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You wouldn’t know it by seeing his fans pogo dancing like punk rockers, or by hearing his rockabilly-meets-metal-meets-surf rock songs. Behind Paul Pigat’s pompadour and horn-rim glasses is a formally trained musician with a degree in classical guitar and music theory—a musician who had tea and crumpets with John Williams while studying at the University of Toronto. But don’t let this cast an image of Pigat as a hoity-toity academic stiff. Singing lyrics like "I'm gonna dig me a hole, that's where I'll lay my head. I'm gonna dig me a hole, it should be you instead," you won’t see Pigat—a self-confessed big fan of murder ballads—sitting in an ivory tower anytime soon.
Through a grassroots approach, Pigat has garnered a massive fan base and achieved cult status. Two recent Canda-only releases, It’s a Sin, the raucous album from his Cousin Harley project, and Boxcar Campfire, a more acoustic outing, hit the States in February on Little Pig Records. Both offer a taste of Pigat’s eclectic mix of psychobilly, bebop, and country, and serve as an excellent introduction to Pigat’s eclectic style. Fans of fiery guitar will particularly enjoy Pigat’s western swing jazz runs and country shred-meets-Stevie Ray distorted solos.
Pigat has also racked up impressive credits as a sideman playing with the likes of Jakob Dylan and Neko Case, for whom he also plays upright acoustic bass, his first instrument.
It’s a Sin and Boxcar Campfire are radically different albums.
Cousin Harley’s It’s a Sin is the angry side of being sad while, Boxcar Campfire is the sad side of being sad. I try to channel a lot of aggression with Cousin Harley because that's kind of the vibe of the thing. It's a balls to the wall, teeth on a chalkboard kind of vibe.
Are you a tortured soul?
I think all musicians are tortured to a certain extent—that's why we've chosen to do this. It's a daily torture being a musician at times and I think everyone in this business has those highs and lows. When I wrote that record it was a pretty low time. It ebbs and flows—sometimes I'm extremely happy and sometimes I'm tortured, just like the records.
Do you specifically write songs for each project?
When I started writing Boxcar Campfire I was specifically writing for that record. After that, I thought I was gonna be writing another Boxcar record, but it turned out to be It’s a Sin.
Generally, I just write the tune and then adapt it into whatever kind of format I'm looking for.
What's your writing process?
Slow. [Laughs.] I think the best stuff usually happens on the road. For me it happens sitting in hotel rooms—that's usually when my best ideas come out. Then I notate them.
Your songs often feature intricate arrangements with multiple layers. Do you write them yourself?
I do. I sort of know the interplay of what I'm looking for right off the bat. I have an idea of what I want, and then there's a lot of experimentation getting it to sound the way I like.
For example, if I know the guitar is going to start a song and the mandolin's going to end it, I'll plan what's going to happen in the middle. I'll see if the banjo or dobro works there.
“Nowhere Town” begins with a nice dissonant chord. Is that an outgrowth of your classical training?
I'm a big fan of chords and I love harmony. Studying classical music really opened up harmony for me. On that song, I think I'm in some kind of weird low C# tuning. I sat in the studio and just turned the tuning heads until I found something I liked—and then just went for it. That's kind of an improvised guitar track there.
If you're not exactly sure what the tuning is, how would you be able to reproduce it?
I would do the same thing—just tune the guitar until I find something I like. I'm pretty adept with certain aspects of open tuning. I know where those chords are that I'm looking for, regardless of what tuning I'm in.
I actually don't perform “Nowhere Town” that often because it’s very introspective.
Which tunings do you favor?
On the Boxcar Campfire stuff, the other main tunings are open D and open G.