When someone mentions the band PUP, there is only one phrase that comes to mind–tour hounds. Stefan Babcock (vocals, guitar), Steve Sladkowski (guitar), Nestor Chumak (bass) and Zack Mykula (drums) have all jumped on almost every festival imaginable on top of supporting and headlining their own tour circuits, and there’s a good reason why–they are meant to be seen and appreciated. These gentlemen came barreling out of Toronto a few years back with their EP Oceans (under the name Topanga) and quickly made quite a name for themselves. Following up with a self titled full length in 2013, PUP quickly proved that they were meant to stick around and worked hard for it with an impressive quantity of shows under their belt. They kept the ball rolling with their 2016 follow up The Dream Is Over and their momentum still hasn’t slowed down. 2017 isn’t even halfway done and we’ve already seen quite the stacked list of where they will be heading next. This includes Northside Festival on June 11th, which is a FREE show that will celebrate Thursday’s 20 years as a band, and PUP was asked by the festival themselves if they would take part in this “lineup stacked with kindred spirits.”
Sladkowski took time out of his hectic schedule and spoke with Substream from all the way out in Toronto. Speaking with a note of energy and pep in his voice, one could almost see him in an anthropomorphic form of what PUP emits through their songs–positivity despite all odds. He kindly walked Substream through how he balances hardcore road dogging, his thought process for writing new material and the effects of gentrification on art and community.
Tickets for Northside Festival can be RSVP’d here.
You guys just played the Boston Calling Festival. What does it mean for you guys to go from a huge festival like that that to a smaller set, and back to something big and so on and so forth? With how fickle the music industry is, does performing in both such large and small capacity venues and fests keep you in check to stay humble?
Yeah, I think so. I think you should be willing–at least for us– to play anywhere that sounds fun, whether it is a festival of 40,000 people or a venue where the max capacity is 100 people. You should be more than willing to put on a great show and great performance regardless. One of the things we learned is how to tailor our set lists to smaller and larger shows. As long as you are always willing to learn and grow with the experiences of different settings, then that should keep you humble. It should be fun! You shouldn’t be mad to play a small club. The most important thing is putting on a good show. People are paying to see you, and you should have a good attitude about it. People are either seeing you for the 2nd or 6th time, or even they are experiencing you for the first time and you always have to give it your all. The importance of it all is to put on a good show and make sure people are both having a good time and being respectful. We are so lucky to do both!
On June 11, you guys are playing a free show in Brooklyn, NY hosted by the Northside Festival. What drew you to this particular festival?
They came to us and asked if we wanted to do the show. Thursday are one of–especially one of Stefan’s favorite bands–one of those bands that were influential in the music that we grew up in as teenagers. There is also Jeff Melina and Jeff Rosenstock, the dudes in Hotelier, those are all people that we’ve played with who are good friends, or who we have admired so we thought it would be a really good fit! Also, what is there not love about playing in Brooklyn?
Northside Festival even put on the description how kindred spirits are uniting for the celebration of Thursday’s 20 years as a band. That is a cool description of all the supporting acts.
I mean sure! Thursday is one of those bands that aren’t necessarily pigeonholed into one genre necessarily. I think if there is one thing you can say about us, The Hotelier and Jeff is that we all draw from a lot of different places even though we come from a kind of punk background and upbringing. I think that any of the other 4 groups, even Thursday themselves aren’t necessarily completely indebted to that. I think the beauty of all the records and the philosophies of these artists and us too – that we try to draw from a lot of different places to write a record. They aren’t just stuck in a genre of pop punk or something like that. We listen to piano, weird avant garde music with Jeff Rosenstock at 2 in the morning. [Laughs.] I think that it is really great, and it shows how much more nuance and versatile the artists roped into the punk pop punk sort of thing are a lot more than that.
I remember Geoff Rickly once said how he knew that Thursday was about to burn out when he realized that his passion is now a mundane full time job. With how you guys came out swinging and with your track record of shows and festivals, do you possess the same fears?
It is tough to predict the future, but where the four of us are in our lives and how long we’ve been working at it, even though 2013 was kind of like the coming out party, we have certainly been at it for much much longer than that. The four of us are very aware of how hard it is to get to where we are now and we are very appreciative of that. The truth is, there is always going to be a part of your job that you don’t always like. You don’t enjoy your job 100% of the time. For us, I still think that the passion is there. We are still friends and hang out and love to play shows and write music. I try to go record shopping in every city we go to. I assume there is always a case to be made for burning out, but for the four of us, we are trying to make the most of our time, and we are really thankful for what we’ve accomplished, the friends we’ve made and the opportunities that were given to us. I think it is important to keep perspective on that and to get too high or too low and to focus on playing shows and writing good music and being decent humans beings while giving back to the fans and people who have supported us.
As each day goes by, you guys are announcing new tours or another festival that you joined the ranks in. Does it ever become overwhelming, in regards to abandoning the normal life for a life on the road?
It can be. We all have partners so that gets tough on them when we are away for long amounts of time. I think that it is one of those conscious things for a little while now. Since Stefan’s throat scare, which is now in the past, we’ve been really focused on trying to figure out how to both make our time at home more focused on being at home whether it is us getting together in a jam space, or enjoying a day like today where it is beautiful and sunny outside! You start to appreciate mundane tasks, like when I’m done speaking with you, I am going to go clean my apartment and I am totally stoked on that! It is so different than being on the road. While on the road, you are focused on taking care of yourself.
There doesn’t have to be a crazy party every night. I tell people that we live our lives like every day is Thursday, which is funny given the context of this interview being on a Thursday and talking about Thursday! Um, but on Thursday, you can either go out and have a great time and treat it like it is the beginning of a weekend, which is a totally reasonable thing to do and I’m sure you and I have both done that a few times in our lives!
Oh, yes I have!
[Laughs.] Or, you can go home and be like, “I am going to go home and make spaghetti and watch Netflix and it is going to be AWESOME!” Taking that attitude both towards touring and being at home is a saving realization for me. It bridges a gap, if you know what I mean.
The Dream is Over is already a year old. That went by super fast!
It has been a wild one! Lot of countries, lot of gigs, a lot of body sweat and a lot of beer! It has been awesome!
The music scene is still going strong, yet there seems to be a trend with small venues closing down at a rapid rate. Do you personally feel that the growing gap between the local music scene and bigger venues should be addressed?
Are you from Toronto?
Nope! I am not. I’m located in New York!
Well, there are a lot of forces at work with that. There is a certain rate of change in a city that sort of always happens. As a New Yorker, you are probably keenly aware of that too! I think it is important to be aware of how urban development and gentrification affects the art and music scenes. I think, also, there’s a level of uncertainty to running a venue. Unless you own the building somehow, most smaller live venues’ runners don’t own the property in which their venues are housed. It is always in the back of your mind. I see both sides on it.
For instance, there is a venue in Toronto that is very famous called The Silver Dollar, which helped give us our start. Due to development of student housing, it may reopen, but if it does, it will never be the same. That was really distressing, but at the same time, I can think of a lot of other spaces in the city like Baby G that are functioning in the same way that The Silver Dollar did. They are going to be giving touring bands, the baby touring bands, a shot like we got. There is always opportunity in that as long as people are willing to take risks.
[…] There is a podcast that is really called, Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything. There is a really great episode about the role that the artist plays in gentrification too, which is where you move to a neighborhood that becomes cheap and it becomes a desirable area due to the people that are there. So, more people come in and kind of drive up the price, which it disproportionately affects the community of people existing there prior to artists moving in. I think it is important to be aware of it. We are all a part of gentrification. I advocate mostly for responsible development where one pays attention to the history of the neighborhood and the community.
The “Sleep in the Heat” video is still making waves in the music industry. You guys are still receiving nominations from various publications. Was this sequel to “Guilt Trip” always in the works, or was this just a ‘you know what would be funny?’ idea that came into reality?
We were just emailing back and forth with Finn [Wolfhard]. He is just a friend at this point, which is cool! Seeing him rise to where he is now has just been fucking amazing, and I am so proud of him! He’s such a great kid and his parents are amazing…I can go on and on about him!
We just thought it would be fun, and we sent him an email. We got the band back together so to speak for the whole thing, and it just worked out great. It was fun to complete that narrative. Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux is amazing. He directs our videos, and we are lucky that we have such talented friends who have such great ideas that work out really well.
Overall a big group of talent working on these videos, and as you mentioned, with Finn blowing up as Mike in Stranger Things!
I hope that the people casting for that show saw him in our video and were like, “Let’s cast him!” and then that will be my claim to fame when everyone has forgotten this band. [Laughs.]
The Dream is Over is a diverse record both instrumentally and lyrically with an overall theme of positivity. Stefan went through self reflection due to his vocals on this album, but how about you? Did you take the time to self-reflect when composing?
Yeah. We don’t have very many rules in terms [of] songwriting. We do have one overarching one, which is not to repeat ourselves musically. We always want songs that are catchy, and as someone writing fundamentally what is pop music, there is always going to be an importance on the vocals and the melodies.
What we try to do is to draw from places of things that we find interesting that do NOT mimic previous songs, regardless of how popular they are, or well executed we think they might be. Essentially, why would we write another “Dark Days”? We’ve already written that song. I like to look at form and listen to a lot of music. I don’t listen to pop punk in writing mode ’cause I find that listening to music too close to what you are making, you will tend to subconsciously channel that music. I like to draw from anything from jazz music, country, avante garde, or even rap, hip hop or R&B. I like to find different musical forms that are interesting or something that sounds intriguing that we’ve never tried before. Also, different techniques so we can explore and push and see where this band can go and see what different musical directions we can take ourselves in. There’s stuff we all did on the last record that I am really proud of, but that’s done, we did it already. In that way, we can look at it and go, “Ok, what did I really like about that record? What can we expand on? Well, I’m not going to do this, because I already did that here, here and here.”
Lyrical perspective, it is about being okay with that sort of questioning of self and also never wanting to take things too seriously. I think consciously that is something we like to always present. You should always take the time to have fun and even make fun of yourselves. It is important to realize who you are, where you are and to create things that accurately reflect that. It is important for us to progess and continue to create things that are interesting to us. Not to mention to progress as human beings.
I love how the record examines and belts out the brutal truth that childhood is all but a blindfold over the innocent eyes of a child in regards to the reality of the real world. Was there anything that ripped down the veil so to speak, for you that you felt you had to put on the album through your guitar?
I think on this record I thought a lot more about what is the role of a lead guitarist in a rock band. I like to think about the history of music, personally. I like to think about what is demanded of a lead guitarist. I was thinking about ways to put a spin on that whether it is not [being] afraid to play power chords, or if writing an interesting solo or something in between the nuance.
I still take a lot from musicians that I loved growing up like Doc Watson or Nels Cline from Wilco. How do I take the feeling and emotion and joy about finding out about that music for the first time and try to translate some of that to the things that I found interesting. I felt like on “Old Wounds” there was some interesting guitar work that I was able to figure out inspiration from someone like East Bay Ray (The Dead Kennedys). I like that. I like the way that this band works for me as a guitar player. It has been very easy to marry sources of inspiration to my writing. I try to find musical concepts that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear in punk music, or what I think we wouldn’t necessarily hear in punk music and I try to put that in a subversive way. I’m always looking for new ways to sneak in stupid ideas, basically!
You guys posted on your Facebook in early April that you are in the midst of filming a new video. Can you give us any details?
It is probably one of the craziest undertakings for a music video that we have ever done. That’s all I can say right now!
I liked looking at that music video post and seeing people went,“X video was dope, I hope they reference that!” or cracking a joke that in the photo of the skeleton that Stefan lost weight, and you guys were so responsive and goofing along with them.
People seem to think that social media is just for starting arguments where people disagree with you. Truthfully, what I think is that it should be an open conversation. There should be a back and forth with the band and their listeners. We can’t respond to everything, but we want people to know that we actually hear and see them and take their concerns into account. If you aren’t going to do that with your band’s social media, then what is the point of having it other than self-gratification?
It is important to use social media responsibly and to also further a conversation with a connection with your fans. Ultimately, it will make your shows better and safer. Not to mention, it allows people to be part of the conversation. For the four of us, we value what people think. Whether it is that they are excited for a new video, a request to come to their city, or we’ve had moments where people were uncomfortable at shows and they reached out to us via social media and we pinpointed what happened and helped them deal with that experience.
With the consistent touring, are there plans for writing anything new, or are your only plans for now are just road dogging it?
Oh, we are always writing! We are very very lucky for the four of us to be very good friends, contrary to what “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” may suggest! When we are home, we try to get together two to three times a week to work on stuff. The difference between now and when we were writing The Dream Is Over, is we are not as crunched for time. Even though we are on the road a lot, this summer is comparatively light [compared to] last year or 2015.
So, we pay ourselves a living wage as much as we can, so we don’t have to work other jobs. In other words, our band is our job. I don’t think it is a bad thing. It is all that my bandmates and I have ever wanted is to do this as full time, as committed and as creatively true to ourselves as possible and that’s great! There’s no stress and no worry as we are writing away. There’s no plan to record anything yet, but we are working always!