For the first time in their career, PUP are touring in a bus. The new accommodations mean that they can sleep whenever they want and, guitarist Steve Sladkowski says, "actually lie down." They can also eat better because of the fridges on board, and they have space to relax without tripping over each other. But sitting in the spacious green room at Brooklyn Steel before playing one of their biggest-ever shows to a sold-out crowd, drummer Zack Mykula feels the need to clarify the bus' supposed luxuriousness: "I'm pretty sure it's leaking right now." Sladkowski reminds everyone that the band's touring photographer gets woken up by exhaust fumes every morning; lead singer Stefan Babcock, tucked into a corner of the couch, owns up that he's already nostalgic for the past slogs: "There's a masochistic part of me that gets off on grinding it out."
Most bands would see leveling up as a reward for years of piling into shitty vans and slogging it out across the world, kept alive only by energy drinks, piss-flavored beer, and gas station hot dogs — but PUP can't think like that. They're still the DIY punk band who slept on dirty carpets and once considered the idea of touring in an appropriate vehicle to be laughable; PUP's second album was named The Dream Is Over, directly quoting the doctor who inspected lead singer Stefan Babcock's shredded vocal cords and told him that he should just give up.
The Toronto band's new album, Morbid Stuff, lays out Babcock's darkest thoughts, poking fun at them relentlessly before exhausting itself over gang-vocal choruses and nü-metal breakdowns. PUP are four thoughtful, anxious, and bleakly funny guys in their early 30s who struggle to enjoy good things, freak out about how little they're enjoying them, then take the piss out of their inability to chill out. Diving headfirst into that, Morbid Stuff is one of the most easily enjoyable punk records of the decade — a near-non-stop chant-along that gleefully explodes into shameless drops and bounding riffs.
The album's clearly the work of a person falling into a grind. "I was bored as fuck / Sitting around and thinking all this morbid stuff / Like if anyone I’ve slept with is dead," Babcock sings on the frenetic opener. "And I got stuck / On death and dying and obsessive thoughts that won’t let up / It makes me feel like I’m about to throw up." But Morbid Stuff is also a leap forward for PUP, both sonically and lyrically; "Scorpion Hill" starts out with a gentle, folky introduction before sparking into life as a hyperactive pop song as Babcock tells the story of a desperate man — not himself, for once — on the brink of oblivion.
For all of the internal terror and angst that all four members of PUP feel, Morbid Stuff is a hopeful record — a midnight-black comedy about misery in which after the disasters have piled up so high that Babcock can't face out anymore, he takes solace somewhere else. “I hope that people get resilience in the face of all that shit,” Babcock says. “As much as we're fatalists, we're not defeatists.”
Morbid Stuff ends on a begrudgingly hopeful note with "City," singing that you don’t want to love someone, but you can’t help it. Do you think about the emotional response that listeners have to your records?
STEFAN BABCOCK: As the albums come together, we think about that a bit more. "Full Blown Meltdown" is grappling with this issue of making money by being negative, so it is something that eventually comes into our minds — but it's definitely not our focus. In general, we would love for this band to be helpful to people and not to be part of the problem. But if you think about those things when you're actually writing, it's going to feel forced. There's a lot of shitty things about this band — we suck a lot — but the stuff we're talking about in the music is genuine.
"Full Blown Meltdown" is an angry song, but you crack jokes about it all the way through. Do you push each other into humor when you feel the music getting too serious?
STEVE SLADKOWSKI: For sure. We're always aware of the necessity to balance things. We still take the musical side of things seriously, but there's a lightness and playful fun that provides catharsis for us, too. That juxtaposition is something that we naturally gravitate towards. None of us want to be self-serious.
"Scorpion Hill" plays with narrative in a way that's new for the band.
BABCOCK: Before the bus days, we were sleeping at strangers' houses a lot — we'd put up a sign at merch or ask from stage. Nice people would put us up, and we were mostly pretty lucky, but our first time in Portland, Oregon, we got put up in this really terrible squat — there were toenail clippings and needles in the carpets. We slept uneasily, and the next day, as we were leaving, we saw a picture of a kid taped to the fridge — presumably the guy whose house it was, it seemed to be his five- or six-year-old son. That humanized the whole situation. It's kinda fucked. I was disgusted with how this guy was living until I saw that, and I realized that this guy didn't want to live like this either. He's got a lot going on, and I'm in no position to judge him for that. It just stuck with me.
Is it harder to write about someone else's hardship than your own?
BABCOCK: It is for me. My default is to write about what I'm annoyed or bummed out about. If I'm writing a song and I don't know what it's about, that's where my brain goes: Oh fuck, I'm drinking again and I'm sad. Songs [about other people] take a little bit more mental energy because the things that I'm trying to describe aren't on the surface.
On "Kids," you sing, "It doesn't feel bad, it feels like nothing at all." You're often dealing with numbness, which sounds like a hard position to write and create from.
ZACK MYKULA: Being creative as a job is difficult enough. But when you add the complete lack of motivation because you've lost interest in everything you love — that adds a whole other layer. Fighting through that is therapeutic, if you can do it.
SLADKOWSKI: As a unit, we've done fairly well recently in checking in with each other. We've learned this through years of touring and having moments when we were down or not feeling great. [We’re] giving and ceding space to each other, and figuring out what we need to do to be the support system for each other while also finding other support systems — whether that be through therapy or whatever else. That's been really beneficial for everyone else as well — just to not take things personally and understand that not everyone is going to be feeling the same all the time.
BABCOCK: It's fucking awesome to be able to drive around with your three friends and know that you're with people who are like-minded and empathetic to each other. It's the community that we're looking to form with our fans — we already have it between the four of us.
MYKULA: We're not a perfect self-care unit, but it's always been a process to get better and be open about things. That's what all of our community's trying to get better at. We're all subject to our upbringing, and there's some remnants of toxic masculinity and repression, but getting past that over time is something we've achieved — even to the point of being comfortable enough with each other to say, "I feel like shit today" and reply "Well then you should take it easy."
Do you feel like it is a positive record?
BABCOCK: I think it is. I hope that people get resilience in the face of all that shit. As much as we're fatalists, we're not defeatists. I don't think people who don't have any sort of mental health issues would see it as a positive record. But I hope anyone who's experienced this kind of thing — which, I think, is most people — hear it as positive fighting through the lethargy of the experience.
MYKULA: Stefan came up with the album title — it's flippant. He's taking control of the negativity, which is symbolic of what we tried to do.
Were there points during the writing process when it felt difficult to open up with each other?
BABCOCK: I've asked them if shit is too fucked before, and the answer is always "No."
MYKULA: We're extremists.
Were there moments on this record when you thought things were too fucked?
BABCOCK: That's what "Full Blown Meltdown" is trying to sort out: Have I gone too fucking far with this? To say that we've never dialed something back would be a blatant lie. Throughout the three records, there have been songs in various capacities about how fucked up the music industry is, and on this record, there are full verses where I'm calling people out by name. I think it was the right decision.Self-censoring comes from thinking that I'm being petty, or the problem being more with me than the subject. I can be very volatile, and I write a lot when I'm feeling especially volatile. Sometimes you sleep on it.
SLADKOWSKI: Sometimes we need to musically self-censor. We'll go down a path towards the most obtuse or completely self-indulgent musical idea, and we have to put a pin in it. We have to think about whether or not it's serving the song. We could make an attempt at four sub-standard musicians playing Rush, but that's not in the nature of what the song is. You come back into the jam space a day or two later and trim the fat.
MYKULA: I feel guilty, because the one truly self-indulgent thing that I wanted, I got.
What was it?
MYKULA: The end of "Full Blown Meltdown," which is this idiotic, meat-headed sludge riff. I love that shit, but it's also us saying: it's a serious song — and, also, we're stupid.
BABCOCK: I feel like it just fits everything that we're about perfectly, because like everything else we took it one step too far. In fact, we took it two steps too far. One step is too far, and the second step too far is, like, now it's funny.
SLADKOWSKI: I remember that we made it longer. We doubled down.
MYKULA: Maybe live we should make it even longer. Go further down that road. Half of our set will be the end of “Full Blown Meltdown.”
"Full Blown Meltdown" is the type of stuff I haven't really heard since I was 15.
SLADKOWSKI: Staying in one lane or genre doesn't matter anymore. We all love pop music. We all love heavy music, whether literally or metaphysically. The cool thing about punk is that you can pull from wherever.
MYKULA: All of history's greatest bands can skillfully dance across genres, and we're just trying to do the poor man's version of that. You've got Queen, Mitski — all these people who just cut a swath through everything. They write crazy songs and they all fit together. We're not trying to force it, but we're aspiring to be that.
Do you feel that more acutely than you did a few years ago?
MYKULA: No, we're just all easily bored.
SLADKOWSKI: The process hasn't changed that much — we just know each other better, and we've played hundreds more gigs. We've spent more time with each other and forced each other to listen to music whether we liked it or not. If things get too samey, we get bored.
MYKULA: Of course, being bored is for the boring. We must be pretty boring.
SLADKOWSKI: We must be boring people.
MYKULA: We are pretty boring.