Search The Line of Best Fit
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Pup lead

Pup have nothing to prove

28 March 2022, 09:04
Words by Max Gayler

Things are really working out for PUP.

Say goodbye to PUP the band and say hello to PUP the business. Never ones to hold their tongue, they’ve drop kicked the fourth wall that most bands keep up around them and have created a record so meta you’ll be itching to invest.

While PUP’s frontman Stefan Babcock has always shown a tenacity for keeping nothing hidden from listeners, things have maybe been taken up a notch since their 2019 record Morbid Stuff. On “Full Blown Meltdown” Babcock cries, “How long will self destruction be alluring? / It's good for business and baby, business is booming.” Little did we know that awareness of a music industry running on artists going through mental health battles would lay the foundation for their fourth instalment of rowdy punk rock.

THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND is totally unhinged, filled with ruthless rhetoric and somehow both a calamitous and uplifting look into the business of being a band four albums into their career. “This album is us kind of grappling with a few things,” says Babcock, sitting in his Toronto home a month before this record’s release. “One of those is that the band is now a business. So how does that affect these stupid songs? We're trying to thread this needle between making a record that's true to us without alienating all of our fans.”

So what makes a band a business? Selling merch? Selling records? Doesn’t that make every band a business? “That wasn't a consideration on the first record,” he helps explain. “I feel like we've reached a point of security in our band life where we can call out and laugh at all the shitty parts of the music industry that have fucked us and other bands around.” Infamous for never biting his tongue, Babcock is unrestrained in how he talks about the industry, or anything else for that matter. A truly warm and welcoming presence, his honesty trickles through everything he does for better or worse

“I think it's a fun place to be in where we can write songs like the ones on this album and talk about how we are big fuckups but we are fucking up on a level that is really working out. So all those fucking assholes who were shitty to us in the beginning can eat an ass.” It's an exciting and liberating position to be in. For the first time, the band feels like they genuinely don’t have anything to prove. “The band is what it is and what else is there? We're able to tell it like it is because we're fortunate enough to be in this position where people are listening and if we piss off a specific radio station it's not going to sink our band's career because radios don't play it anyway.”

PUP’s managed to stay afloat in a genre that is constantly seen as something between a relic of the past and something irreplaceable and seminal in a world of constantly evolving music. Their first three albums all hit hard and left a burning yet addictive aftertaste. Songs like “DVP”, “Kids” and “Sleep In The Heat” all encapsulate the band’s unique approach to honesty in punk rock. Both lyrically and musically they never hold anything back, whether it’s their open discussion of personal mental health battles or how hard it was to lose a pet lizard. On their fourth album, they’ve been careful not to stray too far from the path but this undoubtedly stands out from the rest as something unpredictable, hard to define and totally bizarre.

In fact, this is what they’re calling their “most PUP album yet.” What does that mean exactly? “We're in an interesting position because, y'know,” Babcock sighs, “Three records deep, and now a fourth, it feels like this is a point in most careers where you either fall into a complacency trap or you do something that completely alienates all your fans. You go for broke or whatever. I think we really wanted to kind of thread the needle and ride the line between those two places. The main goal was to just not be complacent with this band. It would be so creatively unsatisfying to go and make another record that sounded like Morbid Stuff. In a perfect world I would love for Pup to be a band that these punk kids listen to and go, "oh shit, I didn't know punk music could sound this way." And I'm not saying we accomplished that, I'm just saying, this has always been a goal of ours, to be that kind of band.”

Taking risks is important. Any artist this far into their career will tell you the same thing. It can leave a bunch of fans feeling underwhelmed but also exposes you to an entirely new audience. “And we have a safety net,” smiles Babcock. “Nestor [Chumak] always says, "yeah, we'll still play “DVP” live. These kids are still gonna come to the show." We just wanted to carve a path forward in this niche we've made without using the same old tricks.”

"The main goal was to just not be complacent with this band. It would be so creatively unsatisfying to go and make another record that sounded like Morbid Stuff." - Stefan Babcock

So, what new tricks have they been working on? THE UNRAVELLING OF PUPTHEBAND is, at its simplest, the loudest they’ve ever sounded. Thumping, anthemic and with a whole new arsenal of instruments in the mix, PUP sound like they’ve chosen the parts of their previous records that resonated most with people and started saying yes to any idea band members had. Well, apparently not any idea. “It's really exciting to bring this weird sound to the guys and they're like, 'That might be a little too weird. Let's dial it back.' But sometimes it works and suddenly you've added a layer of self expression. I'm quite happy we did that this time around”. Drummer Zack Mykula took a step forward on this album, pushing for an unorthodox saxophone solo and At The Drive-In style chaos on the album closer, “PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing For Bankruptcy” – something that’s paid off in creating the album closer the entire band were looking for.

“In any of other circumstance I would have been like, 'fuck you',” explains Babcock. “Instead, Zack asked us and we were all just like, 'That sounds completely rational and normal. Go call a saxophone.' We did everything to make the songs better. I bought this piano and we made that a part of it and then Zack made some demos and we incorporated those too. We've got actual 808's and shit in there now. Making it sound cool and PUP at the same time is a new tool.”

And those weren’t the only new tools at their disposal. For their fourth record, the group decided to try a different recording experience and joined GRAMMY Award-winning producer Peter Katis’ (Frightened Rabbt, Gang of Youths, Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten) in his bat-filled mansion in Connecticut. “The two previous albums were recorded in Toronto at this place called Union Town with a guy named Dave Shifman, and the one before that was done in Montreal also with Dave.” This was the first time Babcock and the band had ever made a record outside of a contemporary studio. “Well this was a studio,” he confirms. “Maybe it's better to say this is the first time we've ever made a record in a place we were also living in. We'd always spent four or five weeks on it but we'd treat recording as, well not to demystify it, but we'd treat it like a 9-5. This time it was five weeks of all consuming creation. There was no getting away from it. You wake up at 7 in the morning and it's not like, "I've got some time to kill before the studio..." It's more like, "I'm in the studio, fuck." If you don't start doing something it feels like you're pissing your time away.”

“I still love the way those first three records sound,” responds Mykula. “And that’s evidenced by Dave being so in demand but we just wanted to try to shake it up. Now we're left with this thing where it sounds like we're losing our minds.” The songs Babcock and the band wrote for this fourth record were mainly formed before entering the studio, including some backing vocal on “Robot Writes A Love Song” that Babcock recorded in his car. But there’s a lot of this record that was born in Shifman’s home. And according to Babcock, you can hear the band’s mental integrity spiralling from the start of the record until the end.

“It's clear as day to me,” he says. “So the first song on the record, "Four Chords'', and the last song on the record, "PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing for Bankruptcy", those are the last two songs that we wrote for the record and the last two we recorded in the studio. By our standards they're fucking completely unhinged. Especially when I listen to the last track now, I'm like, "Holy shit, that is stupid." It's the fact we weren't in our rational minds, we let go and we did something that we wouldn't have normally done and I think because of that the songs are better. It would have been really easy to, I don't know what the right word is, but to whitewash those songs and paint them with the same brush as everything else. If our mental state had been a little more collected and stable. But because we were unhinged by that point, I feel like there's something vital and special about those songs that I don't think could be recreated.”

"There's this element of wanting these songs to be the antithesis of an Instagram feed where everyone pretends their life is so fucking awesome and we know it's bullshit." - Stefan Babcock

For a select few, there is a certain freedom in losing your mind. At least that’s how the band sees it. Giving in to their weirdest thoughts and going off the deep end is when they’re at the creative peak. But there’s also a large part of the group that finds a shelter in this space. Uncompromised and unashamed, each member of the band brings out the best in everyone else. “I think that's one of the underdog perspectives of writing, and for people who are neurotic like us, maybe it's uncomfortable to be ourselves and we're showing parts of ourselves that maybe people will dislike,” says Mykula.

Interspersed within this album are three short songs all named “Four Chords” parts one, two and three. Babcock decided to spend some of the label budget on a piano and teach himself some chords. “Can you tell it's me? It fucking sucks. Zack, how does it feel to be so good at music and be on a record where I actually ruined it?” “I actually self-indulged the other day and listened to that song and there's some rhythmically out of place notes but it's so slight. It's one of my favourite things about the record,” Mykula responds. There’s a strong juxtaposition between the simple sounds of someone learning the piano and the unconventional and at times dissonant melodies from guitarist Steve Sladkowski. It’s something totally unexpected and as much as it may startle some people familiar with the harsh noise PUP usually makes, it actually helps narrate this album and tell the story of a band growing more and more frustrated with an industry that keeps trying to exploit them.

As the record states and insinuates in a number of ways, PUP are business owners. Despite that they’ve not had such a stable rise to success. Their roots go deep into their hometown of Toronto and its inclusive DIY scene. Their thrashing brand of unchained chaos inspires a visceral live experience that they toured heavily, doing hundreds of shows a year and picking up a devoted fanbase. Never forgetting the start of their journey they’ve been fortunate enough to give back and promote local upcoming bands the way others did for them.

“I think we just want to be of service and we are extremely grateful because we were on the receiving end of that charitable attitude,” says Mykula. “I don't think we could be okay with ourselves if we didn't try to pay it forward. I know we don't cover all the bases all the time but we're doing what we can with our resources and I think we just have to.”

It would be pretty easy to be cagey about this career but Babcock says they still always discover new bands who are doing “fucking cool shit”. “It's exciting to see bands starting off where you feel like they have the potential to take a genre or community to a different level. A lot of people gave us the benefit of the doubt when we started. Even though we're not a DIY band anymore we all came from a DIY community and we all have that DNA within us so it's nice to go do whatever we want and still feel connected to this community of artists that do whatever they can to help each other.”

And it’s not just a connection with their scene that they feel. Their closeness as a band keeps them from going astray or creating anything that might land the wrong way for their listeners. And what their listeners resonate most with is their gloomy but raw portrayal of life’s woes. “So much of what I feel like makes this band special is just dichotomies and writing really dark songs that sound really fun,” laughs Babcock. “And one of my favourites is how good those guys are at music and how bad I am at music.” When doing rehearsal for their latest tour they figured out Sladkowski could play both guitar lines at the same time, meaning Babcock is free to run around “like a madman.” “Tell Steve to stop slacking off and get on the double neck,” he jokes.

Babcock describes each record as a six month snapshot of his life. When they wrote their second album The Dream Is Over, all the lyrics were about touring because that’s all they’d been doing. For Morbid Stuff, Babcock was in a “pretty dark spot” so that’s based around his episodes of depression and how he dealt with that on the road. But on this record, he says he felt a lot of existential dread. “One thing I try to do is write lyrics that are very specific to me that I hope can maybe resonate with people who are in a band or not. On this record I talk a lot about being in a band and the business of being in a band and how fucked up the music industry and how fucked it is to have these creative relationships with your best friends who are also your biggest enemies. I feel like I talk about all those things in a very specific way that I hope you don't need to be in a band to be able to relate to.

“I mean, I think this idea of being on a path and not being sure if it's the right path and asking yourself what compromises I'm able to make in a relationship or in my life. What things am I able to compromise? What morals can I compromise? What things are non-negotiables? That's something everybody has to deal with. "If This Tour Doesn't Kill You, I Will", yeah that song is very much about killing each other on tour but I feel like most people are able to take that and apply it to their own lives and their own relationships. We all get a bit too close to people at times in a way that you can't differentiate the feeling of love and hatred at times.”

PUP have gotten better at being forthcoming with themselves. That applies in both their personal and professional life. Throughout our conversation they’re hesitant to make the process sound dull at any moment but simultaneously ready to talk shop whenever I ask them about the meta persona of this record. “It's my job to hate myself,” Babcock chuckles. “I can uncover all these dark parts of myself and that used to be pretty damaging for me and now I think I can uncover those parts and treat it with a bit more compassion because I know I'm forced to be more introspective than most people, and more than I'd like to be just by the nature of being the songwriter.”

Something the band has been trying to achieve with their entire discography but maybe succeed with more than ever on this latest record, is their intention to be a breath of fresh air. Whether it’s Babcock’s honest and bleak storytelling, the band’s entire sarcastic tone or even the anthemic songwriting that has ignited a fervent fanbase, they want to be the opposite of the problems they see online. “There's this element of wanting these songs to be the antithesis of an Instagram feed where everyone pretends their life is so fucking awesome and we know it's bullshit,” caps off Babcock.

“Nobody posts the ugly sides of themselves and there's good reason for that but I kind of feel like what people need in order to feel better about themselves is to see other people have those same terrible ugly sides. If you can write songs about the real hard parts of yourself and not place yourself as a victim of circumstances or a victim in relationships, that's what gonna kick start the mental health discussion. Everybody has that shit and no one is only a victim. People don't like to talk about it. Except me, I love that shit.”

THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND is out on 1st April via Rise Records/BMG
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