Will Pugh is ready for phase two of his career. His band Cartel, an Atlanta-based quartet that specializes in southern-style pop-punk, has already had an impressive first phase that's included three albums, an MTV reality show, and a handful of radio hits. But now Cartel are starting over, this time without a record label and without longtime bassist Jeff Lett, touring in a beat-up old van and promoting an upcoming self-produced EP.
"This is starting over from scratch," says Pugh. "We've [been] at a stagnant pace over the last year or so, but this is our new beginning. It's kind of funny our last record was called Cycles, and the last song talks about going into the next cycle."
Cartel's cycle has indeed gone full circle, in both sound and DIY attitude. Pugh says the new EP reminds him of the raw edges found on Cartel's first record, 2004's The Ransom EP. And just like the old days, the still-untitled five-song set was self-recorded, this time in Pugh's house. The EP's first single, "Lessons in Love," strips back the band's big sound to its core: pubescent power-pop, punctuated with jagged guitars, broken hearts, bombshell drums, and Pugh's over-the-top, emotive vocals.
"It sounds real, and that's what we're really excited about," says Pugh. "We wanted it to have that feeling of being live. We don't feel our records sound like we do live, so we wanted to bring a little bit more of that back to it."
Cartel's last album, 2009's Cycles, was certainly a slick studio production, but songs like "Faster Ride," "Deep South," and "27 Steps" rank among the band's best. In fact, a number of infectious emo-pop songs that recall the very best of the genre — from New Found Glory to Jimmy Eat World — can be found on all three of Cartel's six-lettered, C-titled albums (2005's Chroma and 2007's Cartel are the other two).
If you're unfamiliar with their music, maybe you remember Cartel from MTV's Band in a Bubble, a 2007 reality show where the group had 20 days to write and record songs for an album while trapped in a giant bubble in New York City, all under the watchful eye of 23 webcams and millions of viewers.
"It was cool to be a part of," says Pugh. "I just wish it would have been promoted differently, because that record is awesome and a lot of people discount it because of the way it was done. It was an amazing amount of dexterity for the band to pull that off and not hate each other."
The fast ride to fame can be a treacherous one, which Cartel quickly found out. It's one reason why the band is securely in the driver's seat these days. They're controlling their own musical destiny now, even if that means they have to record, produce, and distribute the records themselves.
"I figured the more we can push out all these other people who don't know what we're trying to do," says Pugh, "then the more [this new album] is going to come across like we want it to."