An Interview with Dan Pugach

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We often forget how many hats people wear in the music industry. Dan Pugach is one such person. He is a composer, drummer, bandleader, arranger, his own tour manager, etc.

It was a privilege and honor to be able to talk with Dan. We discuss how he ended up settling on playing Jazz in a nonet, how Van Halen has become the inspiration for future music, and the influence Roy Haynes has had on him, amongst other things.

Go here to learn more about Dan and check out his music here.

Joe:
What have you been up to the past year considering the current circumstances of the world?

Dan:
Well, I moved out of Brooklyn to West Haven, Connecticut. We’ve been here since March, so like a year and change. My wife and I have been mainly at home and figuring out how to how to still play together. We’ve been live streaming every Friday, and we set up a little studio thing at our place. We’ve been recording drum tracks and vocal tracks. She’s a vocalist, a piano player. Then live streaming gigs came out of nowhere and we started doing that. We started broadcasting to different virtual conferences where we would play either our original music or our arrangements. I released a couple of singles with my nine-piece band and with a big band. All the tracks were recorded remotely. They were released to kind of keep the fire going. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing for the past year.

Joe:
You released your proper studio album with your group, the Dan Pugach Nonet, in 2018. Tell me a little about that album and how it came together?

Dan:
I’ve been writing for a nine-piece band since 2010. I just started calling cats to rehearse and try out new arrangements and tunes. Very slowly, it turned into a thing. It got a life of its own. Then we started playing more gigs in town and out of town. Then we decided to record like nine tracks. They featured my wife on vocals plus the nine-piece band. The band consists of six horns: trumpet, trombone, bass trombone, alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax, and a rhythm section. I never really wanted to record or at the very least I was never in a rush to record. But I guess I realized I don’t exist if I don’t record. I was playing gigs, everybody showed up and everybody was happy. I have some YouTube stuff. Then I decided, I got to put stuff out there and record. It turned out to be not bad. I signed with a Swiss label called Unit Records in Switzerland. We put out this record and it’s been great. I don’t want to say we sold platinum [Laughs], but it got us some visibility and a Grammy nomination. We were playing out a lot and taking the actual full nine-piece band all over. We toured in Europe a little bit and the States. It was great. Then the pandemic hit.

Joe:
How did your current group come together? how did you become a Nonet; it seems unique in Jazz?

Dan:
It started as a project. I was taking classes at City College in New York, in Harlem. It was a very Classical-oriented program. However, one of the classes was with Mike Holober. He is a great composer who got me hip to writing for larger Jazz ensembles. One of the projects was to write for five horns and a four-piece rhythm section consisting of drums, bass, piano, and guitar. I did that project and I realized I’m attracted to it. I have a lot to say with that type of instrumentation. So, I figured, “Why change it?” The first couple of years the band had a flute player. It was very challenging having a flute all the time though. Having a steady flute in the band dictated a certain sound and color that I didn’t want to exclusively have. I did the band that way for a couple of years and we played around the city. Then we stopped because I was kind of broke. I said to myself, “Let me set this aside and get some other gigs as a sideman. Work more so I can do it full force, you know, 100%.” When I got back to it in 2015, I took out the flute and added a bass trombone. That gave me three saxes and three brass. It gave me more balance between those different colors. That’s how I kept it ever since.

Joe:
I know you were saying you released a few songs this past year. I saw amongst other things, that you did your own take on “My Favorite Things.” What made you decide to do an arrangement of that song in particular?

Dan:
That was Nicole’s idea, my wife. She’s a piano player also. We always play together, and I bounce a lot of ideas off her. That was something that she was really good at. She had her own vibe on it. Also, we had a gig that was dependent on us writing holiday charts. It was December at the time, and you need a way to convince club owners to get a nine-piece band in. So, instead of writing all holiday charts, I figured “My Favorite Things” is pretty holiday-ish. We decided to use that and then we recorded it. We went into Pinch Recording, in Long Island City, and we cut that one.

Joe:
What was the journey that led you to the music you make today?

Dan:
I’m making the same music. I don’t know! [Laughs]. I’m doing more Big Band now. Full big bands, seventeen-piece, you know, plus voice. I’m doing both the Nonet and Big Band. I’m going to record a new album soon with new compositions and new arrangements. It’s happening this year to fulfill a grant that I’m getting. I’m getting the Cafe Royale Cultural Foundation support for recording an album. It’s going to be inspired by an arrangement that I wrote during the pandemic of a Van Halen song. It all began when we started doing our live streams. We have a lot of friends and fans who show up, buy tickets, and hang with us. We take live requests. One of the fans asked if I would arrange “Dreams” by Van Halen for them. So, I wrote a chart for it. It turned out cool and very, very different than the original Van Halen version. I’m going to do a full Big Band album inspired by that arrangement.

Joe:
That sounds very interesting. I look forward to listening to it.

Dan:
It’s going to be sweet. And I’ll probably release it on vinyl as well, which probably is one of your questions at some point.

Joe:
What do you miss most about being able to tour and play shows regularly? What do you not miss?

Dan:
I miss meeting new people. We are used to playing in The City. How it impacts people from outside of New York City, I miss that. In New York, the audience expects a certain level from you, a certain thing, a certain vibe. When you take your band out to towns in the middle of nowhere to their local venue, it’s different. I bring my nine-piece Jazz band and we play our butts off and do original arrangements and long pieces and short pieces and drum solos and all that stuff, people freak out. It’s so refreshing. Everything else is difficult. The money, the sleeping arrangements, the food, the travel, everything is difficult. But, when you’re on stage and you do your thing and you really touch people that don’t even know you and don’t owe you anything, they’re just there to, you know, have a good time, that is the best experience you can ask for. What I don’t miss is flying, driving, dealing with everything, because I do everything. I’m my own secretary, tour manager, my everything. I have to do everything right now. I don’t miss that part of it. That part is a lot of stress.

Joe:
If you could make one of those old school Jazz drum battle albums, I know most musicians like to refer to them as collaborative drum albums, what drummer or drummers would you like to make one with?

Dan:
Roy Haynes. Roy Haynes is my all-time favorite. He’s my biggest influence and inspiration. He’s still around and he still kicks it. He still kicks butt. He’s 95 and still better than all of us. So, it would be Roy if he’s ever down.

Joe:
Part of the uniqueness of the drums, I think, as an instrument is that there are so many ways to modify your set and get different sounds. Do you have a standard setup that you use? Has it evolved over the years, or do you have a different set based on the circumstances?

Dan:
That’s a cool question. When I play with other people, I try to keep it simple and not about me. I don’t bring all the fancy, accessory sounds if you will. Two cymbals and a hi-hat. I can do a lot with that. I play using sticks, brushes, mallets, and using my hands on the snare to get different sounds. When I play with my band, I’m so busy with the music side of it. Directing the actual pieces and the band. Communicating to the alto player or the bass player or giving shit to the piano player, you know. I rarely think about my setup in those instances. I just bring whatever I’m comfortable with. Sometimes, I feel like because I’m a drummer/bandleader there are eyes on me when I’m playing. I go against that attention, and I make it even simpler and more about the music. I take at most one or two solos a show. I have started messing around with stack cymbals. Those little splash on top of a splash deals. It’s a very common addition these days. They make really short, modern sounds. I saw Antonio Sanchez, Mark Guiliana, and a lot of other guys using them. It’s become a standard part of my setup. That’s pretty much it. There’s no, do do do do do do do do [swings around in a circle pretending to hit a large number of nonexistent drums while laughing].

Joe:
What does the future hold for you musically?

Dan:
We’re still live streaming. I feel like that’s probably not going away. I think even as live gigs start coming back, we’ll still have a live stream aspect to concerts. Which is probably good. I mean, not everybody can go out. Some people prefer to stay home or can’t go out. So, we’re continuing to cultivate that. We’re playing every Friday plus we do other gigs that are streaming to universities, colleges, conferences, and performing arts centers. Other than that, we’re going to work on this album soon, and hopefully, you’ll hear about it.

Interested in learning more about the artistry of Dan Pugach? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Records, Roots & Ramblings, by Joe O’Brien, here: https://vinylwritermusic.com/records-roots-ramblings-archives/

About Post Author

Joe O'Brien

Joe has always been a huge music fan. Growing up on Long Island, NY, USA, Joe did chores and dumpster dove for bottles with his best friend Andrew to trade bottles for money to buy vinyl. Joe is a Registered Nurse in the ER by day, and a life-long music lover by night. Having been an avid consumer of all things music since he was a child, Joe’s diverse collection of over 3,000 vinyl albums, plus several hundred tapes and CDs, tells the story of a man who simply loves music. Joe’s goal is to write about what he is most passionate about and share new and exciting music. Joe lives on Long Island, NY with his beloved dog Scarlett.
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