How PUP Turned Crippling Doubt Into Addictive Hooks

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Self-loathing or self-deprecation aren’t substitutes for a personality, so Canadian punk four-piece PUP understand that you also have to add in a generous, triumphant spirit. Take “Free at Last,” the second single from their upcoming third record Morbid Stuff, which sprints out of the gate with a missive someone might have sneered at singer Stefan Babcock (“Just ‘cause you’re sad again doesn’t make you special at all.”) Of course he internalized it, and then ejected it out of his mouth in caps lock for an audience to shout back at him. Before the single was released, the band shared a lyric sheet and chords for fans to cover the song before they’d ever heard a note. After 253 submissions, the finished music video is a kind of tutorial video/YouTube cover mash-up, and the sweetest possible outcome for a song this nasty.

On their first two records, PUP found common ground between pop-punk and post-hardcore — along with put-downs and wisecracks — to make hook-laced songs best for careening around a plastered mosh pit. Their self-titled debut in 2013 lit the fuse, plucked out of relative obscurity by L.A.’s SideOneDummy label, and they began the ascent from sparse basements to larger rooms. In 2016, PUP released The Dream Is Over, which was on its face a rebuke to Babcock’s doctor, who gravely told him that very phrase when discovering a cyst on his vocal cords. Instead it amounted to a star-making album, covering the impulse to murder your bandmates, mourning Babcock’s dead lizard, and the acidic sting of heartbreak with maximum velocity.

Morbid Stuff expands on their tried-and-true misanthropic formula, but nudges it to more ambitious places. There’s a spindly Built to Spill bridge, some of Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor’s narrative sprawl, tricky tempo changes, an accordion outro on “Scorpion Hill,” and a downright disrespectful System of a Down–esque breakdown at the end of “Full Blown Meltdown.” Along with the band’s songwriting, Babcock’s point of view has sharpened further and grown even more candid, grappling with his own depression and repurposing the band’s most crippling doubts into addictive hooks. “I get to fucking talk shit on myself in a way that doesn’t beat me down, instead it kind of helps raise me up in my own eyes, because I get to see that other people are relating to it,” he says.

There’s catharsis in here, for Babcock and anyone else who realizes that this current moment is one that should be desperately feared and ridiculed in equal measure. Morbid Stuff works as a culmination of its time and scene, bringing together many of the friends who helped get them to this point — Jeff Rosenstock workshopped a number of songs with Babcock, former tour mate Eva Hendricks of Charly Bliss guests on “Free at Last,” and longtime collaborator Dave Schiffman returns behind the boards. It’s a smart playbook for how bands can mature or get introspective without selling out their original appeal. Vulture talked with Babcock and drummer Zack Mykula to learn about the challenges behind making Morbid Stuff, Babcock’s persistent vocal-health anxieties, and more.

How did you land on the idea to reverse engineer a YouTube tutorial video for “Free at Last?”
Stefan Babcock: We started our own label called Little Dipper, and this is exactly what happens when you let four idiots have control and a bunch of money. When we were putting out a zine a while ago, and the original idea was to kind of include the chords and the lyrics in the zine for the unreleased song and see if we got any submissions. We started getting so many submissions that were so good, we decided to just post it online and go a bit wider. Honestly, we didn’t originally plan on turning it into a music video — it was just for ourselves. We just got so many great submissions that the four of us thought that we’ve gotta do something with this. We can’t just sit on 250 awesome cover videos and do nothing with them.

That instructive or interactive approach to music, like the tutorial video or tab book, feels like a dying art. Have you guys ever thought about releasing a tab book?
Zack Mykula: I think we’ve talked about it, but there’s not enough competence in the band to do that in the first place. Nor is there the will to make that effort. So if it were to happen we’d probably have to get someone who really loves us to do those songs.

Stefan: We’ve talked about doing the tab book, but it has been a point of contention because as Zack said, I don’t even know what chords I play. I just say, “Oh, I put my fingers here, and that’s what it is.” So me doing it would be a nightmare. Steve is so versed in musical theory that he wouldn’t just write it out like a normal person would write it out; it would be very complex. And he’s done that a few times and it’s awesome and super accurate, but it takes him hours and hours to tab a few bars, so we’re like, “Yeah, not the vibe.”

Do you guys remember any formative instructional videos or first songs you learned to play on guitar or drums?
Zack: I definitely in high school watched a lot of Dream Theater drum tutorials, but the first song I learned was probably something like “Back in Black,” if not exactly that. It was so elemental drum-wise, that’s when my brain was struggling to figure out how multiple limbs can move at the same time.

Stefan: The first thing I learned … well, I sat down and learned all of Built to Spill’s album There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, which is actually a really easy album to play along with. Then I took guitar lessons for a total of four weeks, ‘cause I hated learning that way. But in those four weeks I insisted that my guitar teacher teach me the solo for “Hotel California,” pretty stupid stuff. I couldn’t really play it at all.

The difficulties and origin story behind The Dream Is Over are pretty well-documented at this point. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced making this third album?
Stefan: Apathy. Not toward the band or anything like that. I’m sure you can probably guess just by listening to the record that there’s a lot of mental-health issues in the band. I’m just the one who gets to talk about it most because I write the lyrics. We are our own worst enemies; so kind of overcoming these hurdles and getting ourselves mentally to a place where we felt ready to tackle another full record was pretty challenging.

Zack: There’s the other side that I know other artists are familiar with, the impostor syndrome. That kind of carries its own misery when arguably we’re doing pretty well and living out our dreams, but when you combine it with impostor syndrome, [it] makes you miserable, like you don’t deserve it despite all the work you’ve done. If you’re just gonna be bummed out anyway, what’s the point of trying? You have to fight past that because those are all momentary feelings, and if you gave into them, you’d regret it and be giving up on everything you’ve worked so hard for.

As a band, do you think this album helped you guys become more open with discussing the difficult times with each other?
Stefan: I think for me, being in a band with Zack has helped me open up and just find the language to describe what’s going on with me. It’s such a confusing thing, like I never would have labeled myself as having depression or anything, but just having open and honest conversations, I think it becomes apparent when you’re suffering from those symptoms that what you have is normal … not normal, but what you have is something that a lot of people struggle with, and it feels good to feel like you’re not just a piece of shit, and that there’s a kind of way to deal with this stuff, and one of them is making fun music.

Zack: I think I have more experience being depressed than I do playing the drums. I could arguably be called a professionally depressed person. And even so, there are times when I feel like I should feel shame for how I feel, with regards to my life and lifestyle and how lucky I am. Then I realize that’s the symptom of depression, part of it is self-shame, and part of it is just a casual numbing to all the positives of life, so I have to remind myself of that.

Have there been any lingering vocal-health concerns that have changed your touring habits going forward, or was that a onetime issue?
Stefan: Nope. It’s something that is always going to be a struggle for me and something I think about before we go on tour and every day on tour, and wonder if something is going to happen every single time I get onstage. But I’ve definitely worked really hard on changing a lot of the things that I do. After I blew my voice out, I had to go to a speech-language pathologist to learn how to speak again. And it’s kind of been a big climb back up, but I’m feeling really good where I am now. I take care of myself way more than I used to. I just eat a bit better and exercise more, and I don’t get blasted every single night. I pick and choose my battles and also realize my limitations as a human being. Although we’re on the road as much as we used to be, we tend to take more days off just to recover our bodies and our minds. I remember our first full year of touring, we did something like 35 shows in a row without a day off, and for the kind of music that we play and the kind of voice that I have, that’s just not sustainable.

“Scorpion Hill” is one of your most sprawling narratives, similar to “Pine Point” on the last record. Where were you approaching that from a storytelling standpoint?
Stefan: We were on tour in Portland, Oregon, and it was our first time there and we didn’t know anybody. And we had a sign up at the merch table saying, like, if you have a place for us to crash, that would be much appreciated, and we ended up at this guy’s house. We had been staying in punk squats forever, and we’re no stranger to that kind of thing, but his house was kind of a different story. We walk in, it was yellow shag carpet. There were toenail clippings in the carpet everywhere; there were cigarette butts in the carpet. It was just so gross and we went to blow up our mattresses, and our host was like, “Hey, just check the ground for needles, there might be some lying around and it might puncture your mattress.” This is completely fucked. Zack and I slept in the concrete basement on like a shit-stained mattress. It was a really horrible experience. Then on the way out the next morning, I noticed there was a picture of what looked to be his 5- or 6-year-old son taped to the fridge, and it was just so fucking heavy. It’s a lot easier to like feel disgust or even pity or, you know — it’s easy to tell someone you’re a fucking adult, you should have your life together, and when I saw that picture all those feelings disappeared and it was just sadness. Like this is a real person; this isn’t the life he wanted and some things have gone really wrong in his life, and this is a terrible fucking experience. I was just kind of putting myself in his shoes and trying to imagine what the path was that he had gone down to end up in this circumstance, you know, realizing that he was a human being.

The music video for “Kids” leaps 50 years into the future of the fictional PUP universe you began with “Guilt Trip,” with some dystopian elements. What type of futuristic technology are you most worried about?
Zack: For me, it’s one that’s already here, and it’s just how personal electronic devices are going to affect our outlook on the world and also relationships going forward. I think that’s like the biggest thing, depersonalizing everything.

Stefan: I guess I don’t really fear the Black Mirror universe because I think that the world is probably gonna end pretty soon. Just in terms of environmental catastrophe and the way that we treat the planet, and especially recently politicians have chosen to prioritize military over sustainability. I don’t have a lot of faith in humanity, so I guess my fear is that we’re not going to figure out this environment thing. So if that’s the case, we’re probably one of the last generations, so who the fuck cares about anything. Cool!

How PUP Turned Crippling Doubt Into Addictive Hooks