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In search of Pukka

I was embarked upon a mad project to make sure that all of the tracks on my iPod had cover art, working alphabetically by album title. If an album didn't have art, I'd go to the Internet and do a cursory search, usually finding acceptable cover art on Amazon or Discogs or some similar site; occasionally, if the single or remix was obscure, I'd have to hunt a little to find the right art. Sometimes I couldn't find the exact art; the album might have a listing on Discogs, but no one had uploaded a scan of the art yet; or maybe it was a bootleg or an unapproved mix. So I'd settle for doing a quick image search on the artist name and pick something interesting. I was all the way up to the letter S, and every single track so far had a satisfactory image.

Then I reached an album called Space Is My Accomplice by a band named Pukka (a Hindi word meaning "genuine, reliable, or good; proper"). I knew from previous experience that I was probably out of luck here. Back in 2001, my day job at an Internet start-up called Slam Media included curating a set of Internet radio stations that we referred to collectively as "Radio Free Slam." Pukka's producer sent me this album on CD-R, with a hand-scrawled list of tracks. We exchanged several emails back then; he also sent me a couple officially released CDs by a band called Laptop that he'd been working with. I didn't really get into Laptop (except for their excellent techno-grunge cover of "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me"), but Pukka caught my attention immediately. It was sparkly, intelligent, pop-oriented rock music. The producer assured me that Pukka was on the verge of getting a record deal, and I took his word for it. But back in 2001, I wasn't blogging about music yet, and I just ripped it and put it on our flagship radio station, which we called "The Slamtastic Megamix" (this station was the immediate precursor to Comfort Radio).

So, fast forward several years: Slam as a company had failed, but I had moved on to curating Comfort Radio as a serious hobby, and publishing the Comfort Music blog, and over time, more and more bands and labels and promoters began sending me music, even as I was still out scouring my own sources for new music. But I never heard anything else from or about Pukka. The album remained in my loose circle of favorites, and my wife Jen picked up on its infectious qualities as well. I remember one party we threw back in our loft in Pioneer Square several years ago, where I was spinning an eclectic set as people arrived, and I put on my favorite Pukka song from that album, called "Unrequited Love Song (To ESB)". As the song played, I sort of drifted away from conversations with people and sang along with it, and you know, I wasn't even high yet; when it was over, I drifted back and sheepishly apologized, saying, "Sorry, I just love that song," and my friend Stuart remarked, "I can tell!"

Eventually, it did occur to me to see if they had ever put out an official release. This was a couple years ago at least, and sadly, there was almost no information about Pukka available anywhere on the net. I remember finding a news article about a Pukka concert; but no official site, no albums, nothing. I had a near miss when a CD trading service I use called Lala showed a listing for an album by Pukka, but when it arrived, it was apparent that this was a completely different band; this was dirge-like experimental folk, not sparkly, intelligent pop/rock. I shipped it back off in a trade almost immediately. Realizing that my CD-R was perhaps more precious than I had anticipated, I made a back-up copy of it and stuffed that away somewhere.

So now I had reached Space Is My Accomplice on my iPod, and knew I wasn't going to find cover art. But maybe, by now, the power of the Internet would turn up some trace of an image that I could use. To my chagrin, searching for Space Is My Accomplice by Pukka turned up exactly thirteen search results in Google. Curiously, they were all focused on a specific track from the album, a track called "The Staircase Of Love". The first link I followed was to a site called beemp3.com, a site that crawls the web looking for MP3s and then provides a search front end. There were two suspicious things about this file. First, the bitrate was 112k. This is not a standard bitrate. However, one of the reasons that Slam failed was that we were trying to be an Internet media portal back when both bandwidth and disk space were expensive; as a result, our highest end offering to consumers were 112k streams. The giant collection of 112k MP3s we amassed for Slam formed the foundation of the first Comfort Server at Burning Man years back; I embarked upon a mad project a couple years ago to re-encode as many of those 112k albums as possible to a higher bitrate, but it was clearly possible some of the old files were still in circulation. The second suspicious thing was that it listed a local community server I recognized as the source domain. All the other search results were links to Chinese crawler sites, and on one of them, I found the exact link they'd crawled - an open directory on that server that my old housemate had created. When he and I were housemates, of course, he had access to a local copy of all those files; he had put that song up on that server to share with a friend and then forgot about it.

I was at square one, but now I was dissatisfied. Wasn't the year 2001 part of the Information Age? Apparently not - according to Wikipedia, Friendster didn't happen until 2002, MySpace wasn't founded until 2003, Facebook wasn't founded until 2004. In today's world, every single band or musician with any kind of professional aspirations has a MySpace page - but Pukka was shooting for the moon back in 2001, when it still cost you money to make a promo web site for yourself. As I was driving over to Annex that night, I started to really wonder about who they were and why they hadn't made the album available for free even if they couldn't get a record contract. Did they break up in a fight because they couldn't quite crack the big time? The band features both a male and female lead singer - had they been dating, and did something go wrong? Or was it just raw disappointment that their record, a labor of love with clearly professional production values and beautifully quirky songwriting, never found an audience? I tried to put myself in their shoes: why wouldn't you just put the record out yourself? Wasn't the promise of the Internet that we would be able to just handily "disintermediate" the labels and the industry and just reach out directly to the people? How could you possibly invest so much into production and invest absolutely nothing into distribution when it was all over? It made no sense. I started to wonder if I could figure out who that producer dude was that had sent me the record in the first place.

And then, while I was looking for parking near Annex and listening to my iPod in the car, a track from the Pukka album came on. It took me a few bars to recognize it, but then I emitted a loud "Ha!" as I realized that my thinking about Pukka had been interrupted by a Pukka track coming on the car stereo. It was a track called "Le Banana Split," one of the poppier and goofier tracks on the record. You couldn't invent such a coincidence - it would never have occurred to me. And then, to my chagrin, a different realization set in. My ear is well-attuned to digital artifacting in audio files after all these years, and I almost immediately began to realize that I was listening to a 112k file. Apparently my big project to re-encode all the 112k files in my archive had missed this crucial album. Well, no big deal, I've still got the CD-R - except, of course, that CD-Rs are absolutely not built to last. They degrade to the point of meaninglessness within only a small handful of years. I realized to my immense dissatisfaction that if I couldn't retrieve good audio from the CD-Rs I had in my possession, I would be stuck with a 112k version of this album for the rest of my life. I started to sweat. I haven't felt this nervous since my local Comfort server crashed a year ago, and when I told Llew (Comfort's tech wizard) I was going to need to copy his snapshot, he realized that the hard drive that contained his snapshot wasn't responding. For a couple of days, I wanted to claw my eyes out until Llew got his drive back online and I got a copy on new hardware back in my grubby hands.

Ten minutes later, I had just managed to find parking, when another Pukka track came on the iPod. Let's be very clear - I had 18,247 tracks on my iPod at that moment, and Pukka had never come up in the shuffle until that day. Coincidence... OR IS IT???? (The name of the track that came up that time was "Lucky Boy".)

I got home and rushed to rip clean audio off the CD-Rs; luckily for me, the original CD-R only had one hitch in it, and the backup CD-R covered my bases. Now it was time to hunt down the producer who sent me the record in the first place. The band Laptop was slightly easier to find, although let me offer some advice to those of you who might have promotional aspirations of your own: if you name your band "Laptop" or "Leaf" or "Desk" or "Book", you should not expect your Google ranking to do you much good. Of course, Laptop itself hadn't put out a record since 2001, so they didn't have laptoptheband.com sitting there waiting for me. But the Amazon page for their album Opening Credits listed several of their producers, and I recognized the name of one of them, a very well established music producer who has worked with dozens of super well known acts throughout the years. I'm almost positive that's the guy who sent me those albums. On the one hand, you imagine that a guy who has worked with many, many A-list rock acts (a 7-page PDF's worth of albums, to be exact) was not going to take the time to email some small Internet radio station to promote his current project. On the other hand... that was 2001, before Friendster, before MySpace, before Facebook, and there actually weren't a lot of well-known Internet radio stations. Radio Free Slam had a stable of about 12 stations, many of which were seeing over 100 concurrent users 24 hours a day (by comparison, Comfort Radio never has more than 2 or 3 concurrent users). At that point in time, hitting up indie Internet radio would have been cutting edge instead of de rigeur. On a whim, I emailed him, fully expecting no response. (And that's exactly what I got!)

The reason this whole escapade is interesting to me is because we so often hear how Google has managed to index the planet, when it so very clearly and obviously hasn't. Kids may not realize this, but you can still keep things private. You can still hide things. I never had a Friendster account; the only reason I have a Facebook account is for work (my team supports a Facebook app), and I can't remember the last time I logged into it. The people who made this Pukka album are hiding it. I don't know why. When I was putting the most recent version of Scotto.org together, I finally took down some of the plays I had written in college because they no longer bore any resemblance to who am I today; but this Pukka record was clearly made by a whole group of talented professionals, and not one of them is willing to mention Pukka on their web site in some fashion. That's either deliberate, or it's the opposite - it's a nonchalant apathy that doesn't think it matters to the world that this album exists. Maybe that's true, actually. Today I checked out two debut albums by bands I'd never heard of, and wound up deleting both of them; the records had elements I liked, but they didn't gel, and I knew I wouldn't want to hear them on the station. Maybe that's how Pukka feels, when they look back on their own effort, judging themselves more harshly than I can appreciate. Maybe they're that rare breed of artistic perfectionist who just! won't! settle! for something even slightly inferior. That's a hard way to live, but I think I can understand it, maybe. But I can't help but think if they had made that record even a year or two later, you'd still be able to find their MySpace page. Oh sure, it might be a ghost town, with no new comments since 2004, but it'd still be sitting there, because it's far easier to just stop updating your MySpace page than it is to go the trouble of deleting it.

I never did get around to posting about Pukka on the Comfort blog because I just didn't think it was that big of a deal to write about a band that no longer existed and no one was likely to care about. But this recent set of small epiphanies changed my mind. Maybe Pukka wants it private for reasons unfathomable, but look, it's literally just a pop record. It's not some grand opus; it's not OK Computer or Sgt. Pepper's in terms of artifice or ambition. It's just this quirky little pop record that I always enjoy when I hear it. I've listened to it twice in a row while writing this. The vast majority of music that I audition for Comfort is something I listen to once and then file away; there's always something else to audition, and it's increasingly difficult for any one album to stand out. But this record cut through the deluge and made an impression, however small. I can fucking sing along with it.

Well, I can keep it to myself no longer. If you're wondering if the album is truly worth your time, here's my favorite track for you to sample on its own:

Pukka - Unrequited Love Song (To ESB)

If you like it, email me privately at scotto (at) scotto.org and I will send you a link to a zip file that contains the whole album as 320kbps MP3s.

Let this post be the unofficial landing page for the one album that Pukka left behind for the world to discover, an album called Space Is My Accomplice. Today, I am also their accomplice.

UPDATE: I received this email from Amanda Jane:

I found your entry "In Search of Pukka" because it'd been awhile since I did a search for them and I'm so Google brought me to your page. In 2002 I was home sick from work watching a movie called "Snow Day" (not the one with Chevy Chase - this was an independent flick) and I enjoyed several songs from the film and went online afterwards and discovered they were from a band I'd never heard before called Pukka. I decided I'd try to find one of their CDs in a store, of course had no luck, and soon forgot about it. A few months later HBO aired the movie again, which reminded me and renewed my interest in the band and I set out to find out more about them. At that time the band had an official website -- the splash page had a background of outer space with what looked like a neon sign outline of this robot/elephant creature with a neon heart above its head (I don't know why I remember this, but I do). They had a place to contact the band, which I did and I heard back from someone after a few days. They informed me that the CD wasn't available for sale anywhere but they would be more than happy to send me a copy. I provided my address and waited, but never received anything. A month or so later I contacted them again, whoever responded appologized, said that the band was breaking up, but they would still send me a CD. I never received it and the next time I went to my bookmark of the band's site it was gone. Since then I've searched for the band or any of their songs on the web, but the only thing I ever find is the Yellow Note Vs. Pukka's tech mix of "the staircase." I don't know if you're still willing to provide the link to download the whole CD, but I'd love to have a copy of this CD if you're willing.

I'm so glad I read your post and I know I'm not crazy and didn't imagine this band,

Amanda

October 27, 2008



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