Say Everything (Else): The untold story of Cartel’s ‘Chroma,’ 10 years later

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Cartel, 2005

Cartel’s Chroma is an album that was the last bridge between the golden years of pop-punk in the early 2000s, before the explosion of screamo and metalcore. The record maintains many aspects as to why it remains so widely popular 10 years later. Cartel were a fresh band that poured exuberant energy and enthusiasm into their recording. While the writing had exceeded into new territory, it is the themes of this album that haunt the hearts of its listeners.

Chroma lays the groundwork of what it is like to be in your youthful years with all of the love, heartbreak, angst and rebellion. It’s not meant to be cliché or typical, but rather it was vocalist Will Pugh writing as he himself was transitioning into adulthood. “I think it is not the typical-but-average youthful coming of age feeling,” he says. “The record is about what ‘Q’ and ‘A’ talks about at the end. You aren’t getting answers out of asking questions. You have your standard love songs, but not without a questioning mind, and I think that was kind of what the whole record is about: You are questioning and turning around to your life and going, ‘But why? Why do we do this?’”

Chroma works as a story, with Pugh starting out as a wide-eyed and innocent young man and then concluding with him looking back and reflecting on every moment that had occurred during his lifespan of Chroma.  In “Burn This City,” Pugh writes ambitiously about being going on adventures and how he refuses to be stuck in a place that consumes his goals into nothingness.

“I think what ended up happening—and the dramatic irony—is that we wrote that song about leaving and all that time we were still in that city and we were sleeping in our parents’ houses or on one of our band member’s parents’ couch,” he reminisces with a laugh. “I would say that it was a bit of a motivational factor to keep us going. We went from playing to in front of 30 people a night to about 1,000 people a night—to stand there and go, ‘These people are screaming back the songs I wrote right back at me,’ [was crazy], as well as the fact that I’ve ditched that place and I’ve traveled across the world because of songs we had written.”

While the songs remain in fans’ hearts for all these years, the recording process wasn’t the easiest part for Cartel. Working with a small budget in one of Atlanta’s most renowned studios, Tree Sound, Cartel were faced with a time constraint. The members worked on a master plan of spending their time in pre-production, planning on how to efficiently get what they needed done within their timeframe. This led to Cartel finishing Chroma in three weeks, including mixing and mastering. Luckily, they had the guiding hands of producers Zach Odom and Kenneth Mount to steer them in the right direction, as well as molding Cartel’s views not only in a studio but within themselves.

“It was them showing us things that we wouldn’t have thought about before,” Pugh remembers. “We kind of felt like a high school band when they would say stuff like, ‘Hey, maybe you should play [a different] cymbal here instead of the hi-hat, and here is the reason why.’ You start thinking about the dynamics of songs and how each little part plays with the other part. We were learning the nuances of music.

“Zach and Ken bringing that to the table very early on had really set us up,” he continues. “We did a demo for ‘Honestly’ with them way before we did the vocals for the album, and the vocals on the demo ended up being the actual vocals on the album.”

Their limited timeframe also didn’t stop Pugh & Co. from tinkering with some lost toys, so to speak. “Outkast had just recorded an album there and Andre 3000 had left some things behind,” the singer says. “I was picking out a guitar to work out an idea that I had, and when I walked out, they were like, Dude, where did you get that?!?’ I was like, ‘It was in the guitar closest!’ They told me that they were going crazy looking for it and that Andre 3000 had left it behind. I said, ‘You don’t say! Let me borrow it.’ Apparently he had forgotten it the week before we came in and no one knew whose it was at first. We actually did use Andre 3000’s MPC player, though, for all the electronic stuff at the end of ‘A.’”

As Pugh speaks about the writing process of Chroma, one gets a sense of how Cartel are built as a whole. Pugh is the brain whereas the other members are the nerves and muscles. Without each other, they would not be able to function as a whole. Pugh brings the skeletal structure of a song whereas guitarists Joseph Peppers and Nic Hudson and drummer Kevin Sanders flesh out the instrumentals. Essentially, with Pugh writing at home and presenting the outline to the other members, the writing process of the “Cartel Filter” was born.

“We didn’t really write songs while sitting in a practice space. We didn’t just go, ‘Hey! That’s a cool riff!’ and then we would play along and write together. That didn’t really happen too often,” Pugh explains. “The songs being written at home were brought in and then it would morph into what it was. It would come through all the guys playing it. Kevin would change the drumbeat around, since I am not a drummer and I wouldn’t have a whole lot of ideas on what to do with drums at the time. I would program them terribly! Kevin would flush it out, and then Joseph, being the really good lead guitar player and me can only playing the shit out of a chord…. But yeah, he has the touch and could add to that. The Cartel Filter is really just the guys doing their thing.”

Unfortunately, right as Chroma was picking up steam with major label Epic Records scooping the album up from its former indie home at the Militia Group, bassist Ryan Roberts chose to leave the band. Though this did not falter Cartel’s rapid growth: Instead, it was a learning process for the remaining members to figure out what glues Cartel together.

“With making this record and with Ryan leaving, we learned what we do and how we do it well. Making the record, we were like, ‘Oh shoot, you are a really good guitar player!’ and so on. We were able to understand each other’s musicianship a lot more. With Ryan leaving, the guy had a really cool knack for bass playing, and I think we just tried to maintain some of that. We didn’t want to emulate on his style or anything, but the playing wasn’t just standard. I think we all just stepped in the gap to see what the bass was supposed to be doing instead of just finding the basslines. We discovered what Ryan had been creating during his time in Cartel.”

With Chroma hitting its 10-year anniversary, Pugh reflects back onto when the album was initially released. At one point in time, he had stated that he could see Chroma becoming a mainstream record, but they would always maintain a humble mindset about their growth. Does this hold true?

“Um… No,” he says with a laugh. “The years between then and now, we have gone through a humility process. We never really had a big head about it all or shied away from where we are or even where we were. We enjoyed it. We stayed in the moment, but we never put ourselves above any other people or bands. We never were assholes and let it get to our head, and I’m proud of that.”

Chroma holds strong in the hearts of many people who were going through difficulties in 2005. Cartel managed to capture the essence of the youthful arrogance, the pains and pleasures of love and other emotional spurts that enslaves a young mind. Each member’s touch on the album gave such an expansive sound to each song. Chroma is riddled with the band’s reflections on their choices.

“We wouldn’t be where we are without home,” Pugh concludes. “The city in ‘Burn This City’ is a metaphor for what we trap ourselves in versus the physical place. It’s just a place. You can walk away and make the changes you want for yourself.” S

A version of this story was published in Substream #45.