Published Oct 22, 2013"Fuck Disney, and fuck Topanga. WE ARE PUP. Let's do this." When Toronto's PUP posted these words on their Facebook page back in the spring, it represented the end of more than two years of hard work under their original, Boy Meets World-inspired name. They had already given up their jobs and devoted everything to Topanga, but once they decided to change the moniker and start afresh (after Disney rebooted Boy Meets World) they didn't look back. Their gamble has already paid off, since the guys are quickly gaining traction with the new name thanks to their excellent self-titled debut album.
The disc's ten songs mix group-shouted power pop hooks with math-tinged structural complexity and angst-y lyrics, all of which are delivered with ferocious punk energy. The production is simple but effective, with raw arrangements that highlight the players' stylistic breadth as they delve into fidgety tropical riffs on "Mabu," atmospheric roots rock on "Yukon," and angrily barbed punk on "Reservoir." PUP have arrived fully formed on this debut LP, and the results are thrilling. At a tour stop in Niagara Falls, NY, frontman Stefan Babcock answered Exclaim!'s phone call to shed some light on the album, the band's connection with Hollerado, and his experience taking drugs during a three-week Northern Canadian bender.
How did PUP meet?
The three other guys, Netsor [Chumak, bass], Steve [Sladkowski, guitar] and Zack [Mykula, drums], they've been childhood friends forever. They went to elementary school together, and they grew up sharing music, and playing music with each other in a bunch of really crappy bands. And I was also playing in really crappy bands. We used to play in ska bands, and all of our bands were terrible. But we played a few shows together, and so I got to know them that way. That's when we ended up going to university together, and it was right about the time where you start realizing you're way too old to be playing ska, and also, if you're serious about music, you start to get bored of playing chicka-chicka-chickas all the time. So we were all in the same boat — "let's try something new and different." And I definitely didn't want to play with my old bandmates, because we fought all the time. Tons of incest in the band.
So we jammed a few times. We decided we were going to record an EP and not be a real band, and we put out this EP online for free, and I guess it started circulating. It was really crazy. We never thought about being a real band, but we started getting show offers that were actually good show offers — not [at a] crappy bar, seven p.m. on a Tuesday night. They were real show offers, and we were like, "Oh my god." We had a meeting about it one day, we were like, "Hey, do we want to do this?" We all wanted to do it, so it forced us to get a lot better really fast. We had only written four songs for our EP, so it forced us to write another six and get a set together immediately.
Was all that early stuff under the name Topanga?
Yeah, that's right.
Was it a tough decision to scrap that progress and start with a new name?
Yeah. When we started our band, we were a pretty different thing. We weren't as heavy, we weren't as scrappy, we had a girl in our band and sang male-female harmonies, that kind of thing. As the band started to progress, we got a lot heavier, and we realized that we all wanted to play punk rock, and play really energetic and dirty music. The name just didn't really fit. When Disney relaunched Boy Meets World, there were a lot of problems. The cover of Maxim one month said "Topanga's back" in huge letters. At that point, we had finished the record, and it was one that we were really proud of, and we knew that it was the only chance we'd ever get to change the name. We just went for it, and it was really tough.
We had all quit our jobs at that point, because we had been touring under the name Topanga and recording. So none of us had jobs anymore, and then we decided to change the band name, but we didn't have another band name, so we stopped playing shows until we had a new name. It was a really dark few months. Really depressing. Everyone's like, "What do you do?" When we were in Topanga and had quit our jobs we could be like, "We're musicians, we play in a band." They'd say, "What's your band?" We'd say, "Topanga." Maybe, if you're lucky, they'd go, "Oh yeah, I've heard of you." Then suddenly, it was like, "What do you do?" It's like, "Well, I play in a band, but we don't have a name and we don't play shows." And everyone's like, "Oh sure, you play in a band. Yeah." That was really a depressing few months of not playing shows. We practiced a lot and wrote a lot, but it was a dark time. We had all quit career jobs to do it, and it felt like everything that we worked for went to shit.
What's the band's creative process? I understand that you initially brought in people to play your songs.
That's how the progression has been from Topanga — the first bunch of songs we wrote, they were just my songs, telling the guys exactly what to play, etcetera. As we've gotten more used to each other in a live setting, in a writing setting, it's been a way more collaborative process. I still write the songs, I bring the songs to the band, but I never tell anyone what to play anymore. The songs change so radically from when I bring them in as shells — I'm not a very good guitar player, so I'm just playing chords and singing the words. They change pretty radically. A lot of songwriters are really precious about that, but these guys, they change all my stuff for the better. I didn't feel like this at the beginning. I felt like it was the Stefan Babcock Band and it was called Topanga. Now, it feels like a band, it feels like a brotherhood.
What led you to work with David Shiffman? He's produced some very big name bands.
We've always been the kind of guys who always shoot for the stars, and most of the time it doesn't work out, and we're like, "No big deal, onto plan B." We did the same thing for this record. We sent our tracks to Dave, because he had produced the Bronx's Three [2008's The Bronx], I don't know if you're familiar with it — it's probably our most listened-to record in the band; it's a really awesome punk record. He produced it. We were like, "We listen to this record all the time, we love the way it sounds. We love the songs, so maybe we should just see if Dave wants to do it." So we sent him the demos, expecting nothing — expecting to essentially produce the record ourselves — but he sent us back a message a few days later and was like, "Guys, I love you songs. I think we should make a record." A week later, or two weeks later, he flew into Toronto to meet with us and hear us play live, and he was super excited about it. That was sort of the first time in our band where we were like, "Hey, maybe this is more than a hobby. Maybe this is a real thing. A guy like Dave Shiffman thinks there's potential here — maybe we should give this a real shot." And that's when we all quit our jobs.
What influence did he have on the sound of the album?
We had demoed all the songs — we had worked with a bunch of great producers, who did really great jobs doing seven-inches and stuff like that for us. But there was always something missing. There was always a disconnect between the recordings and the live show. The live show is so heavy — I don't want to say "heavy," I don't want people to think we sound like Mastodon or whatever — but the live show is a heavy show. We play loud, I scream my guts out, we jump around — it's heavy. The recordings that we had always done were so polished, and it came across as a lot more poppy. People were either disappointed in our live show when they came to see us, or disappointed in our songs when they had heard us live. That's something we communicated with Dave, and when he saw us live, he was like, "Yeah, we've got to capture this energy. We've got to capture this heaviness and this rawness." His whole motto for the whole record was, "This record should sound like the best live show you've ever played." We recorded all of it on our own gear — our touring gear, which is pretty rare for a studio album — and we recorded it all live off the floor, standing in the same room, getting sweaty. It's hard in a studio, but Dave really helped bring out the kind of aggression and energy we bring to the live show, but in a much more controlled environment.
There's a math-y, prog style to your music. Where does that influence come from?
Thanks, first of all. Thanks for noticing that. It's funny. It comes from two different places, I think. One is that, as I mentioned earlier, I'm not really a very good musician. I consider myself much more of a songwriter than I am a musician. I don't understand keys or theory or time signatures. And Zack, our drummer, is a total technical time signature nut. He loves Dillinger [Escape Plan] and all these bands that have crazy changes that I could never understand. I write songs based around melody — I don't choose four chords and play them and sing overtop. I write a melody and then I write the chords around it.
Because I'm untrained, I think a lot of the melodies I ended up writing were in weird time signatures — like in 5/4 or 7/4. In past projects that I've been in, the drummers would be like, "No, you're holding onto this one note too long," and they would change it to 4/4 or 3/4 — something normal. And Zack totally embraces it. He's like, "That's weird. That's a weird time signature, so we're going to play it weird." We have all of these different ideas. When I come in with a song, my initial songs are seven or eight minutes, and we have to cut them down because there are so many parts. But because there are so many parts, we have the opportunity to make interesting arrangements, where it doesn't always have to be verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus. There's some opportunity to merge certain parts together, or extend certain parts — and also to not do that and just play a chorus, or two minutes and then be done. I think that's how it came off as not just punk songs. It's really the other guys having a technical background, and me writing the melodies with zero knowledge of technicality that allowed it to breathe a bit more and be a bit more interesting that me writing 4/4 pop-punk songs or whatever.
You guys put out the album on Hollerado's label. That seems like a good fit.
Yeah, I agree. It's been really fun to tour with them. I think their fans have been responding to us really well. It's cool, because we're the loudest band on this tour by far, and Hollerado's the catchiest. All their fans come out, and they love these awesome pop-rock songs Hollerado are writing, and they write really amazing songs. And they come and we just crank our amps and play as loud as we can and as heavy as we can. And we also have a lot of pop hooks, so we don't totally alienate all of their fans. Usually people like it, or they're just like, "This is too much for me." Which is also okay with us. We kind of like that reaction. I'd rather people be like, "Oh fuck," and clear the room than stand and not give a shit about us while we play.
Are your lyrics autobiographical?
Yeah, almost all of the songs are autobiographical, except for one or two, like the last one ["Factories"], which would be really creepy if it was autobiographical — that's a murder ballad, and I've never killed anyone. There are a bunch of songs on the record that I'm pretty proud of, lyrically. One of them is "Yukon." That's the longest song on the record, and it's the only song that's slow.
I like to go on weird camping trips a lot. My sister and I are really into weird camping trips, and that's how I get away and write most of the songs. One year we decided that we were going to drive to the Northwest Territories. ditch our car and just go into the woods and see what would happen if we went in for three weeks. We were in the wilderness for three weeks and we didn't see anybody and it was totally weird. It was summer solstice, and the sun never set the whole time. We didn't see anyone, and we both did a lot of drugs. It was a totally surreal, weird experience. We both started to go crazy a little bit, I think. We lost all sense of days and sleep patterns. We just slept whenever we were tired, and whenever we weren't tired we were canoeing down this river. "Yukon" is about that experience, and it's about the weirdo mental trip that I had when we were on the trip, and dealing with altered states of mind — seeing weird shit and feeling weird. Even if you don't do something like that, it's something that happens to all of us at certain times in our lives, when everything seems to be fucked up and you don't know what to do, and you just go along for the ride and see what happens.
"Reservoir" is an interesting one, because it's a party song, but it's not exactly a celebration.
I wrote the lyrics to that song when I was in a pretty shitty place. I'd been hanging out with the same people all the time and drinking way too much and doing drugs. It came from a place of boredom and anger and frustration. I'm 25. I wrote that song when I was 24 or 23 maybe, and for me, it's that time in your life when I'm finished university and I'm never going to go back. I'm trying to figure out what I'm going with myself, and I'm seeing all my friends have careers and great things happen and that's awesome, but for me it seemed like I was trying to do this band thing, and it wasn't really catching on right away. I felt like I was doing nothing with my life except getting wasted with the same people every day.
It felt like those people were starting to drag me down. I was seeing a girl who was a bummer and we had bunch of friends who had no ambition, but they would always bitch about how nothing was happening with their lives. And meanwhile, I felt like nothing was happening with my life, but I was working my ass off. There was so much frustration there, and anger and bitterness. It's about getting over those people. It's sink or swim in this world. I'd just had enough. It's a song about them. It's like, "Fuck you. If you're not going to try your best to do what you want to do in your life, then stop bitching. I'm done with this." After that I stopped drinking mostly and I worked a lot harder and I think I started seeing results in some ways.
Does the record have any overarching lyrical themes?
I think that what I was saying about being in your mid-20s — I think a lot of people feel it at the age of 18, 19, where you graduate high school and they're like, "What am I supposed to do with my life?" For me, I never really had that conundrum at that age. I had it when I finished university and had a great career job and quit it because I wasn't happy doing it. I think most of the lyrics are about being frustrated with being this age and still being confused about what I want to do and who I want to be, and working our asses off. As a band, we work so hard — we jam five days a week, and play four shows a week. Now we're starting to see results and that's great, so I think the next record will be different, but at the time of writing this one, it seemed like it wasn't paying off. Nothing was working. It was a lot of frustration and anger about where I was in my life, and being freaked out about the future. Thinking that I should be way more than I am, and being worried about it all the time, and wondering if I'm fucking everything up for my future.