LIFE BEFORE, DURING AND AFTER THE DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN
The first Dillinger Escape Plan song that Greg Puciato heard was The Mullet Burden, in 1998, long before joining the band became a possibility. He would later become synonymous with Dillinger’s unmatched intensity, his lyrics the perfect counterpart to the stabby malice of the band and Ben Weinman’s nonpareil riffs and musical invention.
Their first recording, in 2002, was a cover of Black Flag’s Damaged, Parts I & II. Two years later, Miss Machine began a run of continually evolving albums culminating in Dissociation (2016) and their farewell shows in December 2017. Greg says that he’s damaged his body plenty from the forced confrontation of their shows – a broken wrist here, or dislocated fingers there.
The toll, however, has mostly been emotional, psychic and internal; something that he’s only now identifying, treating and taking ownership of. It’s hard to tell whether the work caused the struggle to cope, or whether the struggle resulted in the work. But his hope is that now, openness and candour around his hidden difficulties might help others.
“When it all hits you, the realisation that you need help is inescapable,” he says. “It’s almost emotionally overwhelming. At least for me it was, and it was very certain.”
What hit Greg, in a process of recognition that began only in the past five years, was that unresolved trauma was making him almost irreparably reckless and that he was completely in the dark with respect to understanding himself. This led to, amongst others, a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder (ADD) and subsequent medication which is, for the moment, helping. His initial response to this interview returned 12,000 words on email, in an unprecedented disclosure, then speaking further from Los Angeles where he’s preparing, with bandmates Joshua Eustis and Steven Alexander, to release the second The Black Queen album Infinite Games.
Greg describes experiences of depressions and joy, anxieties and dependencies which have run unchecked, panic attacks on tour and ultimately the
necessary decision to seek help. “I got off the bus and immediately called a therapist near where I lived to make an appointment,” he says. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever spent time or money on.”
How did you discover a conviction in art, music and performance at nine years of age?
“Well, as far as age goes I don’t really perceive time that well. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that it’s a common side effect of ADD, and some other things that are particular to me. The age of nine was pivotal for reasons nobody knows about. I’m not gonna waste time here and bullshit, but I was a gifted kid. I was language and reading and sound gifted, similar to hyperlexia. I was reading real books at two years old – not exaggerating or bragging, just giving context. With sound, I could mimic things I heard. I heard words like musical instruments. If someone said something with a weird inflection or pattern in a movie, I would remember it. I would remember cadence and the rhythms of appliances like washers or dryers like turn signals. I could separate what different instruments were doing in songs really young. I couldn’t get enough of words, either written or spoken, or sound. So with all those things having a hold over me, and being a really hyper kid too, music and performance really grabbed me. Things that were high-energy, and especially things that felt defiant.”
How did that epiphany happen in somebody so young?
“I know objectively that it’s not normal, but it didn’t seem unusual to me at nine to know what I wanted to do. The initial spark has been bearing fruit for a long time now. I can feel it in me even as I’m saying this – the same thing from nine is still there. I see it like this glowing core that stuff is coming out of, and I’m either trying to deal with that stuff or form it into something. Everything is a mix of nature and nurture, and I had, for whatever reason, a combustible mix. This also all goes hand in hand with mental… I don’t wanna say ‘illness’, but being different: anxiety, ADD, depression, perfectionism, hypochondria, panic disorder, body dysmorphia, delayed sleep phase syndrome, being in regular existential crisis, feeling the void super hard. Alright, I guess people would call it illness. I always felt all of those things very extremely – still do at times. Enough so that it’s occasionally a problem, but at least I’ve got them all named and identified now. I see them. People like that tend to be involved in art or performance of some sort, and gravitate towards it and each other.”
You recorded your first cassette at 13 years of age. What did the music consist of?
“It’s funny you ask, because I just got access to that stuff after not having it for years, and I completely lost my mind. Me and my childhood best friend were born 11 days apart. We started playing together early. He played drums, I played guitar, we both screamed or sang at times. The second we wrote one thing that wasn’t someone else’s song that was it, game over. That’s all we did, non-stop. We went from barely being able to play, jamming The Breeders’ Last Splash, Metallica’s For Whom The Bell Tolls and Nirvana to a pretty ripping thrash/grunge duo writing original songs within a season. Again, if it’s not obvious, all times are basically the same to me. I don’t feel any further from that than I do from Dillinger. There’s some fucking legit riffs in those songs, man. I’d fucking rip ’em apart and use some of them now no questions asked, but I’d never disrespect our stuff like that. That stays intact.”
Can you describe your childhood? What was your experience of poverty like?
“I lived in a neighbourhood [in Baltimore] that up until a few years ago you could still buy a house in for $25,000. I didn’t know that was poverty, though. I was just a kid, I had no reference point. I ate at a restaurant maybe once a year, heard gunshots outside my bedroom window regularly, had to clean glass and the occasional hypodermic needle off the basketball court before we could play sometimes. I had to be mindful of the opposing neighbourhood ‘white van’ that would roll around packed with kids ready to jump out and start gang fights. But I mean look, that’s Baltimore – it’s a fucking warzone there still. The last time I went back to my childhood neighbourhood I couldn’t drive down the street because of cop cars, and someone had literally just been shot to death half a block from where I lived. It is what it is.”
How do you describe your current relationship with the Dillinger albums?
“It’s pretty vague. I don’t remember recording anything I’ve ever done, really. There might be a smear of a memory here and there. I don’t remember that earlier 13-year-old demo tape getting made either. I can see the four-track on the floor of my friend’s basement and that’s about it. When I’m in a creative or performance flow I don’t remember much of it afterwards, even if it’s a long chunk of time. It’s prolonged hyperfocus, if you know about ADD at all. I don’t remember much from creating, I don’t remember much from performing. Just a snapshot here and there, a smear, a blur. I obviously know that the albums were made, and sometimes that’s jarring. I have to remind myself. I don’t really even remember writing or recording Infinite Games that well, and that just happened. I wish I could, because then I’d be able to hold on to them all more, or feel more integrated with my life. But I don’t. I’m happy to have gotten them out of me, I’m happy that other people have them and relate to them and enjoy them. I’m grateful to them for propelling my life.“
Given the ferocity of your delivery, have you ever sustained any vocal injuries?
“Miraculously, none. I was blessed with really elastic vocal cords, and really strong vocal cords. One in particular is stronger than the other, if you wanna really get specific. I take care of myself now. I didn’t used to. I drink a lot of water. I used to rely really heavily on anti-inflammatories on tour, but I don’t anymore. I just treat myself with more care. I don’t get fucked up all of the time. If I’m really damaged and the show must go on I’ll take some prescribed prednisone anti-inflammatories. Whatever, I’m not gonna lie about it. It’s pretty standard to do at a certain point, in everything from theatre to pop music. They’ve got their downsides, but mostly they’re a godsend when used sparingly and in dire need. You do what you gotta do. I was dimed to my fucking eyelids on the stuff at the final Dillinger shows out of precaution. Right now my voice is in the best shape it’s ever been in, though. I have the most control I’ve ever had over it, and I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. I’m lucky to have escaped unscathed from 17 years of regularly screaming like a man on fire.”
Do you feel physically worn when performing?
“Not really, honestly. There have been times, but usually it’s because of things bothering me offstage that are carrying over on to the stage. Stress or anxiety or panic, or what have you, exhausting me. I’m in far better shape now than I was at 21, than I was even a few years ago. I could rip the living shit out of a place at any time still now. If the Dillinger drumstick count-off started in five minutes I’d be ready. I’m speaking in purely physical terms, obviously. Physical conditioning isn’t a factor whatsoever in why Dillinger is done.” How important is physical fitness in your life? “I’m insane about reaching my potential at everything that I do, if it contributes to my passion or chosen pursuit in some way. One thing I really do not like is the idea of calling on my body to do something and it not being ready. Because of that, hilariously, I’m probably in the best conditioning of my life right now to do something like play Dillinger shows, and I don’t even need to be. I do so much and so many forms of cardio to such an insane and unnecessary degree.”
How much does physical fitness relate to good mental health?
“It absolutely relates to mental health. It’s a definite battle. I have a weird double-edged sword relationship with mental health as it
pertains to fitness. I use things like cardio to skim the top off of anxiety. I have so much energy as a person, if I don’t hit my maximum threshold and exertion level, at least like, four or five times a week, I’ll get mood swingy or feel the panic disorder growing. Or the body dysmorphia, or the hypochondria. It also helps me to not feel chemical tour withdrawal too much, because for 17 years nearly every night on tour I expelled a small nuclear reactor’s worth of energy.”
What is your experience of ADD?
“Oh man, this could really be a long answer. Fuck it, let’s dive in. It took me a really long time to get to the ADD diagnosis, which is insane, because now it’s clear that it was there all along. I was off thinking it was god-knows-what: schizophrenia, bipolar, you name it, I looked into it. I couldn’t fucking figure it out. There’ve been times I’ve felt completely fucking crazy and appeared fine, or on the flipside, felt fine but knew that something I was doing or saying was objectively fucking crazy. So I’ve been trying, since 2009 really, to get to the bottom of it. I’m completely owning it now, though. I’m fucking beyond happy to have gotten that part of it figured out, but ADD is just one of a lot of things that I deal with.”
Have you ever resisted the label?
“Medically treating the ADD helps take the edge off of the other stuff. As does being away from toxic environments, as does therapy, digging up and processing and working through things. Medically, the drugs I’m on at present have really helped. So far at least, because the depressions aren’t as severe, the impulses to try and fill those holes aren’t as severe. Oddly, the second you talk about pharmaceuticals, people make judgements on whether they’re good for you or not. But isn’t it better to get a baseline of dopamine in your brain that way than wanting to stuff powder laced with whatever up your nose, or get regularly fucked up out of your mind? Or stay trapped in selfdestructive habits or patterns? It’s new to me to be on medication, but I’m into it so far. It’s helping me. I’m not sure yet if I’ll stay on the medication. If I feel like my emotions or sensitivities are getting too blunted, I’ll come off, or maybe come off selectively for creative purposes. Right now, though, it’s helping to make life refreshingly and consistently not just tolerable, but liveable and enjoyable, which is a nice break.”
For the first time, Dillinger recorded more material than necessary for final album Dissociation. How would you describe those unreleased songs?
“I never wrote vocals to them. They were leftover instrumentals. I don’t think of it as a big deal. There’s a ton of Black Queen shit we never used, and there’s a ton of Black Queen shit we’ve fully deleted. There’s a fuck-ton of lyrics I’ve scrapped and rewrote as far as Dillinger goes. That doesn’t mean people need to hear the stuff that didn’t get used. I don’t consider there to be anything unreleased. It’s just stuff we didn’t use, like a bunch of lyrics I deleted and rewrote. I don’t consider the earlier discarded lyrics to be ‘unreleased’. That’s my opinion of it, at least. That’s a weird mentality to me. If you’re chipping away at a block of wood or ice to make a sculpture, that other ice or wood isn’t some unreleased part of the sculpture – it just didn’t get used. I don’t think you need to release every single thing you ever write. Once I don’t use something, it’s gone to me. I don’t save anything once I decide not to use it. Delete that. Delete those lyrics. Delete that vocal take. Delete that file. Not archive – delete.”
Can you describe the conclusion of the New York Dillinger shows?
“Again, as usual, I don’t remember them too much. Only that I was incredibly perfectionistic and focused. I was breathing steam out of a mask for hours every day. I warmed up forever. I was doing shit-tons of cardio before those shows to get ready. My biggest fear in the world was that somehow the last show would be a bad one, and that then I’d have to be like, ‘No! We’re playing another!’ The shows were fun. I had fun, I know that much. I felt good about how we sounded, how I sounded, and how I felt. I could do better, though, but I wouldn’t try. It simply wouldn’t be the same. But I’ve grown from them, I know I’m better now and I know I could perform better. I mean, you’re talking to an obsessive, perfectionistic crazy person here.”
When do you feel most free in your life? Is freedom something that you actively pursue?
“When I’m present in some sort of millisecond to millisecond way. When I’m travelling. When I’m in a hotel in a foreign city. When I’m walking around that city by myself, taking pictures of things. When I’m working on a song, completely engrossed, or tracking it, and really on my game. When I’m onstage and you and your bandmates are really hitting some sort of moment, something transcendent. When I’m having an incredible time with another person or people in a way that you completely lose track of time or surroundings. When I’m awake by myself or with one other person, riding down the highway on tour. If I’m driving solo through the middle of nowhere blasting music without anyone else with me to give a shit or share their opinion on it. Those are really the things that keep me living. Just getting that feeling one more time. Being outside doing something without a phone. Going out and operating without a plan, if even for a day. Is it something I pursue? It’s something I absolutely passionately pursue and viciously protect.”
If you could send one message to every smartphone in the world right now, what would it be and why?
“‘I love you.’ What else could it be? Without any knowledge of who it’s from, or why. That’s something that everyone could use more of hearing in the world, whether it’s from someone else’s voice, your own voice, or even your own inner voice.”
THE BLACK QUEEN’S INFINITE GAMES IS RELEASED ON SEPTEMBER 28 via FEDERAL PRISONER. THE BAND TOUR THE UK AND EUROPE IN OCTOBER – SEE THE GIG GUIDE FOR more INFORMATION
“I COULD RIP THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF A PLACE AT ANY TIME” GREG PUCIATO
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