Why Can’t We Just Get Along?: The Two Years That Almost Killed PUP
The Toronto band put themselves through hell to make their outrageously good sophomore album. Watch the first video.
The four members of PUP do not hate each other. That should be clarified up front because, to press play on their new album, you'd be immediately convinced otherwise. Not just hate, in fact, something beyond hatred. Seething, murderous rage, right from the first line:
"If this tour doesn't kill you, then I will / I hate your guts and it makes me ill, seeing your face every morning"
The band laughs when having those words read back to them. "These guys, I mean, we're best friends," says frontman Stefan Babcock. "We get along really great, but we're in a van together all the time, we sleep on floors next to each other every night. For the most part, it's really awesome, but once in a while…" He trails off and looks around at his three bandmates who are stifling smirks about some shared tour disasters they're clearly all remembering at the moment. "...It's hard."
When the world first met PUP two years ago, the Toronto band was aiming to take it over. And why shouldn't they have been? They were sitting pretty—about to unleash their debut album, an utterly fantastic rock record, they had all just quit their jobs to play music, and they were ready to tour forever. The road was wide open and the possibilities were endless. When I sat down with them in New York for their first American interview a few hours before a show where they would play in front of 30 casually interested people, they were wide-eyed and impressionable. When asked where they saw themselves headed, they mentioned having a singular, wildly ambitious goal for the year: to play 200 shows, a number which they met and then just kept going, ultimately clocking in at over 250 shows. So how did that plan work out for them?
"Looking back, I wish we had set the goal to like, 180 shows," Babcock laughs. "But we did it, it was a learning experience, that's for sure. I feel like we became a much better band by doing it."
PUP hit the road until the wheels fell off, quite literally a couple of times when their van spun out and one-eightied into the ditches of Montana and Manitoba. "Cool opportunities just kept coming up," says guitarist Steve Sladkowski. "People just kept asking us to come on tour. So we did." They didn't turn much down over the last two years, hopping on board with bands like The Menzingers and The Front Bottoms, and playing any festival that would offer them a spot on the small stage. They travelled to Europe, Australia, crossed off 40 states in America, and became hometown heroes in Toronto, eventually returning to a sold-out show at the 800-person capacity Toronto Opera House.
While their debut album earned generally positive reviews, they became real media darlings for their music videos, enlisting their local filmmaker friends, Chandler Levack and Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux, to revive what has become an often overlooked artistic medium. They gave an animated treatment about the pains of a grueling tour life to "Dark Days," they documented themselves epically demolishing Babcock's prized Toyota Camry in "Mabu," and most famously, in their video for "Guilt Trip," they depicted a fictionalized backstory for the band, the result of which was so cinematic and beautiful that it was nominated for a Juno Award in Canada for Video of the Year.
But their hard-earned success wasn't without its repercussions. At the end of last year, after coming home from too many days on the road, they went right into their practice space to start work on their sophomore album. "We worked every day, and three days later started a seven-week tour," remembers Babcock. "That was the first time where I was like, maybe we bit off a little too much, and it manifested itself physically."
On the first day of a tour opening for Modern Baseball, Babcock learned that a cyst had developed on his vocal cords, a cyst which ended up hemorrhaging, and, by doctor's orders, the band had to drop off a few days early.
The irony is, Babcock never wanted to be PUP's singer in the first place. At every practice through the band's early days, Babcock, who was pulling double duty on guitar and temporary vocals, would bring it up. "I'd be like, 'So, guys, we've got to find somebody to sing these songs. Anybody have any suggestions?' And they just refused. They were like, 'How about you just learn how to sing instead?'" His raggedy and ferocious shouting style has since become an irreplicable staple of their sound.
The doctor not only advised Babcock to drop off the tour, but to quit music altogether. She showed him his results from a stroboscope, which is little camera that goes down your throat or through your nose. (He prefers the down-the-throat method.) Upon handing him the color photos of a set of vocal cords torn up and raw from raising hell over 200 times, she shot it to him straight about his rock and roll aspirations: "The dream is over," she said.
Babcock had a choice. He could heed this medical advice and close the book on PUP forever, or he could throw caution to the wind and get back in the van. Anyone who's ever seen him on stage can probably guess which option he picked. Babcock is someone who treats his body with reckless abandon, a man who routinely launches himself off whatever high platform he can find with complete disregard for what might be waiting below. I have in my possession a photo someone took of him jumping off an amp, clear over my six-foot-tall body with a good two feet to spare. So, unsurprisingly, Babcock told the doctor to fuck off. Not literally, as his Canadian-bred manners make him extremely polite, but the title of PUP's new album is his own middle finger of sorts. There it is, printed defiantly in the bottom corner of the cover: The Dream Is Over.
The members' stubborn dedication to PUP has paid off. Their fanbase grew a bit more with each show they played over the last two years. Not just in number, but in intensity. The band no longer plays to 30 people a night like they did on that first tour. These days it's more like a couple hundred people, with the crowd trying in vain to match Babcock's energy. If the band had to pinpoint a breakthrough moment in their audience size, they'd pick Riot Fest Chicago. It was early in the day, only 2 PM, when they were scheduled to play the outdoor festival. After soundchecking, they went backstage to grab a beer, and by the time they returned a few minutes later, the field in front of them had filled entirely with people, stretching back into a haze of faces, all eager to feast their eyes on these much-hyped Canadians. Bassist Nestor Chumak, who is normally the quietest member of PUP, looked out into the sea of people, turned back and mouthed me a "holy shit."
The launch of their debut album would be a hard one to top, but The Dream Is Over laughs maniacally in the face at the idea of a sophomore slump. The album is a darker, more cynical sequel to PUP's self-titled debut, taking the elements that came to define their sound—feathery guitar riffs, stop-on-a-dime shifts, sing-along gang vocals—and twisting the knife in a little deeper. Another flawless record from the PUP boys, but this one wears the anger, aggression, and self-hatred of the last two years as a rough exterior.
And then there's that aforementioned opening track, the one in which they imply that the sounds of each other's voices make them want to gouge out their eyes with power drills—direct quote. Well, that's just how it goes sometimes for four best friends locked in a steel box, traversing the highways of the world on little rest. The opening line and title came from something drummer Zack Mykula said in the van one day, part jokingly, but part not. "Stefan, if this tour doesn't kill you, I will."
"I wrote it down because I thought it was so funny, and I wrote a song around it," explains Babcock. "When I brought the original kernel of the idea to the rest of the guys, they were like, 'Oh yeah, I can relate to this.' We really built that song together." The second half of the song explodes into four-part vocals as they plead, "Why can't we just get along?", driving home the fact that all members are in on this shit-talking. It's a testament to how tight of a unit PUP is that in even in tearing themselves a new one, they are able to collaborate so closely.
Even the cover of The Dream Is Over hints at the contained chaos behind PUP: A couch placed outside, with one end totally engulfed in flames, and at the other end, a seated person calmly reading The New York Times. Even amidst the world going to shit, it's important to project a sense of clarity. It's like the Bukowski quote goes: "What matters most is how well you walk through the fire."
"Well," I tell the band right before they get back in the van they've called home for the last two years to head for the next city, "I'm sure your newfound fans will be relieved to hear that PUP isn't falling apart at the seams."
"But the thing is," says Babcock, "we kind of are. We kind of always are."
The Dream Is Over is out on May 27 via SideOneDummy. Watch the video for "If This Tour Doesn't Kill You, I Will" below.
Buddy, Dan Ozzi is on Twitter - @danozzi