PUP on “THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, September 30th, 2023  


Down The Rabbit Hole: PUPTHEBAND Inc.’s Path to Corporate Dominance

Mar 30, 2022 Photography by Vanessa Heins Web Exclusive
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PUP are ready to sell out. Or, perhaps more accurately, they’re acutely aware that they’ve already sold out and are making no secret of it. While the idea of making money off of your music is not as controversial in DIY scenes as it was in the ’90s, for many bands there still is a cultivated distance between the band’s music and the band as a business. After all, nobody wants to think of their art as a product.

But with their new record, THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND, the Toronto punk four-piece have taken the maligned practice of selling out and turned it into an art form. They’ve been marketing the record with cheesy ’90s infomercials, signing off press releases as PUPTHEBAND INC, offering up merch with the band’s new “corporate” logo on it, and they’ve capped off the record’s climactic moments with a thank you to the sponsors.

It’s all very tongue-in-cheek, but that isn’t to say it isn’t serious. PUP very much know that they aren’t the same band who wrote “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will.” These days, they’re not playing to 20 people in basements, they’re playing to thousands in legendary venues. They’re not packed into a single van, hitting 250 tour dates in a year. Now they’ve got a tour bus and they sleep in hotel rooms, something guitarist Steven Sladkowski is quick to note they thought would never happen. They’re a happier band and a more settled and secure band. Talking to them it’s hard to believe you’re talking to one of the biggest punk success stories of the past several years. The band themselves can’t seem to believe it.

Of course, that viotility—the underlying feeling that everything could unravel at any moment—is foundational to PUP. Or as the band have put it on their latest record, “I’m failing upwards again/I might pull it off/If I don’t fuck this up before it pays off.”

“I think the four of us are on some level uncomfortable with being comfortable,” drummer Zack Mykula explains. “It feels weird to be able to sleep [on tour]. It’s this weird, twisted Protestant work ethic that’s inherent to living in North America. So you gotta be in pain or you’re not working.”

Their latest commitment to selling out is a winking extension of that self-lacerating impulse. In addition to being a funny concept, like most things with PUP, it’s also a form of therapy. “Most bands wouldn’t bring the idea of the band being a business to the forefront of a song or a record,” frontman Stefan Babcock explains. “It’s really helped to temper that dissonance that definitely appears for every band at a certain level when the art and the business start to collide.”

“We also don’t love posturing,” Mykula adds. “We’re very open with each other. And I think that there’s no way to describe this band other than painfully us.”

As Sladkowski notes, “We don’t half commit.”

THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND certainly feels like their biggest moment; it’s their most melodic work yet and the furthest they’ve departed from the basements and cheap beer that populated their first two records. Though the gang vocals, soaring anthems, and self-loathing that define PUP are all here, they’re tinged with a cracked, brain-fried experimentalism. Their 2019 album, Morbid Stuff, pushed their tight punk formula to its most polished sheen, while THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND feels like an evolution into something new.

That evolution finds the band open to exploring seemingly every impulse. Pianos, horns, 808s, and a bevy of other bells and whistles populate the tracklist, including a distorted synth opening on “Habits” that almost veers into chiptune. It’s the result of a recording process that was at once the band’s most unrestrained, freeform, and collaborative. The band isolated together in producer Peter Katis’ bat-filled Connecticut mansion, recording in between meals and at all hours of the night, leaving the house only for groceries as the world burned outside.

“Essentially we spent five weeks in the same house together, just working on this record at all hours,” Babcock recalls. “When you’re kind of in that situation, there’s not much else to do except for work on the record. It’s easy to kind of go off the deep end in that circumstance.”

Mykula adds: “When pushed to the brink, unreasonable things suddenly become reasonable.” Unsurprisingly, inhibitions lowered and things got weird.

Bassist Nestor Chumak is quick to remember one time when he and Stefan recorded vocals on a whim, Babcock sprawled out in the living room of the mansion screaming his throat-shredding take in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, Babcock brought along a brand new piano he bought with the label advance, along with a childishly simple song he wrote when he was still learning the instrument. Initially intended as a joke between the band, “Four Chords” instead opens the record and introduces the album’s corporate throughline, with Babcock’s ramshackle piano playing quickly ascending into a towering distorted overture.

Later in the tracklist, the band craft a robotic star-crossed love story with “Robot Writes a Love Song.” As Babcock recalls, the track started with a simple question: “Can I write a love song and not have it sound stupid and cheesy? And the answer is no, I can’t. It started out as a really brutal love song that was just awful. And then, as soon as the idea to change the perspective came in, it suddenly gained a new life. The things that felt cheesy in the first version felt a lot more emotionally poignant. I can’t really explain it. It just felt less contrived and more earnest somehow.”

Meanwhile, with “Matilda” (a tribute and send-off to Babcock’s treasured guitar), Mykula says Babcock did something truly unique—“You wrote a song about an instrument and it’s not cheesy. Listen to ‘Piano Man,’ like Jesus Christ. And I couldn’t write a song about a snare drum. That’d be idiotic.”

Finally, after barely managing to stay on the rails, PUP fully unravels on the closer, “PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing for Bankruptcy,” which finds Babcock ranting and raving as the band storm through their most unhinged track yet. It’s a perfect encapsulation of all of the record’s preceding mayhem and each member’s chaotic whims. Babcock recalls, “Nestor brought in the original idea, and then it was fleshed out by Zach, then Steve, and then all of these crazy ideas started forming. I feel like it is truly a distillation of the four of our brains and mental states into like three minutes of chaos. That song is more PUP than any song we’ve ever written.”

That would seem to be the advantage of selling out. If you do it right, you have the freedom to do anything and everything you want. For PUP, there’s been no fear of making Morbid Stuff Pt. 2, no worrying about the critics. They simply have made the most PUP album they could.

“I feel like the self-doubt might start to creep in if we didn’t feel like each record was more creatively fulfilling than the last for us, but we haven’t felt that way yet,” Babcock says. “We just double down on what we do every time. Because regardless of the commercial success, the fact that we like each album more than the last just means that we are in a place that the four of us want to be.”

With no holds barred, PUP have captured and distilled the band’s essence into their most exciting work yet.

“We felt like we had so much freedom this time,” Babcock says. “We’re not as worried about having to work a coffee job if people don’t like the record. There’s something to be said about coming up with a really stupid idea, or a really funny idea, or just an idea that we thought was out there, and then following that idea all the way down the rabbit hole.”


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