The Cover Story

PUP: “The demon is always over my shoulder, but it’s much easier now to keep him there”

Unafraid to dig deeper than ever for the creation of their fourth album The Unraveling Of PUPTHEBAND, Stefan Babcock and co. brought up a range of emotions – both good and bad – within the Toronto punks’ ranks. Now they’re out the other side, and the only way is PUP…

PUP: “The demon is always over my shoulder, but it’s much easier now to keep him there”
Ian Winwood
Danyal Barton

As the four members of PUP produced their passports for passage into the United States, evidence of a grave new world was all around them. At the start of July, the Canadian group were taking the 520-mile drive from their respective homes in Toronto to Tarquin Studios in the mid-sized New England city of Bridgeport, Connecticut. In most years, crossing the 49th Parallel in the week of two major national holidays – American Independence day and Canada Day are just 72 hours apart – would see the quartet tangled up in a snarl of cross-border traffic. This time the roads were empty.

“Not to take away from the seriousness of the situation [but] for me [COVID-19] has been a little bit of a blessing,” says Stefan Babcock, PUP’s vocalist and rhythm guitarist. “It allowed me to take my foot off the gas. Because touring is really unhealthy for me” – don’t worry, we’ll come back to that – “so to step away from it for a couple of years and to focus on just writing songs was definitely a positive experience for me. I was able to go into making a new record… without the crushing depression attached to it.”

Formed in 2010, Pathetic Use of Potential had it luckier than some. As Canadians, the group are the beneficiaries of grants from the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent On Recordings (FACTOR), not to mention a federal law that stipulates that domestic music comprise at least three out of each 10 songs played on the nation’s radio stations. “We’re very grateful to have been lucky in the life lottery,” is how lead guitarist Steve Sladkowski puts it, while drummer Zack Mykula admits “there’s no two ways about it, we’re fortunate”. This is as may be, but don’t imagine PUP haven’t made their own luck, too. En route to winning a GRAMMY-equivalent Juno Award and a Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) Songwriting Prize, the group made their bones playing as many as 250 concerts in each calendar year. Not for them the feathered insularity of fellow countrymen The Tragically Hip or The Weakerthans – popular in Canada, less so elsewhere – they trained their eyes on distant horizons.

“We had a tour in the UK when the Canadian dollar was particularly low,” recalls Stefan. “We called it the Hunger Strike Tour because we had no money and we were getting £5 a day [to spend]. So we were trying to make £5 a day, plus the one in-house meal we got [at each venue] – which was always chilli, by the way – last us… We’d have a fancy coffee in the morning and whatever those nutrient-rich milkshakes you buy at Tesco are [called]. And that was our £5. That’s what we hoped would get us through to dinner.”

“In those early days, every day was a successive kick in the crotch,” adds Zack.

“Touring is really unhealthy for me”

Stefan explains why being an introvert isn’t always conducive to life on the road

Given this, an eight-hour drive in the second summer of the pandemic to record their fourth album seemed like rather small beer. Living and working in the 4,000-square foot mansion that houses Tarquin Studios – a space so expansive that estimates as to its number of rooms vary from “40 or 50” (Steve) to “15, maybe 20” (Stefan) – PUP emerged only to buy groceries and other household supplies. Working irregular hours, each evening they dined on dishes such as pierogi with kimchi and Brussels sprouts, and walnut pesto with lemon zest, cooked by Steve. When the task of tracking an LP that will be released next month under the title The Unraveling Of PUPTHEBAND was at last complete, the musicians got drunk in the living room of what Zack describes as a “haunted mansion” so as to congratulate each other on a job well done.

“That’s one of my favourite memories of making the record,” he says. “Miraculously, we finished recording at the end of [the stipulated] five weeks, which we’ve never done before.”

With the time at hand to sell the sizzle, six months later Stefan, Steve and Zack appear on a Zoom call to Kerrang! from various cities in North America. The lead guitarist is south of the border in Chicago, while the singer is out west in Vancouver; only the drummer is at home in Toronto. If the trio are not as obviously Canadian as might be imagined – no-one says “eh”, for one thing – their capacity for communal self-consciousness is very much on-brand. As a former teenage hockey player for the Willowdale Blackhawks, Stefan is the one member of the group who knows how to skate, though Zack does a passable impression of someone who could settle matters on the ice with his fists. In the middle of the screen, Steve has the air of a natural diplomat. Referring to one another as “friends”, all three speak of their “gratitude” for their job of work.

Intriguingly, entreaties to expand fully on a recent description of the writing and recording of their forthcoming album as “a slow and inevitable descent into self-destruction” are demurred. No-one will say whether or not tensions at Tarquin Studios ran unusually high. No-one will venture to describe their worst row in pursuit of a shared goal. It’s difficult to assess, even, whether or not the long gestation of The Unraveling Of PUPTHEBAND amounted to anything more than the common-or-garden intensity required of all good albums. When Stefan says “there are some things that are meant to stay within the family", consider that door firmly closed.

Zack, though, will reveal that PUP “explore things to the fullest extent", a process “which causes some emotional discord”. He says that “to me, that’s where most of the self-destruction stems from. And when it’s such a pressure chamber, especially given the [COVID-19] circumstances… we were singularly focused on writing this thing, and that was all-consuming for months on end. It [became] a little bit like Groundhog Day in a few cases.”

In other words, as Steve puts it, PUP are “a bunch of passive-aggressive Canadians. We all very much care about this band, and care about the work, and there’s such a sweet spot of getting to the point where all the frustration and negative energy can be turned into something positive and awesome. Or there’s a point where all it is is negative energy and frustration. But that’s kind of how this band has been operating since day one. It’s changed over the time, the nature of our frustrations with each other. The nature of our conflicts have changed.”

The genesis of PUP can be traced all the way back to the time when the teenage Stefan Babcock sat around an open-air fire at a summer camp listening to an older boy strumming an acoustic guitar. After playing songs by Pink Floyd and Oasis, he then performed a composition his audience didn’t recognise. “He told me it was a song that he wrote,” the singer recalls, a revelation that invited the disbelieving response, “But… you’re not… you’re not allowed to write songs. You’re just a regular dude!” If this quotidian incident says much about the music Stefan was destined to write in years to come – and certainly it does – so too does his discovery of the 1994 album There’s Nothing Wrong With Love by the agreeably dishevelled independent rock group Built To Spill. Before this, the young teenager had been listening to highly-polished pop-punk that “I just couldn’t understand." At last he’d found something that he could.

“[It] resonated super-deeply with me because I could sense they were real people,” he says. “They were real people who cared about music. Without throwing shade, I just didn’t get that from a lot of the bands I was listening to before that. A lot of the polished pop-punk that I was listening to didn’t seem like it was made by real people. They seemed larger than life.”

For want of better terms, PUP’s music stands at the intersection of high-energy popular punk and hardscrabble indie rock. Their sound has nuance, and juxtaposition. Songs that seem buoyant and sometimes uplifting serve as Trojan horses for lyrics that are often anything but. '[I] told you I’m doing just fine, but to tell you the truth I feel like total shit whenever I’m with you,' Stefan sings on the propulsive Habit. On Relentless, he seeks to 'fuck all the dread' that can’t be killed 'like you wanted'.

“Writing songs is part of this process of self-discovery for me,” he says. “That sounds so cheesy, but it’s so true. I don’t write songs [about how] I was sad last week. I write songs [that say] I’m fucking sad right now. Why am I sad? Or why am I angry? Whatever it might be.”

“As soon as I step onstage, the adrenaline kicks in and it becomes an escape”

Hear Stefan discuss the joy of performing live

For the occasion of PUP’s first-ever Kerrang! cover story, the band’s singer is interviewed a second time, this time alone. With fewer ears trained upon him, his words are delivered with a greater sense of freedom. By now he’s back in snowbound Toronto, in a room from which he seems content to reveal that he’s been “diagnosed with depression”. In earlier stages of his band’s career, Stefan says that he used “drugs and alcohol” as a means of coping with his condition. Not that he “was an addict or anything”, you understand, “but certainly [he] went through stages of doing too much of that”. It’s easily done, too, and not just by people with mental health diagnoses. Out on the road music-makers sit around “all day waiting for that hour-and-a-half [onstage] that’s going to be incredible”. Until it arrives, they’re “bored inside a [dressing] room that’s filled with booze”.

Stefan Babcock pauses, and asks, “You know?”

He says that “most of the time, with the depression I face, it’s hard to convince myself that I want to go onstage. But I know that I have to. [Then] as soon as I step out there the adrenaline kicks in and it becomes an escape. And it’s almost always – almost always – a really wonderful experience that helps to level me out when I get offstage. I feel different. It’s the same endorphin rush as exercising. If you’re feeling bummed out, the last thing you want to do is go out and go running, or whatever. But if you can force yourself to do that, chances are, when you’re done doing that, you’re going to be in a different mental space, and probably a better one. It’s the same idea [playing live] except there’s a lot more emotional release tied up in it.”

Well, yes, when you put it like that. Certainly, Stefan’s words pile flesh on the bones of his statement about the pandemic being “a little bit of a blessing”. In understanding this, it’s helpful, perhaps, to think of bands as machines of perpetual motion. Either they’re writing or recording songs, or else they’re preparing to do so; if they’re not on the road, they’re planning the next tour. Rarely does it stop completely. As well as much else, the constrictions of Canada’s severe COVID protocols meant that “going into the [new album]” the singer was “mentally” – cue a three-second pause – “in a better place” than he had been before. “I wouldn’t say I was in a good place, but I was in a better place.”

And now that it’s finished? Now that The Unraveling Of PUPTHEBAND actually exists?

“I do feel right now I’m in a better place than I’ve been since I was 12,” is the answer. “I think it just came with age and experimenting and finding the things that work for me, and the things that are good for me… [Because] now, although the demon is always over [my] shoulder, it’s much easier now for me to keep him there.”

On the fringes of online society, certain conspiracy theorists believe that the global pandemic was deliberately orchestrated by world leaders as a means of restricting personal freedoms. As coincidence would have it, the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is believed to be one of the key architects of this ‘Great Reset’. Back on planet earth, however, an unintended consequence of the universal calamity of the past two years has allowed four Ontarians a more modest recalibration. It didn’t half clear their arteries.

“For the first time – probably the first time – since 2016, I’m actually really excited to be getting back on the road with [the band] and spending time with my friends and recapturing some of the magic we’ve been missing,” is Stefan’s take on a New World Order, in which the hard-won machismo of the touring musician is no longer conjoined with mental illness. It’s funny, he says, but increasingly “I get questions like, ‘Wow, it must be so crazy to have just had so much success so quickly.’” Smiling, he puffs out his chest ever so slightly. “Well,” he says, “I personally have been doing this for 16 years. We all went from playing to five people everywhere, to playing to 20 people everywhere, to 50 people everywhere… I could keep going. We went from that to playing to 1,000, or 2,000 people everywhere. But we played each of those cities 20 times, and we’re not exaggerating.”

“On the whole, our relationships are stronger than ever”

Hear Zack discuss the positivity surrounding the record’s completion

PUP once toured in a van, purchased from a dump, that lasted all of two gigs. Zack Mykula remembers sleeping on a punctured airbed in the back of a Chevy. All four of them have dossed on floors, or kipped in abandoned houses. On their first campaign, the band didn’t at all mind that on a good night the number of people in the audience could be counted on the fingers of two hands. Even when evidence of tangible success was outpaced by a sense of fading novelty, the decision to pack in their day jobs meant that they had tethered themselves to their own music. In fact, Stefan specifically remembers thinking, “’Oh, if I can just spend two years not going to work, and playing music, even if I’m dirt poor, that [would be] a huge, huge accomplishment.’” In maintaining this status, like many groups PUP toured themselves to the point of burnout. What’s more, they did so in truly perishing weather.

“We played once on a Canadian tour – I think we were in Regina, or Saskatoon – and it was, like, probably minus-40, and more with the wind,” Steve remembers. “The venue was so warm that when we opened the back door to load out, the steam immediately vaporised the air.”

Picking up the beat, Zack says that the concert “was in Regina, and it was colder than the surface of Mars”. At this, his words are interrupted by the sound of an Englishman’s laughter. “Seriously,” he says. “Literally. It was colder than the surface of Mars. It had been measured.”

A voice of experience, Steve smiles and says, “I guess that [explains] why we decided to expand outside of Canada.”

And now they’re back, ready to do so again. Armed to the teeth with a strong record, and revivified by wild circumstances beyond their control, the little band that could, and did, are again primed to meet their waiting public. Far from unravelling, PUP have corralled the darkness at their core into the contours of their music, a place from which it can do them no harm. If its members are to be believed – and over the course of 90 minutes, at no point do they sound like salespeople – the difference now is that these turbulent energies are no longer permitted to interfere with the smooth running of the band that makes this music. In other words, they’re good to go.

“Let me try and end this on a positive note,” says Stefan. “Let me try and go somewhere good with this. Because I do honestly feel really great about this band right now. I feel great about my friends and the record we’ve made… And it doesn’t matter if I wake up furious with myself, or with anybody, or whatever, or whether I feel totally hopeless about things, because the question, distilled to its essence, is, ‘Do I want to make music with my friends and get paid to do it?’ And that is the gift that we all have. To wake up and do our best to put everything aside and look at this rationally and go, ‘These people are still my best friends, and I still want to go out there and play with them.’”

Which now, after months and months of transnational uncertainty, he’s at last able to do. Better yet, Stefan Babcock is ready, as are PUP. Turns out it wasn’t a pathetic waste of potential after all. As it so happens, the quartet’s return is the realisation of everything they imagined themselves to be.

The Unraveling Of PUPTHEBAND is released on April 1 via BMG / Rise Records.

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