What would you call a year in which your band sold nearly a quarter-million copies of its debut album, scored heavy radio and MTV airplay (including appearances on "TRL" and the network's influential "Discover & Download" program), garnered critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone, USA Today and Alternative Press, launched your first-ever headlining tour and saw fans bum-rush your MySpace site to the tune of 20 million streams?
"I'd call that a pretty damn good year," laughs vocalist/guitarist Will Pugh, whose band CARTEL hit it big in 2006 with debut album CHROMA and hit lead single, "Honestly." For the average artist, such achievements can mark the summation of an entire career-if they're lucky. This Atlanta-based quintet, however, is just getting started.
Their highly anticipated sophomore album, self-titled CARTEL, is an exhilarating blend of sumptuous pop hooks and raw rock thrills with a depth and emotional range that broadens with each listen.
Crackling with the absorbed influences of the Beatles, Radiohead, Beach Boys, and Zeppelin, the album opens with intoxicating leadoff track "The Best," a beautifully spare and compelling song which Pugh says, "Sets the tone for the record. It lets you know right from the beginning that you're not going to get whatever people probably would've expected. We're trying to do something ambitious."
Pugh describes the album's first single, "Lose It," as "a light, airy song. It's basically about a relationship not really gone bad, but the guy hasn't fully committed. It's about losing a good thing because you don't care."
The album was produced by the CHROMA team of Zack Odom and Kenneth Mount and recorded in a "bubble" - a 40' x 40' fiberglass studio erected on Pier 54 in New York, where the band lived and worked during a 20-day session in late spring, all filmed by MTV. Twenty-three video cams tracked the band (rounded out by guitarists Joseph Pepper, Nic Hudson, bassist Jeff Lett and drummer Kevin Sanders) as they made the record and aired the action live on the internet, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
"It was both the oddest thing and the best thing we've ever done," Pugh says. "The whole eccentricity of having cameras follow you 24/7 with your fans, parents, everyone being able to access your lives during those 20 days, while trying to make a record, can get in your head a little bit. We really learned so much about how to exist as a band. We looked at it as a musical experiment. Everything was recorded there except for the Wyclef remix of 'Wasted' that appears at the end of the record - he did that off-site in his own studio."
Adds Sanders: "We were trapped in there. You couldn't go anywhere without people seeing you. Cameras were everywhere, broadcasting our every move live online, which was kinda crazy. The great thing about it was that it gave our fans an opportunity to see us making the album live. We basically put ourselves out there for the world to see."
The resulting record combines Pugh's smart lyrics and warm vocals, lead guitarist Peppers' powerful licks and rhythm guitarist Hudson's steady riffage against a driving backbeat anchored by Lett and Sanders.
About their writing and recording process, Sanders says, "Will has a lot of really rad ideas and we all put it through our little filters and it comes out as a Cartel song. We've worked together for so long, we know if something works or it doesn't."
The Cartel quintet all grew up in Conyers, Georgia, about 20 miles east of Atlanta, where they live now. "We've known each other forever, but we've been playing together since 2000," Pugh says. After years of making demos and playing any hole-in-the-wall that would have them, the band self-released the Ransom EP in March 2004. A deal with the Militia Group followed and full-length debut CHROMA was issued in 2005. The buzz surrounding the album led to a contract with Epic, who re-released CHROMA last summer.
"I wrote CHROMA when I was 19," says Pugh, now 23. "It dealt with things like moving out and leaving old friends behind. It definitely captured a certain period of my life, but the new album covers a lot more territory. We've toured the country and experienced and seen a lot more things. We've had to prioritize what's really important to us in life, especially through our relationships outside of the band. A lot of different things about being a young adult come to play in this record."
That's evident in songs like "Georgia" ("about taking chances to make your mark"), "The Fortunate" and "Lonely One," all of which show a marked maturation in songwriting, sound and style. One of the bonuses on the album is Grammy-winning artist Wyclef Jean's reggae-fied remix of "Wasted," a big, bouncy track that closes the album. "The album takes the listener on a ride and then ends by throwing them a crazy party jungle-type beat," says Sanders. "That was a first for us [playing reggae]. It was fun to play and Wyclef was amazing to work with."
"One of the main focuses on this record was to make it more guitar-oriented," says Pugh. "We have three guitars, but felt like we weren't using them to the best of our ability. Gaps that might've been there before have now been filled, resulting in a big rock sound. You can really hear it on 'Lonely One.' It's got every rock element, from the anthemic bridge to the guitar solos."
Pugh is philosophical about Cartel's past, present and future. "It's the same feeling parents have when their kid grows up and graduates," he says. "It's like wow, this idea that we put down a few years ago has finally come to fruition. We couldn't be more proud of what we've accomplished while at the same time looking toward the future."
So what do you do when your dreams come true? "Easy," muses Pugh, "You invent new ones. For us, this is just the beginning."