Pup is on Late Night With Seth Meyers, performing on network TV for the first time, and totally blowing it.
Vocalist-guitarist Stefan Babcock showed up with laryngitis. Ten seconds in, drummer Zach Mykula’s floor tom fals over. Babcock and fellow guitarist Steve Sladkowski’s cables get unplugged at a key moment. Playing one of the lead riffs, Babcock gets nervous and drops his pick. These are the kind of debacles that must make a punk band from Canada think the U.S. hype they’re finally starting to earn could to evaoprate before their eyes.
Except nobody noticed any of that. As the last note of “Kids” rings out, the crowd roars and Meyers pops out to hype the band and shake their hands. Peope like cathartic, life-affirming pop-punk to sound a little scrappy; professional television editing takes care of the rest. Pup lives to fight another day.
“You know what? It was so fucking Pup of us.,” laughs Babcock, chatting with Billboard a few days later. “I think people got the real Pup experience. It’s kinda like all our live shows. It’s not really being perfect; it’s more about getting the vibe right.”
Those vibes will carry the Toronto-based quartet (which also includes bassist Nestor Chumak) through most of 2019. A lot of punk bands get the “road warrior” tag, but Pup has just plain lived it; in 2014, the year they released their self-titled debut album, they raged for over 250 shows. That would seem to make what’s announced of their 2019 intinerary — just shy of 100 shows through November — small stakes, except for how high the stakes have been raised: a summer night, hometown headlining show at a 5,000-cap amphitheatre, a Septmeber show at New York City’s 3,000-cap Terminal 5, just months after they quickly sold out nearby Brooklyn Steel, roughly half the size.
Long-running punk label SideOneDummy, which released Pup’s first two albums, unexpectedly scaled back operations in late 2017; undaunted, Pup founded its own label, Little Dipper, to launch the new LP. Morbid Stuff — released just over a week ago (April 5) — is already being hailed as Pup’s best yet.
Billboard chatted with Babcock and Mykula as they work towards meeting the challenge.
It’s great that Late Night had you guys on, but I feel like Pup already earned a spot like that behind The Dream Is Over — with the acclaim it earned, the Polaris Prize nom, the crowds you were playing to back then. Why do you think it takes longer for a band like Pup to get that recognition?
Mykula: I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault. Our type of music is not in the spotlight right now, I guess. It’s uncommon to see a guitar band up there, especially one as roughshod as ours. We don’t [play along to backing] tracks. We’re just four dudes yelling. I find that untypical of that sort of attention.
Babcock: I was trying to find a heavy-ish band that had played on Seth Meyers and I couldn’t find anything that was even within the realm… Not that we’re a super-heavy band, but we’re a bit aggressive. It’s nice that somebody took a risk on us. Hopefully nobody got fired for that decision.
Are there other ways Morbid Stuff feels different than everything before?
Babcock: Everything has definitely been a lot bigger the last couple months. I think our biggest New York show before this was [650-cap venue] Music Hall of Williamsburg, which was awesome. Now we sold out [1,800-cap venue] Brooklyn Steel within a week of it going on sale. That makes it feel like a big step up, but I don’t think that effects how the four of us operate.
It feels good to know we’re going to get to be doing what we do for another year. But to me it doesn’t feel that much different. It’s still the same four of us the same two dudes that tour with us, the same guy who does all our videos, and Dave Schiffman who produced [Morbid Stuff and Pup’s LPs to date]. It feels like the team is taking their baby steps forward.
You set up your own new label, Little Dipper, to release this album. Tell me about that.
Babcock: Rise/BMG is doing [worldwide] label services and Universal Music Canada, in Canada… The Orchard is our distributor… BMG provided us with a fund to run our own marketing and Rise is providing us with the staff to execute the marketing ideas we have. So when we say, “Hey, we want our pre-order to have inflatable boats,” any other label would be like, “That’s stupid, no, you’re not gonna sell boats as part of your pre-order.” But Rise/BMG being the supportive people they are are like, “Okay, well you can use money from the marketing fund if you want.”
The way to keep our DIY outlook alive was to start our own label and make sure that we stayed in control of all the artistic elements of our careers, from the music to the artwork (which Zach does a lot of) to the videos (which we’re all heavily involved in) to making zines. Doing all that DIY stuff that I don’t think a lot of bands do once they get to a level where they don’t have to.
With your new label set-up, are you seeing a lot more money in your pockets?
Babcock and Mykula: [Laughs.] No.
Okay, maybe a little more?
Babcock: I’ll be honest, I don’t know why record labels still sign bands. There is no money, at least in our world, for doing that. The way we have always made money in this band is through relentless touring. That’s the only way to make money. Never from record sales. So no, it was definitely not a financial decision. It was more a decision we made because we want to keep creative control of our things.
Are you looking to sign other artists?
Babcock: We’re not sure yet. I mean, yes, we are, but I’m not sure in what capacity. I think we have a lot of friends who make amazing music who don’t really know how to turn it into a job. So I’d like to help some of our friends do that. I don’t think the four of us have any interest in running a traditional record label in 2019. I mean, we’re broke enough as it is… But I definitely think there’s a space for releasing music and maybe some cool music-adjacent art from different people, in a DIY capacity, that’s gonna be cool for bands and not fuck us economically forever down the line.
The liner notes say that Jeff Rosenstock helped workshop songs on Morbid Stuff. What was that like?
Babcock: Jeff has been someone I’ve looked up to for 15 years… I value his opinion a lot. The songs were pretty much done, but I thought, “Jeff is such a good friend of ours, we’ve toured with him so many times, Zach sometimes tours as his drummer…” I thought, “You know, no one is really giving me feedback on the [album], maybe it’s worthwhile to bring it to Jeff.”
He’s just really helpful at putting things into perspective. Lyrics I thought were maybe too vicious or whatever he was like, “No.” One of the big things he said to me was, “If it feels real to you, if it’s visceral for you, it’s gonna connect with people. And if it’s not, it’s not.” I spent a couple days showing him the songs, seeing what he thought.
Mykula: He’s generally a good influence. Like, he was one of our guests at Seth Meyers, and just him being around was so comforting. He’s just awesome to be around. But don’t tell him I said that. [Laughs.]
I read that “Full Blown Meltdown” was inspired by how the music industry mistreats mentally ill musicians. That makes total sense to me, but what inspired it?
Babcock: It’s hard to explain… I always feel like I explain it best in the song lyrically, but it’s sort of grappling with this idea that there’s this fetishization of depression. And there’s this idea of the tortured artist that I fucking hate so much. I hate that mood disorders can be fetishized or glorified in any way. It’s so fucking gross to me.
The thing that I struggle with a lot is finding, you know, a lot of our success has come us writing songs about being people with shit, you know? About either struggling with depression or being basket cases, being losers, and that’s all very real. That’s why I write those types of lyrics. It always pops up in the back of my mind when I finish writing those types of songs: Am I part of this problem that’s fetishizing mood disorders? It’s really important to me that there is one song on this record I could lay out how fucked up I think that is, how fucked up I think it is to make a living just talking about how you hate everything.
It felt good to be so brutally honest with people who like this band. So that should be no question in their minds that all four of us are well-aware that in a way, unintentionally, we’re profiting off our own shortcomings, you know? Which is a fucked up thing to think about.
That song was almost called “The Realest Song On This Record,” but some people thought that was a stupid song title. And they were probably right.
I appreciate you talking about these topics because I know they can be difficult. With such a heavy touring schedule, what is it like taking care of your own mental health?
Mykula: I can’t speak for everybody else, but what’s worked best for me is trying to take what I do at home and have some road-friendly version of it. Making sure you sleep enough, making sure you’re eating nutritionally rich foods… Making sure you’re getting some exercise even if it’s just walking and getting out.
I practice meditation and mindfulness and I do that on the road, which is admittedly a lot harder. But there’s no wrong way to meditate, so you just kind of have to get through it. And I have my own mental health strategy with CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy]. And it’s trying to make sure you’re a decent person to the people you’re around. We’re basically brothers-slash-married, so those relationships come with their innate prodding and being good friends to each other. Just like, knowing when enough is enough and looking out for each other.
Babcock: For me, the hardest thing is having no personal space. I recharge by being alone and that’s a luxury you can’t have on tour. The best thing has just been the four of us being empathetic to each other’s situation. All four of us struggle with this stuff to varying degrees. We’re all very lucky to be surrounded by our best friends, who are understanding, caring, and don’t hold it against you when you have a shit day and flip out at everybody.
You accomplished so much with The Dream Is Over. Releasing Morbid Stuff three full years later, were you worried about losing momentum?
Mykula: In general, I don’t buy into the idea that inspiration or motivation comes externally. When it comes down to it, when you’re deep in the shit of creating things, it’s like you’re always creating your own motivation. Action begets action. It doesn’t pop out of thin air. Especially as a person with mood disorders I’ve been dealing with over a decade, it’s your job to find that inspiration. You can’t just expect it to come, no matter how well people tell you your band is doing.
Babcock: I hope I’m not putting words in the other three guys’ mouths, but it seems like we have this attitude that all we can do is our best. We work really hard. I mean, we spend so much time on the road. Bands who are cranking out new albums once a year, every year and a half — either they’re not spending as much time on the road, or they’re super prolific songwriters… The opposite is true for us. We tour so heavily. We’re also not prolific. We’re very careful on our songs. We spend a lot of time working on the minutiae of every song. Without that we wouldn’t be Pup.