BLURT’S BEST KEPT SECRET #8: The Public Good

D.C. band with deep
Amerindie roots purveys pure pop – with power – while keeping a sense of humor intact.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

The BLURT staff put our heads – and ears – together and we
have the latest pick for our Blurt/Sonicbids Best Kept Secret”: it’s The Public Good, based in Washington, DC.

 

The band was formed in 2007 by John Elderkin and Steve
Ruppenthal, a veteran songwriting team that had previously garnered national
acclaim back in the early ‘90s as members of Chapel Hill’s
The Popes. A big college radio fave, the band’s 1988 album Hi We’re the Popes has steadily grown in stature over the years
among indie rock aficionados, and in some corners it’s considered one of the
great lost artifacts of the pre-Nirvana era of alternative rock.

 

After the demise of that band (partly due to an ill-advised
record deal with First Warning that went south), Ruppenthal and Elderkin worked
together in Stumble, followed by the Lovely Lads. The Lads – not to be confused
with the hardcore band of the same name – issued a pair of well-received albums
on Put It On A Cracker Records, but that group, too, folded and the pair went their
own separate ways to pursue work and academic careers.

 

Later, they both wound up in D.C. where they resumed the
partnership, eventually meeting guitarist/keyboardist Sam Esquith and drummer
Chris Garges. Dubbing themselves The Public Good, they set about playing out
around the nation’s capitol – still having strong ties to the Chapel Hill music
scene, they found that town to be receptive as well – and by the summer of 2009
had released their debut album No. 1.

 

The record’s stuffed to the gills with hi-nrg pop, from the
Husker Du/Replacements-worthy “F-105” and the irrepressibly jangly, Kinksian
“(Imagine the Girlfriends I’d Have) If I Still Had Hair” to the
chiming/humming, buoyantly harmonious “Cigarette” and the sinewy (and lyrically
snarky; see below) – “It Was the Wrong Thing.” Suffice to say that the Public
Good lives up to, and in many ways surpasses, the early musical promise
demonstrated two decades ago by the mighty Popes.

 

We caught up with Elderkin and Ruppenthal recently to get
the details. Read on, and meanwhile check the band out at their official website, MySpace page or Facebook page. They’re one of the good ‘uns, trust us.

 

***

 

BLURT: Tell us a bit
about how and when the Public Good came together.

 

John: Steve
and I first started playing in high school (at West Charlotte High in NC),
played in college a bit, and then gave it everything we had after that as The
Popes in Chapel Hill. We both loved the
original British punk bands that, listening now, were really just playing fast
pop songs, and all the ‘60s British stuff, especially obscure Kinks and Who
stuff. So I think that bonded us and gave us a real focus. And we worked our
asses off — we were really ambitious. Looking back, I think something that
made us unique was the way we combined working so damn hard but also leaving
room to be goofy and funny on stage and in our writing.

 

After the Popes broke up, Steve was down in Atlanta and I moved there
for grad school and to play again. I think we’d figured out that we shouldn’t have
broken up. Then I put away music for years and it wasn’t until we both landed
in DC by chance that we started playing again.

 

Steve: We
met Chris about a year ago. He’s been drumming for Mitch Easter, and he was
nice enough to sit in with us when we opened for Mitch last year. Since then,
he’s joined the band and has been producing our new CD, which comes out in
March. We’ve been very lucky meeting him, and signing up Sam, who went to the
same MFA program as John. Sam brings so much to the table – he plays a lot of
instruments and allows us to orchestrate songs in entirely new ways. It has
really advanced our songwriting.

 

 

Your careers would
appear to be permanently entwined despite periods of being apart – what
qualities do you see in each other that helps complete the larger picture?

 

John: I
think the foundations of our tastes are the same, and that’s very hard to find
with someone else. It makes the focus of the songs we write really sharp.
Beyond that, I think our personalities are different, so we come at things
differently and often surprise each other. We push each other without trying
to, and that’s crucial for doing good work. And it keeps things fun for me.
When I have an idea for a song, I’m always excited about what Steve will bring
to it, where it might go that I wouldn’t have predicted.

 

Steve: I’ve
always thought John was the extrovert and I’m the introvert, but the cool thing
– I hope – is that you wouldn’t really know it in the songs. I think that’s
what makes a good songwriting partnership work.

 

 

For the No. 1 record – with that title I can’t
help but think of Big Star, of course – what do YOU hear when you listen to it
now, as opposed to when you were making it?

 

Steve: “No. 1” was supposed to be a take on Public Enemy No. 1, but I think
I’m the only one who got the joke. When I hear it now I think it’s a strong
record all the way around. We were still finishing the songs right up to and
including the recording time. For songwriting, usually one of us has a main
idea, a chorus, a verse, or a riff, and brings it in for feedback. Every once
in a while the song is brought in finished and then tweaked for harmonies, etc.

 

John: Those
songs were actually pretty new when we went to record them. But making that
disc took a long, long time. Lots of unexpected complications came in, so that
by the time we finished it, we’d been playing the songs live for a year and
knew them much better than when we first went to record them. Honestly, I have
no idea what the upshot of that is. I doubt we’d have arranged the songs
differently. When I listen to it now, I’m really happy with how it sounds – it
rocks. And I’m proud that if you really listen, there’s a depth to what we’re
doing. The songwriting is tight and the stories we have to tell aren’t one dimensional.

 

Is D.C. a good town
to be an indie rock band in? What do we need to know about the music scene
there?

 

Steve: D.C.
has a great history. There was the whole Fugazi and Dischord Records scene,
which was huge. And in fact we’ve been recording at Inner Ear Studio with Don
Zientara, who helped record a lot that music. That’s been a great experience.
And the city also is home to Chuck Brown and the Go-Go scene, so that’s cool,
too. But we’re coming in as outsiders, and as a straight-ahead rock band, so we’ve
had to work hard to get noticed.

 

John: Part
of the difficulty is that we’re older and don’t hang out at clubs with other
bands like we did all the time in Chapel Hill.
Plus, with so many transients here, it’s hard to break in with the long-time
locals in the scene. Of course, we’ve heard some cool bands here – Short Stack,
The Break-Ups, and Middle Distance Runner are some that come to mind.

 

Plans for 2010?

 

Steve: The
next record, getting some attention in the D.C. press, beefing up our audience
here, new contracts, and boots.

 

John: The
iron is hot – we are writing tons of songs, and we have a new CD coming out
this Spring. Our drummer produced it – it sounds fantastic, a slightly new
angle on how we’ve sounded in the past. I’d like to flood the world with more
of our new songs in 2010 and beyond. Hopefully we’ll record another CD’s worth
of them this year with Chris.

 

And if I had a wish for 2010, it’d be to find a way to get
the music distributed out into the world better. We’re fully committed, working
hard and writing material we know is very strong. And hell, I’ll admit it, I’d
like to have a little success. I’d fucking love to hear one of our songs come
blasting out of someone’s FM radio, shaking up the world for a couple of
minutes. Just one! That’s my 2010 dream.

 

One thing I like
about the group is the sense of humor that comes through without being over the
top. So tell me two things. (1) Re: “(Imagine the Girlfriends I’d Have) If I
Still Had Hair”: what kinds of girlfriends WOULD you have if you still had
hair? (3) Re: “It Was the Wrong Thing”: exactly what is wrong with such rock
‘n’ roll mainstays as (a) jam bands,  (b)
groups who sing about their pain and woe, and (c) getting high every day, all
of which you single out in the song?

 

John: Oh
man, where to start? That hair song was a way to poke fun at me for obsessing
about my hair loss. Used to make me crazy. But I didn’t want to take the
obvious stance with it. What I like about how the song turned out is what you
suggest — it doesn’t get silly, instead it sticks in that middle ground where
the narrator knows he’s being ridiculous, can’t help himself, and then
confesses to real loss toward the end. That combo of goofy and poignant.

 

I’ll let Steve tell you what’s (always been) wrong about a,
b, and c.

 

Steve: I
still have hair but not a girlfriend, so I’ve wondered if the opposite is true
of the song? As for those mainstays:  (a)
they’re boring; (b) every band does it, but there’s a difference between
“pain and woe” and say, getting dumped, which is what the narrator
means; (c) you get to be stupid and lose any creative edge – hence jam bands.

 

Since you’ve been
part of the Amerindie landscape stretching back all the way to pre-Nirvana
days, what are some of the key changes you’ve seen go down in the past 20
years? What kind of advice would you give to a band starting out in 2010?

 

John: I
don’t understand the business at all. And any time I think I’m getting a clue,
the rules change again.

 

Steve:  I miss the demise of a collection of songs as
an album, though not “concept albums” (Green Day’s last record – ugh!).
And I wish John Lennon, Joe Strummer, and Arthur Lee were still alive.

 

John: I’m
the last guy to offer advice on making it. Other than to say, if you know
you’re good and you have something to say, and you need to say it, stick with
it. Ride it out. It takes guts, more guts than I demonstrated. I kept quitting.
Because of course when you want to “make it,” even outworking
everyone else is no guarantee of success. I wish someone had talked to me
seriously about what life as a writer means when I was in my 20s.  I used to think that because the Beatles or
Neil Young or whoever made killer records when they were 23, I should also be
constrained by time and age. That’s so wrong.

 

Steve:  Stick to Web 2.0 stuff and forget about
getting “signed,” because, as we all know, the record industry is
fucked at the moment (HOORAY!). Play out, write, write, write, and shamelessly
promote yourselves.

 

 

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