Sometimes referred to as The Snack-Pack, fans of Toronto’s soul-meets-funk-meets-all-round-good-time-band, Pudding, have been aware of this group’s prowess now for nearly a decade. And for good reason too; they’re one of our city’s most consistent sources of high-energy, easy-to-groove live music.
Pudding’s history of testing dancefloor support beams has come primarily from residencies at some of Toronto’s smaller, and sometimes lesser-known venues, where the five-piece’s powerful performances overwhelm audiences and grip the room’s attention.
The band has made their name covering a wide array of cleverly chosen tracks – generally not choices expected from a group defined as “millennials”. Breathing new life into their well-selected songs, Pudding remain masters at exposing their peer-parlor-patrons to the music of artists such as Nina Simone, The Dixie Cups and The Meters.
After years of exciting The Snack-Pack with perfected renditions of known songs – albeit, perhaps often unidentifiable without the use of Shazam to much of their millennial listenership – Pudding has now taken the next step by writing and recording a new set of originals, with a freshly released music video to match.
RX Music sat down with Pudding’s lead singer/bassist, John Mavro and pianist, Lee Cohen to discuss where they come from, where they are now and what Pudding’s future tastes like.
RX Music: Congratulations on all the new music – the recent release of your single and music video for “Part Time Girl”, as well as for your first single “Back at the End”. But now to start at the beginning, how’d you guys first get together and why did you decide to start things off as a band playing covers?
John Mavro: Lee, Justin, Lewis and I first played together at that YJ thing…
Lee Cohen: Yeah, it was a camp that Justin, Lewis and I went to, they were having a reunion thing. There was a guy who worked there and knew us all from when we were campers. We were always the musical kids, so he asked us to get together for this camp reunion show – just a fun night where we played some classic rock covers, things like that. Lewis knew John and thought he’d be perfect to join us for the performance. After the performance, we knew there was something there. I don’t remember what year that was, probably 2010 or ’11 or something.
Overtime the still-standing original lineup of John Mavro on vocals/bass, Lee Cohen on piano, Lewis Spring on drums and Justin Binder on guitar has morphed slightly at times, even gig to gig, to include guest and sub-in instrumentalists. The most prominent addition has been that of Micah Sky, taking over auxiliary percussion and additional keys on a permanent basis for the last four years.
RX: You guys have covered lots of different styles and artists. In the past, how did you guys choose your cover songs?
John: I feel like it was always a sort of democratic process. People pitch songs, and then we all get together and kind of give them a ‘yay or nay’. Over the years there have definitely been songs that were suggested and played that I look back now and think, I can’t believe I would ever play that song.
Lee: It’s the type of thing where we’ll all throw out ideas and usually if one person is really stoked on it and everyone’s like, ‘oh no’, then it’s just not going to be fun to do it. If maybe just one person isn’t so sure, we’ll probably try it out. A lot of the time, if John wants to sing it, then yes. As the singer, he has to put that out in the crowd more. A lot of times, it’s trusting John’s vibe that this will actually work. But it’s pretty democratic, just if it feels right, or we’ll just find something else, but no one is too precious about it.
John: Yeah. We’re generally on the same page most of the time. With some stuff, for example some Phish covers we play, I defacto don’t sing those. I feel there needs to be a certain amount of compassion for the band you’re singing. I didn’t grow up listening to Phish, and if you didn’t grow up listening to some of the music, it can be a lot to try to chew up and internalize.
Lee: We all love jamming, so those songs lend well to being played, but singing those lyrics, yeah…it’s like ‘get through the lyrics all right and let’s get to the jam part’.
John: Yeah, we just play the verses twice as fast.
Lee: I usually pitch pretty piano, rhodes or organ heavy songs without realizing that maybe it’s because I’ll have a good part. Then again, I might also pitch Derek Trucks songs even though they’re pretty guitar heavy. Anyone can pitch anything.
John: I would say it’s an interesting thing too, because when we started playing [now-defunct College St. bar and site of early Pudding residencies] Fat City Blues, people were coming for the music, but they were also coming because it’s such a social gathering, right? We felt we couldn’t just pick songs where we’d just disappear in. So there’s also always been thinking about that.
Lee: And it was a New Orleans themed bar, so we looked for New Orleans type material to play there. Plus Motown and some other stuff.
RX: With those cover choices, would you say that they’re now influencing the sound that you guys are creating yourselves?
John: I don’t even understand what the sound is that we end up writing. All the stuff that we’ve written, if you showed it to me, as if you just took it from an alien source, I don’t know if I would say, ‘oh, yeah, of course Pudding probably would write this music’. So I don’t know how, but somehow all that stuff gets internalized and reinterpreted and broken apart and put back together into this.
Lee: We’ve gone to Justin’s family farm a couple times, just jammed and come up with these ideas. There’s not really a lot of consistency other than ‘yeah, we like this’. I don’t know what it is but it just kind of feels fun to play, and there may not be lyrics yet, but if there’s some groove there, then we’ll write words to it after, just have some nonsense lyrics in the meantime. Like with the stuff that we played as covers, I think we just got used to playing with each other, knowing when to move to the next part for the crowd.
John: In general, I think we strive to write stuff that is kind of party music. Not party in the sense that people can rage to it, but just stuff that feels good for people to listen to.
Lee: I think the through-line for all these songs we’ve written so far is just that they feel good.
RX: Even with the first single you put out, “Back at the End”, it has a little funk to it, it’s got a little soul, even a little bit of calypso inspiration in some of the percussion. That one song alone is hard to pin down.
John: Which to be honest, I’m happy with. I like the idea of the music we put out not being so easy to categorize.
RX: Most of you have been involved with other musical projects throughout your time with Pudding, more so as supporting musicians and writers. Now being the center creative forces for this project, has your experiences working in the background for other artists influenced your writing at all?
John: Yeah, I think so. I mean, writing for a band is difficult. It’s sort of like a balancing act between five separate points of view, five separate sets of feelings, good or bad. The stuff that I’ve done previous to this has always been supporting a single artist, and in those contexts the message is coming from just one person, so it’s a lot easier to have a unified vision for what a song might be. It’s coming from one perspective, musically and lyrically. For the five of us, it’s easier in some senses, because there are five minds trying to work on something, but its definitely harder in other senses because you’re trying to get something that sounds cohesive and doesn’t sound like five separate pieces of input.
RX: Was there a catalyst for your guys deciding now is the time to start writing original music?
John: I think it was partly a build up from people asking us about putting out originals. I think we’d gotten to a stage where it would be unnatural for us to all be participating in something like music without doing something original and creative. Especially because some of the covers we do are so obscure, people thought that we were playing original music. We got to the point where we figured we might as well try, because it seemed insane that we had never tried at that point.
Lee: Also, since we were jamming on the songs a lot of the time, we were creating original parts within songs that somebody else wrote, but through creating transitions between songs and whatnot, that was like a form of writing itself. We just never really cared that much about it until recently, and yeah, I think it was from a lot of people asking, ‘why don’t you guys write something?’.
RX: You’ve been working with producer Sean Fischer for your latest recordings, who has also often performed with the band in the past. Was this a conscious decision for Sean to now play the producer role and step back from performing?
John: Sean had already stepped back from performing with us before we did this, but given the fact that Fischer works full time as a producer/mixer, and on top of that, he had been present for writing a lot of the songs, it just seemed to make sense to have him step in to the role of producer. It’s been great.
Lee: It’s a lot of work to do and we’re all really happy with how the two released songs have turned out. The demos for the next ones in the pipeline sound great.
RX: Where did you guys record?
John: Union Sound Company. It’s a great spot, it has a huge live room. And that was part of our decision to record there. We wanted a studio that had an organ in it and enough isolation booths for us all to record in.
RX: So you guys recorded live off the floor?
Lee: There were one or two overdubs on that original recording day, but yeah, we did four takes of every song, all of them live.
Photos by Matt Mavro
On December 13th, 2019 Pudding took yet another step forward in establishing their new identity by releasing a music video for their second single, “Part Time Girl”.
RX: Love the nostalgic feel of your “Part Time Girl” video. Definitely pairs well with the yacht rock vibe of the track. Where did the inspiration for the video’s style come from?
John: The inspiration for the video was the song. After we had written it and listened back, it was the type of thing where we figured that the song needed to be contextualized. We figured, let’s make a video that’s indicative of the time period where the song is coming from. Had we have put that song out on its own, or with a video that looked like it was shot today and was super high-def and modern, I just think it would have been a bit confusing because there’s something kind of tongue in cheek about the song, right? There’s like a little bit of a cheesy factor to it.
In conjunction with the video though, it really contextualizes the song – that yacht rock, kind of late 70s, early 80s singer-songwriter vibe. It’s a bit of a ballad, so that was kind of the inspiration for the video. We figured, let’s shoot a video where, had the song have been recorded and released in 1980, they would have made the same video for it.
RX: Were there any specific groups you guys were hoping to make nod to through the video?
John: There was a Journey video that was a big reference. From that time period, a lot of the videos were shot in studio. The cameras they used were so big that they couldn’t really move around or do much, so they tended to have a lot of crossfades, dissolves and slow zooms. Another really big influence was the “We Are The World” video, the USA for Africa thing. That was very much an in-studio, kind of ‘making of’ thing with all those stars.
Photos by Matt Mavro
RX: Where did you guys film it?
John: We shot it at MetalWorks Studio, out in Mississauga. It was cool because when we went out to scout it, the studio manager told us that everything was built in 1978 and hasn’t really undergone many upgrades, so aesthetically it still looks very much of that time.
RX: And did you guys already own those outfits?
John: Unfortunately, no. We had to go rent those, which was actually a pretty big expense. The other really big expense was the camera. I had done so much research on cameras. From the beginning, I had really wanted to shoot it on tape, and then there was some suggestion of just shooting it digital and degrading it in post, but I always figured it was better to try shooting something on lower grade equipment and trying to make it look as best we could, rather than shooting something in digital and trying to make it look worse. The camera we used was from ’82 or ’83, I think.
Lastly, your favourite flavours of pudding, please.
John: Chocolate for me.
Lee: I’m also a chocolate guy, but butterscotch is up there.
John: Maybe tapioca? What is tapioca?….