New War’s Chris Pugmire: “I get giddy, high, almost hysterical. Then I get obsessed and need to explore it from every possible angle. Then I chase that compulsion again”

Original photo by Nathan Howdeshell. Handmade mixed-media collage by B.

New War are one of those special bands: they defy genre; they have voice, keys, bass, guitar and drums yet there feels like there is so much more going on; they push boundaries and most importantly their music has the ability to move you intensely and deeply. Their self-titled LP and follow up Coin are always on high rotation at Gimmie HQ. Latest record Trouble In The Air saw New War take up a new challenge recording in Melbourne Town Hall using it’s four-story high Grand Organ—the resulting collection of songs is haunting and transcendental. We chatted to vocalist Chris Pugmire about the album, the deep side of art, discovering music, being history buff, a transformative year spent in Germany as a teen, anarchism, lyricism and more.

As an artist what are the things that you value the most?

CHRIS PUGMIRE: Art that’s strong and slippery, that refracts meaning in a new way each time you approach it, that has the sense of a truth that isn’t fixed and didactic but introduces you to worlds or ideas you hadn’t considered or been exposed to before – even (or especially) if it comes from you. Art that expands or reflects your own inner and outer worlds, that has a complex emotional core that can take intimidating subjects like politics or history or economics or whomever controls whom and crack them open, make them seem less inevitable. Whether I make it or someone else makes it doesn’t particularly matter, I want to be thrilled. When I make something that ticks those boxes I’m ecstatic.

Same if I discover someone else. I get giddy, high, almost hysterical. Then I get obsessed and need to explore it from every possible angle. Then I chase that compulsion again. I make it or find someone. And so often it has nothing to do with money and what money does to art and people, it is money’s antithesis. It can be any act of creation: music, painting, drawing, literature, film, photography, birth, life, sex, death… etc, etc.

Why is music important to you?

CP: It combines so many senses. Hearing of course. But you physically feel it, bass pushing against your stomach and chest, treble pricking at all your nerve endings, beats making your heart race and whole lower torso to move in time. Vocals making synapses fire and drawing tears and shivering your spine. Sudden changes or silence or spikes or climaxes of emotion that make your head tingle, your cheeks hot. And that’s only physical. It’s so powerful, it can change your whole worldview in a few minutes. It can make you feel just about anything. It’s that alchemy, it makes you something new.

How did you first discover music?

CP: It happened via the radio, talking to friends and sharing mixtapes. Taking a punt on an album or a show because the cover or flyer looked interesting or you vaguely remembered a review. Like going to see Bikini Kill because it was this new kinda secret thing, what’s this all about? and feeling zapped by a zillion watt thunderclap. I read one of the ladies in Huggy Bear looked like a mean supermarket checker so I jumped at Taking the Rough with the Smooch which blew my mind. Swell Maps’ Trip to Marineville had the house on fire which was impossible to resist, there was no way it could sound bad with that cover.

I had (and have) a really cool older friend named Jennifer who I worked at a coffee shop with when I was 17, 18 and she made the best mixtapes with stuff like Opal, Thinking Fellers Union, Scorn, Faust, etc. and took me to see stuff like Tindersticks with a fake ID (most good shows were 21+). Then I volunteered at the Velvet Elvis, a great, slightly lawless all-ages club and it just kept going…

When you were sixteen you spent a year in Germany, previously you’ve mentioned that it was really instrumental for you; how? Could you please share with us a little about that year?

CP: I was raised Mormon and my world was very small. I was a little tuning fork and the church’s instilled fear, patriarchy, homophobia, sexual repression, etc. struck and struck at me and its deeply ugly tones felt like the spiritual death I was supposed to be being indoctrinated against. During the first Gulf War there was a palpable bloodlust both at church and school and it revolted me, so much I refused to speak for its six weeks. But my parents were for the most part not as rigid or cruel as this culture even though they made me be part of it and it was deeply confusing.

So when I went to Germany shortly after it was like the veil was lifted. I still had to go to church but it wasn’t the all-encompassing experience it was at home. In Germany I saw neo-Nazis spring up in the aftermath of reunification. You’d see them at soccer matches abusing African players or occasionally roaming the city, they were terrifying. There were attacks on Turks and Kurds and other immigrants in Mölln and Rostock. Part of a large family were murdered by fascist arson in Solingen. There were quite full-on demonstrations.

My cousin Jonny and I shared a room and we’d talk all night about that stuff, church, the future,  music, everything we could think of. We both had a taste for adventure and got up to a lot of no good. At school we studied Woyzeck (both play and film) and that had a profound impact on me as well, the instability of men’s emotions and how they could slip from desire to violence and how class and its humiliations played such a malign role in that destabilisation. The beginning of a lifelong fascination with the machinations of power and all little steps of experience and tastes of freedom that meant the church lost its grip and in a few years I wriggled free.

Your new record, Trouble In The Air, was recorded live at Melbourne Town Hall using its Grand Organ; what inspired this?

CP: It wasn’t something we considered or imagined until the invitation was extended by the curator. What a fun challenge, how would we pull it off?! We thought it gave us the chance to try a different palette both with the organ (simultaneous new possibilities and limitations) and drums. Our live engineer had done sound there and suggested drum machine might be preferable for the sake of clarity and balance between everyone.

You recorded the record live in 2017 and now in 2020 it’s seeing the light of day; in hindsight what are your feelings about this record?

CP: I like that it happened and it’s not overthought. That it’s a snapshot of freshly written songs the first and possibly only time they’ll be performed.

What mood were you trying to capture on this recording?

There’s a lot of moods. “Emerald Dream Eyes” is a love song. “Purple Heart” and “Cocaine Blue are mourning songs. “I am Position Yellow” is a frustration song. “Bang On” is a mystery song. “Redbeard USA” is an investigation song. And there’s a lot of other little moods in each song as well, and they all exist within the title and that’s the vision and overarching mood. All three records are like that. I mean it sounds dumb, of course they are. But they really are.

I understand that you wrote the record over three months, which is a very short time for New War compared to how you would usually write; how did that influence your song writing?

CP: It was the first time we’d written our parts separately, where we were emailing ideas back and forth and building the songs up at home and then rehearsing solid ideas with a lot of focus. Our other records were written by playing in a room every week for several years and refining initial ideas over a long period of time. And the same lyrically, often starting as a really long stream of consciousness and gradually whittling down to rhymes because I think decent rhymes are really hard! We’ve probably lost about two or three records worth of songs just by being picky. So for this record, because of the time constraint, we had to set all that aside and make all the initial ideas work quickly because there wasn’t time to nitpick. It was refreshing being able to accomplish not only the writing but the performance, it made me only want to think of new ways to approach any future recordings.

Lyrically what kinds of themes do you find yourself drawn to? Are they ever reoccurring?

CP: Just observing the world… what’s happening now, what happened before, how that affects what’s happening now… same with my life, my past, my present, the same thing… And dreams are a big part, whether their own thing or relating to all the aforementioned stuff. There’s a thread through all the songs and albums, there’s recurring images and words just like there are in dreams, history, life…

Who are your favourite lyricists?  

CP: I’ve always loved and found new ways to appreciate Kim Gordon. Her new record is conceptually and in its execution the work of a master. Revisiting Dirty and Goo recently, which were two of the first CDs I bought, I’m so struck by her incredible character acting and how wide her emotional range is. And that she’s so funny. And that she writes such complex moods into such accessible language.

I love Bim Sherman, Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail is a total genius lyricist and great essayist as well, Horace Andy, Ari Up and Viv Albertine, Nas, all of Wu Tang, Bahamadia, Guru, Rakim, Mobb Deep, AZ, Ana da Silva, all of Huggy Bear, Jarvis Cocker, Iggy Pop, Mark E Smith… The Sleaford Mods guy is fantastic. I’ve always loved Nisa from Fabulous Diamonds’ lyrics… I could go on forever.

What were the challenges you faced making this record in such a space and using the organ?

CP: That we only got to rehearse once before performing! Jesse got to play the organ a few times late at night (and besides the fact there’s so many keyboards on the organ itself he said it was like playing grandma’s organ), but we only had one full band rehearsal with the organ, using our shitty PA running both vocals and drum machine. So trying to write for such a weird instrument in such a big space and having to basically imagine how it would all sound until the day of the performance was hard.

Aside from music I’ve heard that you’re a history buff; where did this fascination stem from?

CP: Yeah! Mostly because history is so crazy and so much of it gets buried. I’m not into conspiracy but I love secret histories. Like how the Bolshevik and western versions of the Russian Revolution are total bullshit written by the victor or misinterpreted by the enemy.

Voline’s ‘The Unknown Revolution’ and Peter Arshinov’s ‘History of the Makhnovist Movement’ (as well as Nestor Makhno’s own writings) flesh out such a radically different version of the Revolution and the Civil War, where’s Makhno’s (Ukranian Anarchist) Black Army defeated the White (Monarchist) Army on several occasions, only to be double crossed by the Red Army, which as with Kronstadt, didn’t hesitate to eliminate anyone to the left of them in order to consolidate power. It’s where communism in the 20th century first fails as a humanist, revolutionary project and lapses into authoritarianism and portents the Ukranian Holodomor in the 1920s, Spain in the 1930s, Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968, as well as Maoism in the Cultural Revolution and its variants in Cambodia, North Korea, etc. I think these are lessons the left always has to remind itself of, whether it’s a political or cultural tendency to lapse into Bolshevism. You have to plan for it or every worthy project from the smallest collective to a state eventually falls prey to authoritarians. Which sucks for everybody.

I digress. This fascination stems from stories, which the best histories are. Whether reading Lipstick Traces or Howard Zinn or Robert Fisk in my early 20s or reading Svetlana Alexievich or Ryszard Kapuscinski now, the best history tells everyday – but extraordinary – people’s stories with a novelist’s touch and a journalist’s economy and commitment to the facts. 

In true history nerd style, did you research the space before you performed/recorded there?

CP: All I knew was that the organ had burnt down at some point and had to be rebuilt? Jesse and I went and saw a classical organist perform on an afternoon not long after we got the commission. Watching that gave us the sense it wasn’t going to be easy, ha.

You were also once an Anarchist collective bookstore owner; are there any Anarchist ideas present in your life today?

CP: It wasn’t ownership in the classic sense but I was responsible for a few years. Are there still Anarchist ideas in my life? Absolutely. I might go weasel words and say anarcho-communist or libertarian socialist or whatever. I think mutual aid is the building block, that people innately lean towards cooperation and that hierarchy isn’t necessary for a society to function. That a more central apparatus would work better as a federation made up of worker’s councils or neighbourhood councils or whatever. And you’ve got to prevent that ossification that allows for authoritarians to get a foothold and consolidate power. I wish I was organised enough to be less of a worker and ‘artist’ and more of a proper agitator. I think that’s half the reason we’re in the shit because too many people wanna be artists instead of the hard yards of organising and that’s been the one of the main reasons elites have been able to wind back the clock to the 1920s or even Victorian times. Everyone’s pissed off but we don’t have our eye all the way on the ball. And the right wing always sticks together no matter what. And they don’t give a shit about culture in terms of it getting in the way of doing their job. The left needs to learn from that. Get tight and get organised and stay that way.

I know that New War like to keep moving forward and not repeat themselves; what’s next?

CP: Not sure yet but it’ll have to be interesting and different (to us) or it won’t happen.

Please check out: NEW WAR. Trouble In The Air out on Heavy Machinery Records. Coin available via It Records and New War via All Tomorrow’s Parties. There’s also a Ghostwalking 12″ release featuring Gossip/HTRK mixes on Fast Weapons.

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