Cartel Tries to Escape from the ‘Band in a Bubble’ Backlash


The year 2007 was a hectic one for pop-punk outfit Cartel, so it was only fitting its members ended it by taking a few months off to recharge. The band recently reemerged for a string of stateside tour dates, including a pair last week at Anaheim’s Chain Reaction, and will next be heading overseas for brief stints in Japan and Australia.

Cartel, which is made up of vocalist Will Pugh, guitarists Joseph Pepper and Nic Hudson, bassist Jeff Lett and drummer Kevin Sanders, made headlines last May when they participated in MTV’s “Band In a Bubble” experiment. The reality TV show followed the band members for 20 days as they recorded their new record in a fiberglass dome in the middle of New York City. However, the unique decision drew almost immediate criticism from fans, who accused the band of being corporate sellouts.

“I still feel like a large majority of people didn’t understand it. I still don’t fully understand it,” Pugh confessed. “The way that it got promoted and the way it actually was were two different things.”

The Atlanta-based group originally saw the concept as a way to break away from the traditional routine of touring and recording, allowing for an opportunity to stand out amid a market full of Fall Out Boy and Blink-182 clones.

“We had a chance to do something a little different and that was cool,” Sanders said. “Before leaving for New York, I was excited, like going on a field trip. I was like, all right, this will be fun.”

The band went into the show having almost everything already written and recorded about seven songs during its stay. The subsequent record – the band’s first since getting upstreamed from Long Beach’s The Militia Group to major label Epic Records – debuted at No. 20 on the Billboard 200, selling 28,000 copies its first week. Nevertheless, it failed to receive much of a push from Epic, something over which the band had no control.

“The radio stations didn’t play it, but that’s not our job,” Pugh pointed out. “Our job is to make music, play it live and connect with our fans, and I feel that we’ve been doing that.”

While the self-titled release also fell short of the critical acclaim their previous album, “Chroma,” had enjoyed, the band doesn’t necessarily regret the direction it chose.

“If we had to do it again, with no recollection of how it turned out, we would have done the exact same thing,” Pugh said. “Why not?”

In a time when people on Internet message boards are quick to attack bands that experience mainstream recognition, Cartel is merely the latest footnote in an ongoing trend. Even now, the band has remained under fire from many of its fans, who view the controversial album as less than stellar.

“It’s hard not to look at it sometimes, but you can’t pay attention to it. Some people are just going to be like that,” Pugh admitted. “We got to write the record we wanted to write, so as far as I’m concerned, we didn’t sell out. We didn’t do anything differently.”

Pugh believes the negatives sentiments will eventually fade out over time, and people will forget about what happened and once again focus on the music.

“Once the next record comes out, I think people will be a lot more inclined to be like, ‘OK, you’ve been forgiven,’ ” he added.

For now, the band will look to leave the “bubble” incident in the past and turn its attention back to touring. This spring Cartel hopes to do a run of college shows before hitting the road full time over the summer. In the meantime, the group will start to play around with new material, or what Pugh described as “embryos floating around waiting to be fertilized.”

Seeking to progress and improve on each new outing, the quintet have always taken to heart the criticism each of their records has received. The learning process will only continue with its third full-length effort, and the band members are confident it will allow them to bounce back.

“I think the next record’s going to be an amalgamation of all those things we’ve learned,” Pugh explained. “You’re not going to hear 12 prog-rock songs, but you’re not going to hear ‘Honestly’ 12 times either. … If there would have been a record in between “Chroma” and the new record, that’s this next record.”

“We wrote our third record second,” Sanders chimed in. “We were just throwing people for a loop.”

In the end, 2008 will be a pivotal time for Cartel, and the band members are aware the coming months could bring about a drastic turning point in their career.

“You take a step back to take two steps forward,” Pugh noted. “We’re going to have new stuff come out this year, maybe not like putting it out on a label, but we will be working. The chemistry project has started.”

Originally appeared in The Orange County Register