On the Road, for the Record: Puma Blue
Jacob Allen, known more notably as Puma Blue is a London-based producer and vocalist with a smooth R&B style. What makes Allen stand out is his contemporary- jazzy style and his “voicemail ballads,” a description that was attributed to him after his debut EP Swum Baby, due to his lo-fi DIY bedroom recordings. Since that EP, Allen has released an album, Blood Loss, and most recently a live album, On His Own (Live at Eddie’s Attic.)
Last week, Puma Blue played at Market Hotel in Brooklyn. As his smooth crooning voice and the notes of the saxophone ricocheted off the narrow walls, the audience could see the elevated J and M trains running behind the stage. As the disco ball turned and provided speckled light across the room, it felt like we were in a time-capsule of sorts.
Before the show, Milk caught up with the artist at his hotel in Bushwick. Having just arrived late the night before from Boston, Allen was tired but didn’t let his lack of sleep affect his mood. The very quick-witted crooner joked about who and what comes on tour with him, and the satisfaction of keeping your on-the-road playlists organized. It wasn’t his first time in the city, so he focused on the excitement of find something new to do each time and the cold New York wind going through him like the ghosts in Harry Potter.
One of Puma Blue’s many on-the-road playlists:
What is the biggest misconception about being on tour?
Probably the cliche answer, but that it’s actually not a lot of fucking and drugs and booze, it’s just a lot of driving, playing cards and sharing beds with your band. There was one tour where there was genuinely four guys in a bed once.
How small was the bed?
It was a double, but it was still pretty tight. You go through all that stuff together and it makes it feel like family, and when they’re already your friends and you already have that brotherly connection, you just feel so close. But it’s just not as rock and roll as — I mean sometimes it is but just not in that Guns N’ Roses way that people imagine.
Is this your first time touring with a full band? Or have you always brought a band with you?
I’ve always brought a band. I can’t stand to do it by myself. I just released this live solo album, but I don’t really feel like I can fulfill what I’m trying to do with just myself. We always try and come out and give people the real thing, and It’s just nice to be together.
And this live album, what was that like? Is this your first live album?
I did a live EP, to sort of celebrate my first EP being out like a year or two ago. I just had a bunch of live recordings from it and threw that up on band camp. Now when you buy the vinyl of the EP, you get like a secret download link to the live EP, but it was just five tunes, whereas this live album was one gig.
And you didn’t even know it was being recorded?
Yeah, which is nice. I think if I knew it was being recorded, I would have acted differently, in the same light, not in a bad way or a good way, just in the sense that someone is pointing a camera at you, then you’re reacting to the lens and the person, whereas if someone’s just taking a picture of you and you don’t notice, it’s just a very different energy, completely candid.
So I was just very candid I was very much just being myself and I suppose just quite funny. They’re very serious romantic songs and then in between all the songs I’m being an idiot on the microphone. It felt like quite a nice thing to put out there.
So who besides the band comes on the road with you?
My dog, my bunny, my hedgehog, we’ve got a masseuse, obviously all the catering stuff, some entertainers, some circus guys, they don’t really do much, to be honest, they’re just like more of a backup situation — no it’s just four in the band including me and then my manager drives. He’s the only manager I’ve heard of that does all the work.
Are you guys in a bus?
It’s kind of like a minivan, we’re all in the cockpit together, it’s nice. We co-headlined a tour in March and we all pitched in for a big RV bus and it broke down like three times, even on the first day before we’d lived in it, it smelled weird and it’s just very dark and you’re separated from the driver.
Obviously, it’s great that you can sleep in it, but there’s a speed limit on it and I don’t know, I didn’t really like it. Whereas this minivan situation, it felt like the Mystery Machine on Scooby-Doo, you’re kind of just all in this tight little space but we get to just do what we normally do, like listen to music and like I said, just play cards, even though they all would spray everywhere every time you go over a bump.
Is this your first North American tour?
First headline tour. So the Co-headline tour was in America for the first time but it wasn’t really my tour or his tour so this feels like we’re really coming out and doing it for the first time.
Do you have a favorite spot that you like to return to or is there someplace new that you’ve been to that you really liked?
I do love New York. There’s a familiarity here. It’s not so alien from London, but it’s really different, which is still exciting. Crowds are really cool, not too pretentious, but really sweet and interesting and I just do something different every time.
I think some places on the tour are small enough cities that you always go back to that same bar that you know, or stay with the same friends that are happy to have you, but New York’s such a weird fucking collage of shit. So I feel like we’re always eating something different than last time or hanging out with different people.
I did love Portland as well. It was a little bit hipster; it was really funny, but beautiful. It kind of reminded me of a cold Atlanta, which is really interesting.
I hear Atlanta has a lot of meaning to you. Why’s that?
Yeah, Atlanta is like where my heart is. it’s my favorite place in the world.
That’s where my girlfriend is from, and she’s amazing. We spent a lot of time together there and I’ve written a lot of music there. It’s kind of everything I love about everything; about people and cities. It’s built up enough that there’s always stuff to do and great spots to eat, but then it’s not like New York, for example, where it’s kind of like a grind.
It’s very easy to live there, it’s cheap to eat out and it’s warm, it’s like a massage. Everyone’s just so sleepy and lovely, it’s just a good mix of things. LA, for example, if I lived in LA, I couldn’t get anything done, and if I lived in New York, I think I’d be pulling my hair out, whereas Atlanta’s kind of a nice mix.
So where’s home right now?
Home is in London. I just got a flat with my girlfriend. I think I didn’t want London to be home for a while, but then now that I’m doing it again, I’m like back in the flow of London and really loving it. When you have a bit of time out from it, it’s hard to get back in because everything happens so fast.
Do you bring anything with you on tour that reminds you of home?
I’m into skincare. I just like to feel good, I think it was — this is kind of deep for such a normal question — I spent a lot of time as a teenager, just comparing myself to more beautiful men and wanting things that I can’t have rather than playing with what I do have. I think I got to an age like a year or two ago, I started to realize that everyone can be this incredibly enchanting version of themselves if they just get super comfortable with it.
I think I’ve always had pretty young skin for my age, so I just thought, what if I took care of it? Even though it’s already like doing its thing, I feel so much better looking than I ever did as a kid, which is so nice. So I always bring a face wash and some moisturizer and a good oil. I don’t use it every day but when I do it feels great.
Does that make you feel comfortable and at home?
Yeah, it’s just one of those things that, you’re on the road, hopefully you’ll get a shower every day but maybe not, you’re in a tight van, so if you just got a couple of things with you, like a good skincare routine or a nice aftershave, even just remembering to bring two pairs of shoes rather than one, I don’t know, it’s little things like that, that make tour more bearable.
Other than that, I also love bringing a book and I’ve got this old iPod, you know the actual iPods, with no phone. it’s the big fat one with the big wheel on the front. I don’t know why I still have it, the battery isn’t great, but if you remember to bring a charger, it gets back to 100% in like 10 minutes. So it’s great and it just has all this old shit I’ve forgotten about and then I find it and I’m like, oh my god this album! So that’s great, especially if your phones full and you don’t have space for downloading playlist. I always bring a book and my iPod.
What are you reading now?
I’m rereading Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis the singer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He has this amazing book that he released in 2004, it’s just about his life up until that point.
Do you usually read memoirs?
I like them but I think they can be a cheesy, terrible format, so it depends whose it is. Miles Davis’s is really good. It’s really raw like almost to the point where it exposes him as a terrible person, but it also just sheds so much light on behind the scenes. It’s fascinating.
Have you read Patti Smith’s Just Kids?
No I haven’t, I’ve heard it’s great. Anthony’s is really good because it does go really into the music and give you a lot of appreciation for the Chilies. He’s talking about how deep some of the music is to them, but it’s more about his drug addiction and his terrible relationship patterns. He’s very honest, it’s kind of a beautiful read. He seems like a very gentle person, but he’s pretty upfront about being a terrible child, and as well in his 20s he was a raging heroin fiend so he just fucked over a lot of family and friends. It’s inspiring to read because I think I first read it when I was 13 and I just knew, “Okay, I’m never gonna go for anything hard, I just can’t do it.”
Do you have any horror stories from this tour or previous tours?
Yeah, on the way to New York in March the tire shredded so we were side of the road for like five hours. Then we got that fixed roadside, which is scary, every time someone drove by the whole bus shook. Then on the way out of New York, the shredded tire had blown out the suspension, so the bus was rocking and we had to fix the suspension.
Then we drove to Austin from Chicago, which is a long drive and then from Texas to LA the van just died, I don’t know what happened, and the mechanics in El Paso didn’t have the part for it, so we were trying to work out how to get to the LA show. It was one of those things where we only had a 24-hour window to do the drive, and options were running out. We booked a greyhound ticket, which was going to be a 16-hour drive, but then they were delayed and eventually canceled, and then train tickets sold out before we could get them. There were two plane tickets left so we were going to just send me and the other singer from the other band out, and once we confirmed that plan and went back to the desk the tickets were gone. So we ended up at three in the morning, finding a truck with a trailer two boys drove all the gear in, and we found two hire cars, and just did El Paso to LA through the night to get to the show the next day. We stopped in the middle of the desert at a motel for a three-hour sleep and then just carried on. It was fucking tough at the time, but then I don’t know man, the show was amazing because of it. I think we played really well because we were just so relieved. So it was a horror story, but with a good ending.
What’s the hardest song to perform?
Of mine? I thought you meant in general. “Bohemian Rhapsody”?
That’s a really tough one. It depends on the headspace man. Some days it’s more about what’s technically harder, and some days, it’s like, if I’m feeling really emotionally switched on, then there are some songs that I have to be careful not to get too gulpy in the middle of. I’m quite a sensitive person, so if I really go to that place, I could cry, and not like, break down and cry, but how you’d cry at a film kind of vibe.
That can be hard, like trying to get through a verse when you’re like thinking about something. There’s this song at the moment, it’s a new one, about my sister, and that’s really hard to perform.
In terms of technicality, there are some that are so easy now because we’ve played them for years but were really hard to execute at the beginning. I mean, “Under Water” took, like six months to get tight because there’s just so many different sections and changeups. Probably the hardest ones are the ones that have the most space like “Want Me” is a really quiet slow one, so if you make a mistake, it’s going to sound loud, there’s no energy to cover it up.
You’ve covered “A Dream is a Wish” — why that song?.
I don’t know. I always remembered it from the Cinderella film. I used to love watching Disney videos as a kid. It’s really not my thing anymore, but I remembered that song while I was at Uni, so like, five years ago I’d been learning it on guitar, just for fun, and was going to play this really tiny show that my friend was putting on. I had found out that night, that a friend from school had died, and I just kind of felt I should do it at the gig to honor her memory. So it’s been in the set ever since.
What’s the best on the road snack?
I like road beers. If it’s a drive day and it gets to be like, 4 PM and everyone’s in a good mood, it’s nice to pick up some beers, just light lager. Everyone else in the band loves IPA, I just can’t fuck with IPA. I like my beer to taste like beer, I think Budweiser is maybe better here than it is in England, but just that genre of beer. Not Bud Light though, it’s like beer-flavored water.
I also had an avocado the other day. I brought a spoon with me because I had this weird premonition of needing a spoon. I was like, “I bet I’ll need a spoon at some point.” It’s like when you remember to bring painkillers even though you’re really well, and then you’re hungover and you’re like, “Oh, thank God I brought these painkillers.”
What advice would you have for musicians going on tour for the first time?
I don’t know man, there are so many things you could say. Just to enjoy it, because it’s a bit of a fantasy to even tour, I can’t believe that I make money doing this and that it’s my job. I feel really blessed but there’s always the possibility that it could be the last time for whatever reason, so if you take it too seriously and put a bit of pressure on yourself and then the show doesn’t go exactly how you wanted it to and you feel bad about it, you just wasted such a beautiful opportunity to enjoy playing music abroad to people that came and paid to see you. I think the best shows are the ones you just enjoy the most.
And I don’t know, stretch. Drink lots of water.
Stay tuned to Milk for more on the road.