by Jeff Milo
This interview with Pupils covers a lot of ground: from Sumerian mythology, to mathematically-inspired esoteric literary movements, to the Ghostbusters. And, finally, to how their inspiration is really to stimulate the audiences’ brain into questioning how they, how you, anyone - think...how you think about things...
"Yeah... ...well, I wanna fuck everybody up," says singer Steven Puwalski.
When Steve talks, his hands gesture very close to his face - the right hand near his cranium, his left clawing a bowl near his chin - it's almost like one is massaging all of his abstruse thoughts down and the other is hoping to catch them and wring them as they're spoken out...
Lots of these ideas flake away tragically. The guy wakes up and recites poetry to his cat as it purrs at his feet. By the way, he wants to make five albums this year, alone, but he’d be ready to write 20.
Anyway, one idea was, essentially, a rock-opera about a mystical monstrous Jelly Fish...
That one actually wound up becoming what Detroit now knows as Pupils – a quartet branding their style as YesRock, or, essentially, a sort of Un-Prog -style
Bassist Matt Luke (also of Legendary Creatures), guitarist Jason Worden (also of Red China), and drummer Dave Jennings (also of Pewter Cub) jolt together jittery rhythmic bedrocks that play with the fucked-up funky grooves of post punk and no-wave but inject surges of wailing drones bent and teased through murky feedback puddles that never drown out the slaloming hooks or haunting melodies
This leaves Puwalski (also of Marco Polio and the New Vaccines) to uh...free associate, as it were, to mingle, conjure and/or provoke new, strange and potentially startling thought processes inside his mind and the mind of his audience, through keyed-up, somewhat animalistic, somewhat quirky, motivational musings that will bring the bearded balladeer up into your grill, clothed in, usually, nothing more than bicycle shorts.
“I want all of our minds lined up to change the way we think,” Puwalski said.
Practices involve not just song rehearsal but attempts to stir up some new sensibility through these weirdness-embracing brain exercises that result in them inventing their own language of songwriting and structure.
Then, live shows involve an off-the-rails vibe – fogged-up psychedelic sounds and experimental time signatures aside – this is really just rock n’ roll – a locked-in rhythm, an indelible bass grove, a noisy guitar, and a singer who’s vehement about shaking you up. (VIDEO)
I hate to employ the cliché of: anything-can-happen at a Pupils set
but at the last Blowout they wound up performing marriage ceremonies for a pair of same-sex couples, while just a few months ago the lighting rig at the Lager House wound up on the floor.
Steve: "We actually do take it really fucking seriously, it's just that: the absurdity of it, is serious, absurdity is serious, laughing is serious, it's important, it's not a joke..."
Matt: "It doesn't always end up being something totally absurd or ridiculous, but the potential for that is liberating; knowing you could go in unorthodox directions..."
Jason: "It keeps the brain going..."
Which is exactly why Puwalski encouragingly pummels them with his unending string of ideas – “I want to keep putting them out there because I want the band thinking about it too, it’s this shared thing, I want it to become more collaborative, our mind! We like thinking weirdly
“Things might start out as a joke, but end up being applied” said Luke, nodding to their renaming of song sections (the verse was ciphered into “Lefty” and chorus was ciphered into “one-eye”. “Scottie really was a trooper for putting up with that at practices.”
Jenningsis the new guy. The band operated with journeyman drummer Scottie Stone (of Factory Girls) up until the winter. He grins like a third grader let out for recess – seeming more than ready to fall in with the inherent “weird quirks” and conceptual ideas churned out by this band as they mangle and re-mold pop music structures.
“Usually in bands, there’s at least one person who steps back and says: let’s take this a little more seriously
” Luke said.
We do take it seriously,” Steve reiterates and then brings in a paraphrased quote from Beckett, “If I have to tell you what my Play, or song, is about, then I’m insulting you
I’m not here to tell you what my song’s about..."
"...My song, and when I say my- I’m speaking as Pupils, Pupils the entity, my-song is not about the words, the fucking bass guitar part might be speaking more than the words are speaking, it’s not about one kind of language, its just about
I want you to be considering everything. You, the audience, You, Jeff Milo as the audience, I want to ask these questions and I want people, the audience, you, asking themselves more and more.”
But he says he doesn’t want to confine it yet; he doesn’t necessarily want to put a saddle on this Jelly Fish, yet.
When the rest of the entity is asked about what they want this band/Jelly-Fish/philosophy to do, Luke chimes in: “I don’t even know yet. Just like with when I played in Black Lodge, I always find out what happens afterward at a live show, ‘cuz I’m just looking at my bass. Same with Jason, we’re on stage and suddenly the lights go out and the soundguy tells us: we’re done.”
“I looked down,” Worden says, “from the stage and the whole lighting rig was on the floor being carted away.”
All three players were too synced in to really appreciate the marriage ceremony at the Mars Bar. And Worden sums up Puwalski’s penchant for skin exposure as: “beautiful,” though, admittedly, he comes from the inherently provocative band Red China, while Luke has extensive performing experience with Detroit singer/songwriter Kyle McBee who has been doing the full monty at recent Factory Girls shows.
And that’s a whole other can o’ worms: “I enjoy not wearing clothing anyways. But you can’t always just wear your underwear around, you have to put fucking pants on ever day – so you might as well be comfortable when you’re playing a show..."
"...If I take those liberties for myself then the audience, who might not take those liberties for themselves, are encouraged. Once they take their pants off, they’re happier.”
“It’s about letting go," Puwalski continues, "the show is a microcosm in which the rules are a little bit different.”
And Pupils are constantly trying to rewrite/reinvent the rules at every live show. A wedding would feel natural, since they’re shows have a ceremonial vibe to them – one that maybe Puwalski might take too far sometimes, with his enthused addresses that might unravel to the point where Jennings furrows his brow and shrugs at Luke and Worden, wondering if it’s okay to start the next song, now
“‘Just go ahead and cut him off, he’s gonna keep going anyway,’” Luke had to tellJennings, early on. “Wait for a full stop
wait, hear that? Listen for punctuation- that sounded like a full stop period, go!