Toronto’s PUP keep the dream alive

PUP share stories of powering through tough tours and medical scares to deliver their new album, 'The Dream Is Over.'

May 17, 2016

Photo: Vanessa Heins

“If this is it, then I’m just gonna fucking run this into the ground. I’m just gonna go out every night until I am physically incapable of doing it anymore. Because what difference does it make?”

Stefan Babcock was up against the wall last October. It was the first day of his band PUP’s fall tour supporting Modern Baseball and he was dealt some bad news: a cyst that had grown on his vocal cord had haemorrhaged. The doctor told him to either get off the tour, go back home to Toronto and basically give up his budding career as the frontman for one of the universe’s most exciting young bands, or risk permanent damage to his voice. Like anyone committed to their craft, Babcock said “fuck it” and opted to go out in a blaze of glory.

“So I was told that on the first day of a seven-week tour, and we did six weeks of that tour,” he says. “I got up there and did my best and it was fine, actually. But the damage added up, and by the final seventh week I couldn’t make a sound with my voice – at all. So we came home and I went to get multiple opinions, and essentially I was incapable of making a sound for two weeks. It was very concerning. I didn’t know if I’d be able to sing again.”

As you can likely guess, this story has a happy ending. Babcock was told he could either have surgery and be out of the rock business for up to a year, or go on vocal rest for an extended period. “I just felt that taking a year off would just more or less be the end,” he says. “There was also the concern about what I would do for a year. And my bandmates would have to get real jobs, so after a year would they want to rebuild this band from scratch? There were all of these things to consider. So ultimately I chose to forego that and I feel a lot better because of that.”

PUP tested out Babcock’s refreshed cords on a brief European tour and an appearance at South By Southwest, but he says there is now a routine to follow so he doesn’t shred his throat ever again.

“My voice feels really good. I’ve been retraining it and taking care of myself,” he explains. “I am approaching things a bit differently now. We used to do 30 shows in a row, and multiple shows in a day, like a house show after a normal show. And that was great, but if you tour as much as we do you’ve got to pick your battles. We’ve got to be more careful now. Just realizing that the four of us are just humans, and we really pushed ourselves to the limit a few years there. Now we know what the limit is so we can dial it back a bit and keep going.”

The timing for all of this to happen couldn’t have been worse. After touring like diligent road warriors for practically three years straight, PUP built a tidal wave of momentum that primed them for next level triumph. The fact that Babcock is ready to join the band and tour their asses off all over again is nothing short of a miracle, considering PUP are finally prepared to give their 2013 self-titled debut a sibling.

PUP’s second album is called The Dream Is Over. While it’s a pretty good name for an album even without any real connotation, the band chose the actual words the doctor gave Babcock when she explained his ailment. Babcock says hearing those words “fucked with my mind big time. Through various bands I’ve spent 13 years trying to accomplish what we have just started to accomplish. To get to a stage where maybe things will work out for us, only to get told that I’m no longer able to physically do what I want to do. It’s a tough pill to swallow. But ultimately the doctor was incorrect [laughs].”

The Dream Is Over is arriving at what feels to be a pivotal time for bands like PUP. Their style of life-affirming, anthemic punk rock has reached a zenith, as far as the genre is concerned. Alongside bands like the Dirty Nil, Joyce Manor, Jeff Rosenstock, Beach Slang, and Single Mothers, PUP have become a band that can deliver albums as thrilling as their boisterous live gigs. Babcock says with this new album, that was part of the plan.

“I wanted to make a fun punk rock record,” he explains. “We love doing this so much that we kind of treat playing live and writing music as this catharsis. Not just for me writing the lyrics, but for all of the band members. And we do it because it’s fun. We’re not making good money doing this. We’re doing it because we love doing it and I think that really comes across in the music.”

The approach in making The Dream Is Over wasn’t all that different from PUP’s self-titled debut, but after they finally got some time to sit still and write a new album, the band realized all of that touring paid off.

“If you do 500 gigs with the same people, you get to know each other very well. That’s what we signed up for and we enjoy doing it,” Babcock says. “But we came into the second record much more confident: Confident players, confident in each other’s abilities, and a stronger sense of the kind of band that we are and what we wanted to accomplish on this second record. We’re a much tighter unit from all of that touring.”

“I feel like it’s more dynamic than the first record,” he continues. “Part of that confidence is being able to play a lot heavier, but also not being afraid to get soft at moments,” he continues. “I think anyone that listens to the second record won’t be shocked that it sounds like a different record. There was a lot of growth, and I think that was mostly in getting louder and heavier.”

As the band demonstrated in the video for the album’s second single, the self-explanatory “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will,” four guys travelling around in a van to perform 500 gigs can take its toll. Big time. But PUP know that paying their dues is what it takes to get to where they are.

“It does get gnarly,” Babcock admits. “We’ve had a year where we were on tour for more than 10 months, and we’re still at a level where our touring situation is very unglamorous. The four of us are still sleeping on floors together every night. We’re really lucky when we get a hotel room together and share one bed. It’s not glamorous. And the little things can really get to you. Like, ‘Fuck! I really hate the way you fucking chew!’ These inconsequential things take on monumental significance.

“Like any other job, you have your good days and your bad days. It’s only that one day that we want to fucking kill each other. And we all really recognize the fact that we couldn’t do this without each other. We have more of a sibling relationship than a friendship at this point. We know how to push each other’s buttons, but at the end of the day we love each other. PUP wouldn’t exist without the four of us.”

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