by Jacob Sunderlin
When Ryan Puetz’s CD book got stolen from his truck the summer we were driving from the celery bog to Otterbein every morning to work with his cousin laying brick, we only had what was in the stereo: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which is a record about outer space by some European guy. Every day for the next three months we listened to that album from start to finish. Try and imagine that for a second—two hungover teenagers tearassing to work in a shit-hot Indiana cornfield listening to a dude in makeup singing “Five years / My brain hurts a lot! / Five years / That’s all we’ve got!” and you’ll have some idea of where Tigerfox is coming from.
I could tell you lots of stories about Ryan Puetz. Full disclosure: I think his new band Tigerfox, and their record No More Style, is great. Sounds like Television on future pills. I don’t know what that means, future pills, but it makes me think of partying in suits. It’s what we’ll eat in the future, instead of food: future pills. Except, instead of “future pills,” we’ll probably just call them “food” anyway, which is stupid.
I haven’t posted recently because I’m getting ready to bounce the Hoosier state for a while, so I’m glad I got the chance to sit down with one of my oldest friends before I did. We played in a band together when we were in high school, called Tokyo Magnum. I think Ryan’s an interesting dude, and you should too. Buy No More Style here: http://tigerfox.bandcamp.com/album/no-more-style
JACOB SUNDERLIN: What sounds influenced the Tigerfox songs? I hear some Bowie in there, maybe just because I know you and I know you like David Bowie.
RYAN PUETZ: I love David Bowie. I think the Modern Lovers, too. I’ve been way into Brian Eno, Roxy Music. Drew Davis bought me a Roxy Music record probably two years ago. I’d had the idea for Tigerfox for probably five years but I just couldn’t find the right people. Coincidentally, I think when I sobered up I just thought, “Well, I’m going to do this.” Around that same time, he bought me the first Roxy Music record—he bought me that and Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets—and it just blew my mind. The sounds that came from it and the way it was recorded. It’s really cool synthesizer sounds, tracked beautifully, everything cascading in and out from left to right. It’s just really cool. I didn’t know music could be played like that. That was probably the biggest influence on me.
SUNDERLIN: You say you had an idea for Tigerfox for a while—how would you describe that idea?
PUETZ: Well, I’ve always been a kind of grandiose thinker when it comes to music, because I think that’s the only way you should play music. If you don’t have a big idea about what it is you’re doing, then you shouldn’t be doing it. Otherwise you’re just everybody else.
SUNDERLIN: There are enough hacks.
PUETZ: Yeah, there are enough people with guitars. There are enough coffee shops for everybody to do the same thing. I was drinking a lot at the time, too, and it’s really easy to come up with big ideas when you’re drinking and doing drugs. But that’s when you’re at your most fragile state, so you’re always scared to do anything. So, I don’t think it was a coincidence that when I quit drinking I thought—“You know what, I just don’t fucking care, everything’s going to be so new to me.” I drank for so long, that’s I was like, I’m just going to do this.
I wanted to play with people that I’d never played with before, but I also—I think I can be difficult to be in a band with, because I demand a lot. Because I think I can produce a lot with people. I brought Shawn Mullins in—he and Aaron Zernack, who’s really good with electronic sounds, and understands them. I had already played in a band with them. Shawn’s such a savant with instruments, and they knew how to handle me. They always know that I’m not attacking anybody, I just feel really passionate about stuff. So they were able to translate that to the new people. I’ve always just really liked Todd and Zech. Zech’s just an amazing guitar player. It just worked out, I don’t know.
At the same time, I was starting to hear all these things in my head for vocal melodies that were new to me. Just from listening to people, talking with different people around town who I’d met. Hearing the way that different people sing. Even people who sing terribly have such an interesting way of trying to pull it off. Especially when they recognize that they’re not good, you know? That’s the key—it’s recognizing that you aren’t what you think you are and, like, abusing that.
PUETZ: Oh, yeah. There’s always the pop. And the Velvet Underground is and will always be—whether I want it to or not—that’s going to be my influence. I always liked Bob Dylan and stuff like that, but that’s like a staple. Everybody likes stuff like that. But the Velvet Underground, which you showed me, was the first thing I heard that made me think about music. Hearing what they did, it was like—You can do that? You can sing that way? You can talk about those sorts of things? And they’ve always made it so that anytime I think about music, there’s more than just the music that should go with it, because it’s like—those guys were that band, at all times. They lived that way, and I think people really enjoy that. You don’t ever want to play a show and look like the people that you’re playing to, you know? Because then they just assume that they can do what you do. Which is not the case all the time.
SUNDERLIN: The name of the record is No More Style but style’s obviously an important part of this band. Tigerfox definitely has an articulated style, in terms of the visual aesthetic.
PUETZ: Yeah. I think you should look good. Toliver, actually, was telling me a story about Bowie. When he first started, he was big in Europe but having trouble breaking through in the U.S. so his manager rented him a limo and got him a posse, and bought him makeup and these crazy outfits, and they showed up in front of the record label and he gets out and everybody’s like, “Whoa—who the fuck is that guy?” And people just immediately started taking pictures of him.
So, it’s definitely like trying to be in sort of a high—well, not high fashion—but you know, looking good. Presenting a product in every way. Generally, if you’re looking good you’re feeling good. You know, dress up. To me, I’m going to do it regardless, because I think you should look good. And if the rest of the band does it, then that’s just them telling me that they’re into whatever it is that I’m presenting to them. So, it’s kind of like a give-and-take thing. If you’re willing to do this for me, it tells me you’re on board with what I’m doing.
And I think people really enjoy it. If anybody goes to see a show, you know, they want to see a show. It’s art, but at the same time—unless it’s the artist, or other artists—it’s just entertainment to the people who come see it. They don’t care about the art. Most of the time, they don’t care about the meaning of a song. They want to see something cool, you know? Most people take away a visual from something. We have Esteban, who shoots visuals onto us now, so that’s sort of where the white suits and light-colored apparel came from. It was easier for him to project onto.
It’s hard for people in music to believe that you can dress up and look a part and present a product and wear make-up and play a part and “be glam” or whatever and play a show that people are into, because it’s so terrifying. You know? That’s such a hard thing to do.
SUNDERLIN: Listening to the record this morning, I was thinking about how certain parts of the music are staples of party music, which we—or at least I—sometimes think of as being “dumb” in a fun way. You know, a party song doesn’t require you to intellectualize it, but Tigerfox is also—I would never call it dumb, I think it’s really smart. That’s an interesting tension in the music. Bowie was that way. The sounds of party music, music about partying, but done in a really intelligent way.
PUETZ: I think what makes bands like the Velvet Underground and Bowie so unique is that they wrote those things, but the words and the power in the music is partly in the way its presented. Everybody wants to hear those songs regardless, but the wit is what makes the songs better. Sort of comical, but not funny. Stuff you kind of think about and think, “Wow—that was clever.”
And then, I think, just mixing the sounds in with it. Me and this guy Taylor—I didn’t know how to use any of the equipment, so it was basically just me telling him a bunch of ridiculous things that I wanted to do with panning and synthesizer sounds moving from the left to the right in parts and then finding themselves in the middle when a weird phrasing of words or a solo comes in. Your ear follows the words by following the synthesizer from left to right. Stuff like that. I think that helps a lot, you know?
But, I definitely think a lot of the songs do have that dumb rock ‘n roll backtheme to it, but I mean, there’s a reason why those things stand the test of time. Because everybody enjoys—you know, you can play your opus right before it, but if you play “Do You Like Rock and Roll Music” after that people are going to like it better. I think you just have to mix those things.
SUNDERLIN: And that seems to play into the way that the record was recorded. Could you describe that? How was the record recorded? What was the process?
PUETZ: We recorded at Sound Logic Studio and we did probably sixty percent of it live because I feel like you have to capture that moment. I think we did a little bit on this album, you know? I think it could be better, and I think it will in the future. But, if you’re going to be in the studio—and that’s just an amazing studio, and it’s like, in the middle of a cornfield, and the dude has two million dollars of recording equipment in there that you couldn’t even get in L.A. or someplace. So, you are recording, it’s not live, and you can do so much more and I just wanted to capitalize on that. Because, if you didn’t why would you even go there when you could just sit in your room and record it on tape.
But yeah, we used a lot of interesting techniques like doing the back-up vocals into the piano and putting the mic in the piano. Just different things like that. Overdubbing guitar solos in different octaves. There’s a lot of work that went in. Way more went into mixing than went into laying the parts down.
SUNDERLIN: How long did it take?
PUETZ: I would say total, like a month because of scheduling and stuff. But, it went pretty quick because we were so hungry to do it. We’ve still not even been a band a year, so it was kind of like, “Let’s get in and do this so we can do the next thing.” Everybody was just real excited, because I think everyone, including myself, had never been in a studio like that to record an album, so it was like, “Let’s do this.” And it came together really well.
SUNDERLIN: When you guys played at the Black Sparrow with Digital Leather—your second show, I think—the songs were already really tight, so I’m sure that helps too.
PUETZ: Yeah. A lot of people like playing music, but any time you really want something to sort of transcend through the rest of the stuff, you have to put in a lot of work. And, like, practicing…is not something that people in bands generally like to do. But, it is necessary and, you know, it’s not something that people recognize necessarily. People don’t hear a band and ever go, “Oh, this band practices a lot.” It’s just something that they can’t put a finger on, but you know when a band is really tight. It comes across.
The hardest thing about a good idea isn’t thinking of it; everybody thinks of amazing ideas. It’s pulling up your pants and doing it. Or pulling down your pants—whatever way you want to look at it. I think there are people that are very afraid of what happens if you put yourself out there, but I’m not going to just sit around and wait for something to happen.
I was in this band with all these dudes who were probably the most amazing musicians I’ve ever played with, but we never practiced. We were always tight and nailed the songs down, but it was like—you know, there’s always something missing from the show. And its not energy—everyone can fake being energetic. But there wasn’t the sort of trust among the people there, knowing that at any time something terrible could happen and we’ll all get through it, you know? And that just comes with practice. That chemistry comes. You’ve gotta know that…you know…Dick Guy playing bass can get totally shitfaced and still play his parts and it doesn’t have any kind of mental strain on you and take anything out of your performance. So, I think that’s kind of where practicing comes in. You’ve got to know that everybody’s got it and you can let yourself get into it.
SUNDERLIN: Around town, that’s kind of become your thing that people talk about, I think. If you play with Puetz, you better be serious about it.
PUETZ: Yeah, I mean, I’ve always been serious about it, even when we played together. And everybody else did then, too. Which is why Tokyo Magnum was still probably one of my favorite bands ever to play it. Like, we had that chemistry. The trust was there that, you know—no matter how stoned Aaron got, or how drunk I got—it was going to work. Because everybody knew their place.
When you practice a lot, if you can calculate that these things are going to happen you almost start to write around it. So, I can leave this part open for someone else to shine through, or kick back and let him take over if you can’t do it, you know? That’s a lot of what Tigerfox is. I don’t write them out all the way, because I’m putting trust in all these guys without really having the chemistry there yet. And that’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just time, it isn’t there yet. But, I mean, I write them all open, so I’m thinking you know—“You break out something here for this amount of time, or if you don’t want to, then he can, or we’ll just let it breathe.” And I think that comes along really well, you know.
I think the art of the three-and-a-half minute song is dying. In the early 2000s and late 90s people were writing a lot of Pink Floyd songs, but its really hard to keep somebody’s attention for that long. There’s an art in being able to write a song that’s three-and-half-minutes long and can hold people’s attention. I think it’s not over-saturating it and letting things breathe, and I think that’s what I picked up from a lot of Brian Eno’s stuff. He has so many pieces going, but you don’t always hear them all at once. He pulls stuff back, and I think Bowie picked up on a lot of that stuff, too, like in the 70’s when he wanted to start working with him. That helps a lot, you know, you have to let things be what they are within the context of what you write.
SUNDERLIN: So what’s the future for Tigerfox?
PUETZ: You know, hopefully taking the world by storm one article at a time and one show at a time. I don’t know, it’s just something that I feel so—it’s an overwhelming feeling of passion. It’s all that I think about. Any time there’s a free moment, you know, it’s: “What can I do with this to make it better for everyone.” Not just the people playing but the people listening. How can I present this product to them that they can get excited about?
So, hopefully more records. I hate sitting on music. It’s not good for anybody. Having a hundred songs and having one of them released—you know, I don’t believe any bands that say they’ve got a ton of material. It’s like, prove it, you know? That’s kind of my mentality with music and people. Nobody cares what you have to say—you have to prove it to them. That’s what people want. They can sit at home and write songs and say that they have a hundred songs, or that they have a great idea for a stage set, or a great idea about how to attract 200 people to come see their show, but that doesn’t carry a lot of weight if it’s never acted out. My new thrill is just sort of throwing myself out there to see if it happens. I think generally if you have some talent within you and you put yourself out there you’ll get on your feet. You’ll probably get knocked down sometimes, but you’ll get there. And I’ve knocked myself down enough times. It’s all those cliché things: you learn from your mistakes, you gotta see the bottom of the barrel before you can float on top…that sort of thing. But that’s true, you know.
1. Tigerfox–“Today in News”
2. David Bowie–“Cracked Actor”
3. The Shirelles–“Boys”
4. The Four Tops–“Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”
5. Tigerfox–“Nighthawk Drive”
6. Brian Eno–“Third Uncle”
7. The Velvet Underground–“I Can’t Stand It”
8. Tokyo Magnum–“Imposter”
9. Roxy Music–“Ladytron”
10. David Bowie–“Boys Keep Swinging”
11. Pink Floyd–“Astronomy Domine”
12. The Velvet Underground–“One of These Days”
14. Tigerfox–“I Can’t Explain”