On “PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing for Bankruptcy,” the last song from PUP’s new album The Unraveling of PUPTHEBAND, lead vocalist Stefan Babcock seems to be arguing with himself. Again. “I used to be reckless and too broke to eat / Now all of my friends have bidets in their en suites,” he sneers. He rolls his eyes at an insurance broker and then realizes a stable job might not be so bad, especially compared to a salary of “free shoes and the critical acclaim.” He keeps insisting that he’s been “failing upwards” until a screeching, atonal, batshit saxophone solo cuts him off and he takes it all back. He was, he sings above a gang of other voices, “just being dramatic.”
The Unraveling of PUPTHEBAND, PUP’s fourth full-length album, out today via Rise, is, like almost everything they’ve released over the past decade, a little absurd. It opens with Babcock at a piano, admitting that he’s only started playing in the past week — though that doesn’t stop him from interjecting with piano interludes twice more (the second is subtitled “Diminishing Returns”). It’s a triumphant, impassioned punk record full of massive choruses and dumb jokes.
One of which is the album title. On a freezing Friday afternoon at a pub in Toronto’s West End, the band — Babcock, drummer Zack Mykula, guitarist Steve Sladkowski, and bassist Nestor Chumak — run through the three other names they considered: OfficialAlbum_FinalVersion, Symphony No. 4, and World’s Greatest Webstore. They really wanted to run with that last one, Sladkowski insists, but one of their agents told them it was “too stupid, even for you guys.”
But marking this as the moment when PUP started to unravel is ridiculous in its own way. PUP’s unraveling has, very clearly, been a decade-long process, a public argument with the world and with each other that has spilled over into wild-eyed punk songs once every few years. This is the same band who opened 2016’s The Dream Is Over with “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, Then I Will” (“I don't wish you were dead, I wish you'd never been born at all!”); the same band who asked, on 2019’s “Full Blown Meltdown,” "How long will self-destruction be alluring?" before concluding that it was “good for business, and baby, business is booming.”
So what happens when a band that’s been self-destructing forever just won’t die? What if, as Babcock alluded to with that line on “Full Blown Meltdown,” personal and interpersonal disasters just make them more unkillable?
PUP, for their part, chose to stretch that question to its logical extreme. They cut the album at producer Peter Katis’s studio, a Connecticut mansion that Babcock likens to something out of American Horror Story. They lived together while recording, a full five weeks in close quarters, pushing themselves creatively and emotionally. It produced an album that, though unmistakably a PUP record, feels different to everything that preceded it. It’s the sound of a band singing about its own destruction despite knowing that even they can’t destroy it now.
The FADER: You recorded this album over five weeks, living together the whole time. Given everything PUP has written about itself in the past, you were asking for trouble, right?
Stefan Babcock: We all entered it knowing this is either a recipe for creating something really special and unique, which was obviously the goal, or a recipe for disaster. It was kind of both. But part of this album is the fact that we were all collectively losing our minds and going off the deep end. And there's only one way to do that: It's to put us in a pressure cooker.
Zack Mykula: It was very high pressure, but I felt like it was a different kind of texture than other records. We couldn't have made the record any other way, and I don't think we ever will.
What do you mean by texture?
ZM: I have a different relationship to it than I did with [2019’s] Morbid Stuff. Giving yourself space is helpful. You allow yourself a little more latitude and confidence to tease out ideas. This record has that on it. I'm very self defeating a lot of the time, and I know all of us can be that way. Allowing yourself to recognize that some of your ideas are good or they work — that's the space I mean. You become more creative because you're allowing yourself to explore more, because you have more confidence.
Steve Sladkowski: There's an openness that maintains the directness we've always strived for. There are horns, [different] instrumentation, [but] you're still listening to the four of us. That opportunity to do things that were out of our comfort zone is one of the ways we've had that change of texture. And this is the first time that we've tried to expand the palate a little bit.
ZM: What I hear that's different in this record is it sounds like we’re encouraging each other more. It sounds more like one band, as opposed to four members, than our records have in the past.
It’s not easy to sound so cohesive when you’re also expanding the palate.
SB: I think that just comes with having the freedom and confidence to completely be ourselves. Four records deep, it's not like we're wildly successful by any stretch, but we've had way more success than we ever expected. And perhaps more success than we should have had, than this band was ever built to have. So we don't feel like there's that much left for us to prove or to worry about. We're just able to let our personalities shine through in the music and the lyrics, and I think that's why it's more cohesive: because it's a distilled representation of who we are.
There's huge freedom that comes in trusting each other. There have always been control issues in this band — and any band where there are multiple collaborators, where it's not a dictatorship. If they say there aren’t, they're lying to you. But after all this time, you just trust your bandmates to tell you if an idea's not good. And if somebody says, "I have this idea, and I feel strongly about it," you can say, "Let's do it." The ego part's removed.
Part of killing that ego must come from humor. Obviously, there's a sense of humor to every PUP record, but the comedy here makes it seem like every time you got to the precipice of being too earnest, you thought, "We should put a joke in there.”
SB: I'm always searching for it. I'm very conscious of the fact that sometimes it's a crutch, and I don't want it to be. That's something I'll continue to struggle with. But a big part of it is that some of the songs deal with pretty serious subject matter. We take the music we make seriously, but we are so not self-serious as human beings and as a band. Being sad is valid, but it's also fucking ridiculous if you're me, you know? Everything's going great.
I think we touched on it a bit last time, but how much do you think about the effect that has on an audience?
SB: The songs start in a dark place, [but] there's so much joy in playing in a band with your best friends and getting to do what we do for a living that you turn something negative into something quite positive. Hopefully that translates to people who come see us. Everybody's dealing with shit. Hopefully they're able to come at it from either a less self-serious or more cathartic way when they're coming to a PUP show. The only time I overthink it is [when] I feel like there's a responsibility to not glorify the shit lifestyle. I think most of our fans are old enough and wise enough to make their own decisions about how they feel about me and the lyrics, but I think there are also a lot of younger kids who are into PUP, who I wouldn't want to send on the wrong path. I don't want to glorify depression, drinking, and drugs too much. I love “DVP” — I think it's a great song, but I wouldn't write that at 33.
When you feel uneasy about a subject and want to pull back, is that when you try to push it to absurdity, so people will get that you’re laughing at yourself?
SB: The hope is that people will be able to see themselves in the song, see that what they're feeling is valid and fucking ridiculous at the same time.That's how I feel most days. When I was younger, I was sad all the time and I felt like a victim of the world and of other people, which is a crazy thing for a guy like me to think. Even the first record was kind of getting over that. A lot of the earliest songs I wrote in this band, too, are about other people doing me wrong. [But] now I'm at a point where I’m my own worst enemy; I'm the problem, not other people. I find humor in being self-aware enough to realize that, but not self-aware enough to do much about it.
I get the impression you think this is the album that you come off worst, that the image of you that you’ve painted is the least flattering.
SB: I think that’s true. I mean, it's not for me to decide, but I feel like The Unraveling of PUPTHEBAND Stefan is a way bigger piece of shit than Dream is Over Stefan — though the opposite is probably true.
ZM: It's also funnier, and I think that makes it obvious that you're making fun of yourself. I don't think you being a piece of shit even factors into it. It’s like, “This guy's clearly making a joke. He’s trying to make me think about these things.”
SS: I certainly would be worried if there were people who were taking every single lyric on this record literally. Something I've learned over the last two years is that levity is really hard to find. And a lot of people find levity in very strange ways, some of which are productive, some of which are not. Our shows are going to be about crowd safety, and people from all different walks of life are going to feel comfortable, and they can find levity there because they can let go of whatever's going on in their life for a minute.
ZM: One thing I like about this record is the musical jokes. But they're just for us, stuff nobody would notice. The verse of “Robot Writes a Love Song” where Stefan talks about "Black Hole Sun," I put the fill from [“Smells Like Teen Spirit”] at the end of the verse.
SB: It wouldn't be funny if it was from "Black Hole Sun," but the fact that it's Nirvana is insane.
ZM: Grunge is one band and it’s all Nirvana. I also treated that entire verse like it was Rage Against the Machine meets Barenaked Ladies.
SB: So much of how lyrics hit depends on the music. That's why you can read great lyrics on paper and it looks like the worst fucking poetry you've ever read. Great love songs, classic love songs, read that shit on smartlyrics.com…
Nestor Chumak: “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”?
SB: Fucking horrible.
NC: "It's been one week?"
SB: Classic, great love songs. But what makes them hit in a good way is that the music and the melody imparts so much meaning, and I think it's the same with this record. The reason a lot of those jokes hit is because musically, something fucking dumb is happening.
ZM: There are parts that we try to make sound hard and cool, and you have to balance that with something. We have a standing no half-time order in the band, which is contentious.
SB: I fucking hate that.
ZM: But in “Robot Writes a Love Song,” I just had to be okay with doing half-time, because it's the perfect thing to go to in the second chorus. That's another joke to me, that I did that against my own better judgment.
I love how technically proficient you have to be to pull off something dumb.
SB: Oh my God.
ZM: Look at bands like Mr. Bungle. Just the dumbest band on earth and they're all amazing musicians. They're doing it all on purpose.
SS: I'm the only one [in the band] who gives a shit about Phish, but it's in that same vein as Mr. Bungle. All four of them could be teaching at Berkeley, or doing some lofty classical music conservatory shit. But they’re in one of the top grossing tour bands of all time doing goofy stuff.
Talking about this stuff at all — the bureaucracy and the money — as a punk band is… I don't want to say it's radical, but it's different. It’s a bold decision to sing about conversations you’re having about marketing.
SB: When any band gets to this point in their career, you can either hide from it or you can hammer it home as hard as you are able to, and that's what we chose in the lottery. It's very stupid, but it's also great. I’ve always wanted this band to be making fun of the dark side of my personality, our personality. We're finding the darkness in being in a band like this in 2022 — calling it to attention, making sure it's out in the open, and having a good laugh about it. Otherwise we're just doing it shamefully behind closed doors.
SS: We’re not trying to pull the wool over our fans’ eyes. The reason we're able to still be at it at this point is not because of anything other than people showing up to our shows, buying our merch and records. It's not complicated. As Stefan has said before, the joke of the "world's greatest webstore" originates from the fact that for the last two years, that’s what we were.
The landscape has changed as well. Being an independent musician sucks worse than it did three years ago.
ZM: Railing against it is pointless. [We] just have to deal with it — keep each other safe, and our crews safe, and our fans safe. We have to make sure everybody's fed and sleeping comfortably. It's our responsibility, being an entity that gathers this many people to run a business.
It's just not necessarily what you have in mind when you pick up an instrument.
SB: But that's the hilarity of it. It's certainly not what we had in mind, and yet we're doing better than we ever expected to do, ever planned on doing.
ZM: In all seriousness, it is great that we still exist as a band.