Toronto punkers PUP play in the dark with third record, Morbid Stuff

On the title track of PUP’s third record, Morbid Stuff, singer Stefan Babcock seems to be working through some, well … morbid stuff.

Powered by a pounding beat, thrashing guitars and an impossibly catchy chorus, the song begins with our foul-mouthed and bored protagonist “stuck on death and dying and obsessive thoughts that won’t let up. It makes me feel like I’m about to throw up.”

Things don’t get much sunnier as the album progresses to numbers such as See You At Your Funeral, Full Blown Meltdown and the amusingly creepy Bloody Mary, Kate and Ashley. As always, despite the Toronto punk band’s playful name, sing-along melodies and unhinged energy, PUP seems preoccupied with darkness and disaster.

“Playing in this band is a catharsis for all of us I think,” says Babcock, on the line with PUP drummer Zack Mykula for an interview with Postmedia a few hours before taping an appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers in New York City. “It’s a way for us to work through negative emotions and turn our negative energy into something positive. Yeah, I mean, flailing around and jumping around on stage and screaming your guts out is a really cathartic, rewarding experience. That’s why the songs are so dark but also sound pretty fun and have humour in them. The stuff we’re tackling is pretty dark, but the outcome of doing that with your best friends and with something you love, which is music, is too fun for us to just wallow in our own self-pity.”

It has proven to be a winning balance for the four-piece. In less than a decade, PUP have gone from a basement band with low-key ambitions to one of the country’s most reliably exciting live acts.

Its sophomore record, 2016’s The Dream Is Over, made waves in the U.S. and earned raves from high-profile sources such as The New York Times and Rolling Stone. More than half the dates on the band’s upcoming tour through Canada, Europe and the U.S., which kicks off March 26 in Calgary and arrives in Edmonton March 27, are already sold out.

Out April 5, Morbid Stuff reunited Babcock, Mykula, bassist Nestor Chumak and guitarist Steve Sladkowski with Dream Is Over producer Dave Schiffman. At first blush, it seems as if the band didn’t stray too far from its poppy-punk roots. But a closer listen reveals evolution in the songwriting and experimentation in the studio, particularly on the unhinged-folk-to-galloping-country tune Scorpion Hill or slow-burn epic City.

“With Scorpion Hill, and the same for City and a few other songs, I think in the past we would not have had enough self-confidence to just dial it back for a minute and have a soft part,” says Babcock. “On the past couple records, we’ve felt like people only like PUP when PUP is at 10. I think on this record we have plenty of songs and moments where it’s cranked up to 10, but we were just more confident that we could keep people’s attention and play softer parts.”

The band received an interesting lesson in how pliable their songs can be thanks to an unusual experiment. PUP posted the lyrics and chords to Free At Last long before anyone had heard it and invited fans to upload their own version of the song. They received 253, including opera and hip-hop covers. Finn Wolfhard, the young actor from Stranger Things and the singer of Vancouver band Calpurnia, even offered an interpretation.

“It was incredibly gratifying to see all these different takes on our song,” says Mykula. “It’s really amazing. Not one song was the same as another of all the submissions. There were a lot that were really, really cool and some that were better than our version.”

While the band’s trajectory since forming in 2010 has been impressive, PUP has not been without its hardships. The Dream is Over was actually named after a grim diagnosis Babcock received from a doctor when a cyst formed on his vocal cords after the band recorded the album. He was told his singing days were over. Clearly, they were not. But it has been a long struggle.

“I’ve been working really hard,” he says. “I worked with a speech-language pathologist to learn how to speak again. I’ve been working with a really great vocal coach. I’ve tried to take vocal lessons before and always really hated them because people try to tell you that you sing wrong. I think most people who are classically trained on a lot of instruments and especially the voice don’t realize that what you’re doing isn’t wrong, it’s just what you’re doing. This guy has been really good in just trying to help me do what I do but hurt myself a little bit less.”‘

Babcock says it also led the band to dial-down their lifestyle on the road. While encroaching maturity may seem antithetical to the punk-rock ethos, the boys in the band are now all in their early 30s and have decided to take care of themselves a little better while on these long tours.

“We’re not 22 anymore and there are consequences to partying every night and eating fast food constantly,” he says. “So we’re trying to rectify those things.”

“I think we like to say we take it easy around drinking, but if we do it’s a very small amount,” Mykula adds with a laugh. “But there is a thing about getting older where you are more intent on finding your creature comforts and just staying with that and having a routine that keeps you sane day-in and day-out. Generally, with age, it’s focusing on being less haphazard with things, whether that is fast food or how you are talking with people around you or how much you’re drinking. That’s been a big change, but I think it’s a survival thing that evolved naturally.”

PUP play March 27 at the Starlite Room. The show is sold out. Morbid Stuff is out April 5.