PUP wrote a book on nihilism, and now they’re trying to change the ending

Ahead of their biggest hometown show yet, the Toronto punk band are fighting for underdogs everywhere through prioritizing communication and championing community.

Credit: Jaslyn Marshall
July 19, 2019

Towards the end of PUP’s free, all-ages release show for  their new record Morbid Stuff  in April, vocalist and guitarist Stefan Babcock made an announcement. “So, we’re gonna do a thing called PUP karaoke,” he explained to the audience at the at-capacity Dundas West venue, The Garrison. After asking for volunteers, he pulled up a fan named Jonathan to take lead vocals on “Reservoir,” a track from the Toronto punk band’s 2013 debut record. Jonathan ripped it—a comment on the YouTube video of the performance states, “jonathan you rule dude.” He was flanked on all sides by PUP backing him up as he breathlessly shouted out the words. Babcock stood just behind him, smiling with something that looked an awful lot like joy, before launching himself atop the crowd. It was cramped and sweaty and loud—it was a PUP show. 

Over three months later, just a little over a week out from PUP’s biggest headline show to date—a hometown Sunday night blow-out at Toronto’s Echo Beach, a 5000-cap outdoor venue on the city’s waterfront—all four members of the band slide into a horseshoe booth at The Alpine, located in Toronto’s Junction neighborhood. Babcock lives a few blocks away from the bar, but he isn’t sentimental about his rapidly-gentrifying neighbourhood. In fact, when asked if he’s considered moving away from the city, he responds, “I think about it nearly constantly. Being in Toronto stresses me out a lot.” But leaving isn’t simple. “Despite what I feel about this city, and how I fit into it, I can’t escape it,” he says.

PUP’s third record, Morbid Stuff, is perhaps their most embittered, exciting, and uncomfortably hilarious yet. It thrashes against a number of immovable social objects: depression, gentrification, fear of death, the mercilessness of capitalism. The manifestations of turmoil are varied, but they’re all united by a suffocating sort of inevitability: you just can’t fucking escape them, and trying to often feels pointless. In some ways, Morbid Stuff, with all its gleeful nihilism, rampaging riffs, and shout-along melodies, feels like an acceptance of static misery. “[The album] is pretty much grappling with this idea that you become trapped in something where you might hate what it does to you, but no longer have a choice,” says Babcock.

In the landmark 1977 Combahee River Collective statement by the Boston-based black feminist lesbian organization, one of the most resounding lines reads, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” More than forty years later, this logic still holds in rather pessimistic forms. If four white dudes feel like they lack agency, it suggests those systems of oppression are bearing down on everyone else as fiercely as ever, and achieving freedom for all continues to be an uphill battle.

How do we collectively move forward when it feels like we’re all pushing against a wall? Under these circumstances, it makes sense that PUP have structured the band around fortifying themselves with a supportive network, the longtime universal salve for healing from the casual trauma of everyday life. A potential answer is revealed when you understand PUP not just as four band members, but as four longtime friends: a tiny, scrappy community committed to keeping each other afloat.

We’ve been given a lot in our lives, so we should give whatever back that we can, cause we fucking took a lot.

Stefan Babcock

If you’ve been following PUP since their beginning in 2010, you might’ve always seen them that way. Friends and Toronto scene veterans will tell you stories about the band’s beginnings like someone recalling the halcyon days of youth: amps catching on fire at The Magpie, 30-degree-celsius sweat-outs at a bar on Wolfe Island, and general good-natured chaos across the world. In truth, in the nine years since their inception, things haven’t changed much. In between this year’s sold-out shows around the world at 1500+ capacity venues, the band has continued to play the same basements, living rooms, and tiny venues that they always have.

In early July, after playing the mainstage at Ottawa Bluesfest (which also hosted The Killers, Wu Tang Clan, and Snoop Dogg), the band played a set at House of Targ, a basement-level arcade-and-pierogi bar run by bassist Nestor Chumak’s cousin. (The band played the first-ever show at Targ when it opened back in 2014.) The ceiling is so low that Babcock says he got road rash on his face from crowd-surfing. “People on our subreddit were commending you on your bravery,” grins drummer Zack Mykula.

“I feel like most of the people who like PUP from day one are fucking losers, so they’ve been able to relate to every record because that’s pretty much what we write about: being a loser and the struggles that come with that,” says Babcock.

PUP’s 2016 sophomore release, The Dream Is Over, centered on the difficulties that characterize a non-stop touring schedule. But when they finished touring that record, the problems didn’t go away. “On Morbid Stuff, I had to come to grips with the fact that maybe touring was a factor in causing [those issues], but just because we’re not on tour anymore doesn’t mean that all that negativity goes away,” says Babcock. “A lot of people who have depression, they think if you just get this one thing, it’ll go away. If you get your promotion at your job, or if that person likes you, or if I find somebody I’ll be happy or whatever. I think the cold reality, that I definitely found, was that I got those things, and I still felt like shit. That’s almost more disconcerting than being able to point a finger at why you’re unhappy.”

“I don’t know if everyone’s familiar with the geographic cure, like moving will make you happier,” says Mykula, “but I think there are many versions of that, like changing something will make you happier, when really it’s your self-perception that is the issue.” “So fun,” Babcock grumbles.

But the PUP way, over three records and almost a decade, isn’t to internalize. It is to gather and externalize, usually sloppily and with great force—popping the blister and wiping the pus on your best bud. And while that group exorcism has always been a cornerstone of the band and their success, on their current tour the band is doubling down on their belief in solidarity and communal supports.

Faced with various, mind-numbing tangles of seemingly unsolvable problems, PUP hasn’t retreated (a commonplace strategy nowadays), but has done the opposite: dedicated their presence in each city they visit on tour to community-building partnerships with crucial progressive organizations and resources. From transgender and non-binary health resources in Minnesota, to a women’s shelter in Dallas, to a food program for refugees in France, the band has invited these groups to set up at their shows and share information, register volunteers, and encourage connections. Here in Toronto, the band has previously partnered with Sistering, which assists and shelters at-risk women, and the Regent Park School of Music. For Sunday’s Echo Beach show, they’ve joined with the Canadian Music Therapy Trust Fund.

Babcock says it’s part of using their position as four favourably-positioned white dudes to give back: “We’re four privileged people in our private lives and in our privilege for getting to do what we do,” he says. “We’ve been given a lot in our lives, so we should give whatever back that we can, cause we fucking took a lot.” 

The big thing with this was trying to find a way to use the platform and use the space that we hold in a way that feels right.

Steve Sladkowski

Guitarist and noted fan of the NBA championship-winning team Toronto Raptors Steve Sladkowski has been coordinating the initiative, and emphasizes that they’re following in the footsteps of bands that have done this before. He says that some organizations have registered dozens of volunteers, while others have raised thousands of dollars. “Fundamentally, it’s fucking easy on our end to do,” says Sladkowski. “There’s a way to remind people of your personal views and politics without being too preachy, but also not ceding any ground in that. I don’t think you need four straight white dudes yelling at you about politics onstage. The big thing with this was trying to find a way to use the platform and use the space that we hold in a way that feels right. Raising awareness is important.” Babcock, snacking on a hunk of cheddar perched atop his drink, chimes in, “I would like to raise some awareness to how good this cheese is.” Mykula retorts, “Oh it’s just marbled cheddar, don’t get too excited.”

While the response from showgoers has been mostly positive, the band explains that in Cincinatti, where they had partnered with pro-choice charity NARAL, two men (Sladkowski dubs them “fucking clowns”) in the crowd raised their middle-fingers and yelled expletives when Sladkowski was introducing the charity mid-set. This sort of conflict, too, serves an ugly, but increasingly important, function: it exposes and hopefully discourages the sorts of fans who might make a show unsafe or unwelcoming for everyone. “We can call that a culling of the fuckwit fans,” says Babcock. “Go ahead, reveal yourself,” shrugs Sladkowski. 

Similar to not being able to control who will come to a show, living in the city can feel socially fragmented, especially as aqua-green condos somehow devour both the Toronto skyline and hole-in-the-wall community gathering spots. In spite of, and because of this, the band is invested in maintaining community resources and supports. Were it not for similar artistically-enriching services being available in Toronto, PUP probably wouldn’t exist. “I wouldn’t know Nestor were it not for music education in public school,” says Sladkowski. He and Chumak played cello and double bass, respectively, in grade nine string class. Meanwhile, Mykula had known Chumak beforehand: “I probably wouldn’t be in the band if Steve hadn’t taken music in school,” says Mykula. 

People have done a lot of work before us that allows us to talk this freely about these things.

Zack Mykula

In Ontario, the current conservative provincial government is cutting funding for these sorts of arts-based electives—cuts that will impact rural, low-income, and marginalized people first and worst. Mental health services, along with comprehensive healthcare services in general, are also under fire from the provincial conservatives. Like music education, the threats to these services are personal for PUP. 

“Growing up, I felt like there either weren’t resources to deal with [mental illness], or maybe they existed but the information wasn’t there, and I still feel like that’s a problem,” says Babcock. Mykula says he’s accessed life-changing services at Toronto’s Centre For Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), which he credits with giving him an affordable diagnosis and prescription. “It’s an uphill battle for them,” he says, referencing the impact of the province’s healthcare cuts on CAMH.

These discussions seem like a natural extension of the band’s conversations on record, where Babcock details depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. The now-infamous first lines of the title track go, “I was bored as fuck, sitting around and thinking all this morbid stuff/Like if anyone I’d slept with is dead/And I got stuck on death and dying and obsessive thoughts that won’t let up/It makes me feel like I’m about to throw up!” 

For PUP, this is a practice—not a space they’ve always inhabited, but one that they’ve worked at nurturing and sustaining. “As much as we can be toxically masculine as far as how we deal with feelings, we know that being communicative is the basis of holding the band together,” says Mykula. “We’re the same friends that we’ve always been, it’s just as with any relationship, we open up more and more as time goes on. I’m open with people who I know will receive openness.

“I grew up with a household that worked very hard to destigmatize mental health because it was rampant in my family, so that helped me a lot. People have done a lot of work before us that allows us to talk this freely about these things.”

At one point, Sladkowski asserts that no matter how much space is created for open dialogues on mental health, it can never be too much, especially as modern social relations are increasingly organized around and influenced by a digital world careening towards dystopia. Being Extremely Online can feel like a prerequisite for existence in the year of our lord 2019, which leads to what writer Luke O’Neil called “Internet Broken Brain”: the extreme ways in which Being Online has ruined our minds. Mykula points to the recent and patently terrible bodyshaming of Jason Momoa, a very fit and attractive person. “I can’t have hope because that’s happening,” he sighs. “I quit Twitter, but I still see that shit. That’s a big blow to me. Stuff like [that] wreaks havoc on my mental health, just because it’s hard for me not to take it personally. By the design of depression, I am inclined to catastrophize.”

Like living in any major North American city, living in Toronto can compound these trials. Music venue and record shop closures have become routine news; the city “demolished” a community of street-involved folks living under the Gardiner Expressway weeks before an elite novelty dining experience was set up in the same area; and in July, border services officers in Toronto conducted random ID checks targeting people of colour. The whole “Toronto The Good” moniker, and its contemporary feel-good tales of diversity and harmony, can feel like a mask for a city where a prominent white nationalist, propped up by wealthy Torontonians, placed third in a mayoral election. (“And I can’t say this emphatically enough: fuck Doug Ford and fuck Faith Goldy,” says Mykula.)

“Every time we go away, the city keeps changing,” says Sladkowski. “We come back and we have friends who are struggling a little bit more, and this venue that we used to play is now condos.” Mykula adds, “The phrase, ‘You can never go home again,’ rings true every time we come back.” Despite all of this, Mykula, Chumak, and Sladkowski reaffirm their commitment to staying in Toronto. Babcock addresses his own relationship with the city on the last two tracks of Morbid Stuff. “Bare hands/Holding onto the wire!” he sings on “Bare Hands.” “Between you and me/This city’s slowly poisoning me,” he mutters on the towering closer “City.” “It’s an inescapable part of my current reality, and probably future,” says Babcock of Toronto. “Sometimes you just have to learn to cope with that and do the best you can. The cost of not living here would be leaving a person that’s really important to me, and that cost is not worth it.” 

As culture critics like artist and author Jenny Odell have articulated, even self-care has been swallowed up by capitalism and repurposed as a means to an end (usually productivity); rather than just being a thing we do to fortify ourselves, it’s a thing we do to improve our work output. But PUP is about embracing the things that make the bottom feel better. What are their coping mechanisms? “RuPaul’s Drag Race and a Nintendo Switch,” says Mykula. “Professional basketball,” says Sladkowski.

For Chumak, uniting folks from across the world is a comfort. “We’ve been lucky enough to go to a lot of places all over, Europe, Australia, and there’s always a small pocket of people singing the words,” he says. “There’s losers everywhere, and now we can be losers connected more easily than ever.”

“I think everything is shit,” starts Babcock, “but there is a glimmer in the fact that we could make an album about how shit everything is, and feel like a lot of people agree, sympathize, understand. Whenever anyone’s like, ‘I really connected with your record,’ I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, that sucks.’ But like Nestor said, there’s something in that community that can make us all feel like, ‘Everything is shit, but at least we get to feel like shit together.’” Chumak grins, “If everyone felt good, we’d be out of business.”

“Whatever,” says Babcock. “It’s just nice that the four of us get to do this, together.”

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