Dream On: PUP talk new full-length and the impact of nonstop touring

Vanessa Heins

It’s appropriate that PUP vocalist/guitarist Stefan Babcock conducts this interview while on tour overseas. Since the 2014 U.S. release of PUP’s self-titled debut, the Toronto band—completed by guitarist Steve Sladkowski, bassist Nestor Chumak and drummer Zack Mykula—have played an estimated 450 gigs in support of it. Understandably, such an intense schedule had a huge impact on the band—both positive and negative—and much of their second full-length, The Dream Is Over, is influenced by and centered around those experiences. While it might have been a dark tunnel at times, the album is a strong affirmation that the band has emerged out the other side, ensuring in the process that the album’s title—which was inspired by what a doctor told Babcock after problems with his vocal chords—is going to become more ironic with every passing day.

[The album is finally out] and [you’ve] been playing some of [the new songs] live. How are they going down and how do you feel about them?
STEFAN BABCOCK: It feels really good. People are responding to them as well as the older songs, which is definitely encouraging. I think we all knew that there would be a bit of a struggle, because most bands on their second record feel that way, as people just want you to play the hits from the first record, so the fact people seem excited about the new stuff is keeping our spirits high. And they still feel really visceral to us and it’s exciting for us to play them. I mean, we’ve played “Lionheart” live 500 times, and we still enjoy it, but the new stuff is injecting a new sense of excitement and energy into the set.

You were on the road for so long after the first record and I know it had some adverse effects on the four of you in terms of your physical and mental well-being. So on a personal level, what do you do to keep your enthusiasm and heads up on tour? What keeps you motivated and inspired?
Every show is kind of different, and we really feed off the energy of the crowd, so a big part of the excitement for us is how we interact the crowd, which is really different every night, and every country we go to the options are different. Like you said, we’ve toured so much, and it’s exciting for us to come back to places that we’ve played before and see our crowds grow. We just played Brighton for the fourth time. The first time there were about five people there, but it was cool and exciting because it was our first time there. The second time there were maybe 20 people, the third time there were 80, and going back and having 250 people there, with a lot of them singing along, it was incredible. One of the rewards of touring so much is that the rewards are super-tangible and you see your audience get bigger every time.

Which means your album title is definitely a lie. The dream isn’t over—it’s still very healthy.

It’s very much alive right now! But yeah, The Dream Is Over is something that a doctor told me when they examined my vocal cords and saw they were pretty messed up. I think naming the record that was a pretty bold move, and a very clear indication from us that the dream was not over. It’s a pretty tongue-in-cheek and rebellious title, and now being out here on the road again and playing shows and having it go really well is further affirmation as to how ridiculous that statement was and how lucky we are to get to do what we’re doing. We try not to take it for granted at all, and we feel good and rested and ready to rock.

“A million people would give their left arm to do what we’re doing, so we don’t take it for granted.”

With that in mind, what are your hopes and dreams for The Dream Is Over? Is it just the fact that you got this record made, or do your ambitions extend beyond that?
We’ve always had high expectations of ourselves musically and artistically, but not really of what the band was going to accomplish. So I guess at this point our hopes and expectations are just that we get to keep playing music and touring full-time and we get to keep doing it. Of course, it’s nice to see growth and nice to get a little more money in your pocket here and there, but ultimately we just feel really lucky to be doing this and to be touring. A million people would give their left arm to do what we’re doing, so we don’t take it for granted. I guess one tangible thing I hope we might accomplish is that we get to go visit some places on this record that we’ve never been—we’ve never been to any parts of Asia or South America with the band, and that would be a really awesome experience for us.

It sounds like the experience of making this record really solidified and strengthened the friendship between the four of you.
Yeah, we’re doing really good. But it’s also really nice to have a break from touring once in awhile and we just had a pretty long one, so that kind of helped put everything in perspective for us. We all really missed the road and missed each other, so it put that in perspective and things are easier now because we know what the challenges are now and we know that we’re going to get frustrated and we’re going to want personal space and stuff. But, ultimately, the days that are shitty are one in 10. The other nine are really great.

You mentioned the break you just had. What is real life for you now? Is it at home or on the road, or is it divided into two things? What’s normality?
You know, if we’d had this discussion six months ago, I’d tell you 100 percent that I feel most normal on the road, because that’s what we spend most all of our time doing. Having this little break, it was interesting. Right now, I don’t feel like there’s any such thing as “normal” in our lives. Things seem to change pretty quickly for us. We spend a lot of time on the road still, and we just spent some time at home, so it’s all very strange. I don’t find it difficult to deal with, but I do find it a little bit jarring. But it’s also a lot of fun to live this lifestyle that maybe not very many people get to experience.

Presumably, though, you’re not going to still be playing more than 200 shows a year?

My hope is that we do around 180. I think 100 shows a year for any band is a lot. I think that’s kind of on the steep end for most bands anyway, and I think that we will always be the kind of band who wants to—and does—go above and beyond in terms of playing live. We’re just going to always be road dogs and tour hard and tour often. But we’ve learned from previous years that we’re only human and we all have our own physical and mental limits, so we’re conscious of that. So whereas we did 250 shows one year, now I think we feel good about doing 180!

A version of this interview was originally published in Substream #52.