get across in the song. The line about
everybody blowing up the neighborhood was supposed to just be a line, a metaphor
for feeling restless in your neighborhood, wanting to fuck shit up.
Cosmik: When you referred to what you want to be when you grow
up, that's actually one of my joke questions. Have you decided?
Pagnotta: I have no idea. As long as I can pull this off for a
few more years, playing music. You know, before I played music every single day
and I didn't get paid for it, so that's why I say "pulling it off," because it
feels almost like a joke that I actually get paid to do what I'd normally be
doing. If I was working full time and had to come home and sneak in a few hours
of songwriting before I went to bed...(trails off)
Cosmik: You guys have been touring pretty heavily for the last
half year and I see on your schedule there's a lot more to come.
Pagnotta: We've been touring since June, almost every single day.
We're home for a few days, playing all around California and the West.
Cosmik: How's the band holding up?
Pagnotta: Our band has this disgusting odor from
all this touring
that we can't get out. It's funny because we don't have a trailer for our van;
we pile everything in it so it seems like every band [says] "Omigod, you guys
don't even have a trailer?" Some of the tours we've done we've been following
buses around America where like the band doesn't drive or do anything because
they have this paid driver. All he does when we're at a venue is sleep in a
hotel room somewhere and then when [all the bands] leave, their driver just
drives all night long and here we are driving all day, playing all night,
driving all day, playing all night. You get pretty burnt out pretty fast. You
kind of run on autopilot and look forward to any gas station that sells Red
Cosmik: Do you think that's going to change now that there's a
single on the movie soundtrack?
Pagnotta: After we turn into the worldwide sensation megastars
that we've planned on becoming, I think things will change then. I kinda want to
bypass the bus and go straight to the Lear Jet. We'll fly into these kinds of
all ages punk rock shows and land on the roof. Put a twist to this whole DIY
image that we have.
Cosmik: You were on the Warped Tour last summer, with 311 and a
bunch of others?
Pagnotta: 311, Jimmy Eat World, Sum 41, New Fat Glory and Rancid
and a bunch of other bands.
Cosmik: How did you hold up?
Pagnotta: It was great yeah, it was really good. It was our first
tour. [When] we got out of the studio with our record, we didn't know how people
were going to react to it, you know nationally because we had just been playing
around the West Coast and we thought we have some great songs here and we want
to show them to the world, to every kid in America, cause we're proud of them.
The response was great, people dug it and like you know umm, when it's time to
write a second record we know what people like about our band. We'll use that
and embellish that on future recordings.
Cosmik: It must have been good to hang out with bands of the next
higher echelon too.
Pagnotta: It was cool to be playing shows with
bands that I have
in my record collection. That was definitely you know, neat. It was fun to be
having lunch with all these people that you see in magazines or TV but within
about the first day, all the myths that you may have in mind or whatever comes
out and you just realize that people eat, sleep and use the bathroom just like
the rest of us. They're really no different. What you see on stage is not
necessarily what you see in a conversation.
Cosmik: One of the more interesting songs on the record because
it was such a change from the tone of the others was
I Changed My Name. What's behind that one?
Pagnotta: Well, that song actually and the hidden track with the
horns on it were written and recorded a couple of years ago like when the band
was brand new and we had never even played a gig yet. We recorded them in our
dingy practice space with just a small home recorder device. The producer [Matt
Wallace] wanted to put them on the record because he loved them. He thought the
songs were great and we said "but we should re-record these things if we can use
the studio that's like $1000 a day, why don't we make it sound like a million
bucks?" He was like, "Well, the whole point of the song sounding so cool is that
it sounds really honest and kind of spooky or creepy, and I don't know if we'll
be able to get that if we re-record it, because the magic usually only strikes
I wrote that song while I was living in Portland. I was depressed I was having a
hard time sleeping. I went through this phase where I had a really bad time
sleeping for about six weeks because I was having bad tinnitis, with my ears
ringing. I had to see a doctor and get Xanax. The things that your mind
daydreams about when you're not well rested are kind of creepy. I think the song
with the imagery of turning the pillow over to find the cold spot, things that
everyone, you know, people can relate to quote-unquote weird shit. You know
because the human body, the human mind is capable of experiencing tons of
different kinds of emotions and sometimes those emotions can be, you know, not
pleasant and they're totally natural. You know they say, the difference between
someone who's like a schizophrenic or a psychopath is the level at which they
experience those different emotions. Everybody who's "normal" has experienced
these emotions; it's just the imbalance of those which makes people really
different. So in that song it's just... I wanted to give people a little
different turn on the record because some of the songs previous to that on the
album [have] cord progressions that are a little bit more in a major key; they
sound a little more happy. I thought putting a song like that last kind of opens
another door for your next record where if we have a few more songs like that,
it's not entirely left field.
Cosmik: What was the name of the hidden track?
Pagnotta: It's called Underwear. It's the last song on the
record and we recorded that in our practice space also when we were taking music
classes in Santa Barbara. It's kind of a jazz song and we used one of our music
professors. He came down and played trumpet in our studio, it sounded really
good. A lot of people like that song too. It seems like our fans are young
people where you wouldn't expect them to be interested in like sophisticated
chord progressions or that style of music, but that's the beauty of being a
band. In capturing the people's attention, once you have their attention you can
really turn them on to new things, a horn or a jazz chord or a clean guitar
sound as opposed to always peppy hit singles.
Cosmik: What do you have planned for the next CD then? Is it
going to be more power pop or perhaps some covers of things?
Pagnotta: I don't know. We don't have any songs yet. I have a
couple of ideas that I'm working on. I just want to... (trails off) I've never
been impressed with bands that are apologetic for the sound of the first record
so that on the second record they try to make it dirty, ugly and noisy indie
sounding thing. I want to keep people still excited about our band and I feel
that the only way to do that is to you know, give them their favorite thing with
a different twist on it. I thing we'll use a different producer, that will
change the sound a little bit. But I like power pop, I like songs that are
catchy, I like songs that are fun or funny or sarcastic in a fun way. I just
wanna continue pushing buttons and writing songs.