“Just so you know, this is our first group interview in two-plus years,” PUP lead singer Stefan Babcock says somewhat trepidatiously, as we situate ourselves in the various corners of their downtown Toronto rehearsal space. I’ve set up my phone to record voice memos, hanging carefully on a steel I-beam overhead, with the microphone aiming down to capture our voices in the center of the impromptu pentagram we have formed.
Babcock sits comfortably in a folding chair off to the corner by the door, drummer Zack Mykula sitting closer to his drum kit across from me, and bassist Nestor Chumak next to the couch I’ve sunk myself into. To my left, a laptop sits on a drum stool, with guitar player Steve Sladkowski calling in via Zoom from the safety of his apartment. We joke that it feels both like an interview and a board meeting. “I’m happy to be the secretary for this meeting everyone,” Sladkowski remarks.
The four members of PUP have a calming comfortability about them. Despite being in a dimly lit rehearsal space with the low rumble of an air purifier in the background and little room to maneuver, the energy is relaxed and disarming. We make small talk about the last few months as we sort out the dynamics of an in-person interview with Sladkowski on Zoom. The guys in PUP check in on each other in little ways, enquiring about things at home and loved ones. Small gestures made amongst four men who have been intrinsically linked for the lion’s share of their adult lives.
PUP began life as an indie rock band called Topanga, named after the character played by Danielle Fishel in Boy Meets World. As Topanga, the band released a 4-track EP called Lionheart and a 7” single on Toronto-based Royal Mountain Records. The sounds on the early material is a venn diagram that meets in the middle with what would become PUP. The songs were scrappy and raw, but what shone through was a keen understanding of the interplay between melody and danger.
Riding high on the success of these two releases — coupled with buzz generated from playing shows at a breakneck pace and a sound that was moving ever deeper into punk-rock infested waters — the band aimed their sights at a proper full-length release. Enlisting superstar producer Dave Schiffman (Weezer, Anti-Flag, Rage Against the Machine), the newly renamed PUP released their debut self-titled full-length LP on Royal Mountain Records in 2012.
PUP was released to widespread critical acclaim, garnering attention from press not only just at home in Canada, but the United States and internationally. The members of PUP quit their day jobs, signed with Side One Dummy records and never looked back.
In the subsequent years, they have released three full length records, two EPs, various singles that contain covers of artists like deceased garage rock icon Jay Reatard, indie-pop darlings Grandaddy and metal gods Metallica. They’ve published their own zines, written a Christmas song with Charly Bliss and amassed a stack of music videos that run the gamut from the Nintendo pastiche of “DVP” to Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard-focused vehicles “Guilt Trip” and “Sleep In The Heat.”
Through it all, PUP has made their name as a band that is nothing if not brutally honest. Honest about themselves, about anxiety and depression and the ever-suffocating hubris of society as it closes in around us. Lest you think that it sounds like a lot to take in, there exists in the throughlines of their work a delicate and well-worn heart.
“It speaks to the nature of creating something,” Mykula says. “Trusting yourself to make something honest — sometimes that’s all you can do”
“It’s not the instrumentation that makes PUP,” Babcock says, “It’s the songs and finding the balance between heavy and fun.”
For a band that’s gone through much of their career with a non-stop touring schedule, the silver-lining of the spell of time spent off the road was the opportunity to work on new PUP songs with no clear time constraint surrounding the process.
“I don’t think most of us have the personality type to be able to sit still and enjoy ourselves,” Babcock laughs. “It was a year of writing more than we ever have just because we weren’t on tour.”
Then, the opportunity presented itself to record with producer Peter Katis (The National, Kurt Vile), in an old victorian-era mansion that he owned in Connecticut.
“It looked like American Horror Story,” Babcock says.
“We’ve always had time constraints,” Chumak, who also engineered the record, adds. “But now, for things like vocals, we were able to do them ourselves and it was liberating to take control of that.”
“Having that freedom in the house,” Babcock continues. “The first song on the record that sets up the whole thing — that was never supposed to be a real song.”
The song in reference is a piano ballad, called “Four Chords” that reoccurs three times throughout The Unraveling of PUPTHEBAND, their new record (out April 1 via Rise Records and PUP’s own label, Little Dipper). The impromptu tunes are winking dirges that play at a fictional board of directors and budget constraints on PUP as a corporate entity. It creates a logical path through the record — a theme playing in the background that holds everything together, even when it’s falling apart.
“Suddenly the whole album felt less like a collection of songs, but a thing that makes sense front to back,” Babcock says. “There are a lot of themes in the record that it ties together.”
The album’s title, in reference to the concept of unraveling, brings two ideas into play. Unraveling as a process of everything falling apart — like an old sweater that’s been caught on too many nails — but also unraveling as the careful unpacking of something, pulling the various strands and seeing both where they’ve originated and where they’re going. I bring this thought to the gathered members in the jam space. Everyone laughs and looks at one another, curious to see who will be the first to speak up and announce which side they fall under.
“I think it’s both,” Mykula leans forward as he speaks. “This is the first time I’ve been able to sit back and recognize that I have some skills.”
Babcock and Chumak chuckle.
“I like that perspective,” Babcock adds. “[Mykula]’s pretty insightful, sometimes you’re like ‘Stefan meant this by these songs’ and I think ‘No, but that’s way better.’”
“I can spin a yarn,” Mykula laughs.
“I think definitely there’s been some unraveling,” Sladkowski says, unmuting himself on Zoom to dive in. “Things can unravel even when you don’t expect them to.”
In the unraveling, the members of PUP have arrived at a new place of what the band means to them. They are a quartet of endless talent, so much of it on display in the grooves of their records and exploding from the stage at their legendary live shows. But perhaps more so than any other act of PUP’s ability, the band employs a wry sense of self-deprecating humor to keep themselves in check.
“We kind of think we’re shit and we’re so confident in our ability to be shitty — but good shitty,” says Babcock. “It’s a newfound confidence we never had.”
“Having to be faced with more time on my own than I ever have before, I’m trying to face down the toxic urge to downplay ability or accomplishments,” Mykula adds. “Instead, I’m trying to learn to acknowledge when we’ve actually done a good job.”
Babcock leans back and stretches his arms wide before capping it off. “I think it’s nice to create something that — regardless of external validation — you feel is like the best thing you could have created at that moment.”
PUP is a band that knows its core and has placed a deep trust within itself first and foremost. They’ve grown exponentially from their early days playing crowded shows at the Bovine Sex Club, an infamous punk rock bar in downtown Toronto. With that growth, they’ve taken on the added weight that comes with being a success and the chaos that comes with it. But even still, they believe in each other so implicitly that no matter how out-of-control an idea may feel, they know it can be carried by the bond that they share with each other.
“We do have to learn how to be responsible business owners,” Babcock states, “At the same time, we write songs about fucking up — and we continue not be afraid of fucking up. It’s just a weird place to be in.”
Whether they’re being responsible or fucking up, PUP always knows how to build on the foundation they have laid — adding new layers and incorporating elements into the system with each subsequent outing they make as a band. Whether that’s sonically, like The Unraveling of PUPTHEBAND’s 808s and synth elements, or lyrically where they allow themselves to be humble and triumphant, reserved and explosive in equal measure.
In some ways, it all comes back to the fictional board of directors that live in the three “Four Chords” songs on The Unraveling of PUPTHEBAND — particularly when Babcock playfully sings “We vote on the issues like are we tuning the vocals. I say no and I vote to end democracy in this fucking band.” PUP is only unraveling in the sense that there is a constant presence of self-examination and discovery in the process, that only in unraveling can you truly understand yourselves.
PUP is unraveled. Long live PUP.