PUP: “We lost the plot and our inhibitions”

Back with a new album, and heading to 2000trees, PUP are all set to divide and conquer.

Words: Jessica Goodman.

“Sometimes at a festival, you walk out in front of thousands of people, and you crush it,” Stefan Babcock states. “It feels like everybody really loves you, and it’s just the most amazing experience.” This is the dream of musicians the world over (though, let’s face it, who among us here hasn’t at least momentarily had that daydream?). In true PUP fashion, the frontman’s description doesn’t come without a dash of deprecation. “Sometimes you walk out in front of a few thousand people, and you bomb, and everyone fucking hates you,” he shrugs, perking up a moment later as he adds, “or, you go to Germany, and nobody comes to the festival.”

Examples that are far too specific not to have happened aside (when asked, he simply smiles and moves the conversation along), this description fits PUP’s ethos to a T: be open to possibility, embrace the chaos, and do what you can to enjoy the ride. With a new album about to be unleashed into the world, and a new chapter of their existence about to unfold, Toronto’s nihilistic angels of reckless catharsis are at the top of their game.

“It feels like we’ve been touring the UK for as long as we’ve been touring in North America at this point,” guitarist Steve Sladowski says. The band – completed by bassist Nestor Chumak and drummer Zack Mykula – played their first UK gigs in 2014, and eight years on, they’re discovering the experience anew. This summer, they’ll be performing their first UK post-album-release show at 2000trees. “To be playing the first show in the UK at the festival…” Steve continues, “it’s strange to feel like we have a new experience coming.”

Asked what they’re looking forwards to about the occasion, their response is characteristically cynical. “I think festivals are the most hit-or-miss thing in the world,” Stefan conveys. “Some of my favourite experiences in a band have been at festivals, and some of my most painful experiences in a band have been at festivals.” Simply put, they’re giving nothing away. “It keeps things interesting,” he grins.

If you’ve seen the band before, chances are you’ve got some idea what their 2000trees performance will have in store: thrashing refrains, electric attitude, and gleeful energy are just a handful of the things the group excel at on stage. What makes this time different is the album full of new songs they’ve added to their repertoire.

After the apocalyptic revelry of their third record, ‘Morbid Stuff’, and subsequent EP ‘This Place Sucks Ass’, PUP set about doing what seemed natural as a follow-up to the end of the world: they formed their own corporation. It’s this new venture – appropriately named PUPTHEBAND Inc. – that gives the new record, and its closing track, their titles. “I find a lot of humour in the fact that the four of us have just been fucking up for ten years and fucked ourselves into becoming CEOs of a company,” Stefan grins.

The corporate life seems to be treating them well. Now they’ve established themselves as a board of directors, the group say they devote their time to regular meetings and discussing insurance policies (“just because we drink beer when we’re having those meetings doesn’t mean they’re not legitimate,” Stefan drawls, in an achingly on-the-nose comment). With business booming comes the opportunity to scale up, and they’re taking their upwards trajectory quite literally. The group now claim that for their latest promotional video, they became the first band to perform in space. All of this, they insist, actually happened. “We definitely have the budget for all that stuff, all the time. Especially after the last couple of years,” Steve says of their cosmic adventure. Asked for further comment, Stefan starts to marvel, “how insane. What a trip this is. No one should be entrusting us with anything.”

This is the world that PUP create for themselves, and for everyone who listens to them. They might’ve named themselves after an acronym for Pathetic Use of Potential, but the more time spent with them, with their music, the clearer it becomes that this band is instead more of a Passionate Use of Possibility (not quite as catchy, but the point still stands – Ed). If they can think it up, anything goes. It’s this attitude and openness to opportunity that enabled them to create their new album, ‘The Unravelling Of PUPTHEBAND’.

“My prediction is that for a lot of PUP fans, this will be their favourite PUP record, and for a lot of PUP fans, it will be their least favourite PUP record,” Stefan carefully describes. “Both of those scenarios are okay with me.” Whether you love it or hate it, this is PUP turned up to eleven. For fans, it’s a gift of reckless abandon presented with absolute glee, and if that doesn’t float your boat? “Fuck it,” Stefan shrugs. “Whatever. Here we are. We did it. It’s over. Best of luck to everybody.”

“Because of the way that the record starts, I think so many people are gonna hit play on April 1st and be like, ‘oh, they fucked us’,” he laughs – and he’s probably not wrong. Opening track ‘Four Chords’ is unlike anything we’ve heard from the band before. Their usual set-up is nowhere to be heard – not for the first minute, at least. Instead, the song begins entirely stripped back, and what introduces the record is the group’s distinctive take on a piano ballad. “It wasn’t a thing that we planned out, but I do love it,” Stefan comments on the latest product of their evolution, serendipitously arriving on April Fool’s Day. “It’s just kind of appropriate.”

As novel as it might seem written out in an interview like this, on record it remains completely in character. This is, after all, the same group that released their last record alongside an ‘Annihilation Preparedness Kit’, and launched their new album with a ‘Brand Ambassador Bundle’. Embracing comicality is what PUP do. “I think one of the things that has always been important for us is that we take the work seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Steve distils. Humour has always been a core part of who PUP are (as Taylor Hawkins said, “if you don’t laugh, you’re in trouble”), and on ‘The Unravelling…’ that sense of humour is in full force.

“So much sensory input goes into doing something creative, right?” Stefan describes. “Sometimes you could watch a movie or listen to a record or read a book, and on the other side of that you can create something that has nothing to do with those things, but they’ve just triggered some deep, weird thing in your brain.” One of the most keenly felt influences on this new record was perhaps the studio where it was recorded.

Eight hours drive from their home city of Toronto, Tarquin Studios is what the band describe as “an American Horror Story house,” only without the haunting. “That would have been great for the press, if we had been like, ‘saw a ghost, it was pretty wild’,” Stefan laughs. There were no ghosts involved in the making of PUP’s fourth record (as far as the band are aware). What was involved in creating this album was an attic room full of bats and five weeks of self-imposed isolation in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

“For a lot of PUP fans, this will be their favourite PUP record, and for a lot of PUP fans, it will be their least favourite PUP record”

Stefan Babcock

The band relocated to the studio-slash-residence over summer last year. “It was wonderful and dilapidated, which I think is kind of like PUP,” Stefan describes. Miles from home, shut away from the world outside, the group got to work bringing their next chapter to life. “It was such a weird place to make a record. It was a weird place that was giving us weird vibes, and we were there 24/7 making the record the whole time. Like, we don’t have any hobbies,” the frontman laughs. “There was just a lot of, ‘the bats are back, let’s go bust out the synths and make some weird sounds’, you know?”

They’re not the first band to try experimenting by adding new instruments into the mix, and they won’t be the last. This isn’t even the first time they’ve mixed things up this way themselves (look up ‘Skateboarding Is A Crime And You Should Be In Jail’ for potentially the best recreational sport-oriented ska anthem you’ve never heard). What ‘The Unravelling…’ is, is the first time PUP took their time experimenting (or “experimenting by PUP standards”) with what they’re capable of creating.

“We definitely wanted to do something different on this record,” Stefan states. “I don’t think we were approaching it in the sense that we wanted to use synths and pianos and have different instrumentation. It was more like this desire to step outside of our comfort zone in one way or another.”

And that’s what makes this album work so well. Sure, there are new flavours in the mix – a sprinkling of synth, a dash of horns, a pinch of saxophone – but the core recipe of what makes PUP, PUP, remains what it always has been. “I think we realised that, at the end of the day, what PUP is, is the four of us, and the four distinct personalities all bringing different perspectives,” Steve portrays. “That is what makes the songs what they are.”

Raucous and uninhibited as the band always have been, ‘The Unravelling…’ is a raw nerve of a record: exposed in its sincerity, it’s sometimes delicate, frequently volatile, and (if we continue with this analogy) often liable to flare into propulsive riffs and throat-shredding singalongs. This is PUP as we’ve always known them, as they were always meant to be heard. This is also PUP creating something entirely new.

“This is the four of us at our most PUP because we’re trusting each other,” Steve distils. “That’s what it is. That’s what it’s always been. And even though there are synths and horns and all that, we’re still just the four of us, getting together to make the best thing we can with the time that we have.”

Knowing this brings another layer of significance to the record. There’s a special kind of energy that comes with learning something new about a person – or in this case, a band. The more open they are, the truer they craft their music to be, the stronger and more vivid the connection it creates. Stripping back the layers of who they’ve grown to be, this is PUP at their most human and their most alive.

This is the very crux of who the group are: their lyrics might be deprecating, their riffs frenetic, and their rhythms purpose-built to power mosh pits wherever they perform them, but at the heart of it all is connection and love. Love for who they’re with (even if they can get on each other’s last nerve sometimes), where they are (even though it does feel like a shitstorm all the time), and what they do, in all of its glorious wonder, frustration, and everything in between.

Take ‘Four Chords’, for example: after buying a piano midway through recording, this song was the first that Stefan wrote on the instrument, emailing a demo to his bandmates with the message ‘this is a song for my friends’. “I don’t think that he ever expected us to be like, ‘yes, let’s work on this song’, let alone have to convince him that it was the song that should open the record,” Steve grins. Stefan is quick to agree. “I suck at piano. I’m really bad,” he declares. “In fact, I’m the worst piano player in the band, which naturally means that I’m the one who should play the piano in the band.”

PUP are no strangers to embracing calamity. They literally wrote a lyric saying as much. It’s part and parcel of who they are, and on their new record, you can hear that more than ever. “There was a lot of stuff that we were kind of experimenting with while we were writing,” Steve recalls. “Not being connected to any one way of working was pretty freeing.” Experimenting with different instruments, building demo recordings into their final mixes (the vocals for ‘Robot Writes A Love Song’ were recorded in ten minutes in the backseat of Stefan’s car), on their new record, PUP didn’t let anything hold them back.

“We just weren’t precious, I don’t think,” Steve conveys. “Where there was energy and where there was an idea, whether that was happening in the demo and writing process or in the recording process, if someone was really excited by it, the rest of the band got pretty good at supporting that.” The result is a record that showcases PUP at their most multi-faceted.

“Imperfection is sort of a hallmark of, just, life,” he contemplates of their decision to use demo tracks and bum notes in their finished songs. “One of the things that we’ve been very conscious of, and I think good at, is just allowing things to be a little bit close to going off the rails all the time. Whether that’s a live show, or recording, or just kind of broadly in our lives… There’s always been this undercurrent, and we’ve always known it.”

“This is the four of us at our most PUP”

Steve Sladowski

It’s this ability to take chaos in their stride that makes PUP’s music so vital. The world is a fucked up place: we know it, they know it, and they aren’t going to sugarcoat it. Instead, their music is a vehicle through which they scream their dissent, in an open invitation for everyone who encounters them to do the same. It’s what makes their live shows so life-affirming: a venue or festival ground full of people screeching in sync their dissatisfaction with the world and themselves? There are very few things more assuring and empowering than recognising other people feel what you feel too.

“As much as you think you have a handle on something, as much as you think things are going in a certain way and are predictable, that can change so quickly that it sometimes feels almost silly to try and make any guarantees or make things perfect,” Steve conveys.

It takes a lot of strength not to self-edit when you have the opportunity. By embracing flaws as part of the process and maintaining fuck-ups as part of the finished picture, PUP have not only created something that feels real, but something that stands as a testament to the band they are right now – the band they’ve always strived to be. “We’re just getting better at trusting each other, and allowing for the chaotic or unpredictable elements of this life that we’ve chosen, and the life of the four of us have built together, to be embraced and not let it worry us in the same way that maybe it did two or three records ago.”

To make this new record, PUP leaned into the edge they’ve always walked along. What they’ve created is, to paraphrase Buzz Lightyear, the sound of a band freefalling with style. Listening from start to finish, you can hear the group’s descent into anarchy. From the riotous acceptance of ‘Totally Fine’ (has anyone who’s said those two words together ever actually meant them?), through the resounding desperation of ‘Relentless’, to the gleeful cacophony that is ‘PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing For Bankruptcy’, ‘The Unravelling…’ is, as the group summarise, “a slow and inevitable descent into self-destruction.”

“It was truly a mental unravelling that was happening throughout those five weeks. I think you can pretty much hear it,” Stefan asserts. Repeating three times through the record’s duration, ‘Four Chords’ is perhaps the most blatant example of this. With each part, the song gets shorter, the lyrics more frayed, and by ‘Pt. III’, the freeing sense of not-giving-a-fuck has never felt this palpable. The last song written for the record along with ‘PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing For Bankruptcy’, these tracks are what the frontman describes as “completely unhinged and stupid.”

“We were just at the point by the end of the process where it sounded like an awesome idea to have a saxophone freak-out followed by a gang vocal recording that sounded like shit,” Stefan describes of the album’s closing track. “We had kind of lost the plot and lost our inhibitions.” This is a direct result of taking the time and making the space to build upon what they’d already written once they got into the studio. “There’s a certain point where you let go of what you’re making and just lean into it, lean into the absurdity of it,” Stefan reflects. “That’s when PUP is at our best. And we had a lot of that on this record.”

The word ‘unravel’ has several definitions. Depending on the context, it can mean to disentangle, to make clear, or to destroy. On their fourth album, we hear the band unravel in every sense. “It’s really hard to change what you do but sound exactly like you have in the past – not just for PUP, for any band,” Stefan deliberates. “I think of this record as trying to thread the needle.” Disentangling and redefining who they are as a band, ‘The Unravelling…’ feels like both a new direction and possibly what we always should’ve expected.

“The closest thing to bragging that I can do is say that we sound a lot like we’re supposed to sound like,” Stefan grins. “We’ve just gotten a lot better at being able to realise our own creative ideas. That’s a pretty special thing for me.”

The group have come a long way in the time they’ve been together. What started as a one-off project to release an EP has endured for more than ten years (their debut album is a decade old next year), and shows no signs of stopping, or even slowing, any time soon. Now they’ve got four albums under their collective belt and international festival performances in their future. At their core, however, not all that much has changed.

“I definitely care more about writing songs that aren’t shit,” Stefan contemplates. “I feel like when we started the band, none of us knew what we were doing. Especially me, especially in the lyric department.” This doesn’t mean that they don’t love or aren’t proud of their early work, they’re quick to clarify, rather that listening back to some of their earliest material (namely debut album track ‘Lionheart’) feels like “utter gibberish.” “The past few years, I’ve been thinking more about making records and songs that will actually hopefully matter to people and definitely matter to the four of us.”

And this band do matter. Through their music, they offer a means of crying out all your pent-up aggressions. With their live shows, they construct a safe space to shake off your self-deprecations. Rather than denial or despair at The State Of Things, PUP choose to revel in it, every performance a celebration and a reminder of how gloriously fucked up but invigorating it is to feel alive.

“I still wake up every day, and none of it seems real to me,” Stefan marvels of the band’s success. “I’m still shocked every time anything good happens, any time.” Their awe at everything they’ve achieved over the past decade is entirely genuine. Even ignoring the fact that this dream almost ended before it even really began after Stefan damaged his vocal cords on tour promoting their first album, the group don’t take anything for granted.

“Whenever we’d play a show. I was like, ‘holy fuck, people showed up?! I can’t believe this! This is amazing!!'” Stefan laughs. “Now it’s just like…” It takes him a moment to collect his thoughts, to work out how to express just how much getting to be in this band, and getting to continue being in this band, means to all of them. “I’m amazed,” is the description he settles on. “I’m amazed every day because I’ve still got that imposter syndrome. It still feels like I’m gonna wake up from this one day, you know?”

It’s the little things that really bring that feeling home. The instance the group often use to exemplify this is that of travelling on tour, passing through border control, and stating they’re musicians. “I know that that is my job,” Steve states. “It has been my job for a decade. But you hear yourself saying it and have, like, an out of body experience. Still, at this point.”

“I’m amazed every day because I’ve still got that imposter syndrome”

Stefan Babcock

Asked if they think they’ll ever get used to it, the answer is instant. “In a way, I kind of hope not,” Steve smiles. “I think that’s a way of maintaining a sense of wonder or magic.” This is something that’s incredibly important to the four musicians, that they feel and express the gratitude they’re privileged they get to experience. “What’s the point in taking any of this for granted? Especially now. Especially at this moment. I’d like to be surprised telling a border guard what I do for the rest of my life,” the guitarist laughs, then quickly adds, “and for it to still be the truth and be completely reasonable.”

“I’m not sure what it’s like in other bands,” Stefan starts, then pauses to acknowledge the obviousness of his statement. “Because I’ve never been in another somewhat successful band,” he deadpans, rolling his eyes before he recollects his thoughts. “It feels really special to me. This whole band kind of feels like one big club. You can join it, if you want? I don’t know why you’d want to, but you could just… join it.”

The invitation is an open one. PUP might be the band they are because of the four individuals behind the music, but they wouldn’t be where they are or doing what they do without the people who’ve supported them. If you’ve bought their albums or worn their merch, if you’ve been to their shows or listened to their songs, since you’re reading a four-thousand word feature about the group and their new record (yes, you – we see you), then you’re as much a part of this club as the band members are. As the group hit the road and venture over to the UK for their festival slot at 2000trees, sharing in what they’ve created with the people who enable them to create it, every performance is a celebration.

If their music is about love – in all of its fantastic, fucked-up glory – then their shows are about connection. When they go on tour, when they perform on stage and meet fans everywhere from Iowa City to London, England, and beyond, that connection becomes an almost physical presence. “I know a lot of people say they feel really connected to the songs,” Stefan carefully states, “and that’s really, really nice, but what’s even nicer for me is that because of that, I feel connected to other people.”

Much like watching PUP perform live offers their audience a breathless, hand-on-heart elation, seeing an audience relish in enthusiasm for that shared moment and these songs along with them offers the band their own heart-on-sleeve exhilaration. “A lot of these lyrics, I just figure I’m shouting into the void. Like, ‘no one’s gonna relate to this’,” Stefan asserts. “Whenever somebody tells me that they’ve connected with something, it just… It makes me feel better about the messed-up parts of my brain, you know?”

And that, dear readers, is what PUPs music has always been about. It’s wading through the bullshit to discover – and to show others – that none of us are alone. It’s thriving in the catharsis and the galvanisation that it brings. It’s fierce, frenetic, and every gleeful degree in between. It’s theirs to make, and yours to enjoy – or not enjoy, that decision is yours too. The only lingering hope is that whichever decision you do choose, you make the most of it.

“Being in this band is usually fun as shit. So why be morose about it?” Stefan asks. “We just do our best to make records that we think are good and have fun with it. This thing’s not going to last forever.” With their songs seared on the hearts and minds of fans all around the world, we know we can all rest pretty comfortably in the knowledge that his last statement isn’t true.

PUP’s album ‘THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND’ is out 1st April. They play 2000trees on Friday, 8th July.