Words and Photos by Andrew Parks
One of the smartest metalheads we’ve ever met also happens to be one of the scariest: the Dillinger Escape Plan‘s Greg Puciato, a guy so ready-to-rip-your-face-off onstage (seriously, check out this SXSW video) that MTV.com once put him on a list of likely steroid users. To which Puciato responded, “While this isn’t the first time that someone has presumed that I take steroids, it is the first time that I can think of that it’s been publicly presumed. Although I usually take it as a compliment, it borders on slander when done in this way, and in actuality, it’s more of a shame that we live in a time in which people assume that you need to cheat somehow in order to actually achieve anything worthwhile.
He continued, “Your article says more about you, James, than it says about me. Regardless, thanks for the publicity softball pitch, and you can thank me in return. Keep practicing the whole ‘writing’ thing, cause it apparently doesn’t come that naturally to you. And meanwhile I’ll go pop all the huge zits that I have on my back, beat the shit out of my girlfriend for having a guy friend, start a fight at a sports bar, drunk-bang a bunch of 19-year-old sorority chicks and crush 20 Wendy’s double stacks.”
The singer’s rather bitchy retort is understandable but unfortunate. Unfortunate because it makes him look hotheaded–the last person you could imagine having a real conversation with, let alone one as dark and deeply personal as the following interview (abbreviated as a list of life lessons in our current issue). As it turns out, Puciato skipped a couple grades in school, is a voracious reader, and spends a lot of his free time taking online classes through California State’s Long Beach branch.
And his one-track train of thought not too long ago, as Dillinger wrapped up their fourth LP, Option Paralysis? Absurdism, the Camus/Kierkegaard-led philosophy that there’s no point in trying to tap the meaning of life because it’s all bullshit anyway. Or at least that’s what we thought it meant…
“I know this isn’t very rock ‘n’ roll, but I did very well in school”
So we originally asked you to write an essay about Absurdism. Why did you end up passing?
Well, the thing is, most of my school work is essay-based already because if they gave us online tests, you could just cheat. So it’s becoming difficult for me to write without it coming across as a monologue. And when you’re starting with a subject that’s moderately pretentious to begin with, I didn’t want to be like, â€˜Well here’s my essay on the nature of life.’
You don’t have the definitive answer about the meaning of life?
I don’t, actually. We’re all messed up in our own way and just trying to find what resonates with us.
So when did you start taking online classes?
A couple years ago. At the beginning of each class, they tell you what you need to do and the deadlines for everything. You’re completely on your own. There’s no extensions or anything. It’s actually very impersonal–like there’s no direct interactions with another person, really. Although that’s not all that different from universities where you’re in one big room and no one talks to you personally. But yeah, they basically send you back an essay that’s about your essay.
So you don’t even know the name of the person you’re dealing with?
I do, but it’s completely irrelevant. That’s a good thing in a way, as it means there isn’t any favoritism or anything like that.
Did you start college before you joined the band?
I went to a couple of places in Maryland forever ago and didn’t finish. I don’t really care to now, either, because the thing I was going for seems moderately:When I was a kid, I thought of school as a glorified work certificate–something that’s going to make you money. Everything’s about, â€˜Pick something! Pick something!’ How can you pick anything to commit to when you’re 18 years old and haven’t lived much yet?
I picked something that’s pretty bland: a business degree. And throughout the course of doing Dillinger and being self-managed, I’ve learned way more just through trial and error. I understand the need for degrees, that you need to prove to employers a basic level of competency. But as far as getting something out of it yourself, I think you should just go to school for the enjoyment of it.
I was just thinking, we’ve never had as much pressure to go to college as now, but at the same time, when all of the great enlightenments happened–whether it was the Greek philosophers, the Jewish philosophers or whatever–they weren’t done by people who were forced through some sort of diploma system. They had a general love of learning something about themselves and the world. I kind of have a hippie-ish mentality about it all. I think if you love something and are good at it, you’ll find a way to make a profit from it.
I have two friends who are graphic designers and the one who didn’t go to school is doing better. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go necessarily, but when [the more successful designer] submits things to people, they don’t ask him about his degree. They ask him what he’s done, and if it’s mind-blowing, it’s mind-blowing.
“We have no reason to think we’re a part of anything special”
So how much school did you have left before you quit?
A year. I know, I know:I was so close, but I got burnt out. I know this isn’t very rock ‘n’ roll, but I did very well in school, like I skipped grades in high school. I actually graduated the month after I turned 17. As soon as I made the decision that I needed a break from school, the band asked me to join basically. I thought it would last a couple years, but here we are now, a decade later. It’s pretty strange.
So what classes are you taking now?
Mostly upper level psychology and sociology classes. I took a couple economics classes so thank I could look at that from a macro level, too. It was particularly interesting, because I started taking it as the economy started to fall apart. So it was nice to see how there’s so much going on there than what the average person realizes. This whole thing has changed my views of what people should be taking in high school and middle school, too. The most important things to learn are about yourself, the world around you and how you fit into it all. That makes you more sympathetic and aware of people. If you had a good psych or sociology background, you’d be able to see things so much more objectively. You wouldn’t make decisions based on irrational things like religion or any form of superstition–whatever nine out of 10 people let color their worldview.
The pace at which things are happening today is kinda frightening, too. It’s like how much more alive can the whole [computer] experience get before we become post-human? Maybe that definition is different than what people expected; maybe it’s a reliance on machines more than something with actual cyborg parts.
Have you read a lot of Philip K. Dick before?
Yeah, have you read Raymond Kurzweil before? He pretty much invented the synthesizer, sold the idea, and used his insanity/genius to come up with the idea of singularity–the idea that technological change would become so fast that it’ll eclipse our ability to even see it happening. The world would just become this Big Bang of ideas, an inconceivable point in this century. This shit sounds like it’s straight out of the Terminator. He’s like, the second a computer’s powerful enough to run, say, the human brain, the next logical step will be for it to somehow create something that’s smarter than the human brain. At that point, we’re God and we’ve started the circle [of life] again, where we’re self-reproducing to the point where who knows what the world will look like?
What’s the name of the main book he wrote then?
He wrote a book called The Singularity Is Near. You should read it just for the holy-shit-this-is-kind-of-insane appeal of it. Computers are already better at doing math than us, so how much longer will it be before we’re a worm compared to them? Who knows? It could go either way.
Have you always spent a lot of your time reading?
[Laughs] Yeah, I’ve always felt like I need to learn something. What I’ve been trying to figure out lately, however, is â€˜why?’ Why do I have an insatiable need to know what’s going on when you can’t possibly know what’s going on anyway? What I’m starting to learn is that it’s an endless circle that can only lead you to insanity:or giving up at some point. That’s where I found myself at the end of last year–with this depressive anxiety. My girlfriend would say, “Why do you care about this stuff when you can’t control it?” And I’d say, “I wish I didn’t give a shit in some instances.” I wish I could wake up and say, â€˜Oh well, this is all out of my control!’ But if you really think about it, we have no reason to think we’re a part of anything special. Dinosaurs were around for 150 million years. We’ve only been around for a fraction of that time, and yet, we have this egocentric view about it all.
Well, people want a purpose in life:
Which leads us to Absurdism and the following question: How do you rationalize getting up and giving a shit about what goes on during the day if you believe you’re no more important than a gnat you just killed on the wall? What I’ve resigned myself to is the idea that I’m here and it’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s a complete accident, and unless I want to kill myself, I have to live here until my time is up, whether it’s me getting hit by a bus at 40 or dying of cancer at 89. I might as well make the best of it either way, and not think about it too deeply. Some people do that naturally; other people have to drive themselves crazy to reach that realization.
So you had to consciously tell yourself to stop worrying?
I had to because I was really in a never-ending spiral toward the end of last year. The writing of the record kinda dug it up in a way. That’s the funny thing about free associative writing–you start to unearth things from your subconscious, and the things you tend to put there are things you don’t want to deal with. And sometimes when you dig things up, you can’t put them back away. Writing the record really caused me to evaluate how I live my life, from why I’m not a better person to why I’m not a completely immoral person. Between that and turning 30, I just kept thinking, â€˜I need to figure this out!’ or I’m gonna kill myself and have some sort of breakdown. That led to realizing it doesn’t matter how many books you read at the end of the day because you still really don’t know anything.
“Morality and religion have nothing to do with one another”
What’s the course you’re taking right now?
It doesn’t really have anything to do with what we’re talking about right now. It’s a sociology course about marriage.
And you’re going to decide if marriage is right for you by the end of it?
[Laughs] Marriage is obviously a terrible social experiment in terms of the percentage game. You’d never start a business if you heard there was a 40-percent success rate.
That’s 40-percent of people are happy or not divorced?
Not divorced. So that’s not even taking into account what percentage of the ‘successful’ marriages are in fact miserable marriages. So who knows? People don’t like to be put in a box. If I’m in this room with you and the door is closed, that’s fine, but if someone locked us in here, we would freak the fuck out. I think that happens with a lot of people. People get married for the wrong reasons. They get married for emotional reasons, or if they’re insecure about something, and yet at the end of the day, you’re supposed to grow forever with this one person. How can you manage going down the same road 20 or 30 years from now, and not be faking it? It’s really bizarre to me. You wouldn’t agree on a job application to work at a place for the rest of your life. So it almost seems backwards to me to decide to be someone’s life partner at the beginning of your life. I’d rather look at someone when I’m 90 and suddenly think, â€˜Oh, we’ve been together for the past 70 years. That’s rad.’
Marriage is a massive industry geared towards women’s emotions. You’re fighting a losing battle as a guy if you resist it.
So your course looks at the psychology of marriage?
Yeah–why people do it; does it still have a place in society today; is the industry surrounding it the only thing propping it up? All of those questions: What it boils down to is that I’m obsessive, so I have to focus on something at all times.
Well, everyone’s searching for themselves in high school, so what did you focus on back then? Religion?
Interestingly enough, I went to a religious school despite my parents not raising me as any [one religion]. Our school district was just shitty, and it was the only decent private school.
What kind of school was it?
A Catholic one:I guess at the end of the day they’ll take anyone so long as you give them money.
Were you confirmed or anything?
No, no no. I never ate [communion] or went to church on Sunday, either. I don’t agree with any of that taught as fact, but I didn’t have to fight it because I knew when I was 11 years old that it’s all ridiculous. I don’t mean to offend anyone. That’s just how I feel.
Well, I think a lot of people are just afraid of death. My parents consider themselves Catholic but they don’t go to church or anything. They just want to believe in:something.
Yeah, most people have to [believe in something] at some point–whether it’s when you’re in jail or about to die or whatever–just to keep yourself from being terrified. Maybe when you and I are old we will change our mind about it all for that very reason:
Personally, I just think it’s a bit arrogant to believe any one religion is right, when they’re all based in the teachings of other human beings:
Well that’s the other absurd thing–there’s no such thing as one wrong or right religion. I’m not gonna tell my kid that there’s nothing going on that we don’t know about. But just because there’s an absence of knowledge doesn’t mean that there’s a need to create something.
You identify yourself as agnostic then?
No, because agnosticism is saying you believe there’s a higher power; you just don’t know who it is, whereas atheism says, â€˜unless you prove it to me, it’s not there.’ It’s so bizarre to me that atheism is considered such an evil thing. Morality and religion have nothing to do with one another:If you teach religion as a form of mythology to kids–as in, â€˜this is what some people believe and why’–I think that’s okay.
Yeah, cultural studies courses about religion are actually really fascinating:
Because it goes hand in hand with so many major philosophies.
And so many major films. Like the age-old idea of the hero and how he’s redeemed through a quest…
The Joseph Campbell book (The Hero’s Journey)?
That’s one of the reasons why civilizations that never encountered one another have such similar beliefs–because certain motifs and shorelines resonate through most people. But to equate any of that with facts is irresponsible. If you’re not going to tell your kid he’s a Republican and can’t believe in creationism when he’s a year old, what gives you the right to baptize him and say he believes in Jesus?
“You can’t make a song that’s kinda depressing; you have to be ready to kill yourself when writing it.”
So are you parents more like you?
They’re culturally Christian. They put up Christmas trees and like Santa Claus, but they don’t go to church or anything like that.
They must think you’re a little strange:
They think I’m insane, yeah. So I don’t really talk to them about it too much.
What got you into Absurdism in the first place?
I’m trying to think of how it started:You know [SÃ¸ren] Kierkegaard? Well, he was kinda the bridge between [Friedrich] Nietzsche and [Albert] Camus. Obviously Nietzsche is absolute nihilism–nothing matters, everything is worthless–and I thought that was just as silly as saying everything is meaningful. So a friend of mine told me to check out Kierkegaard because he’d gone through a depressive breakdown a couple years ago, where he was suicidal and was feeling some of the same anxieties and depression I was feeling now. So I read some of that and then I found the next person who contributed to that train of thought, Camus:I read that book The Stranger and then just started devouring everything–The Plague, Exile and the Kingdom, The Myth of Sisyphus:It all just made sense to me, and felt like exactly how I was feeling. He thought that every field of social science leads to this one question, and this realization that everything is inherently absurd and there’s nothing you can do about it. Well, there’s two things you can do besides kill yourself–adopt a religion or somehow learn to deal with the inevitable anxieties that come with the fact that our lives are inherently absurd. That’s kinda where it all ended for me…
A lightbulb went off in your head basically?
Yeah, because you go from point A to Z, and back to A again:It was hard for me to write the record, so it’s hard for me to read the lyrics now or even think about being in that headspace. It almost feels stupid now. It’s like being bummed about a girlfriend and suddenly snapping out of it.
So your lyrics for this record were written in the heat of your depression?
Yeah, I think that’s important as an artist–to put yourself in this completely raw territory, even if you feel ridiculous looking back at it later. That’s where the best art comes from. You can’t make a song that’s kinda depressing; you have to be ready to kill yourself when writing it. For the same reason, you shouldn’t make music when you’re kinda happy. You should feel ecstatic. That’s how it translates to other people.
What’s a song on the new record that captures that pain better than anything?
The headspace I was in when I wrote the lyrics kinda colored the way I think about them. So it’s weird for me to even think about that time period. It’s like coming out of a fog suddenly and saying, â€˜Okay, now I get it.’
Do you even read this Absurdism stuff anymore?
I can’t. When I did, I read it all–I bought everything on Amazon, because when I get into something, I absolutely obsess over it. And then I move on. This is especially bad because it’s a rabbit hole with no end, a train of thought that’s designed to lead you to insanity:The answer is there is no answer.
What are some books people should start with if they’re interested in learning about Absurdism?
The Stranger is a good start. It’s a little tough because nothing really happens for half of the book but by the end, you realize that’s kinda the point. You have to make yourself get through it. It’s not some amazingly written book, you know? It’s not Faulkner; it’s the kind of book that makes you think â€˜I can’t believe I’m reading this’ throughout the entire thing. At least until a light clicks on:
So you shouldn’t start with that?
Probably not. The Myth of Sisyphus is good. It’s story about a guy who’s stuck rolling a stone up a hill, and every time it goes over the hill he has to start over again. Even though he knows the ball is just gonna roll back down, he has to find a way to make the process enjoyable. It’s a way of saying, â€˜It’s not the journey, it’s the destination,’ because you know we’re all gonna fail. We were all born with a death clock around our necks. For some people, it runs out when they’re five years old, and for others, it runs out when they’re 100.
That’s a short story, I hope? Not 200 pages of rolling a stone up and down?
It’s only about 70 pages, but it’s also commenting on other things. Anything early by Kierkegaard is good, too, although he found religion later in life despite spending most of his life saying that Christianity is a form of suicide. It just goes to show you that no matter how hard you try to get away from it, most of us need a comfort blanket sometime. I’m not gonna die peacefully; I’m gonna die screaming, violating trying to hang onto life and scaring all of the people around me.
The Dillinger Escape Plan are one of the headliners on this summer’s Warped Tour.