“I’ve been having some pretty dark thoughts, yeah, I like them a lot,” croons PUP vocalist Stefan Babcock in the chorus of “Scorpion Hill.” The verse, more than any other on their most recent record, points directly to the headspace that PUP has been in for most of their career. The Toronto-based punk band has made a career out of commiserating with fans — and we couldn’t love them more for it. While their lyrics may at times be morbid, things are far from bleak for the successful quartet. They’ve embarked upon a seemingly endless tour — much of which is sold out, including their upcoming Denver show — following the release of their latest album, Morbid Stuff, earlier this year.
The four life-long friends — vocalist/guitarist Stefan Babcock, guitarist Steve Sladkowski, drummer Zack Mykula and bassist Nestor Chumak —have toured extensively over the last five years, inviting fans to take a look into their dark inner thoughts. PUP’s days may not be filled with sunshine, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t having the time of their lives dancing in the rain. Though some concert-goers have chastised the band for their loud performances, that’s exactly the experience that their fans are looking for. The rowdy punk shows prove to be cathartic for both the fans and the band members themselves.
PUP will bring their very own morbid stuff to the Gothic this weekend. We got a chance to catch up with bassist Steve Sladkowski before they make their way to the Mile High City to chat about life on the road and dealing with all of those dark thoughts.
303 Magazine: How is the tour so far?
Steve Sladkowski: It’s been really great, thus far. You know, we’ve been sort of on tour more than off tour since the record came out in April. It’s been really, really amazing. The response that we’ve been getting from people has been really amazing and overwhelming in a good way. It’s awesome. People seem really really excited about the record and have been really excited at the shows. It makes it a lot easier to be away from home for such long stretches at a time.
303: In the past, people have mentioned that as a band, you sometimes find stage diving to be an annoyance due to the disregard for the physical safety of other fans at the show – what are some tips on proper etiquette for attending a punk show?
SS: I would temper that by saying that most of the time people are doing that in a way that is totally cool and, you know, respectful. A big thing with stage diving and that sort of stuff is that you don’t want to go in with a backpack, you want to make sure your shoes are tied, whatever stuff could fall out of your pockets isn’t going to fall out of your pockets. There’s a lot of practical stuff like that. Cause, you know, we’ll have moments where people will stop and it will seem like someone is hurt, but what they’re actually doing is looking for their phone that fell out of their pocket. I think the other thing is just being aware of where the crowd is at. If there’s someone already crowd surfing then chances are that if you jump in that direction you might overwhelm the people who are more than willing and ready to catch a crowd surfer. For the most part, I think there’s been an overwhelmingly positive and respectful and safe environment at the shows regardless of whether or not they’re rowdy. It’s been really great to see people. You know, we meet with security before every show and let them know that there’s going to be crowd surfing or a mosh pit and they should let that happen unless something gets too out of control. They’ve been really good about catching crowd surfers and making sure they’re okay, and we’ll say stuff on stage just making sure that people are okay. It’s the kind of thing where it takes the entirety of the people who are a part of the experience to make sure that the show is safe and respectful for everyone, you know?
303: Definitely. That mentality and that community really seems to stem from the DIY scene that, in a lot of ways, PUP was born out of. What is it like to go from playing those hardcore shows and touring in a van to selling out larger venues and touring in a bus?
SS: It’s a little surreal. I don’t think any of us ever – we always have maintained, I don’t want to say lowered our expectations but we’ve always tempered our expectations. There’s a lot of things that we can control and there’s a lot of things that we can’t control. We try and put together a live show that we feel like people will feel good about buying a ticket to. And one that is engaging and hopefully is energetic and that draws people in. We try and do as much as possible with the time and the money that we have to make records. After that, once the records out and the dates are booked, all you can really do is just be prepared to work hard and see what happens. That’s always been our MO. Even though the shows are a little bit bigger and we have more help from the production side of things for the show and we’re touring a little bit more comfortably, that expectation is still the same. Anything we can do to allow ourselves to continue working hard and continue being this sort of committed touring and recording band that we all want to be and have always wanted to be. That’s cool. It is an adjustment, things are different. When you’re on the bus you don’t always get to hang out with your friends and crash on floors the way that we used to. We like to stop for the occasional hike. A couple of days ago we were driving up from San Francisco toward Oregon and we stopped and did a hike around Mount Shasta, cause we’re actually in a sprinter – in a van for this leg of the tour. That stuff is becoming less and less frequent, which is an adjustment. I never even thought that we would viably tour and work in this band as our actual full-time job, let alone be able to do it at a level where a tour bus makes sense. It’s really cool, and I’m trying to be mindful of that and just enjoy the experience and use it as a motivator to keep working hard.
303: Your music has always talked about the joys and the woes of touring, and it seems like that remains true on Morbid Stuff, though it does seem that there has been a bit of a shift. Can you talk about that?
SS: Stefan is the lyricist obviously, so a lot of that stuff is coming from a deeply personal place. Whether that be, you know on the last record, actually dealing with the physical fall out of touring to survive. Or you know, on this record, being kind of confronted by the fact that we’ve sort of found success in a lot of the things that we were driving for early on in this band and still kind of realizing that from a mental health perspective maybe you kind of look and think why would I still have these sort of negative feelings? You know, mood disorders, moments of depression or anxiety when everything that I’ve been working toward – you know, we’ve been playing in bands since we were teenagers. This is something that the four of us have always kind of – every menial job or thing that we’ve done has been to support playing in bands. Then you sort of get to that point where, again this is a career but that doesn’t necessarily mean you were open with yourself about how – it’s tough to talk about, how your mental health actually is from essentially doing this for so long. It’s the kind of job and the kind of world that really fetishizes mental illness and has used that crutch as a way of excusing a lot of behavior that is frankly inexcusable. I think for us to confront that in a way that felt real to ourselves – I think we also are kind of not overly self-serious guys. So we always want to temper that kind of seriousness with some lightness and some humor or some music that feels catchy and has some choruses that people can sing along to, because one of the best ways that we’ve found to proactively kind of deal with this is to seek catharsis in the group experience and in performing and meeting people and just trying to be ourselves on stage and off stage.
303: Mental health has become a more common conversation topic in recent years, do you think that musicians and artists have a responsibility to talk about that considering the platform and influence they hold?
SS: I think it’s to whatever degree that a person is comfortable speaking about it. Sometimes I think it’s really really good for people to use a platform and show that no matter where you end up there’s still struggles. This is something that cuts across all types of people. I think if you’re comfortable speaking about it and engaging it then it’s really important. But people are still entitled to work their way through their personal lives and personal issues privately if they so desire. It’s a tough thing. I think if you have a platform and you can figure out a way to use it that feels right to you then I think you absolutely should be doing that. I don’t necessarily think that demands sharing your own stories about mental health. For us, we kind of found that speaking about it has been really empowering for us to continue to do the work to better ourselves. Hopefully, that inspires people to do the work that they need to do to get themselves into a better space.
303: As a band who has decided that this is something that you want to be open and vulnerable about, what is it like to put yourselves out there and have the response be so overwhelmingly positive?
SS: It’s great. I’m glad. I’m really glad that not only were we able to open up and speak about this in a way that helps us, but the fact that people are coming to shows or sending us emails saying that they’ve really been affected by the music and some of the subject matter and that it’s maybe helped them through some dark times. I feel very privileged to be able to have an effect on people’s lives like that. I opened by saying some of this is really overwhelming, and it is really overwhelming but in a really good way.
303: It seems like these topics have always been present in punk and genres related to punk, more so than in other genres. What do you think it is about that subject matter that keeps the fans so dedicated despite the fact that a large portion of the public finds the music to be so abrasive?
SS: I think there’s an inherent – especially because a lot of the central tenants of punk still are in line with, you know, we were talking about DIY earlier – the sense of community and the openness and predisposition to welcome people regardless of who they are. I think that still is at the center of punk. From a basement DIY show, even up to the fact that there are a handful of punk bands that play arenas. I think people are always gonna connect with music that is dealing with things that are from the everyday. I think punk always kinda is talking about either trying to – whether it be overtly political punk that is trying to imagine a politic that can be progressive or it’s stuff that is dealing with emotions or mental health or other things that people go through or people feel. I hope that that would be why, even if it is abrasive, that it would continue to connect with people.
303: Speaking of things that are relatable, you just released a new music video for “Sibling Rivalry,” which tells a story about something that a lot of us have experienced in one way or another? What can you tell me about that?
SS: Stefan, as part of a way to combat his anxiety and kind of focus his energy, he started drawing his self described really poor comics. And he’s just been doing that to tell stories on tour, whatever, it’s just a process thing. So that formed the basis for the video. The song itself is about a camping trip. Stefan and his sister are both very outdoorsy, and they always try to one-up each other on insane camping trips. This is all about the two of them egging each other on while camping. Which is really funny, the rest of us are not super outdoorsy.
303: This tour is pretty long, you’ll be on tour through the end of November. Is it too early to start thinking about what’s next?
SS: I think a big part of it is trying to stay in the moment and just trying to enjoy it and take it all in. We’re kind of always working, I think that’s kind of evident from the tour schedule that we keep. I imagine that when the new year starts – we do need to go back to Australia at some point, we’ve been really lucky to have connected with people there and had really great shows there. So we’ll probably do that at some time. We have some pretty hair-brained ideas– like we’ve never played in Asia before and we’d love to do that if that made sense. It’s cool – I can’t even believe I can say that in an interview and have that be feasible. It’s fucking crazy. And other than that just slowly working on music. There’s not ever really a grand plan. We have things that we’d like to do, and we always talk about that. But it’s not like a ‘we have to do this by this day,’ you know what I mean? We’re not really like that. I think that we’re all learning that it’s not only okay, but it’s also really okay to be able to appreciate that and sit in it and be mindful of that. This is more than I think we ever expected.
303: I think that’s everything unless there’s anything else I forgot that you think is worth mentioning?
SS: No, I mean, we’re just really excited to be back in Denver. It’s one of the most fun cities in the United States for all of us. I mean that sincerely, I wouldn’t just say that. We’re really excited to be back, I can’t wait.
PUP will make one stop in Denver on June 29. They’ll take the stage at the Gothic alongside Ratboys and Beach Bunny.