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If This Record Doesn’t Kill PUP, Nothing Will

The Toronto rockers are back this week with ‘The Unraveling of PUPTHEBAND,’ an album that can only be described as the most PUP experience possible. For fans of the quartet, that’s a great thing.

Vanessa Heins/Ringer illustration

At the risk of overselling their new album, PUP have likened it to the most powerful orgasm you will ever experience. They’ve arrived at this conclusion through the typical PUP creative process, like a reverse Be Sharps—someone makes an unfathomably dumb joke that makes the others groan in disgust, and then it somehow sticks around long enough until everyone agrees it’s kinda brilliant. Drummer Zack Mykula introduces the concept of “creative edging” to describe how PUP have perpetually pushed the boundaries of good taste throughout their existence, only to practice restraint at the last possible moment in the name of artistic decorum. But now with The Unraveling of PUPTHEBAND, they are … um, holding nothing back. “In this case, the orgasm is that we’ve lost our minds and that’ll go on the record,” says Mykula.

Whether or not their fourth album is their best or most artistically challenging is irrelevant toward their aims of being the most PUP. This mostly means following through on the nuttier ideas that they now have the resources, confidence, and autonomy to pull off without being told no. “For three records straight, what we’ve noticed is that the dumb, goofy, very PUP stuff that you’d never hear on the radio is the stuff that connects with people,” frontman Stefan Babcock says, whereas the moments when they intentionally “tried to break through to a wider audience” fell flat.

At first, it’s difficult to ascertain the read Babcock has on his own music—play their previous albums The Dream Is Over or Morbid Stuff to an unfamiliar listener and I imagine they’d immediately identify the blood-boiling shout-alongs “DVP” and “Kids,” or maybe the beer-swinging group chant of “Sleep in the Heat” as most likely to be “the hits.” And that is indeed the case, as they’re the most streamed songs on Spotify, racking up more than 18, 14, and 9 million plays, respectively. But erstwhile producer and formative mentor Dave Schiffman confirms PUP’s ill-fated dip in the mainstream, mentioning an undisclosed track from The Dream Is Over that the band felt lukewarm about but was deemed by management as having “big radio potential.” “In the interest of being team players, we went in and tried to construct … a more ‘radio-friendly’ version of that song,” Schiffman says in an email. After the tweaks and remixes and overdubs failed to yield the desired results, the idea of making a PUP pop hit became a running joke for the rest of their working relationship. ​​“I always felt as though it was more about making a great record and doing what each song needs to be compelling and sound like PUP,” he continues. “If at that point something happens at radio then it would be organic, not contrived or forced.”

PUP sees The Unraveling as their reward for a decade of failing up in a most organic way. Ever since they started out as Topanga in 2010, the Toronto quartet has realized perpetually escalating commercial and critical fortunes for music that is shockingly energetic and galvanizing, given how much of it is about feeling like the world’s biggest fuck-up. (Their name is, after all an acronym for “Pathetic Use of Potential.”) The Unraveling opener “Four Chords” tells the origin story of the piano Babcock plays on it—he spent the label advance and learned just enough to make a “dumb” song about it. He laments how his friends have moved on to listening to “noise punk or nothing,” and then it swells into Bright Eyes–esque drunken orchestral chorale. Which is actually a sign of restraint, given the band’s original “ridiculous, Disney-style arrangement.” “We can’t go John Williams–core,” says guitarist Steve Sladkowski. Closer “PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing for Bankruptcy” throws in a saxophone solo, mostly because the band imagined it as something a typical PUP fan would actively dislike. And though The Unraveling bears many of the tokens of earned indulgence—pianos, trap drums, horns, interludes, and reprises—PUP have not made their Kid A, let alone Metal Machine Music. Lead single “Waiting” hinges on what Babcock called “the simplest, most uplifting chorus I could write.” I’ve seen “Robot Writes a Love Song” compared to Weezer numerous times.

Still, PUP have a right to be concerned about the perception of how much they’re trying to be successful. To this point, all of their albums have amplified and, at times, caricatured their reputation as lovable losers. As with most of the enduring guitar-based music of the 21st century, their 2013 self-titled debut didn’t immediately reveal itself as groundbreaking, but just shy of its 10th anniversary, it now appears as a great unifier of peripherally connected subgenres. They first toured with dudes-rock bards the Menzingers and signed to SideOneDummy, a label built on unfashionable but reliably-selling punk acts like Flogging Molly and Royal Crown Revue and rocketed into the 2010s by the success of the Gaslight Anthem; PUP was a shoo-in for the flannel-clad, point-and-shout crowd hoisting PBRs at Fest and Houses of Blues across the country. Yet, there was a nastier, more sarcastic edge that aligned with the sort of post-hardcore bands like Drive Like Jehu and Jawbox that would get snapped up by major labels in the early ’90s and get smuggled onto MTV and skate videos, along with indie shit-stirrers like Mclusky. And as attitudes toward emo and pop-punk began to soften in indie rock circles, their star rose alongside Joyce Manor and Jeff Rosenstock, acts who were likewise trying to shift their milieus toward ethically and politically responsible mindsets.

PUP toured behind their debut relentlessly with a wherever-whenever attitude that ultimately landed them at Warped Tour, where they found themselves butting up against indifferent crowds and the last dregs of emo’s third wave; Babcock has been abundantly clear how he felt about that. “I said [after finishing PUP] they needed to get on the road and play as many shows as possible,” Schiffman writes. “No one knows who you are! Who knew they would take it so literally?” In the process of playing more than 400 shows behind PUP, Babcock completely shredded his vocal cords and was told by his doctor that “the dream is over.” This became the title of their defiantly raucous second album, which began with “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will”; in the video, bassist Nestor Chumak douses Mykula with gasoline and lights a match before he is run over by Sladkowski, who’s at the wheel of PUP’s van. By the end, they’re playing a house show with their hospital gowns and catheters still in place. 2019’s Morbid Stuff simultaneously played up and deconstructed a life of leveraging depression as a form of social currency and artistic integrity; it peaked with “Full Blown Meltdown,” which breaks out into a nu-metal mosh pit.

Babcock had been documenting the unraveling of PUP, the band, for years. Yet The Unraveling of PUPTHEBAND finds them in a position where the stakes are far higher. After eight years of constant touring and fairly frequent economic anxiety, “we’re actually a corporation that pays corporate taxes and buys insurance,” Babcock says. “We have a shared calendar.” They also have financial advisers and accountants and all of the other professionals that emerge when a band has enough money to be a target for scams. “We got off a call in 2020 with an investment portfolio manager and all of us burst out laughing,” Babcock recalls. “We’re so fucking in over our heads. What is portfolio management?”

PUP recast themselves as their own “board of directors” on The Unraveling, subject to mind-numbing committee meetings over the minutiae of recording. In a callback to Schiffman’s The Dream Is Over story, the interlude “Four Chords Pt. II: Five Chords” crumbles after a debate about whether Babcock’s braying vocals should be Auto-Tuned. But for the most part, all four members of PUP are in alignment. Chumak speaks up about four times in about 90 minutes of our interview, but he’s acknowledged as the spiritual guide of The Unraveling. “Nestor has a lot of really stupid ideas for music videos that, for a long time, I would think, Oh that’s kinda humorous but stop wasting our time,” Babcock jokes. “And as the years have gone by, it’s like … this is fucking hilarious if we follow through with it. And the only reason it wasn’t funny was because we weren’t.”

They did not follow through on Chumak’s piece de resistance, a medieval-themed concept based on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; they estimate it would take about $50,000 to do it properly. But they did make good on his idea for taking the crypto-corporate concept of the album to its logical extreme in the video for “Totally Fine,” in which Babcock is a TED Talking disruptor wearing a black turtleneck as an homage to Elizabeth Holmes vis-à-vis Steve Jobs; the band/corporation gets stupidly rich on shady real estate deals, beats an embezzlement charge, and then plays a gig in outer space. “We’re in this lucky position where we get to make whatever stupid garbage we want and put it out into the world,” Babcock boasts. “And for the most part, it goes pretty well.”

It’s true that no rock band in the current day has made better use of music video than PUP—maybe no artist, period. Most of PUP’s videos are consistently entertaining and inventive, in a way that reminds me of Spike Jonze’s name-making run in the ’90s (if he had serviced just one band). “DVP” retrofitted its lyrics into a series of classic video games, from Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! to Street Fighter to Toejam & Earl, and it’s not just the best lyric video ever made, it might be the only good one. For Morbid Stuff’s Free at Last,” they provided the chords and lyrics and challenged their fans to write a cover without hearing the actual song. At other times, PUP can be surprisingly poignant; the clip for “Sleep in the Heat,” a song inspired by the death of Babcock’s chameleon Norman, starred longtime fan Finn Wolfhard and got into tear-jerking Marley & Me territory. “Kids” envisions a PUP reunion in 2059 after the band—in various states of humiliating old age—finds out that Babcock is actually not dead but found “stinky and disheveled.”

The video for “Robot Writes a Love Song” follows the lyrical concept of a computer that dies after developing the capacity to experience human emotions; the band claims director Whitey McConnaughy somehow reclaimed a treatment that was originally intended for Lil Jon’s “Bend Ova.” Single “Matilda” leans more toward the latter as a love song about a beloved and beaten guitar, a crucial piece of PUP lore. During their 2014 tour with the Menzingers, Babcock says the band was in the middle of a “real ‘everyone hated us,’ piece of shit show” in Richmond. To combat the crowd’s indifference, Babcock hit his guitar against a cymbal and as Chumak remembers, “it just exploded.” It was his only guitar and the band didn’t have much; PUP were saved by a friend of Babcock’s who put them in up Washington, D.C., the previous two nights, but only under certain conditions. “You can have this guitar as long as you never resell it or rename it,” Babcock recollects. “And its name is Matilda.” This is the guitar that’s appeared in most of PUP’s videos and refuses to die quietly; “as the pressure rose to sound better on stage and in the studio I started playing better guitars,” Babcock says. “But there was a feeling of guilt every time I looked over and realized I haven’t played that one for months.”

Despite the implications of “Matilda,” PUP are uninterested in romanticizing their earlier, hand-to-mouth existence. Though each had “pretty good jobs” in the early 2010s, “when Dave agreed to produce our first album, we were like, ‘This is real, we have to commit,’” Babcock says. “Unless you blow up immediately in some weird way, you have to take the gamble at some point.” But by Morbid Stuff, they all had to think longer term: “Where am I gonna be in five years, is there going to be a family involved, is this going to be a career that sees me through for a number of years?” The band identifies this as the second pivot point of their career, one that many of their friends may never get to reach. PUP were fortunate enough to release Morbid Stuff in April 2019, which gave them enough time on the road prior to the pandemic that they could survive two years off —“We’re a business and we’ve been fucked,” Mykula bluntly states—regroup and write another album that creates a spectacle of their implosion.

By no means had PUP devolved into formula, but by Morbid Stuff, there were certain expectations that would likely be met by their music, the kind that results in a band being used for Hard Times headlines: “New PUP Album Syncs up Perfectly With Man Crying in Shower,” “Until I Started Listening to PUP, I Had No Idea Canadians Also Thought Stuff Was Bullshit.” “I feel like we would’ve lost our minds if we did the same thing we tried to do for the last three LPs,” Sladkowski says, which explains why they hauled off to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to work with Peter Katis, a Grammy-winning producer best known for his work with Interpol and the National—bands whose associations with indie prestige, white-collar mobility, and high-end menswear are diametrically opposed to those of PUP. As Interpol’s notoriously garrulous erstwhile bassist Carlos D once put it, “To all those who have not been fortunate enough to partake in the bounty that Bridgeport, Conn., offers, let me try to put it all in a nutshell: strip malls and dilapidated houses.”

Which is exactly the environment PUP needed. While making their previous albums, Sladkowski remembers that “we would arrive at the studio everyday and then go to the apartment that we found on Airbnb that had weird wood panels and a Disney bedroom without windows. It wasn’t like you open your bedroom door and there’s a gold record from the National.” Despite their public-facing persona, PUP have exhibited a powerful, almost puritanical work ethic in the studio—“we made food and we fucking played music and sometimes Steve forced us to watch the Olympics and the NBA Finals,” Babcock says; Sladkowski’s live wardrobe usually includes a number of Raptors jerseys. “Peter said at the end of the record, ‘I’ve never seen a band with four or more people who are so fucking nice to each other,’” Babcock recalls. “Well how many bands do you know that wrote a song about killing each other together?”

Therein lies the irony of The Unraveling of PUPTHEBAND: It’s the first instance of a PUP record that doesn’t bear some palpable risk that they won’t stick together long enough to make the follow-up. While Mykula admits that he started taking some high school classes during the pandemic—it was more because of his anxiety than any real backup plan. “There’s a few things that make me really happy—my dog, my partner, playing music with my friends,” Babcock says. “This career would be miserable for the four of us if we were the kind of band that just only wanted to be negative.” And then Mykula senses things are getting a little too sincere and needs to bring it back to a PUP level of humor. “What Stefan is saying is that he wanted to present a rich tapestry and in so doing, we created the Life Is Beautiful of records.”

Ian Cohen is a writer and registered dietitian living in San Diego. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, and Grantland.