THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND – how PUP reinvented themselves in the most PUP way possible
Pre-order PUP's new album on black with magenta and red splatter vinyl.
THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND, the fourth album by the great Toronto punk band PUP, starts out with frontman Stefan Babcock banging out a few chords on the piano, sounding like Conor Oberst by way of Patrick Stickles as he slurs his way through a tongue-in-cheek verse about PUP and the people who hate them ("they only listen to noise punk, or nothing, and they haven't listened to any new music since college"). He hits a wrong chord, says "fuck" under his breath, and then the whole band kicks in, accompanied by rousing trumpets. Titled "Four Chords," it's a song that Stefan, who is not a pianist, wrote after buying a Fender Rhodes on a whim, sent to his bandmates as a joke, and never pictured as something that would appear on a PUP album. But at the last minute, bassist Nestor Chumak encouraged Stefan not only to properly record it, but to start the album with it, and then PUP reprised it twice throughout the album. On it, Stefan sounds like the album's narrator, breaking the fourth wall the way The Beatles did on the title track to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And like that album, THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND is at least a semi-concept album, inspired in part by the need to do something different. But whereas The Beatles were playing the role of a made-up band, PUP are leaning even more into exactly who they are. THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND is the funniest, darkest, and weirdest PUP album yet, which also makes it the PUP-iest thing PUP have ever done. It uses the same introspective self-deprecation as its predecessors, but on a more macro level, and it found PUP pushing themselves even further to the brink of implosion than they ever had before. "It was just a record of extremes for us," Stefan told us, "like, wanting to kill each other but also loving each other and being so happy and proud of each other for making a record that we're all stoked on."
To help them achieve something new, they enlisted the help of producer Peter Katis, best known for working with Interpol and The National, after making their first three albums with producer Dave Schiffman. "Dave is such an integral part to the sound of those first three records, like he is as important as any of the four of us," Stefan said. "So the thinking was, if we don't want to redo Morbid Stuff, we gotta step outside of that world." The first three records function sort of as a trilogy; their 2013 self-titled debut LP established their sound, and the band kept honing their musical identity as Stefan's lyrics got deeper and his melodies got stronger, resulting in the increasingly good followups The Dream Is Over (2016) and Morbid Stuff (2019). The latter was, in Stefan's words, the "logical conclusion" of that sound, and he says the band would've found it creatively unsatisfying to keep making that kind of record over and over. So in came Peter Katis, who brought an entirely new production style to PUP's music, and who also gave PUP a chance to hole up in his studio for five weeks and try out ideas they'd never tried out before, whether that meant campy piano interludes, a skronky sax freakout, or toying around with Peter's collection of synths. Production-wise, it doesn't really sound like a punk record, and some parts, like the electronic opening of "Habits" and the rickety bedroom pop of "Robot Writes A Love Song," don't sound punk at all. But UNRAVELING still has its fair share of rippers ("Waiting," "Totally Fine," "Grim Reaping"), and even the less raucous moments still sound like PUP. They've spent about a decade establishing a style that's entirely their own -- one with timing and melodies that are always a little off-kilter, but with big hooks, bigger gang vocals, and the unmistakably distinct voice of Stefan Babcock -- and on UNRAVELING, they prove they can maintain that style without restricting themselves to a specific type of music. It's the sign of a great band getting even better.
The "Four Chords" songs tie this whole album together, but if there's one song that sums the whole thing up, it's closing track "PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing For Bankruptcy." It's a sneering, snarling post-hardcore song that addresses the very paradox that defines PUP's career: kind of hating so much of the stuff that comes with playing in a band for a living but also loving the chance to get to do it. "I’ll be honest, it felt pretty great/The free shoes and the critical acclaim," an extremely sarcastic Stefan snorts, before switching to something a little more sincere: "I’m truly grateful for the life that I’ve led/I’m just being dramatic." The song also finds Stefan grappling with the very ideas that he tends to write songs about. Near the beginning of the song, he shouts, "Too old for teen angst, too young to be washed," a line that wonders if he should really still be singing about the same "intense, kind of juvenile emotions" that he was in his early 20s. But those emotions don't necessarily go away with age, and UNRAVELING is a mature record in the way it looks at those emotions. The best example of this is the song "Grim Reaping," named after a term Stefan came up with to describe the process of looking at the horrible state of the world through his own specific lens.
"I've tried to, but I can't write a protest song," he says. "I'm not that guy, the voice comes across as contrived and disingenuous, even if I care passionately about the thing that I'm talking about. My strength lies in talking about how the state of affairs is affecting me on a personal level, and hopefully in a way that a bunch of people can understand and relate to." That's exactly what the song "Grim Reaping" does; it isn't a protest song, but it's probably the closest thing PUP do have to a protest song, and it's written in the same introspective way as any other PUP song. "This town's tearing out our insides/And I want to smash it from the back of the picket line," he shout-sings. He's not offering up answers or shouting protest march slogans, but he's conveying the anger that swept the globe during the dire political climate of the past couple years, and sometimes you can just find solace in hearing that someone else feels the same way. "What is lost is how people feel individually, and how it's affecting people on a very basic, emotional level," Stefan said, and that's the level that "Grim Reaping" operates on.
Like just about every PUP record, UNRAVELING is a record that's full of volatile emotions, whether they're aimed at the state of the world, or the music industry, or PUP's haters, or at themselves, but there's also a sense of peacefulness to this album. The real moral to that tongue-in-cheek "Four Chords" song is that Stefan doesn't really care what anyone thinks of his songs, except the other three members of PUP. It's no surprise that the band who wrote "If This Tour Doesn't Kill You, I Will" six years ago got at each other's throats during the making of this album, but the vibe I got from talking to Stefan about this album is that the camaraderie within the band seems stronger than ever. PUP seemingly make every record as if it could be their last, and UNRAVELING has that same apocalyptic energy to it, but it also makes the road ahead look long and bright. If Morbid Stuff concluded the first chapter of PUP's career, then UNRAVELING feels like the beginning of an exciting new one. It leaves PUP with so many potential directions they could go in next, and judging by the successfully varied sound of this album, they'll pull it off in the way that only PUP can.
PUP's new album comes out this Friday (4/1) via Little Dipper/Rise. Pre-order it on black with magenta and red splatter vinyl,
stream a couple tracks below, and read on for more of my chat with Stefan.
Update (4/1): out now, stream the whole thing:
What's the story behind the title THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND?
Well, we spent five weeks in the studio and we were not leaving -- like we left to get groceries and that was kind of it -- and pretty much none of us have any hobbies [laughs] so we were recording like all hours that we were awake, or at least thinking about the songs, for five weeks straight. That's a lot to process, and that's a lot of four extreme personalities in one setting to deal with without a break from it. And as the process went on -- it was very classic PUP -- we got squirrelly and we got crazier and crazier and everything was kind of amplified. It was just a record of extremes for us, like, wanting to kill each other but also loving each other and being so happy and proud of each other for making a record that we're all stoked on, but at the same time like furious with each other for being inconsiderate at times. I just feel like there is a sound of the band kind of falling off the cliff in the record, and it's clear to me as I'm listening through to it that we were going more and more off the deep end. Like that last song, we literally just thought it would be funny to put a saxophone freakout on the record. We started making decisions because they were funny and dumb and because they were gonna make us laugh, rather than like, "this is a good artistic choice" [laughs].
You mention that last song, where you've kind of got this tongue-in-cheek "I hate all this" but then it's like "oh I'm being dramatic, I actually love this." Is that an autobiographical song about PUP's career or were you kind of playing an exaggerated, funny character?
No that's 100% autobiographical [laughs]. I think that song in particular, and I think a lot of PUP songs, are just me at my worst, or me at an extreme of my emotions, because that's when I feel good about writing. But yeah, being in a band is such a weird thing for me. It's such a double-edged sword, like I love it so much, it's what I've wanted to do my whole life -- write music and have people give a shit -- and then the other thing is I'm a pretty solitary person. I've had to teach myself to become extroverted at moments because I'm very much an introvert. And there's a lot of being around my bandmates and around other people that kind of drives me nuts, and a lot of things about the industry that absolutely fucking drive me off the wall, and then there's this whole other beautiful side to it where there's literally no other job that I would be happier doing in my whole life. And as much as I talk about being annoyed with bandmates, there are no three other people that I would choose to do this with. So I think a lot of PUP is just a whole bunch of conflicting emotions distilled into music, and I think that song's kind of a perfect example of me just kind of venting all of these rages and frustrations, whether they're warranted or not, and then it kind of colliding with this other part of me that's like, "Hold on for a second, this is pretty fantastic." You know, I'm very grateful to do what we're doing and to have people give a shit at all. Everyday it's kind of like I wake up and it does not seem real, or it seems like it's gonna disappear any second.
On that same song, you have that line "Too old for teen angst too young to be washed." PUP's been a band for about a decade now; was there any thought of like, we're not a new band anymore, but also we don't really want to seem like an old band either?
Yeah. It's been almost a decade, closing in on it, but it still feels new and novel to us, you know? It's like, despite all of the things that I dislike about being in a band, one thing I can say is that it has not become boring or monotonous. And I do feel like, for a guy my age, I should be a more emotionally stable individual [laughs], and that's kind of where that line comes from. I'm not 22 anymore, I don't really write songs about getting fucked up anymore, but I still do write songs about having these really intense, kind of juvenile emotions. And it's a weird thing to reconcile, because I think I'm a somewhat emotionally mature person, but all of the negative or extreme sides of me come out in the form of songwriting. So you get a very skewed perspective of who I am if you just listen to the records [laughs].
Yeah, I mean I feel like a theme for PUP has sort of been self-deprecation, which is all over this record again. And you said in the press materials something like, this one is kind of you looking at the state of the world, but through your own specific lens -- something you said you call "grim reaping," which is also a title of a song on the album. Can you talk about that, and about why the self-deprecation on this album is different than, say, on Morbid Stuff?
I don't wanna give the impression that I don't grapple with mental health at this point -- I still very much do -- but I think when we were writing Morbid Stuff I was in a much darker place personally, literally incapable of facing most days. Like, incapable of getting up and seeing my bandmates and moving forward with life. And I think now I'm in a very different emotional place personally, but of course that doesn't completely go away. And it's also compounded by -- and I don't really wanna talk about pandemic stuff -- but the past two years have been very hard for a lot of people, not only the isolation but just the tidal wave of existential dread that hits every single day, you know? And I think that's more where my mind has been going in songwriting for the past couple years. The best way that I'm able to write about grim reaping is how I wrote about it on the song "Grim Reaping." It's like, I'm not very good at articulating myself in song; I've tried to, but I can't write a protest song. I'm not that guy, the voice comes across as contrived and disingenuous, even if I care passionately about the thing that I'm talking about. My strength lies in talking about how the state of affairs is affecting me on a personal level, and hopefully in a way that a bunch of people can understand and relate to. Everyone knows the world's pretty fucked up right now, but there's a whole side of this where, there's a very "us against them" mentality but what is lost is how people feel individually, and how it's affecting people on a very basic, emotional level. I'm hoping some of these songs can address that without me sounding like a fucking asshole [laughs].
On a musical level, I think the album sounds very distinctly like PUP, but it's also a clearer departure for the band than previous albums. Was there a feeling within the band of like, it's time for us to make something different?
Yeah, definitely. The first record, I was not a songwriter. I was kind of stabbing in the dark, hoping something good could come out of it. And for the first three records, we as a band kind of evolved and got better at writing those kinds of songs and making those kinds of records. And the goal for the second and third record was "let's do what we did previously but do it better without repeating ourselves." That was kind of the M.O., and I think we kind of reached the logical conclusion of that with Morbid Stuff. And I think it would be so creatively unsatisfying to be one of those bands who's like "well the last record worked so let's do that again," you know? That could've been a really easy way for us to about things, like I think we could write another record like Morbid Stuff pretty easily, but it kind of feels like selling ourselves short. So, it was a very conscious decision to take some different risks and take a different approach to recording the record, and see if we could actually continue to build on what we've done rather than just regress. And that was just an important decision for all of our mental healths, because if we weren't getting creative satisfaction out of this band it would implode very quickly.
On that same note, you did the record with Peter Katis after doing the first three with Dave Schiffman. Obviously Peter's known for working with Interpol and The National and stuff, and there's a definite change in production style in this record. What made you decide to work with Peter and what was working with him like?
I'll first say that Dave is one of my best friends, and we're still very close to this day, so [not working with him] was a tough choice. Dave is such an integral part to the sound of those first three records, like he is as important as any of the four of us, so the thinking was, if we don't want to redo Morbid Stuff, we gotta step outside of that world. And yeah, the first two Interpol records were pretty huge for me growing up, and The National too, and I know Steve especially really loves The National, and we're all just big fans of Peter's work. So we were pretty excited that he was excited about doing a PUP record. It was interesting working with him. We recorded in the studio that he owns, it's just a big house, and he's got all sorts of crazy ass gear. It was pretty fun for us because we're used to just recording on our touring equipment, but he had all these crazy synths, and the first day I sat down and played the piano that he's got, and like it's the piano that The National recorded all those records with, and that's pretty mindblowing for me. Peter definitely brought a different vibe to the process -- he is a vibe guy, he's about making sure that everyone's having a good time and that everyone's excited to be there and enjoying themselves and feeling creatively fulfilled, which is just different than previous records, which we approached with a very blue collar mentality, like "let's go to work, let's do this 9-5, let's get it done and move on." So there's definitely a lot more fucking around in the studio with Peter, experimenting with sounds and different gear and stuff like that. And Peter left us a lot to our own devices, which is something that I don't think a lot of producers do, and something that for some people might be a negative, but for us was very much a positive. He wasn't there a lot of the time that we were recording; he would come in the next day and listen to what we'd done and give us feedback at that point, which was new and exciting to us. Whenever we had ideas in the studio previously, there would be five of us discussing whether it was a good idea to plow forward with or not, and now it was like, no one's vetting this, let's just do it, and if it sucks, it sucks. So having that freedom to wake up at 2 AM with an idea, and go up to the studio and fuck around with it kind of resulted in some interesting stuff.
You mentioned playing the piano in the studio -- how did "Four Chords" come about?
I bought this Fender Rhodes on a whim -- I don't play piano, I'm very shitty at piano and I've never written anything on piano. The first thing that I wrote on that was "Four Chords," and it was before we were in the studio, and that was not supposed to go on the record. I sent it to my bandmates, and I was like, "This is a song for my friends to make you guys laugh." That's all it was, a joke. But, as it goes in our band, usually the jokes that stick end up in the music somehow. So, we went into the studio -- I had forgotten about the song pretty much entirely, we had never discussed it after that first day when we all laughed about it -- and then we got close to the end, we were about four weeks into recording, and Nestor was like, "Hey what about that other song?" And I was like, "Why would that ever go on a PUP record?" But he convinced me to record it in the studio, so I did it, and we were just laughing again, and the next day I woke up and Nestor was like, "Hey that's gonna be the first song on this record." And I was like, "What are you talking about?! This is not a song for this record at all!" But the more I kind of thought about it, the more the whole record made sense to me, as a whole collection of songs. It was the last song that we recorded, and to this day I still can't believe that it's on the record and that it starts the record, and I think if Nestor hadn't pushed for that, this would be a very different record.
I do feel like, especially the way it comes back a couple times, it kind of does tie everything together, and makes things feel "conceptual."
Those other shorter ones were added to the record the day that it was mastered, because it just seemed so ridiculous. There's often a lot of prodding on my bandmates' parts to be like "that idea isn't as dumb as you think."
I really love the line that's like "they haven't listened to any new music since college," because it's a concept I think about a lot, like how people do reach that point in their life where they don't want new music anymore. Is that line kind of inspired by that concept at all, or am I reading too far into it?
I think it's mostly like, I've sort of been coming to terms with this idea that this band's still very modestly successful, but the more success that we have, the more people are gonna hate us too. That's a pretty obvious thing, and it's not something that I want to complain about because I don't really care, but for emotionally fragile people -- especially if you're introverted -- that's a tough thing to kind of wrap your head around. Like, people hate me and I don't know them [laughs]. So I think a lot of that song and that line in particular was me coming to terms with that and realizing that the music we're making is not for everybody -- not only "not for everyone" as in a lot of people won't enjoy it, but it's not for them. It's a very specific kind of person who's gonna get the humor behind that song, and if you don't get it, that's okay, it's just not for you. So I just try not to take anything too personally when it comes to the band because I'm ready to get torn down, and I know in my brain that I write these songs, especially "Four Chords," for my bandmates mostly. I've kind of reached a point in our career where the only thing that matters to me is if the four of us are gonna be happy. Like, are we gonna like the song, or think it's funny, or think it's good? What's the feeling behind the song, and do the four of us agree on it? And if so, that's all there is to a PUP song. And I hope other people connect with it, but if they don't, my three bandmates are my whole barometer for whether things suck or not.
THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND comes out 4/1 via Little Dipper/Rise. Pre-order it on black with magenta and red splatter vinyl.