There can often be a fear that music takes itself too seriously. Over the years there have been those bands that broach into comedic status - often to be forever tarnished with the brush of immaturity - and then there are those that fall so hard into the realm of seriousness that you wonder if they’ve ever cracked a smile or a joke.
Then there’s Puppy.
A band who embody the very essence of what it is to be a band; amongst the deliciously savage metal riffs lies an incredible balance of having fun with their chosen pathway in life and also getting some serious shit done - including a debut album. The Goat is a prime example of just how they think, and the world they’re crafting around themselves.
This album title, around twenty years ago, maybe even sooner, would’ve referred merely to the farmyard animal. In 2019, it’s come to be an acronym for the Greatest of All Time. As for why the London upstarts chose to name their debut album this cross-culturing word? “It’s just a stupid pun,” singer Jock Norton reasons.
It’s this cutting dry-wit that not only plays a recurring part in my conversation with the three-piece, currently in Hamburg on a brief respite from a European support tour they’re on, but the band have it as the intricate concrete throughout the seemingly deft metal jams that, with a clandestine nature, hold the occult close to their heart.
Even with the distance of many hundreds of miles between us, Puppy’s smirks are evident and the twinkle in their eye as the next synapse of dry-comedic gold strikes. Between them, Norton, alongside drummer Billy Howard Price and bassist Will Michael, have a humorous bond that convolutes conversation between fact and fiction and the best part? It’s the unseen lifeblood pumping throughout The Goat all the way through the ludicrously rich melodies, and down to the call-back influences.
Decades ago metal bands were in their sincere prime - with thick metal chains, battered and broken leather jackets adorned with pentagrams and other evil icons, and religious symbolism at every turn, but in recent years that’s paved the way for a plethora of further fads thus falling to sub-genre status. Fortunately, Puppy are an amalgamation of everything that could’ve died in the ‘80s but lives on through their sheer determination and spirit.
"I think if there was any religious imagery in there I think it’s probably being appropriated as a kind of ‘metal’ thing” Norton muses about the occult themes running throughout his crafted songwriting. “In an ‘80s metal way.”
“The subtext to a lot of lyrics in popular music is quite ecstatic and touches on a lot of spiritual imagery, like you know, see; Gospel.” Price says, referring to the recurring joke in our conversation about the hidden influences in Puppy’s music. “But as Jock says, heavy metal is a lot of that imagery and occult stuff, satanic stuff; it’s almost theatrical in the way that they do it. I think we quite enjoy that aspect of it.”
And of course, Norton picks up on the other reasoning behind it. “There’s a silliness to it we enjoy.” “Kind of pantomime-y,” Will adds.
Gothic icons such as a skull, flanked by two snake candle-stick holders and an aged book bearing the albums titled - with added burning incense in a bone, adorn the artwork. Though, it’s not all just a happy accident with theatrics, it’s also a purported spell. Of course.
“Billy made that…” Norton swiftly mentions. “That was a spell me and Will cast on Camden Market…” Price starts. “There’s a shop called Cyber Dog, [we] got a couple of outfits and put together the image that you see on that album cover; It’s a charm to try and help us do the album quicker…it obviously didn’t work.”
“Yeah,” Norton interjects. “'cause it took two years to record. That is what it was - Billy read it upside down.” Sounding defeated, Price adds. “I misread the charm!”
The life of the three piece is one that’s undoubtedly hardworking. They’ve continuously been driving forward in a world that’s ready and waiting for their takeover. So much so that Norton briefly forgets the album is out only a week after our conversation. “We went and picked up the vinyl from our label the other day, and quite genuinely, I had to remember which tracks are on it,” he chuckles. “But then when I looked at it I was pleasantly surprised that they were all good, so that was nice.”
Puppy are a band who, up until this point have been toiling away. with a duo of EP’s (2015's Puppy, and 2017's Vol. II) and a string of support tours. For Puppy, being able to flesh out the smorgasbord of influences that seep in through their songs gave them a new lease of life.
Billy begins; “It was nice to have a bit more time to sit down and figure out our parts with, I guess, a little more freedom?” He says, questioning himself. “Jock got to layer a little more guitars than he normally would,” Norton swiftly pipes up. “I normally only layer thirty guitars, but this time I got to layer three-hundred.” Through laughter, he continues.
“But like Billy said it just gave us more time to work on the songs and,” He pauses briefly to consider himself. “Refine what we were doing. I think the label played a big part in that. They were good at making us take our time and making sure we had the best songs for the album. And that the important thing was getting it right.”
“It’s better than our old ones, it acts as a like stepping stone in us trying to realise what’s in our heads, and get better at that,” Norton elaborates. “In terms of the songs, I think they’re our best ones. We’ve just got better at distilling the stuff we like into one smooth thing.”
The wholly understated element to Puppy comes from the songwriting craft. Hidden amongst the heavy duty sound lies lyrics that can emotionally intrigue, and also follow a path more suited to folk contemporaries which Norton describes as self-confessed “Neil Young verses”.
“Early on there were elements within the band that were fighting a bit more,” he mulls. “Now I think all of that stuff has melded together in a seamless way - hopefully! I don’t know…maybe I’m talking shit.”
The Venn diagram of influences and genres - “Mostly gospel” Norton says with a deadpan smirk - seep out across Puppy’s output has given them an unstoppable allure. Fans from a multitude of scenes and genres makeup their curious and endearing onlookers, which doesn’t phase the trio at all.
“It’s one of those things you never consider until you speak to people about your band. What you started doing is what you think is cool…” Norton says. “You’ve got to carry on doing that.” Price follows on. “If you start writing for specific people then you’re going to start writing rubbish stuff, or if you start thinking about your output in terms of things like that it’s not going to be autonomous, or natural, or fun…” He trails off, before interjecting with laughter. “Plus we don’t really have any fans!”
Approaching a more serious and thought out idea Norton starts. “A lot of what makes the band, [learned] from the various bands we were in before, is we all felt a bit frustrated by the constraints and things like that so when we got together in this band we did have an element of being all over the shop in terms of how we do. I think that’s because we saw you can draw a line between certain types of music…” “Mainly gospel!” The voice of Michael instantaneously pipes up in the background.
Norton continues his train of thought. “…In ways that we didn’t think people were doing, and we felt a bit frustrated by that, and so I think that is a big part of what makes the band. We couldn’t be us without that element to it.”
“We’ve always been into bands that have a conceptual continuity behind what they do,” Price explains. “We’ve had to think on our feet a bit as we go because we weren’t clever enough or didn’t know how long Puppy would exist to map out anything to start off with. But as we’ve gone on, we’ve tried to be quite self-reflective and try and create a bit of a sense of narrative or character to the band,”
“And for sure, when we sat down and started talking about the album and stuff, the last videos were trying to bring that all onboard a little bit and to convey a love for heavy music, but maybe a bit of an unease where we place ourselves within it?"
It’s this that brings things full circle to The Goat. Puppy’s moment to bring it all together - melding the sounds of Vol. II and their self-titled debut EP, no to mention leaning in heavily to the understated theatrical elements, including creating the Blair Witch Project homage “Black Hole” music video, and that title.
“With our songs or anything like that, it’s one of those things that felt right when we were talking about it” Norton remembers. “And we were like ‘Oh that'll be cool’, and I think we had faith in ourselves that if we think something is cool, and we feel excited by it, then it makes sense, rather than maybe sitting down and being like ‘why does it make sense?’ [It’s] one of those things earlier on when we were like ‘we should call the album The Goat!’ and ‘Yeah!’ Then no one said no?”
“I guess like the douchiness of calling your album the greatest of all time appealed to us on that level as well - just a slightly dumb, goofy joke,” Price says. “Also we’re deadly serious about it as well!” Michael interjects, as all three of them break into laughter. “I think it’s easily the greatest debut album of all time that we’ve put out.”
The fun in everything is how Puppy keeps on keeping on in a world that can be as cold and unforgiving as the European countries they’re currently touring. The self-awareness of being a new band; knowing that they’re going to have to drive hundreds of miles for shows, building their fanbase through an act of keeping the core of themselves alive, is all part and parcel of the bigger picture.
“It’s certainly not a good idea to get into financially so…it has to be [fun]!” Jock chortles about the decision to pursue music. “All you can do is make something you enjoy in all aspects. That’s what’s set the bar in terms of the stuff we wanted to do.” To which Price adds on. “We have a lot of fun."
Never ones to forgo an opportunity to get some mileage out of that title and its double-meaning, the band are heading out on a headline tour in April, dutifully dubbed the ‘Greatest of All Tours’. “Being able to tour with an album behind us is great,” Norton begins. “Everything we’ve done before has always been on this promise of ‘ones to watch’ or whatever, but having a bit of a statement behind us while we’re doing it is pretty exciting. A lot of is dependant on what people think of the album, so we’ll see I guess - we’ll probably know at the end of this month if we’ve got any more gigs!”
As much as their humour wouldn’t suggest, it is all working out for them. With The Goat now in the world, and a plethora of press, there’s a wave waiting to be ridden - yet even that isn’t untouched by the dry-wit of Price, whose final target is a December spotlight by The Guardian. “That article wasn’t about music though. It was about philanthropists and activists. They mistook what we were doing - because, obviously, they did the Wikileaks stuff - I think that was the context in which we were ‘ones to watch’ like hackers.” To which they all burst into laughter one final time.