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September 2019
Cover story

Oh Canada! On home turf with PUP

They’ve just dropped their best - and most honest - album so far. We head to PUP’s native Toronto to talk ‘Morbid Stuff’.
Published: 10:53 am, May 14, 2019Words: Jessica Goodman. Photos: Amanda Fotes, Vanessa Heins.
Oh Canada! On home turf with PUP

I’ve been navigating my way through the mind-numbing reality of a godless existence. Which, at this point in my hollow and vapid life, has erased what little ambition I’ve got left.” On paper, such a tirade comes across as hopelessly futile. There’s no rhyme. There’s no reason. There isn’t even any resistance to the sense of negativity that clouds what’s being said. But PUP have never been ones to let negativity stand in their way.

Snarled on the lead single from the band’s new album these words practically twist in their bitterness, kicking and screaming to be heard with a determination that’s anything but hopeless. All it takes is a rallying cry of “I’ve embraced the calamity,” and that prior negativity starts to melt away, making way for one of PUP’s most heart-achingly wholesome and endearingly human sentiments yet.

“Music for us, and this band for us, is a way to be productive with all the negative things that come with life. It’s supposed to be a positive experience,” Stefan Babcock proclaims. “It’s not supposed to validate our negative feelings. It’s supposed to kind of rage against them,” he explains, “to help lift us out of whatever shit we’re going through.” Punk can be many things – as its most stereotyped, it’s aggressive. But for PUP it’s never been about anger or aggression, rather the energy and the drive to escape those things.

“If you’re trying to make meaningful music, or meaningful art, it’s important to probe the darkness,” Stefan conveys. “But at the same time, let’s not kid ourselves. This is pretty fun for us,” he beams. “There is this constant reminder to ourselves when we’re probing that darkness that at the end of the day, this is for fun. It should be fun. The people who listen to our band, we all want them to have fun.”

“That’s why we play in this band: it’s fun,” the frontman continues. “We want people who listen to the record and come to the shows to have fun. We don’t want to be...” he pauses, rethinking his statement. “We are always miserable, but we don’t want to be,” he laughs. “So we’re trying hard not to be.” “And we’ve got dad jokes,” guitarist Steve Sladkowski interjects, “just in case you were wondering. Tonnes of dad jokes.”

Oh Canada! On home turf with PUP
Oh Canada! On home turf with PUP

Gathered around a table in a busy ramen restaurant in Toronto, jokes are in high order. Whether it’s taking the mick out of drummer Zack Mykula for being the eldest (“I’m too old and stupid to understand lyrics,” he deadpans in response to his bandmates’ mocking), discussing the morning’s bowel movements (“you see what touring has done to us?” Steve chides, “we’re comfortable talking about this stuff anywhere”), or simply just spurring each other on (“Steve’s always wanted to write a concept album,” Stefan taunts, “but Steve doesn’t write the lyrics, so fuck you”), the group are completely at ease.

And why wouldn’t they be? This is their hometown, the city streets where they cut their teeth, matured from a bunch of wayward punks, and started to create something they’re truly proud to be a part of. Walking around the city, dipping into music boutiques and vintage stores, they tell tales of begrudging clarinet lessons and favoured Caribbean take-out spots. This is where the band grew up, and there’s every sense that without this city they wouldn’t be the same band they are today.

“Our lives are so informed by living here,” Stefan expresses, “and by the experiences that we’ve had on the road. Without those experiences, these songs wouldn’t exist.” From living in Toronto to their non-stop touring schedule, these are the places that make PUP, PUP. “I’m sure other songs would exist,” Stefan adds, “but it certainly would not be the same record if we lived anywhere else, or if we recorded the record somewhere else. It would be a different kind of thing.” “You still haven’t written a song about that time we went to Wawa, and you couldn’t get pickles at the General Store,” Zach laughs.

His statement prompts an outburst of (partly mock) outrage, as the group regale stories of extended drives through the Canadian wilds to closed tourist attractions, ridiculous larger than life monuments, and a London pub they fondly call the “Crab & Rabbit” (which is actually Stratford’s Cart & Horses, for anyone curious). “Travelling around small towns and seeing all the quirky specifically and absurdly local things that we can go explore,” Steve details, “that’s something that I think now we’re really so much more appreciative of. I value that so much, just as a way to feel like there’s more of a connection to the places that we’re in.”

Oh Canada! On home turf with PUP
“It’s important to probe the darkness, but let’s not kid ourselves - this is pretty fun”
Stefan Babcock

Stories like these – of the attraction they saw in Alberta or the take-out they favour in Birmingham – are a dime a dozen for the band. This is the life PUP lead. Travelling the world and seeing the sights is one of the perks. The experiences they share, the people they meet… These are the stories that make up their day to day, and these are the stories that they tell on ‘Morbid Stuff’.

“We’ve stayed in many a punk squat or dirt house, but the first time we ever toured in the States, Zack and I slept in the concrete basement of this house in Portland that was just kind of beyond anything,” Stefan recalls. “When we walked in there was a yellow shag carpet, toenail clippings all over it, and a rotting Subway sandwich in the corner that was green with mould.” “There was a giant stain on the bed, and no sheet,” Zack describes. “And the guy said,” Stefan continues, “not a joke - ‘if you’re going to blow up your inflatable mattresses, just check the carpet for needles first ‘cause they might puncture them.’”

“We’ve had a lot of uncomfortable nights - which are fine, it’s all part of the deal,” he adds, “but this was particularly fucked. We woke up at 5am just to get out of there. Then as we were leaving, on the fridge there was a taped up picture of the guy’s kid.” This is the story that forms the backdrop to ‘Scorpion Hill’, raging against its own darkness and desperation with a self-destructive cry of “if the world is gonna burn, everyone should get a turn to light it up.”

“We just happened to walk into something that was really dark,” Stefan mulls. “I was just trying to put myself in his shoes for that song, and trying to imagine what happened to get him to that point in his life.” It’s a harrowing tale, making for what the band describe as what “might be the only song on the record where there’s not a whole lot of humour.” If anything, that makes PUP’s ability to dispel the gloom in favour of blistering riffs and brightness feel all the more powerful. “My favourite part about recording the record was actually finishing the darkest song on the record,” Stefan states, “but it being the stupidest experience that we had in the studio.”

“We put accordion on it,” the frontman explains. “Only, no one in this band knows how to play accordion,” he laughs. “So when we recorded it Nestor and I had to play it together.” What sounds short, sweet, and easy, is actually something half the band spent hours trying to perfect. “He played the buttons, and I was squeezing,” Nestor laughs. “It’s such a simple part. It’s only like three notes!” Stefan exclaims, mimicking the sound of an accordion screeching when played wrong. “It took longer than we’d care to admit,” Nestor chuckles.

Oh Canada! On home turf with PUP

Ask about any song on ‘Morbid Stuff’, or indeed any of the band’s records, and Stefan can tell you exactly what it’s written about. It’s an impressive attention to detail, no doubt, but perhaps more impressive is PUPs ability to bring these stories and these songs to life in a way that they can resonate with anyone – wherever or whoever they might be. “I write a lot about things that have happened to me, or to us, in Toronto,” Stefan portrays. “But when I’m talking about getting high in a van in St Catharines, you don’t have to know where St Catharines is. Everyone can relate that to their own experiences in their own way.” “Getting high in a van in Southampton,” Zack laughs. “I think that’s as close as it comes.”

When they released ‘The Dream Is Over’ three years ago, PUP slammed to the forefront of music media consciousness with all the aplomb of a rock into a hard place. Rallying and raging against the mixed up, messed up world around them, theirs is a sound that rises above the despondency, screaming and freewheeling with a vitality that’s giddying. It’s an energy that’s seared the band into the hearts of audiences worldwide, and one that had ‘Morbid Stuff’, held in highly-anticipated regard ever since the group announced it was in the works.

“It’s been pretty incredible,” Stefan reflects. “I think every time anything good happens to us - we get a big tour, or our fanbase increases, or whatever - we’re almost in a state of disbelief,” he chuckles. “It always feels like it could collapse at any second, so we don’t really take any of it for granted.” Rewind to the night before this interview: gathered at The Horseshoe Tavern for Pkew Pkew Pkew’s sold out album launch show, the frontman grinned as he conversed with a fan who introduced themselves just to express how much they love this band. It’s moments like those ones – seeing people enthuse about their music, or watching audiences sing, dance, mosh pit, crowd surf, and stage dive their way through their live sets – that make it all worthwhile for PUP.

“Sometimes touring can be really rough,” Stefan details. “Sometimes we hate each other. Sometimes everything is uncomfortable, and we just want to go home to our own beds and to our partners or whatever.” The temptation to give it all in might be there every once in a while, but it’s quashed every time the band step out on stage. “When you get up there, and people are singing along? That’s when it’s fucking worth it,” he enthuses. “To see people singing along, having a fun time... That’s the whole reason that we do this band.”

The live experience has always been important for PUP. Back when they first started out (in the early days when they went by Topanga), they were inspired to do so by local promoters encouraging kids to pick up instruments and become the next opening act they put on. “We’ve always kind of operated around everything being about the show,” bassist Nestor Chumak states. “Making records, we usually focus on that.” He pauses, and grins. “We got kind of carried away on this record.” “’Kind of’ is an understatement,” Zach laughs.

Oh Canada! On home turf with PUP
“We are always miserable, but we don’t want to be”
Stefan Babcock

A whirlwind of misadventures, misfortune, and, well, morbid stuff, PUP’s third record is a driving venture in escaping its own darkness. “It’s dark, but flippant about the darkness,” Zach describes, while Nestor agrees that “it sounds serious, but it’s kind of goofy.” “I feel like we all have tackled a lot of dark stuff on it,” Stefan details, “but we try to do it with some self-deprecating humour.” Expressing self-loathing like it’s going out of style, ‘Morbid Stuff’ endeavours to rise above all of the bullshit and fuel the fires of whatever makes you feel good – or at least burn the anger away.

Diving headfirst into the darkness in order to find a way to channel it into creating something brighter does have its downsides. “It’s this kind of thing that I struggle with about us being a band who writes about shitty emotions and shitty experiences. It’s fucked up for me that in a roundabout way we happen to become the beneficiaries of people being pissed off,” Stefan states. “We make money because we’re angry or sad, and because people who like our band are angry or sad or whatever,” he explains, “and that’s a really fucked up thing to struggle with. It’s something that is often on my mind, about wanting to make sure that we’re actually a positive influence on those types of people and on those situations rather than part of the problem.”

It’s a concern that reaches an explosive climax on ‘Full Blown Meltdown’ (a song they nearly titled ‘The Realest Song On This Record’), with a cynical and screeching refrain of “I’ll be sure to write it down when I hit rock bottom, for all the people who love to fetishize problems.” This is PUP at their most full throttle, their most lyrically biting and self-deprecating. “It’s almost the hardest song for me to talk about lyrically because it’s too real for some people,” Stefan conveys. But if it didn’t manage to find some hope within the chaos, it almost wouldn’t be a PUP song.

“I feel like [‘Full Blown Meltdown’] is kind of us sneering at the problems by using them to our advantage, by making a song out of them, and taking control of the situation,” Zack conveys. “At least, that’s my interpretation,” he shrugs. “I’m just a drummer, so...” “You’re 32, so...” Nestor dismisses. “I’m too old,” Zack deadpans. “I’m too old and stupid.” Bitter but bright, angered but elated, self-loathing but laughing out loud… These are just some of the contrasts that make PUP who they are.

Oh Canada! On home turf with PUP

“I feel like people learn a lot about us from the music,” Stefan states, “but there’s a lot more to be learned. We really want people to feel like they’re part of our world, and we’re all part of the same team.” Whether it’s something as simple as inviting their audiences up to stage dive at their live shows, or something as complicated as a retro style computer game as a music video, having their listeners feel involved in what they’re creating is something the band have always made an extra effort to do. So when they shared the lyrics and chords to an as-of-then unreleased song and asked fans to submit their own cover versions, was it really any surprise how readily the responses rolled in?

“In a lot of ways we just gave up control of the song,” Steve states. “It was really cool to see what happened once we did that.” “Also, the song was shit,” Stefan interjects around a mouthful of ramen noodles. “We might as well just fuck with it,” he deadpans, to the amusement of his bandmates. “Publicise with that!” Zack laughs. “’Our music sucks!’” Self-deprecating humour is part of who PUP are (“there were a few [covers] that were maybe legitimately better than ours,” Stefan enthuses. “There were about 250 that were better,” Zack rebukes), but if this cover competition has shown anything, it’s how vast an audience hold this band in high esteem.

The resulting music video for ‘Free At Last’ features 253 different interpretations of the song (254 if you include the band’s own). Everything from bedroom jams to studio covers, live renditions to trippy woodland video versions, out-and-out rock to cheesy piano ballads… The creativity the band bring out in their audience is seemingly endless. “We literally thought maybe two people would do it, and then we’d have to beg a couple of our friends to do it,” Nestor states. “We’re not being disingenuous there either,” Steve expresses. “We were like ‘okay, if we have to talk to people, who could we ask?’” “We made a list,” Zack affirms.

“Just to see people putting effort into something like that,” Stefan expresses. “Like, why the fuck does anybody care about this?!” he marvels. “It’s been very rewarding for us,” Zack agrees. “I hope it’s rewarding for our fans.” And that’s what it’s all about: whether it’s listening to the songs, heading to the shows, recording covers, losing your cool (in a good way) in a mosh pit, or something else entirely, PUP’s music – their videos, their shows the whole experience – is geared towards having a good time.

Oh Canada! On home turf with PUP
“You have to overcome a lot to do this job”
Stefan Babcock

“It gets harder and harder to communicate well with your fans as things progress, but it’s always been something that’s pretty important to us,” Stefan describes. “It’s nice to have those people involved in this band, in this project, because they’re a big part of it for us.” “It’s making the world smaller, almost,” Zack agrees. “We can’t say we’re DIY, but we maintain that atmosphere around our songs by keeping the world small by staying connected with people.”

Connection is a huge part of PUP’s identity, and always has been. Just take a look at their music videos: ‘Guilt Trip’ from their debut sees a group of kids band together to protect one of their own (a ‘young Stefan Babcock’ portrayed by Finn Wolfhard), while ‘Morbid Stuff’ lead single ‘Kids’ sees a group of middle-aged bandmates-turned-strangers rally together to reach out to one of their own (an older version of Stefan Babcock portrayed by Stefan Babcock). None of these are true to life (as far as we know: we’re not psychic – ‘Kids’ could be the future), but there’s a closeness and a familiarity here that’s too heartfelt to be fiction.

“If not for this band, I’m pretty sure we’d all still be friends, yeah?” Nestor teases. It’s a question that doesn’t even need answering, considering how far the four have all come together. “That family connection, or those familial style bonds, are kind of who we are,” Steve portrays. “We have all gone through a lot of those growing pains, and sacrifices that the four of us have made and that our partners have made, we’ve gone through, together. That has brought us all closer.”

Oh Canada! On home turf with PUP
Oh Canada! On home turf with PUP
“If people feel a sense of community around the band, that’s really special”
Stefan Babcock

“You have to overcome a lot to do this job if you want to have any success. You can’t let little setbacks stand in your way,” Stefan distils. “If we gave up every time somebody said ‘you can’t do this,’ we would’ve given up ages ago.” The reason that hasn’t happened is simple: the band had each other. “It makes it a lot easier to face challenges or overcome things or deal with what you need to deal with, when you know there are three other people who are like family,” Steve expresses, Zack continuing: “who’re also going through identical stuff.” “This is our little family,” Stefan asserts. “That’s just what it is. When you tour this much and work together all the time, it really does start to feel like a family.”

So that’s what they strive to offer their audience: a sense of connection, a sense of community even, a sense of getting through the bullshit together – simply put, a sense of not being alone. “Anywhere that people are able to find somewhere where they feel like they belong, and feel like there are other people who identify with the same things that they do, or are able to make them feel like they can be themselves and be comfortable is really cool,” Steve enthuses. “I hope we’re able to do that with some of our fans. If people feel a sense of community around the band, that’s really special and really important.”

“Was that a good answer? I can’t tell sometimes,” Stefan questions mid-interview. “You can just be like ‘...that’s dumb.’” “’We’re going to do a redo here!’” Steve mocks. “Basically, we don’t know how it works,” Zack explains over his bandmates. There might not be rhyme. There might not even be reason. But what PUP possess in spades is resilience: resilience to the demanding nature of life on the road, resilience to their own snarling diatribes, and a resilience to the the darkness of the world around them.

Using that darkness as fuel to create music that burns bright, to create a connection that sears with meaning, to create from the chaos something that’s fun… That’s what makes PUP such a force to be reckoned with. As the chorus of ‘Kids’ resounds, “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway, I don’t care about nothing but you.” And sometimes, that’s all you need to hear. 

Taken from the May edition of Upset. Order a copy below. PUP’s album ‘Morbid Stuff’ is out now.

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