Although The Public Good have all the makings of a great power-pop band, their gritty sound and offbeat perspective add up to something else; something that defies easy labels. They are a band with something to say and their own way of saying it.
Some of their songs, such as “(Imagine the Girlfriends I’d Have) If I Still Had Hair,” are fun and funny on first listen, as the balding singer wishes out loud that science could clone Bob Dylan’s “big fro.” But keep listening and the song’s poignant sense of longing and self-doubt becomes gently apparent.
Other songs, like “Black Ice,” from the group’s new release A Varied Program of Stereo Dynamics for Your Wild Nights Alone, are deadly serious from the opening riff. The song is drawn from bassist/vocalist Steve Ruppenthal’s reaction to a cancer diagnosis in his family. “It’s the little things in life that mean so much/ A tiny black spot that keeps us in touch,” he sings of an X-ray result that changes everything. “There’s no cheap emotion in that song,” says keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Sam Esquith. “It’s not sentimental at all.”
But whether silly or sobering, The Public Good’s songs are always intelligent. For cynics who hold to the belief that smart rock & roll is some kind of an oxymoron, just one listen to The Public Good will put that fallacy to rest. Many of their songs, like the aforementioned “Hair” and “Black Ice,” can be appreciated on several levels at once. More importantly, The Public Good’s music is honest. “The songs are stories. Usually they're not literally about us, but they're true to what we see going on around us,” says guitarist/vocalist John Elderkin. “We hate cliché and the hazy emotions that’ve already been written about to death.”
Although the members of The Public Good, which also includes Chris Garges on drums and percussion, grew up loving British Invasion bands, they were also strongly influenced by original punk bands such as The Clash and The Sex Pistols. For Garges, Elderkin, and Ruppenthal, who grew up in North Carolina’s stifling radio atmosphere of non-stop classic rock, discovering punk rock set them apart. “I was much more influenced by punk and new wave than classic rock,” Ruppenthal says about those formative days.
Esquith, who spent time in West Africa with the Peace Corps, returned from his time abroad with a deep appreciation of that region’s music. “If you listen to Sam singing This Rising Tide on the new album, you’ll hear it’s got a sort of afro-pop vibe going through it, underneath the roar of the rock & roll,” says Elderkin.
Each member of The Public Good has been in bands before, but they agree that this is the best band experience for each of them. Elderkin and Ruppenthal, who’ve played together on and off since their high school days, agree that the teamwork and complimentary talents of each member sets this group apart. “The songwriting is much more collaborative now,” notes Ruppenthal. “In this band we’re trying to branch out and get everybody’s opinion.”
In addition to this new way of working, The Public Good has also learned the lesson of sticking to its guns and not giving up -- even when things get tough. In the past, botched record deals and line-up issues weighed them down. “It used to be that we would get impatient and quit. And then we’d start again from scratch,” says Ruppenthal. “We’re in it for the long haul now.”
And the band has plenty to look forward to. A Varied Program of Stereo Dynamics for Your Wild Nights Alone, which was produced by Garges, promises to bring them a wider audience. “We love how the disc sounds. Chris did a great job guiding us, and so far we’ve been getting a very strong reaction,” says Elderkin. In the meantime, they are playing gigs on the East Coast, blogging day-in-the-life-of-the-band updates on their entertaining site Public Privates, and are already writing songs for their next release, hoping for the best and doing the good work of The Public Good.
How do you describe your music to people, John?
One part Replacements, two dashes of tequila, and a splash of the Monkees.
Tell me about how you originally got into your craft.
Steve Ruppenthal and John Elderkin (I am writing these responses) met in 9th grade -- we found we had similar musical tastes and similar dreams of rock stardom. So we started a band and played in kids' basements and living rooms when their parents went out of town for the weekend.
We are both interested in great songwriting and putting songs together in the best, smartest way possible. So that, rather than ego or random jamming, has been our sensibility throughout our partnership.
What is your favorite thing to do in the whole wide world?
Go to practice and work up new songs.
What is your biggest challenge when it comes to running your business?
Getting the attention of people who are inundated with music and bands trying to get their attention.
When you were a kid, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I was hoping I'd either be John Lennon or Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.
In what way has your community impacted your development as a musician?
Our first serious band was based in Chapel Hill, NC, a college town with a great music scene. That inspired us and also made us feel like we were part of something important. I don't think we'd have gotten so good so fast without that cool, interesting environment.
What other artists out there do you love?
Big fans of The Flaming Lips, Jack White, Lucinda Williams, and Snoop Dog.
What does your future hold?
We are going to put out more and more CDs. We have plenty more to say to the world.