If you’ve been following the Toronto band PUP for a while, The Unravelling of PUPTheBand begins curiously: a serious-sounding piano ballad, “Four Chords” is our unexpected introduction to their fourth album, sounding unlike anything they’ve made before. It’s a signal from an extremely self-aware band that knows the reputation for neurotic and angsty punk they’ve built up over the years.
“We’d made three albums that built on each other and sonically sounded the same,” PUP’s lead singer Stefan Babcock says over Zoom. “We were looking to break out of our shell without sounding like a completely different band and losing what makes PUP special. It was important that it didn’t sound like we were repeating ourselves. It was a fine balancing act of threading the needle.”
Yet while it was entirely intentional to place the red herring of “Four Chords” at the beginning of the album, the track almost wasn’t included. “The weird thing is that I wrote ‘Four Chords’ to not be on the album,” Babcock explains. “It was literally just a song that I sent the others to make them laugh. I think the original title was ‘Stupid Song For My Stupid Friends’. We all laughed about it, put it to the background, and got on with making the record.”
It was towards the end of recording that bassist Nestor Chumak reminded everyone of the track’s existence. “He convinced me to record it properly and then the next day, the guys were like, “that song’s starting the record,” Babcock recalls. “I was still like, “it’s not going on the record, you guys are fucked,” but I told them I’d sleep on it.
When I woke up, it just made so much sense. They were completely right. As soon as we made that decision, it wasn’t just a collection of songs anymore, we were able to see the forest through the trees. I owe it to those guys – if they hadn’t shown me that possibility, the record would be very different.”
The eventual inclusion of the surprising “Four Chords” paved the way for further experimentation, the band adding more synths and horns throughout the rest of the album. “I think more than anything it was just about taking a different approach to making this record,” Babcock notes. “Normally we’d write the songs completely, get them sounding great in the jam space, and then we’d go into the studio to record them.
This time though, we used the studio as more of a creative tool than we’ve ever done before. We had five weeks, which is a long time for us. We got to screw around more than usual and see what interesting ideas we could come up with on the spot.”
It also helped that PUP shared production duties with Peter Katis, well-known in Australia for his work with Gang of Youths (he mixed 2015’s The Positions and 2017’s Go Farther in Lightness). “I call Peter a ‘vibe guy’,” Babcock says with a laugh. “He would leave us to our own devices most of the time and just make sure that the vibe in the room was right.
That may sound stupid but when you’re recording – the rest of PUP are my three best friends in the world but we also have very contentious relationships – so having a good creative energy in the room is super important when making a record. And Peter was a master of setting the tone so that everyone was having a good time and everyone was doing their best work.”
Working with Katis came with an extra bonus: it was through his connections that Babcock ended up with the honour of playing the piano that The National used while recording their first couple of records. “I suck at playing piano,” he insists. “I barely play piano but sitting down and playing some chords on a piano that I recognise the sound of was a pretty big trip.”
So the piano that the listener hears in “Four Chords” is the same one played on classic National albums such as Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. “It feels almost sacrilegious, playing that piano as the hack that I am,” Babcock adds. When it’s suggested that The National may notice their piano on PUP’s new album, Babcock chuckles. “I hope so. I don’t know, I think that Peter is pretty good friends with them, so maybe he’ll put in a good word.”
Listen closely and “Four Chords” isn’t even that much of a red herring: the same stark self-deprecation that has filled their previous albums is still very much present in the lyrics underneath the theatrical piano. Babcock bemoans friends of friends who “only listen to noise punk or nothing / they haven’t listened to anything new since college”; later in the album when the same track recurs, he essentially breaks the fourth wall by singing “the board of directors are growing impatient / the budget is shrinking and we can’t agree / so we vote on the issues, like: ‘are we tuning the vocals?’ / I say ‘no’ and I vote to end democracy in this fucking band.”
And on the phone, Babcock is exactly who you expect him to be. For an artist whose songwriting has constantly shown him wrestling with existential dread, surely the last few years of the pandemic must have provided ample material for PUP’s new songs? Babcock laughs heavily. “I guess. It’s funny that you say that because I feel like everyone else has just stepped into my world.
I have so many friends being like, “oh man, staying home on a Friday night sucks,” and I’m just like, “this isn’t normal?” I usually go weeks without seeing people when I’m not on tour anyway. So I’ve just been living my best life!”
As if measuring in the moment how that last comment may be perceived, he interjects. “I don’t want to make light of it (the pandemic) because it’s obviously a very serious situation, but what I mean is I was much more mentally prepared for this kind of thing than most people because it wasn’t far removed from my normal existence.”
While writing the first self-titled PUP record was simply a way of getting Babock and his three friends – Chumak alongside guitarist Steve Sladkowski and drummer Zack Mykula – on tour together, the pause of the pandemic years have seen Babcock develop a greater appreciation and love for songwriting. “It really was a productive couple of years, and I just opened myself up to different genres and different voices. I’ve started co-writing for other artists, and I really feel like I creatively had a great couple of years.
Some of these co-writing credits will be revealed next year (“I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about it yet”) but Babcock shares his happiness about more immediate projects. “I co-wrote a great punk record with a band from Canada called the OBGMs. It’s been fun. There’s just so much of me on the PUP records that it’s been nice to just be in the background for a bit. To be able to put PUP aside and write from a different perspective has been really good for me.”
PUP may be synonymous with the current Toronto music scene, but the four local boys have a conflicted relationship with their city. When asked how Toronto’s local music scene has been lately, Babcock instantly replies with a stern “no.”
“When I was growing up, Toronto had an amazing music community,” he continues. “There were all-ages shows and all-ages venues. I started playing in bands when I was 14 and it was easy to get shows. The bar scene was great too, if you were of age, but it’s been really rough the last few years.”
After several prominent venues closed down, the Australian religious organisation C3 bought the Toronto building where a lot of the local bands rehearsed. “About 200 of us got evicted from our jam spaces so these fucking homophobes could move in and do whatever the fuck they do there,” Babcock blasts. “It’s been rough, I think it’s going to kill a lot of Toronto bands. We’re lucky enough that we get to do this professionally, so we’ll get to figure something out, but for the bands who aren’t quite there yet, there’s not a lot of options.”
Like a proud captain clinging to a sinking ship, however, Babcock has no intention of leaving behind his hometown. “We’re all Toronto kids. We’re just going to have to pay more money to find a basement we can play in. We have the luxury to do that because we make money off our music but we have so many friends who want to do music full time but are still grinding it out at coffee shops or bars or whatever. They can’t afford another space so it’s tough.”
PUP will be able to leave their hometown for a while when they make their long-awaited return to Australia this July, six years after their last visit here. “The last time we were in Australia was with DZ Deathrays,” Babcock remembers. “I think most of us would say our favourite place to play is Australia.”
When it’s suggested that he’s perhaps simply being kind, he refutes this suggestion. “Guitar rock is still so alive and well it seems in Australia. It’s not necessarily that healthy elsewhere in the world (huge admiration for the “great lyricist and songwriter” Courtney Barnett is specifically expressed).
Before then, they’ll play one of the world’s biggest festivals, Coachella, for the first time at the end of April. Is he nervous? “I don’t know,” Babcock says after a long pause. “I haven’t given it much thought because there’s so much ahead of us before that.
Even the idea right now of getting onstage at our first few club shows in front of 1500 or 2000 people is such a trip because Toronto’s been shut down forever. I don’t even know how that’s (Coachella) going to go. I’m excited to get back at it but it’s going to be a weird couple of shows in the beginning.”
PUP have been on a remarkably consistent incline in their career. Each album has seen them achieve more critical acclaim and even more commercial success (their previous album Morbid Stuff reached 15th on the Billboard Canadian Albums Chart and placed on most publications year-end lists in 2019), but Babcock still isn’t getting carried away. “Every day for the past eight years or so has felt like a fucking trip!
I have big time imposter syndrome, so anytime something good happens, I’m like, “what the fuck?” When we were going on tour in 2019, I was still shocked every night that people came to the show. And we were playing pretty big venues and I was still so surprised they weren’t empty, you know?”
Even this deep into the band’s life, he’d still be content with just a handful of fans standing right at the front. “Hey man, I’d be happy,” he insists. “I’m grateful for everything. PUP was supposed to be a band that was just going to play basement shows for our friends and that was it. It was never supposed to be like this.” The unravelling of PUP the band has a long way to go just yet.
PUP’s The Unraveling of PUPTheBand is out on April 1st.