A morbid curiosity: PUP talk the brutal honest and ‘DIY ethics’ of their fast-rising punk

"Four out of every five days are fucking wicked. That’s important."

For Canadian fun-punks PUP, life’s a double-edged sword. You can hear it in their music – a spirited, razor-sharp riff on pop-tinged punk, which houses some truly dark subject matter, be it mental illness, masochistic thought, or quite simply wanting to murder every other member of the band you’re in. It’s an approach that’s seen them heralded as one of the modern punk scene’s very best.

That two-tone take is none more evident than on ‘Morbid Stuff’, their latest (and greatest) album. A record that perfects PUP’s approach, it’s seen them leap ahead of many of their peers, stage sizes swelling, and primetime TV appearances on Late Night with Seth Meyers upping the ante.

Through it all, though, the Toronto band have kept two things to close to their collective heart: a DIY punk sensibility, and a fine-tuned self-loathing. We met the band at Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club to talk rising stature, self-deprecation, and more.

The reaction to every PUP record has felt like a big step up, but this one especially so…

Stefan Babcock (vocals/guitar): It’s fucking awesome. It is crazy. I get nervous when we start writing and recording a record. Every song that we write, I’m kinda like, ‘Is the well dry?’

Steve Sladkowski (guitar): “‘Is the milk gone bad?’”

Stefan: “Yeah, that’s where my anxieties with this band come from. But I think when ‘Morbid Stuff’ was done, we all felt like it was the strongest thing that we’d done. At that point, it’s not in your control anymore. At that point, it’s like, ‘We’re happy with this thing, we’re stoked and proud of it, and if people like it and this thing grows – awesome. And if people don’t like it and this thing putters, then that is what it is.’”

Steve: It’s liberating, in a way. ‘Cause it ceases to be yours. Once test pressings showed up, it was like, ‘well, these songs don’t really belong to us anymore.’

Lyrically especially, you’re so self-deprecating and masochistic. How do you square writing all these songs about how much of a fuck-up you are, with being like, ‘Yeah, I’m really proud of that. I’m proud of the song in which I painted myself as a total dick’

Stefan: “I’m happy that I’m able to be as self-aware as I am. And be open about all of my flaws. I’m not proud of myself for being a dick. [Laughs] I’m proud that I was able to verbalise a lot of the shit that I’ve been going through in a way that at least made sense to me. I am my own reckoning… I mean, it’s hard to talk shit about me because I’ve said it all already. Just being at peace with that part of myself is something to be proud of.”

There’s that whole bullshit idea that people with success have less reasons to be depressed, too…

Stefan: “Yeah, and that definitely exacerbates everything. I think everybody – whether you struggle with mood disorders or not – has a similar thing, where you think if you get this one more thing, everything’s gonna be better. I worked really hard at music my whole life and for me it was like, ‘If I can just do this as a job, I won’t be depressed any more.’ The reality is just: you are who you are. I had to face a pretty harsh reality. I’ve ticked off a lot of the things that I wanted to accomplish with this band – the things I thought were gonna make me happy – and I had to come face to face with the fact that I kinda am just this type of person.

Steve: “I think there’s some sort of therapeutic good in even just being able to speak about this. The four of us are able to talk about it, both individually and as a group, which has allowed us to take care of each other, in a way that I think is actively discouraged in the lives that we lead.”

The last record featued ‘If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, Then I Will’, a song about really fucking hating each other. It’s a nice contrast to the usual ‘I’m in a band with my best friends ever’ schtick

Stefan: “I think it’s possible for it to be both, which it is for me. I’m travelling with my best friends in the world, and I fucking hate them. Not always. Actually, not even very often. But… I was talking about just being self-aware and honest. I think if you asked all of us lyrically what our favourite song from the last record was, it would probably be that one, ‘cause it’s one that all four of us relate to. It’s good to have that out in the open. We tour a lot, and yeah, we fucking complain a lot – I mean, we’ve built a career out of complaining. But at the end of the day, the good definitely outweighs all the bad for all four of us. By a large margin.”

Steve: “We fundamentally disagree with the idea that musicians or artists or whatever are special. Or somehow any different. ‘Cause I don’t think that’s true. I mean, Stefan said it [in ‘Free At Last’]: “It doesn’t make you special.”

Let’s talk Seth Meyers. No-one in their right mind starts a DIY punk band to try and be on primetime TV. Where were you when you heard you’d got that slot?

Steve: “I was walking home from rehearsal. I think I was a little bit demoralised, and it was icy and cold – fucking miserable. And I looked at my phone, and I went, ‘Holy fuck!’ I swear to god, I thought I misread the alert. It still doesn’t feel real.”

Stefan: “‘Cause I don’t participate in pop culture, I didn’t quite realise that it was gonna be a big deal. I thought it was cool. I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s something my Grandma can watch.’ But I didn’t really realise until other people started making a big deal out of it. And then it started freaking me out. I was like, ‘Oh fuck, better not screw this up.’

How do you square situations like that, coming from a punk and DIY background? Is that where things like [the band’s own label] Little Dipper come in?

Stefan: “I think it’s important to not forget what you’ve spent 15 years doing. In terms of the DIY thing, we’ve always been DIY individuals, even not in this band. We’ve always made opportunities for ourselves. Little Dipper’s allowed us to keep everything that matters to us the music and the videos and the zines.  That allows us to keep control of that.

You’re taking charities out on tour with you, too. Now that you’ve got the platform to do those things, is that important to you to keep those ethics core to everything?

Steve: “Coming up in DIY and that world, the idea of community is obviously a central element of that, right? Touring is a very specific experience of a place, and of a community, and a group of people associated with that place. It at times like it was very finite. As much as you can kinda make an impact on people in that hour that you’re on stage, it could be more complete.

“It’s a tried-and-true element of political involvement, that you make the most impact at a local level. There are obviously causes that are very dear both to us and to the community of fans that have grown around our band. And so anything that we can do to reflect both of those things – mental health, and music education, and queer and at-risk youth.

Stefan: “It’s giving a voice to people who don’t have as big a voice as we have.”

How connected do you still feel to Toronto? Is the scene still as exciting as ever?

Stefan: “Still is, yeah. We’re not as connected as we’d like to be, because we’re gone so much. In North America, we always choose someone from the Greater Toronto area to come on tour with us. For a Canadian band, trying to get an opportunity in America is fucked. It’s impossible. We kinda feel like it’s our duty to do that with other Toronto bands. We wouldn’t have gotten to where we are now without so many people helping us. So, you know, it’s our kinda job to give that chance back to people.”

Steve: “The same stuff is happening in Toronto, though, that is happening elsewhere. Cost of living is going up, and venues are closing. But there’s sort of a resilience in that community to find a new place to play. There’s a whole underground dance music culture in Toronto that is more vibrant than it has ever been. There’s just so much going on all the time.”

And you’re on tour… what, forever?

Stefan: “I’ll see my parents at Christmas. It’ll be fine. I looked at the list of shows today and I went, ‘Oh fuck.’ But just take it day by day. Nine out of every – no, that’s a lie. Four out of every five days are fucking wicked. That’s important.

PUP’s new album ‘Morbid Stuff’ is out now via Rise Records/Little Dipper.

NME’s Let’s Talk campaign aims to tackle the stigma that surrounds discussing mental health, open a dialogue around the important issues, and to raise awareness so that no one feels like they’re alone.

More: ‘Am I depressed’ – help and advice on mental health and what to do next

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