Lovers Lane
In The Flesh

Cover Story: PUP • “Finding Balance”

| May 1, 2022

PUP (Photo: Vanessa Heins)

Everyone remembers where they were in March 2020. Toronto punks PUP just started their spring tour, when suddenly they were told to pack it up and go home. Instead of spending their nights playing to fervent fans around the world, they were sitting on their couches trying to fend off boredom. Frontman Stefan Babcock couldn’t stand it. He doesn’t like being idle for too long. “My brain goes to dark places if I do too much of that,” he says. So, he started writing. Not necessarily with a new record in mind, just trying to kill time. It ended up being the longest span of writing time Babcock has had.

“Usually we tour so much, or at least we did in the before times,” he says. “[For] all of our other records we had three months in between tours. So, it was like, let’s write a record and record it. This was a much more drawn-out process where we could be more intentional with the songs and how we wanted the album to sound.”

July 2021, Babcock along with Nestor Chumak, Zack Mykula, and Steve Sladkowski entered an “American Horror Story style mansion” to turn Babcock’s impromptu writing into an album: THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND. And they didn’t leave the house for five weeks. Fast forward to March 2022. Babcock is in his hometown of Toronto preparing for a spring tour and gearing up for the release of the new album. Though he admits March 2020 was a hard time, he manages to find the silver lining in it.

“As awful as the last few years have been, it was kind of a wonderful thing for me,” he says. “I don’t want to diminish the situation or how much it affected other people and even really affected some of us, but the four of us laugh about it because I sort of believe if we had kept doing what we were doing, which is pretty much touring ten months of the year, we wouldn’t be a band right now. If we didn’t have this forced hiatus, we would’ve burned ourselves out and murdered each other. This forced break maybe saved the band in some respect.”

It would be a shame if that’s how PUP’s story ended. Formed in 2010 under the guise of Pathetic Use of Potential, the band started as an excuse to hang out, make loud music, and drink beers together. Playing intimate shows around their homeland earned them a small following. But the band would start to see a rise in popularity with their 2013 self-titled debut album. The band only got bigger with each successive release. It’s safe to say things were looking good for PUP. But as they approached their fourth album, they realized something needed to change.

“We’ve been a band for nine years or something like that. And we’ve made three records in the past and we’re all really proud of those records. In my opinion, each of the records has gotten better, but at the same time, the goal was to keep making the same record without repeating ourselves and to make it better,” says Babcock. “I think we’ve reached the logical end of that journey on our third record [Morbid Stuff]. We were so happy with how the record sounded. It just felt like it would be a mistake to try and recreate it. We would actually be moving backward.”

“I love being in a band,” he continues “but it’s also really tough. There’s nothing I can imagine that would be worse for the band than doing something creatively unfulfilling, you know what I mean? If we had just stuck with the process, the tried-and-true method, we would’ve made a decent album and we would’ve felt creatively unfulfilled. And the band would probably collapse pretty quickly.”

Wanting to shake up their recording process, PUP ditched the “nine-to-five” routine of going to the studio in the morning, spending eight hours recording, and going home at night. This time, they rented out an eerie mansion in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and worked on the album day and night without leaving the house. Sounds like the setting of a horror movie, yet it’s another experience the usually pessimistic Babcock looks back on with some fondness.

“There was definitely a whole bunch of cabin fever. We were there for five weeks, and barely left the place, which led to some interesting decisions because after five weeks without any other outside stimulation you start to make questionable decisions (laughs),” Babcock says. “I say it like it’s a negative thing, but it was actually a positive for us to let go of choices we’d normally make and lean into the cabin fever a bit. Because of that, we ended up with something a little more interesting than if we’d just done this like we’ve done the other albums.”

Babcock called it an all-encompassing experience. “I would wake up at seven in the morning and start recording and the other guys would join when they got up. Then I would go to bed pretty early, like 10:30 or 11 and they would be up until two or three just fucking around.”

With 24-hour access to a studio, the band started throwing all their ideas, no matter how weird or dumb, into the album to see what stuck, which differs from past recording experiences. “In the past, we would write songs, practice the shit out of them in the basement, get them sounding awesome, and then go into the studio and record them,” says Babcock. “They would sound like the fucking best version they could be.”

“This album was a different thing where the songs were mostly written in the basement, but we had all this time in the studio and there were all these weird toys we never had access to. There [was] so much more opportunity to try different things. We just wanted to try everything. Turn the whole process on its head and see what else is out there for us.”

Babcock admits not everything was a hit, but some of it struck a chord with the band, such as their lead single “Robot Writes a Love Song.” While the song is unmistakably PUP, it goes on a slightly different path. Most PUP singles are fast, furious unbridled rage, and hyper energy. This one is more mellow with a lo-fi bedroom pop influence. Babcock admits it’s mellower than the rest of the album, but the tongue-in-cheek lyrics and the humor found in the song are a staple of the album.

“There’s a lot of moments [in that song] where we tried stuff that sounded really shitty and we decided to keep it because we felt it fit the aesthetic of the song (laughs). There’s something I love about that. We’re a very imperfect band. There’s a scrappiness to PUP I didn’t want to lose just because we had more time in the studio. So, the scrappiness is still there. It’s just presented in a different way. We had more time to get the right performances, but the right performances don’t mean the technically best performances. It means the ones that felt right.”

Babcock is right. That scrappiness is part of what makes PUP so distinguishable. And it’s a part of the band he wanted to hold on to. Reflecting on the band’s unpolished, raw sound he says “…[it’s] really important to me because when I was growing up listening to very polished pop-punk, I never felt I could do it. I never felt like my musical abilities were represented in the, I’m not throwing shade or anything, in the Good Charlottes of the world. I just couldn’t understand how bands could sound like that. When I started to hear this grimier kind of punk or scrappier indie rock bands like Built to Spill and Interpol, I could pick out the individual instruments and how they came together to sound like a band. Nobody was perfect but it wasn’t about that. It made me feel like maybe this is a thing I could do, and I never had that feeling with any of the cleaner stuff. So, I want to make sure we maintain a little bit of that aesthetic.”

“I didn’t even think about making music until I heard “shitty” sounding music,” he continues. “I didn’t even consider it would be a possibility for me. It just seemed so unattainable to make a song you hear on pop radio or whatever. So, it’s nice to hear some of my favorite bands botch the chords on their record. It’s like I could probably play guitar that well (laughs).”

While the band’s scrappy aesthetic was left intact, other things were fair game. The new recording environment and the onset of cabin fever also the band to make some of what Babcock calls questionable decisions, particularly two songs he thought he’d never want to release, including “the stupidest piano ballad of all time.”

“…the first song on the album is called ‘Four Chords’ and it’s a very dumb piano ballad,” he says. “There has never been piano on a PUP record, nor has there been a ballad. It was a song I wrote as a joke originally called ‘A Dumb Song for My Dumb Friends.’ I wrote it for my bandmates to make them laugh and it was never intended to be a PUP song. I sent it around long before we went into the studio, and they were like yeah that’s funny. Then we forgot about it.”

But bassist Nestor Chumak didn’t forget about it and suggested including it on the album. Babcock insisted it was a bad idea. “I was like no no no that song is too stupid. That can’t go on this record. But we’d also been stuck in the studio for five weeks, experiencing cabin fever and they somehow convinced me this really stupid tongue-in-cheek piano ballad should start the record.”

“Had we made this record the way we made previous albums and were more of sound mind than we were in that moment, that song wouldn’t have gone on the record. But I’m so happy it’s on there. It’s such an absurd way to start one of our records. It kind of sets the tone for the entire album and we all had to be in this loopy headspace to understand that this could actually be a good decision. And it’s one I’m really happy with.”

The last song, “PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing For Bankruptcy” is similarly unhinged with the band throwing any and all ideas into the song to “make it as stupid as possible.” This includes a “saxophone freak out for no reason” and random parts where Babcock is “secretly” recorded from another room. “We just made all these really stupid decisions where in the past we would’ve been like no, why would we ever do this?” says Babcock. “Part of being on our fourth record, being in this weird studio, having cabin fever, and letting everything go is that we let those stupid ideas happen and just trusted that maybe if we found them funny, other people might find them funny or connect with them. Maybe people will hate those two songs more than anything, but those are two of my favorite songs on the record.”

Though PUP was hellbent on challenging themselves and expanding their horizons on this record, some things remained the same, like Babcock’s penchant for grappling with hopelessness, existential dread, and what he calls “Grim Reaping – the idea that we are all reaping what we sow.”

“In all of the previous records I kind of grapple with existential dread and depression,” says Babcock. “It naturally comes out when I write. I feel like I need to write when I’m in that headspace. I kind of view writing as a form of personal therapy. I rarely know what I’m gonna write about and the writing is usually like, I feel fucked up. Maybe I have to write a song and that will help me figure it out and sometimes it does.”

He admits he was in “a really dark place” when he wrote Morbid Stuff. The process was cathartic, but he says he grew tired of talking about his depression. He’s in a better headspace now, but that doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and rainbows from here on out.

On this album, he addresses the horrible state of the world through a personal lens. “I have an equally bleak outlook on the world and life this time around and I wanted to express that through a personal lens because every time I tried to express it in the form of a political song or protest song it just sounds so fake and contrived coming out of my mouth.”

“Even if I truly believe in my very core the things I’m saying, that’s just a talent I haven’t been able to develop. Saying those things without sounding like an asshole,” he continues. “I just don’t think the world needs someone who looks like me shouting at them about what to believe. So, I try to put it through a personal lens and express how I feel about the state of things, which is obviously not great. But I think it’s something people can easily relate to, or I hope people can more easily relate to. Definitely more so than the times, I tried to write political songs. Those are so hard to stomach sometimes.”

Though the record is a response to the awfulness that was happening around him, it’s not a pandemic record. While there’s an element of that (it’s kind of unavoidable at this point), the record is more about learning to cope with “…harsh realities whether it’s the social and political realities we’re facing today or more simple realities like growing older and doors closing around you, while other doors are not opening up. That’s something we all have to face.”

Getting older? Existential dread? Coming to terms with harsh realities? Sounds like a grim record. But despite its darkness, the band’s tongue-in-cheek humor is firmly in place. This is best seen in the album’s branding. Whereas Morbid Stuff had a wilderness survival theme, THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND’s theme is all about the corporate world. Its branding and messaging are ripped from a vintage training video. Fans are welcomed to be “Brand Ambassadors” with new merch with “PUP THE BAND INC” emblazoned on them. They’ve even set up a business number where you’re greeted with an automated menu of options, including location and hours of operation, upcoming video releases, sales, and a complaint department. You can even hear a muzak version of their new song. But why? Has PUP gone corporate?

Well, yes and no. Though PUP isn’t necessarily making albums and playing shows purely for monetary reasons, Babcock recognizes it’s still a business. “This is a business for us and there are lots of people who have come to rely on it for their livelihood,” he says. “It’s important that [the band] succeeds but it’s also really important that we find creative fulfillment and those two are often at odds. I think a lot of people who start businesses face this. The way we’ve dealt with this is through humor. We’re still drinking beer in the basement but we’re also reviewing which corporate insurance policies we want to buy into (laughs). It’s just a bit of a trip. It’s really sad if you’re unable to see the humor in all of it.”

It’s a crossroad lots of longstanding bands face. Do you keep going for the tried-and-true method to sell more records? Or do you risk that and go for something different that may be more fulfilling? It’s a tricky balance. It would’ve been easy for PUP to take the safe route, make a sequel to their last album, and coast off of it. Instead, they pushed themselves to keep growing. Yet, they still wanted to ensure they didn’t “alienate every single PUP fan.”

“We were really trying to thread this needle of pushing the boundaries of what we’re able to do, but at the same time, holding on to the parts of the band we think are special and trying to make this sound undeniably like PUP but a new version of PUP. That’s a pretty tall order, but that was kind of the MO. Maybe some people will hate it but maybe some people will like it. That’s a hard thing to control, right? The best we can do is make something we’re happy with and we feel like is building on what we’ve done in the past and hopefully some people connect with it.”

Finding that balance is difficult, but over the years PUP has built enough confidence to trust their own instincts. “When the four of us are all excited about something chances are we’re on the right track. We’ve always trusted our own judgment and the songs we’ve connected with the most were ones that became popular PUP songs. The ones we kind of half-assed didn’t do as well. So, we’ve learned to trust if we’re excited about something, other people will probably be excited about it.”

What started as a way to kill boredom during the pandemic has turned into the band’s “favorite and most true-to-form album to date.” The risks they took and the challenges they imposed on themselves helped the band not only create something they’re proud of but also helped them keep moving forward. “I think it opened up a lot of doors to allow us to keep growing as a band, which is really exciting for me because I would like this to be a long career,” says Babcock. “I would like this band to age gracefully and not just be a band that keeps making the same record over and over. I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND may be an unconventional PUP record that sees them going on a slightly different path, but one thing remains the same: a group of friends who “love each other so much” and “fucking hate each other” who just want to get together, laugh, and make music. And that’s part of what makes PUP the band.

“It’s not the tricks that we’ve used in the past like the gang vocals. That doesn’t make it sound like PUP. It’s the four of us in a room together and all of our personalities coming together in a way that shows all the dichotomies of the band. We’re very serious about trying to make a really great record, but also, we think it’s ridiculous we get to do this. So, it’s all fun and love and hate and being upset with each other and just being in awe that this is our lives. That’s what makes it sound like PUP.”

-Ashley Perez Hollingsworth

 

 

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