PUP is a group that puts humor and surrealism at the forefront of their music. Over a screaming, fair and deeply fun punk rock, the group mixes vital conversations about mental health and therapy with self-deprecating lines. A taste of the recent single “Waiting”: “200 dollars a week to talk about my lack of orientation? I’m a bit complex, in case it wasn’t clear in the last three sessions.
This marriage of seriousness and fun is a mix that defines the music of the Toronto quartet, and comes to the fore on the recent fourth album, “The Unraveling Of PUPTheBand”, which sees the hooks widen, the ambition soar. soar and the jokes get even sharper.
Anchored by a three-track suite titled “Four Chords,” named after the level piano singer Stefan Babcock was able to play at the time (“I can play six chords now!” he recounts. NME with pleasure today), the album plays with business jargon and corporate culture in a way that somehow doesn’t feel boring. “So you sell insurance?” It’s so inspiring / Give me two more years, let me know if you’re hiring,” Babcock spits on the final track “PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing for Bankruptcy”, never too quick to turn the joke on himself.
As the band played their first UK gigs in three years, NME joins Stefan and drummer Zack Mykula for our latest In Conversation video at the Courtyard Theater in London to discuss the return to live play, how the five weeks they spent living and recording in a Connecticut mansion can be reflected in the musical journey of the new album and why Stefan is so attached to one of his guitars. Here’s what we learned.
Going back to playing live shows was a “mindfuck”
When PUP talks to NME, they have just played their first concert abroad in three years. A few months prior, they returned to tour North America after a long hiatus, with the experience of performing live again being something of a “mindfuck”.
“We had to build ourselves up just to get back to playing shows in North America,” Stefan recalls. “It was a fucking mind. Once you start going there, it’s like time hasn’t passed, and you just fall back into terrible old habits!
The band’s first gig post-pandemic was a local show at legendary Toronto club El Mocambo in late March, and Zack recalls the nerves and adrenaline of being back on stage. “It was really fun. There were a lot of people in a packed house, and to come back to it that way was special.
“I think it was the first time I was nervous in eight years of gigs,” Stefan recalled, Zack adding that he was playing the songs “way too fast” because of the adrenaline racing through him.
Stefan wrote ‘Matilda’ about his beloved guitar
‘Matilda’, one of the singles from the new album, was written about Stefan from the perspective of his old ‘Matilda’ guitar, which was phased out of the band’s live and recorded output, much to his disgust. As Matilda sings (via Babcock): “George and his lover are crying softly / But I can’t even breathe.”
“I still play it every night, one or two songs. That’s the maximum my bandmates will allow,” he says. So how did they meet?
“On our first US tour, we were on tour with a band called The Menzingers, and it was quite a long tour, and we were pretty broke. I only had one guitar and it broke during a gig and I had no money to buy a new one. A friend of mine just gave me this guitar and he said: you need this guitar more than I do! So he gave it to me and his only rule was that I never sell it and it’s called Matilda and you can’t change it.
Babcock calls it an “incredible act of generosity” for his friend to gift him the guitar, which has now stayed with him for almost a decade and has been played at hundreds of PUP gigs. “I’m pretty attached to it even if according to my bandmates it sounds like shit,” he smiles.
Although they once wrote a song about wanting to kill each other, this time it was more harmonious.
Perhaps PUP’s most notorious song is 2016’s ‘If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will’, written – with tongue only slightly in cheek – about being so fed up with each other. others on the road that, in Babcock’s words, “Everything you do makes me wanna puke / And if this tour don’t kill you, homie, I’m on it!”
It seemed like quite the gamble, then, when the band decided to decamp to Peter Katis’ residential studio/mansion in Connecticut for five weeks to record “The Unraveling.” “We were trying to chart a slightly different path,” says Mykula NME of the decision to work with Katis, whose credits include The National, Interpol and Frightened Rabbit.
“We were living there and recording. It was a bit like a 24/7 job, which is very different from our usual job. [process] to record in Toronto from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. or something like that,” says Stefan. “If you have an idea at midnight, you’ll record it. I’m an early riser, so if I had an idea at six in the morning, I’d go do it. There was a lot more opportunity to work and try different things and not worry if what we’re trying to do sucks.
In the five weeks with Katis, the band says they’ve gone deep into the burrow of recording and residential life, with Stefan explaining that there’s a “progression” between songs recorded at the start and later. the end of the process. “There are definitely some weird choices on the album, and if they’re confusing, it happened after we were locked together after five weeks.”
The album was originally to be called “World’s Greatest Webstore”
“The Unraveling Of PUPTheBand” opens with the song “Four Chords,” a piano track written by Stefan that disrupts the business side of the music industry. He sings: “Quarterly meetings, board / We’re trying to figure out the best way to go. I said, I play the piano, I start learning last Thursday, I spent every penny of the label money on this thing.
By the album’s final song, as its title suggests, “PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing for Bankruptcy”, as Stefan heads into crisis (“Thank you for having us, it’s an honor / And I just want to thank all the sponsors”).
Although it was all said with irony, the band’s business focused on the pandemic, with Stefan joking that they stopped being a band and became the “world’s largest online store”, a title once mentioned for album four.
“We have a lot of people that we love and respect around us, and trust, so when someone says, ‘That’s stupid, even for you guys’ then we know like, ‘D’ okay,” laughs Stefan, with Zack adding, “Sometimes you have to hand it over to someone outside of the band to really check it out and kick the silliest idea possible.”
Every song they’ve written successfully in mind has “failed miserably”
The corporate side of being in a band – even one that emerged from a DIY punk scene like PUP – is a growing concern as they try to support the band, crew and families. Although they are able to poke fun at the ideas contained in their songs, the battle between creative freedom and economic productivity is one with which they have struggled a lot. As they say NME however, every time they tried to write a song to be a hit, it fell through.
“It’s always been on our minds,” says Stefan of how business meets creativity at PUP. “It’s not a new concept, the meeting of art and business, but it’s always on our minds because we have to try so hard to separate the music we want to make from the business goals we have. When the two start to infiltrate, it only causes trouble. Every song we tried to write with business in mind failed miserably and caused a lot of problems within the band. It’s still hard to keep the two apart, but as things get more and more successful, they start rubbing up against each other.
“The Unraveling Of PUPTheBand” is available now via Little Dipper/Rise.