By Glenn Alderson
Toronto has just recovered from a week-long winter apocalypse and PUP frontman Stefan Babcock and drummer Zack Mykula are sitting in a craft beer hall in the city’s West End, nursing their beverages while pinball machines clink away loudly in the background.
Torontonians have an interesting, if not comedic, relationship with winter. Remember 20 years ago when the mayor had to call in the military to help them battle mother nature? While this year didn’t call for a full blown national emergency, it was still pretty dark — for Toronto.
“I actually love the doom and gloom of winter, but that long Canadian winter does play into the songwriting and general vibe of our songs,” Babcock says.
Surviving winter is one thing, but the story of PUP is actually rooted in survival, with a bit of deep-seated nihilism thrown in for good measure. The young punk band has just finished the final touches on their new album, Morbid Stuff, and they’re enjoying some downtime before they take off on tour for what’s basically looking like the rest of the year and then some.
The album is so fresh that they haven’t even had a chance to think about what this installment of their discography means to them yet, but you can tell by the album name alone that it’s pretty much the same old PUP doing what their fans have grown to love from their previous albums, up to and including 2016’s defiant The Dream Is Over.
If you don’t know the story, the narrative around the album is one of perseverance; one that defines the band’s ethos through and through. In 2015, on the first day of a six-week tour, Babcock discovered a cyst on his vocal chords. The band was in Baltimore and he felt something was off so they went to a clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital. This is where he would meet the doctor who would be the source of inspiration for the album name when she uttered the four words no artist ever wants to hear — “The dream is over.”
But in actuality, PUP’s journey was just beginning.
Babcock recalls: “She was like, ‘Just go home, this band thing is over for you. Just go home, forget this tour, go be miserable for a while and then figure out what you’re going to do with your life because it’s not going to happen.’ So, all of us being very defiant in the face of that stuff, we decided to just keep going and we ended up getting through five weeks of that tour, which was crazy.”
The actual crazy part is that when they finally landed back home in Toronto on week five, when things were at the height of anything they’d ever experienced at the time, Babcock’s voice had finally had enough.
“In our home market with the most pressure and the most fans and everything, just before we went on, I literally couldn’t make a sound,” Babcock continues, taking a sip of his finely crafted lager. “It just wasn’t there at all. And we played that day and I was just croaking. It was fucking awful, the longest 40 minutes of my life. After that I went to another specialist in Toronto and found out I hemorrhaged my vocal chords. Essentially the cyst burst apart and filled my vocal chords with blood.”
Vocal chords have to meet to make a sound and the blood was preventing Babcock from using his voice so he had no choice but to stop. After weeks of silence and months of healing through various methods, Babcock eventually trained himself to speak again, and subsequently sing. It was a total of four months recovery before the band could even start thinking about playing shows again. While their future was never certain, the band stood by their friend and frontman and persevered.
From the “Dark Days” Babcock sings about on their 2013 self-titled debut to the “dark thoughts,” as heard on the track “Scorpion Hill” from their soon-to-be-released Morbid Stuff, the band has always maintained their emo composure blended with pure punk rock sensibilities, but the reality is PUP is thriving in their nihilistic tendencies that have carried them all over the world many times over.
Are things really that bad though?
“Yeah, pretty not good,” Babcock says. “But music is what we do because it’s fun. That’s why we play in a band and that’s why we quit our jobs to make no money and it’s a really positive way for us to deal with a lot of negative garbage in this world.”
While some of it might be tongue-in-cheek, there’s an undeniable presence of death and dying that keeps rearing its head in PUP’s lyrical content. Babcock insists it’s not intentional.
“It’s honestly not a conscious thing but it continually pops up when I’m writing. If you dig a bit deeper into the lyrics, there’s a mention of something like this on almost every song on the new album,” he says. “I’m a bit of a nihilist. I think we all are, but it all kind of ties together with being certain that the end is near and it’s going to be ugly. It’s a product of mental health issues and of looking around at the reality that we live in.”
It makes sense then that one of the pre-orders for Morbid Stuff is the “Annihilation Preparedness Kit,” complete with an inflatable boat for the apocalypse.
“I mean, yeah man, the fucking apocalypse is coming. Get ready!”
In the meantime, PUP have three already-sold-out west coast shows scheduled for Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. You could say the band is road testing their new album in some tried-and-true Canadian markets before they leap over the pond for a string of dates throughout the UK, France and Germany.
“It’s funny because when we do something cool like play smaller shows, all it does is make people pissed at us because they couldn’t get tickets. We get so many angry messages and try to reply to as many of them as we can,” Babcock says with a genuine smile on his face. “Sometimes bands make decisions selfishly because we want to play a smaller show. We’ll be back and play a bigger room and everyone will get the opportunity to see us eventually, but if we don’t do these kind of things for ourselves once in a while, we’re fucked.”
Regardless of the size of shows they’re playing, PUP has succeeded at capturing the DIY work ethic of the new millennium. Babcock knows things are fucked but it’s through embracing them with a sense of humour and humility that they’re able to rise up and persevere. Having climbed the ranks of the music industry in a most respectable way, Babcock cut his teeth in the all ages scene, playing in a ska band called Stop Drop ‘N’ Skank (it was a different time back then, okay?), and eventually found himself working music industry odd jobs, including marketing for Toronto-based indie imprint Arts & Crafts. He was even the manager for METZ at one point in time and has been known to offer grant writing tips and assistance to younger, less experienced bands.
Music is a lifestyle but punk rock is a commitment that ultimately chooses you. And while PUP continues to climb the ranks of the music industry and gain notoriety through their catchy songs and impressively executed music videos, they’ve never forgotten where they came from because they’re still active members of the same scene they grew up in.
“As much as we’ve all been a part of building a community since we were 15 playing in bands, all of the people who have helped us along the way have really inspired us. It made us realize that once you get a little bit of traction as a band, it’s your duty to help other people.”
Later on that night, three active and notable Toronto bands — Casper Skulls, Greys and Chastity — are playing a show at a venue in downtown Toronto. In the middle of Chastity’s set, looking into the sea of concertgoers, you can see Babcock wearing the same clothes he was in earlier that day during our interview, rocking out with ear plugs in and big pint of beer in his hand. The big smile on his face suggests he’s clearly surrounded by friends and you can tell he wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. Because no matter the weather, it’s the music and the community you’re a part of that carry you through those dark winter nights.
Pup performs March 26 at Commonwealth (Calgary), March 27 at the Starlite (Edmonton) and March 29 at the Wise Hall (Vancouver)