PUP was on the brink. By the time the Toronto, Ontario, band broke through with The Dream Is Over in 2016, the wheels appeared to be coming off. Heavy touring had put a massive strain on the band members’ relationship with one another to the point where frontman Stefan Babcock the album’s title track was called “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will.” He was only half-joking.
Somehow, the band persevered. They took a microscopic break from touring to recharge and record Morbid Stuff, arguably their best effort to date.
Below, Babcock talks about his band’s new album, zine culture and why he hates the idea of the “tortured artist.”
THE READER: Talk to me about Morbid Stuff. Did you have a concept for the record going in?
STEFAN BABCOCK: Every record lyrically is a little six-month or year-long snapshot of where my brain is at. I’ve never gone into writing an album with a “concept” or lyrical direction in mind. I feel like that stuff just sort of figures itself out naturally based on whatever mental state I’m in. The only real goal for this record was that the four of us wanted to make a better record than our previous two. We’re really proud of all of our records, but it’s important for us that we keep pushing ourselves and not fall into a pattern of complacency. We’re always trying to outdo ourselves and one another.
TR: I think this is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult PUP album to listen to. Musically, I don’t think it’s as severe as The Dream Is Over; but, lyrically, there’s a level of specificity about self-loathing and depression that can be a bit uncomfortable to listen to at times. Were you aiming for this sort of duality?
SB: I think why it’s uncomfortable at times is because I don’t really use many metaphors or anything, and I don’t pull any punches. I’m always just trying to say exactly what I’m thinking or feeling in the most articulate, concise and honest way possible without dancing around any issues.
Musically, this band has always been about having fun — it’s about catharsis, release, celebrating all your flaws with your best friends. So I think that spirit comes across naturally in the music. And we want people to have fun listening to the album. So that’s where the dichotomy comes from. The lyrics are dark, but the songs are fun and loud and energetic. For me, that’s what playing and writing music is all about — not only confronting your demons but purging those motherfuckers while you’re at it.
TR: I;ve read that you have some concern over people fetishizing about depression, mental illness and exhaustion that you’re singing about. I was wondering what responsibility, if any, you think you have to your audience to display your experience with these things as realistically as possible?
SB: I think I feel the responsibility to normalize depression instead of fetishizing it because I hate that myth of the “tortured artist” so fucking much. Depression is not cool or sexy. It sucks, it’s difficult, and it’s also just a part of life for me and many others. I like to think that a lot of these songs pull back that curtain and take away the mystique around these issues, by being brutally honest about them. I also try to acknowledge my own role in making money off of being a miserable prick. There’s a guilt that comes with commercializing depression, and I haven’t really sorted that out for myself yet. The best I can do is be completely honest about how that affects me, which I speak about head-on in our song “Full Blown Meltdown.”
TR: What’s touring looking like for you guys these days? Does it seem slightly more manageable?
SB: Yeah, it’s a lot better. We’re still a completely dysfunctional family, but we’ve learned through six years of endless touring how to cope with each other in that situation much better. It’s still a pretty intense experience though.
TR: How do you see your relationship to success? You’re not an arena band, but you seem to have found a reasonably fervent fan base and appear to be on an upward trajectory. Does that scare you?
SB: It’s honestly not something the four of us think about much. Although we have high personal expectations of ourselves, we’ve always had pretty low expectations for this band. I’m constantly in awe that we’ve made it this far. We’ve worked really hard, but we’ve also been very lucky. So we’re just enjoying the ride, whether this is the pinnacle of our success or not.
TR: I wanted to ask about Little Dipper. I know you guys wanted to start the label to retain artistic control, but I was curious if there’s been any change in wanting to release music. Is there anyone from your scene that you want to promote?
SB: I have a pretty specific vision for Little Dipper, and while I don’t really want to get into my hopes and dreams for the thing here, I will say that I don’t see it as a traditional record label. So don’t expect us to start putting out full-length albums by other artists anytime soon. That said, we’ve been lucky to put out two other projects already: a photo book by Canada’s undisputed greatest punk and hardcore music photographer, Amanda Fotes, as well as a comedy album and flipbook by our incredibly hilarious friend, Dave Ross.
Label stuff aside, there are a ton of amazing bands coming out of Toronto and the surrounding area right now — Chastity, The Drew Thomson Foundation, Casper Skulls and Nobro to name but a few of them. We’ve been lucky to get to tour with all those people, and it’s a pretty great, positive, encouraging community to be a part of.
TR: Why is zine culture still important? Why do you think we’ve seen a resurgence in popularity over the last few years?
SB: Putting out PUP zines has been really important to us and I think has been a pretty great experience for our fans. They’ve all sold out really fast. I think the four of us are all pretty creative individuals outside of music, and the zines we put out allow people to get to know a different side of us, one that maybe doesn’t come across completely in the music. And it’s great to let loose on a different creative outlet. Zack is pretty frigging funny, so it’s good to unleash that side of him. I write a lot of dumb stories and draw comics. Steve likes to tab out parts from our songs. And Nestor is a bit of a maniac. He created a whole PUP-based board game for the last zine called “Full Blown Meltdown,” which is one of my favorite things in the world.
TR: PUP is playing a good chunk of well-known music festivals this spring and summer, including Coachella. How do you think that type of audience will react to you guys?
SB: They’ll probably hate us. Whenever stuff like this happens to us we joke that someone is getting fired. It’s fine, we just go and do our thing and if we win over a few people, awesome. If not, at least we get to annoy thousands of people at once. What a powerful feeling!