Q&A with PUP on their best album yet, ‘Morbid Stuff’
For the past decade, a new wave of punk and emo has been bubbling up on the fringes of the mainstream, with a crop of bands who generally favor rawer production and more conscious lyrics than the wave of punk and emo bands who saw huge commercial success at the turn of the millennium. It's been inevitable that one of these bands makes an album that breaks through and shakes things up on a more widespread level, and I'm neither a psychic nor a record executive, but that album just might be PUP's Morbid Stuff. It's already brought about such headlines as "How Pup Made The Year’s Catchiest, Darkest, And Overall Best Punk Album" and "Toronto's Finest Release The Best, Catchiest Album Of The Year So Far," PUP became a rare current punk band to perform on late night television, and they're currently embarking on an almost-entirely-sold-out tour of one-to-two thousand capacity venues, which is no small feat in 2019 for a non-legacy punk act. While PUP used to gain comparisons to indie-punk bands like Titus Andronicus and Japandroids, the comparison I keep coming back to with Morbid Stuff is Green Day's Dookie. Like Dookie, Morbid Stuff isn't really that different from anything PUP have done before it; it just sounds bigger and better in every way. The playing is tighter, the production is cleaner, and the songs are way, way catchier. And for what it's worth, Green Day were playing those same size venues on the Dookie tour too.
While a bump in production value and accessibility often means a big budget or a big-name producer, PUP didn't really have either of those things. They made Morbid Stuff with the same producer they made their last two albums with (Dave Schiffman), and they're releasing it on their own new record label, Little Dipper. It is a partnered release with Rise Records and BMG, but when I ask singer Stefan Babcock if Morbid Stuff counts as a "major label debut," he's quick to shoot it down. "The only major label resource we have right now is we have the guy who works for Universal Canada working radio in Canada specifically for us. So it's really not the kind of thing where majors are throwing a ton of money at us and getting us on the radio and stuff like that," he says.
The way PUP tell it, the only real difference about the making of Morbid Stuff was just that they took their time with it in a way that they never did, or could, before. The patience, and the break from an insanely busy touring schedule, was just what they needed -- especially for a band who's gone through everything PUP have already had to go through. Their last album was called The Dream Is Over and the title was a reference to Stefan suffering vocal cord damage and being told by a doctor that he wouldn't be able to sing. (Luckily, he of course managed to recover.) It included a song called "If This Tour Doesn't Kill You, I Will" that was non-subtly about inner-band tensions on the road. And though the story surrounding The Dream Is Over did have a happy ending, the struggles didn't stop there. Stefan's voice healed, but he's still regularly battling inner demons and those demons are the driving forces behind Morbid Stuff. Its tongue-in-cheek title is indicative of the kind of dark humor in Stefan's lyrics on this album. It's sort of the musical equivalent of Chris Gethard's Career Suicide special, in that both use humor as a way to deal with and discuss depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles. And in PUP's case, they do it in such a cathartic way that the only proper response would be to learn all the words, get to a PUP show, and yell them all back in the band's faces. With songs as catchy as the ones on Morbid Stuff, it won't take long for that very scenario to become a reality.
As both a lyricist and a hook writer, Stefan has never been better than he is on Morbid Stuff. Lead single "Kids" has not one but two of the year's catchiest hooks: the "I guess it doesn't matter anyway / I don't care about nothin' but you" one and the gang-vocal-fueled "I had it maxed out..." one. They're both so simple yet so effective, pure pop songwriting but in the context of the kind of high-energy punk rock that's practically designed to give you an adrenaline rush. On "Free At Last," PUP belts the kind of sloganeering hook that feels destined for tattoos and t-shirt designs: "Just 'cause you're sad again, it doesn't make you special at all." But before you think PUP are pointing their fingers at someone, the line is actually directed at Stefan himself. "She keeps sayin'...," he sings right before it. It's a tool he uses a lot: starting a line with some variation of "she said" as a way of looking back on conversations with his partner and doing some self-examination.
As with the lyrics, PUP's instrumentals have a similarly sneaky way of avoiding clichés. On the surface, Morbid Stuff is the kind of melodic punk that you could've heard on Epitaph or Lookout! (or Geffen) in the '90s, but PUP almost always throw in an off-kilter rhythm or some subtle yet complex lead guitar, giving these songs a trickier edge than your average straightforward pop punk band. And three albums in, there's something unmistakably PUP about all of these songs. There are times when you might compare Morbid Stuff to other bands, but for the most part they've really developed a take on this long-running genre that they can truly call their own. Even when they branch out into raging post-hardcore ("Full Blown Meltdown") or drunken campfire singalongs ("Scorpion Hill") or poppy alternative rock ("Sibling Rivalry"), they sound distinctly like PUP. The only non-PUP personality you ever really hear on Morbid Stuff is that of Jeff Rosenstock. He's credited as workshopping some of these songs with PUP, and if you liked his great 2018 album POST- (which PUP contributed to), you'll probably find that Morbid Stuff is very up your alley as well.
And like Jeff Rosenstock does on POST-, PUP show a real sense of self-awareness on Morbid Stuff. If you're rolling your eyes at the idea of another pop punk album about depression made by four white dudes, well, PUP kind of are too. "Make no mistake, I know exactly what I'm doing," Stefan shouts on the aforementioned "Full Blown Meltdown." "I'm just surprised the world isn't sick of grown men whining like children." You get the sense that PUP knows this is all temporary. Trends come and go, and whether or not Morbid Stuff really is the next Dookie, it could get forgotten or replaced by something else in an instant. But for now, Morbid Stuff is here, and it's one of the most exhilarating, life-affirming ways to battle your inner demons that any band or artist has offered up in 2019.
The album officially comes out this Friday (4/5) (pre-order), but you can hear four of its songs now in this post. I also spoke to Stefan and drummer Zack Mykula about the making of the new album, their new record label, the process of battling demons through music, what punk means to them, and more. Read on for our chat...
UPDATE: Stream the album now:
The new album sounds like a big step forward -- I think it's safe to say it has the biggest, catchiest choruses you guys have ever written. What was different about the process of making this one compared to the first two albums?
Stefan: I think we just gave ourselves more time. We wrote and recorded The Dream Is Over in the span of three months, and we're really proud of that record, but listening to it, there are things that if we had an extra month we know we could have changed for the better. So this time we just didn't wanna make that same mistake, and we were in a position where we were kinda able to take six months off tour and not, you know, starve to death [laughs]. So yeah, we spent six months on it this time and I think it just gave us more time and creative focus and stuff. Maybe Zack has a different idea...
Zack: I think you are correct, I think there were a lot of things that we saw, like maybe we could go a bit bigger on some things, and we weren't sure whether or not we could without, like, a crazy pop producer. But we knew we had something great with Dave [Schiffman] so we kinda did what we usually do and, like, took it in our own hands to achieve what we envisioned, as far as making it bigger but also weirder and maintaining the PUP-ness but also sounding like we evolved a bit.
You're releasing this one on your own label, Little Dipper, in partnership with Rise/BMG. Is Little Dipper an imprint of Rise?
Stefan: It's a little bit of a complicated relationship. It initially started as an imprint of Universal Canada, and then Rise and BMG -- we were talking to them about doing the record and we kinda managed to get them excited about our little imprint as well. So, yeah, it's a bit of a unique and complex situation, because there are a lot of parent labels involved (Universal in Canada, Rise, BMG, and Cooking Vinyl in Australia), but it's worked out really well for us.
So is Morbid Stuff sort of a major label debut, but also sort of DIY at the same time?
Stefan: I don't think we could call it a major label debut. The only major label resource we have right now is we have the guy who works for Universal Canada working radio in Canada specifically for us. So it's really not the kind of thing where majors are throwing a ton of money at us and getting us on the radio and stuff like that. It's more so just that we've worked so hard and done things our way for so long, that for the first time ever it seems like people in a kind of higher position in the music industry are taking notice, and kind of into what we're doing. We've been really lucky because none of the people we started working with want us to change anything about what we do, and that includes all of us making all the creative calls. No one's pressured us into doing anything differently, we've just had their support which has been really amazing for us. We're super lucky to work with these people who believe in what we're doing.
Your bio talks a bit about how, with both the album title and the lyrics, this album touches on depression, anxiety, mental health, but in a way where you're serious but also sort of joking. Can you talk a bit about that?
Stefan: Yeah, a lot of the record thematically is about working through depression and working through challenges with mental health, but we tried to kind of take a light approach, a gentle approach to it. I think music and this band particularly is supposed to be fun, fun for us and fun for the listeners. We're in a band 'cause it's a good time for us, and there's this weird sort of paradox of you wanna write about the stuff that's closest to your heart, the stuff that affects you the most. And for me in the past couple of years, that's been depression and mental health. But the paradox is you want to write about that stuff but you play in a band because it's fun, and being in this band is supposed to be a good time. And so I think that's where the record's kinda coming from, sorta trying to tackle that subject with humor and to remember that all four of us are kinda using the band as a tool, a tool for positivity to work through all the dark bullshit and hopefully come out the other side a little bit happier and a little bit more self-aware. And I'm sure Zack has a totally other different perspective on it. He's been a really great pillar of support for me the past couple of years, so I'm sure he can talk about his own experiences with it.
Zack: Yeah, I mean, it's gratifying to be in a band for three records and as the time goes on only feel like the lyrical content is resonating personally with me more and more. It's hard for it not to resonate with me on The Dream Is Over 'cause it's all about being in a band and the frustrations that come with it. But yeah I think a lot of the lyrics on Morbid Stuff apply to how I am, but in the sense that a lot of people who are depressed use self-effacing humor to kind of hide, but also to kind of protect the people around them from feeling the full brunt of something depressing. And I think that encapsulates the music we write, because there's the juxtaposition between the lyrics which can often be very dark or fatalist, and the kind of inherent fun of the music, and keeping the spirit of the music light, but also being free to explore the darker sides of life and in particular the life of a musician. Everyone thinks because you're partying all the time, you should be happy, where partying is more of a way to hide from the feelings that keep you in the dark.
Yeah and I think that juxtaposition between the lyrics and the music must be a pretty therapeutic thing. I mean a PUP show is always: everybody leaves the venue covered in sweat and smiling, and the songs sound fun, and maybe it's like in that moment you -- whether it's you on stage or the people in the audience -- you get to put aside the depressing stuff for that hour and a half.
Zack: Yeah, I think that's huge.
Stefan: I don't know if I'm capable of putting it aside -- I hope some people are -- but I think for me, the catharsis comes from celebrating that part of you, kind of acknowledging that that darkness exists and that's okay, like we're all kind of in this shitty-ass thing together, you know? And I feel like the shows are sort of a macrocosm of what this band is for the four of us. Like, writing music alone can be -- for me anyway -- quite dark, because I'm just sitting alone with my own dark thoughts, and I don't really know if that's helping me at all. And then when I get into a room with three other people who can relate to that and get where I'm coming from and have their own experiences with it. It's just fun, and we get to feel like we're not alone and somebody else understands us, and it's good and we can work through it in a really positive, productive way. And I think, on a bigger scale, that's what I hope the shows feel like to people. That it's a good time, and it's a celebration of just kinda like, all of us being kinda weirdos.
Zack: I definitely get the sense from -- if I just stumble upon people talking about our shows online, like on our subreddit and stuff -- that is definitely the sense I get, that people think with us there's a bit of commiseration, but also a bit of release, which kind of speaks to Stefan's point. And that's the most we can ask for. First and foremost, we want our shows to be safe for everybody and welcoming, and that includes feeling safe to kinda live your personal battles in public with a bunch of strangers. And I get the sense that that is what sometimes happens, which is kinda cool.
A lot of the lyrics on this album -- and previous albums -- start with the line "she said," and then Stefan you quote someone talking about you. Is that, in a way, some form of therapy? To almost talk to yourself in the song?
Stefan: [Laughs] I guess, I never really thought of it that way, but that's pretty interesting. I think... not all of the "she said"s are that. A lot of them are just my partner Amanda being really real with me. She's a really blunt person who kind of tells it like it is, and having someone like that around has been amazing for so many reasons. It's made me a lot more self-aware and cognizant of when I'm being a stupid prick [laughs]. And a lot of the songs are about me being an asshole, so a lot of times when Amanda is being real with me, the next day is when I'm writing 'cause I'm like, "okay I'm a total fucking asshole, let me explore what that was all about" [Laughs]. I don't wanna say a source of inspiration, 'cause that's just totally wrong, but it definitely has a major impact on me when she's being that real with me -- in a good way -- and I'm hopefully able to put it into words while it's still fresh.
Around the time The Dream Is Over came out, you talked in interviews about suffering vocal damage that almost ended your career, and you sing about that a bit on this album, like on the song "Closure." In the time since the last album, how have you been dealing with it? Have you had to work on your voice and exercise it in specific ways?
Stefan: Yeah, there's been a lot of work on my end and work on the other guys' ends too. I had a cyst on my vocal cords and hemorrhaged them and I had to go to a speech pathologist after that to learn how to talk again. And then I had to learn how to sing again from there, which was tough. I worked with a vocal therapist who does muscular work; it's almost like massage therapy for your vocal chords. I worked with that person, as well as with a singing coach which sucks and is amazing at the same time. It sucks 'cause I don't want anyone ever telling me how to sing 'cause I've been doing this forever, but clearly I've been doing it wrong. So it's been good that the guy who's been helping me has never really told me not to do what I do, he's just found ways to help me do it better and cause less damage, so that's been good. But also, I feel like a lot of things in this band for all four of us are just challenges, you know? It's easy to feel like you hit a brick wall and say that's the end of that -- whether it's the vocal thing or anything that the other three guys have dealt with -- and I think it's just good that whenever these things arise, we stick together and support each other and make sure that, no matter what, we power through.
Even though it's unfortunate that it had to happen this way, do you think using a vocal coach has made you a stronger singer?
Stefan: Yeah, definitely. It's been super helpful, and like I don't really believe in classically training for music -- I mean I do for some people -- but as far as my personal experience, I never kind of felt like a singing coach or guitar teacher was a good idea. It's different for everybody, but for me, every time I've ever gone down that road, it's ended up stifling a little bit of the creativity. And I did try to have a different type of vocal coach, who was teaching me a different type of singing, and it just felt fake and I hated it. But this experience has been really positive. It's made me a way better singer without changing what I do.
I definitely get not wanting classical training, especially for a punk band.
Stefan: Yeah, I mean, Zack and Steve and Nestor all really understand music theory and they're incredible musicians, and I'd say that understanding of music theory hasn't hurt them creatively. But, for me, every time I've tried to label things with the guitar, like, "this is this chord and this is the theory behind why these chords work together" or whatever, it's really just causing more agony than anything. I'm sure Zack's had a different experience because he's a classically fantastic musician, as well as a great punk musician.
Zack: I don't know about that, but yeah it's definitely helped because Stefan has a kind of unorthodox approach to writing songs -- by that I mean writing melodically without paying super close to attention to how even the bars are or how rhythmically it fits together -- so he somehow accidentally falls into these really interesting time signatures, and I guess just taking some lessons and being a nerd about music and having this so-called training has helped me a lot in adapting to that and not trying to squeeze the song into a 4/4 box, which I think we've accomplished really well. And at the same time, our guitar player Steve is trained, so to speak. He went to school for jazz guitar, but he sort of presents his own version of what punk is. To me -- it's a broader interpretation -- but, in the grander sense, punk is sort of about going against what's normal, whether that means you're a great guitar player and you prefer to do something weird, or you're expressing yourself against all odds and against a lack of training, I think those both can be punk.
For you guys growing up, what drew you to punk? What bands grabbed your attention, what made you realize this is what you wanted to do?
Zack: One of my favorite bands in high school was Bad Religion, and whatever you think of them, they had some pretty good messages, and at the very least, made you think critically about stuff, which I was very drawn too, especially as a confused teenager who didn't know heads or tails about anything. I was also into Protest the Hero, who are kinda local. Their first EP came out and it was kind of mindblowing. I got to see them at this tiny show when they released that first EP, and I think those things together informed my initial taste in punk. You can even hear it in this band, where it's like there's some odd time signatures, kinda weird and not really technical but hopefully serving the song. As far as punk as concerned, it's kinda out there, but still in the realm of punk.
Stefan: I think, for me, I listened to so much embarrassing crap -- I'm sure we all did. But I guess the benefit of hindsight is that you look back and see which bands had a lasting impact on you, and for me those weren't really punk bands but bands who were scrappy and kinda lo-fi and who kind of made me realize that it's possible for music to sound that way and possible for people like me to write music and play music, because it didn't sound like big pop jams or whatever, which I could never fathom doing. Built to Spill were one of my favorite bands, they have a record called There's Nothing Wrong With Love, and it's just crap, it just sounds bad. But, it's like, the melodies and the conviction that they played with -- and they weren't even particularly good players at the time -- but you could feel the energy and the spirit and the love for those songs behind the production and behind the performance, and that's the kind of thing that always felt special for me. Also Neutral Milk Hotel, which to a lesser degree is a similar kind of thing. Like, oh it's just kind of a blown-out acoustic guitar and some other weird instruments that are not played perfectly. And it just makes you think, these songs are incredible and this is something that you can strive to do. You can understand how they did it, and that really encouraged me to want to write songs and play music.
Zack: That's what I like about punk. I mean you can consider those avenues punk, and you can consider something like -- I mean, I know she was in a punk band -- but Santigold. I consider her music punk because it's skirting expectations, and it's also presenting something energetic and vital. I think that's the core of it really, and hopefully we do that with our music.
PUP -- 2019 Tour Dates
4/3/19 - London, ON @ Rum Runners ? **SOLD OUT**
4/8/19 Kingston, UK @ The Fighting Cocks ! **SOLD OUT**
4/9/19 - Bristol, UK @ The Fleece % ! **SOLD OUT**
4/10/19 - London, UK @ The Garage % ! **SOLD OUT**
4/11/19 - Leeds, UK @ Brudenell Social Club % ! **SOLD OUT**
4/12/19 - Glasgow, UK @ Cathouse % ! **SOLD OUT**
4/14/19 - Paris, FR @ La Boule Noire ! **SOLD OUT**
4/15/19 - Dunkirk, FR @ Les 4Ecluses !
4/16/19 - Brussels, BE @ AB Club ! **SOLD OUT**
4/18/19 - Berlin, DE @ Cassiopeia ! **SOLD OUT**
4/19/19 - Hamburg, DE @ Hafenklang ! **SOLD OUT**
4/20/19 - Cologne, DE @ MTC Club ! **SOLD OUT**
4/21/19 - Amsterdam, NE @ Upstairs @ Paradiso ! **SOLD OUT**
4/25/19 - Boston, MA @ Royale # ^ **SOLD OUT**
4/26/19 - Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel # ^ **SOLD OUT**
4/29/19 - Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer # ^ **SOLD OUT**
4/30/19 - Pittsburgh, PA @ REX Theater $ ^ **SOLD OUT**
5/1/19 - Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom $ ^
5/3/19 - Pontiac, MI @ Crofoot Ballroom $ ^
5/4/19 - Chicago, IL @ Metro $ ^ **SOLD OUT**
5/5/19 - Minneapolis, MN @ Fine Line Music Cafe $ ^ **SOLD OUT**
5/6/19 - Lawrence, KS @ Granada Theater $
5/8/19 - Dallas, TX @ Trees $ ^
5/9/19 - Austin, TX @ The Mohawk $ ^
5/10/19 - Houston, TX @ Rockefeller's $ ^
5/11/19 - New Orleans, LA @ One Eyed Jacks $ ^
5/13/19 - Atlanta, GA @ Terminal West $ ^ **SOLD OUT**
5/14/19 - Carrboro, NC @ Cat's Cradle $ ^
5/15/19 - Asheville, NC @ The Grey Eagle $ ^
5/17/19 - Washington, DC @ The Black Cat $ ^ **SOLD OUT**
5/18/19 - Boston, MA @ Royale $ ^ **SOLD OUT**
5/19/19 - Sainte-Therese, QC @ Santa Teresa Festival
5/21/19 - Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom $ ^
5/22/19 - Cincinnati, OH @ Bogarts $ ^
5/23/19 - Chicago, IL @ Metro $ ^
6/7/19 - Toronto, ON @ Danforth Music Hall # **SOLD OUT**
6/8/19 - Toronto, ON @ Danforth Music Hall # **SOLD OUT**
6/19/19 - San Diego, CA @ The Irenic + ^
6/20/19 - Los Angeles, CA @ Teragram Ballroom + ^ **SOLD OUT**
6/21/19 - Los Angeles, CA @ Teragram Ballroom + ^ **SOLD OUT**
6/22/19 - San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore + ^ **SOLD OUT**
6/24/19 - Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom + ^ **SOLD OUT**
6/25/19 - Seattle, WA @ The Showbox + ^
6/27/19 - Boise, ID @ The Olympic + ^
6/28/19 - Salt Lake City, UT @ In The Venue + ^
6/29/19 - Englewood, CO @ Gothic Theatre + ^
7/1/19 - Santa Fe, NM @ Meow Wolf + ^
7/2/19 - Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent Ballroom + ^
7/3/19 - Santa Ana, CA @ The Observatory + ^
7/4/19 Ottawa, ON @ RBC Bluesfest
7/21/19 - Toronto, ON @ RBC Echo Beach ~
8/6/19 Tolmin, SI @ Punk Rock Holiday
8/12/19 Bellaria-Igea Marina, IT @ Bay Fest
8/16/19 Grosspösna, DE @ Highfield Festival
8/23/19 Reading, UK @ Reading Festival
8/24/19 Leeds, UK @ Leeds Festival
# - with support from Diet Cig
^ - with support from Ratboys
! - with support from Milk Teeth
% - with support from Gender Roles
$ - with support from Casper Skulls
+ - with support from Beach Bunny
~ - with support from Twin Peaks & Charly Bliss
& - with support from BRASS
= - with support from Pkew Pkew Pkew
? - with support from The Drew Thomson Foundation