Published May 31, 2016It was late October last year when Stefan Babcock felt like something was wrong.
His voice felt… weird. He and his band, Toronto punk workhorses PUP, had already spent the majority of the last two years on the road, screaming their guts out in basements and bars around the world, and had just spent what little time off they had writing and recording a new album. They had to be tired, even if they wouldn't necessarily admit it. But nearly 450 shows over two years had come to claim a debt.
So on the first day of a seven-week North American tour with Modern Baseball, the singer went to the hospital to visit a specialist and was given, quite bluntly, some very bad news.
"The dream is over," Babcock's doctor told him. His health problems had been evident to some extent since July, but he had pressed on. However, upon discovering a cyst on Babcock's vocal cords, his doctor was frank: Give it up, or risk permanent damage.
"I said, 'You think I should just go home and get a job at the bank?'" he says. "And she was like, 'Maybe, yeah.'"
The defiant PUP carried on until aggressive haemorrhaging forced them to drop the last five shows of the tour. For a band that had played through 104-degree fevers, stomach ulcers, wrist and ankle sprains, food poisoning and more, even those few cancellations were tough. And it was a "dark few weeks" that followed, Babcock recalls now.
The dream is over. The phrase crept right into the fears of four guys in their late 20s who had quit their jobs to play in a band that looked like it had a good shot at making the long haul. Suddenly, those hundreds and thousands of kilometres on roads that had taken them across Canada, the U.S. and all around the world may have led them to a cul-de-sac.
"It was really tough to be told that everything that you worked for since you were a kid is now not going to happen," Babcock says, gathered around the coffee table in his Toronto apartment with his three bandmates: drummer Zack Mykula, bassist Nestor Chumak and guitarist Steve Sladkowski. "I'd much rather fail of my own accord — because I wasn't good enough, or because I didn't try hard enough — than fail because of something outside my power. We all had to re-evaluate our lives and reconsider what the next steps were."
By now, most fans know how that chapter ended. Babcock didn't take the doctor's advice, but those words are plastered proudly on the band's new album: The Dream Is Over. On the followup to PUP's almost instantly admired self-titled debut — first released in the fall 2013 via Royal Mountain Records, the label operated by members of Hollerado, then re-released in the spring of 2014 by SideOneDummy, the band's label in the U.S. — they come out swinging again with their raucous and wonderfully fun blend of sneering punk, wild rock'n'roll and sunny indie pop. They deal with themes of disillusionment with tongue firmly in cheek, and with a constant air of self-deprecating humour. The title itself embodies the group's attitude.
"You reclaim that phrase," says Babcock. "It's like a big 'fuck you' to all the obstacles that have stood in our way, and a big 'fuck you' to ourselves, as well. It's a reminder that you can't take yourselves so seriously. There's a measure of humour and joy in the music, even though a lot of the lyrics are often pretty dark."
Recorded mostly live off the studio floor this past October, The Dream Is Over captures this moment, when PUP are a more experienced and adept band than they've ever been before — a road-worn machine that melted the tires off and just kept rolling — but also a group of young men who still feel like they have something to prove.
While the official PUP story began only three years ago, some of the members have known each other for more than a decade. Drummer Zack Mykula and bassist Nestor Chumak grew up on the same street in Toronto; they met guitarist Steve Sladkowski in high school, and Babcock came along in university. PUP initially formed in 2011 as Topanga, named after the Boy Meets World character, but changed their name in 2013 after Disney announced plans to reboot the franchise. They had already quit their day jobs to focus exclusively on their music, and it quickly started paying off upon the release of PUP in October of that year.
"We jumped in with both feet right away," says Babcock. "It felt like we had maybe a chance of something going well, and that's really the best you can hope for."
The band set a lofty goal for 2014 — to play 200 shows in one year.
"We didn't have ambitions of making money, or getting on the radio, all these normal goals that bands make for themselves," says Babcock. "The only thing we wanted to do was play live. We didn't care about anything else. We just wanted to play."
They did even better: 250 shows that year, and almost another 200 the next, touring seemingly non-stop with the likes of Hollerado, the Menzingers, the Get Up Kids, the Front Bottoms and others. They were expecting to be playing in basements and empty bars — and they did, for a while. But the crowds kept getting bigger. They'd play to five or ten people a night on their first North American tour, and within a year, sell out midsize venues like the Opera House in Toronto.
"It's been a long grind," says Babcock, "but the reward is that every single show, you get to see that the last show that we thought sucked was worthwhile."
While they were away, PUP were gaining accolades back home. The band have been nominated for three Juno Awards, and earned a nod for the 2014 Polaris Music Prize. They won two Bucky Awards from CBC Radio 3; their first single, "Reservoir," was nominated for a SOCAN songwriting prize; and the video for "Dark Days" was nominated for a Prism Prize audience award.
Many of those recognitions can be credited to the band's fun and inventive music videos, made by Canadian filmmakers Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux and Chandler Levack. In that context, fans have seen PUP suffer gruesome onstage injuries in "Reservoir," wreck Babcock's beloved family car in "Mabu," be turned into an old-school video game in "DVP" and relive a fictionalized version of their kid selves in "Guilt Trip."
And in PUP's latest, outsiders get a feel for what 450 shows in two years can do to even the best of friends. In the video for "If This Tour Doesn't Kill You, I Will," a song that's about exactly what its title suggests, PUP's frustrations with one another give rise to a near-homicidal spree that sends them all to the hospital: Chumak douses Mykula in gasoline and sets him on fire; Sladkowski runs over Chumak in the band's van; Babcock stabs Sladkowski in the face with a broken bottle; and a burnt and blistering Mykula chokes out Babcock with his bare hands. It's a cheerful song, despite its imagery and lyrics about how "everything you do makes me wanna vomit."
Needless to say, they don't actually want to kill each other. But spending six to eight months out of the year in close quarters, living in a van and sleeping on floors, can wear down the body and mind. Animosity can manifest out of nowhere, and arguments can abound.
"They're never about anything important," Babcock says with a smirk. "They're about the way people breathe, or like… you got a little sunscreen on your shirt."
"One eye blinks slower than the other. Like, what the fuck?" Mykula adds.
"It's all stupid shit, as it is with siblings," says Babcock.
"We developed strategies to cope with individual struggle and group struggle, and writing songs is one of those ways you work through your feelings," says Sladkowski. "It becomes easier the longer we play and work and spend time together."
Now, it's gotten to the point where they seem to be more comfortable on the road than at home. After so much time spent working and playing, the little time they have off brings its own inner turmoil. For a band that works and plays as hard as PUP, the sudden silence can be deafening.
"I feel like I should always be playing. And we play so much," says Sladkowski.
"I stay awake if I feel like I haven't been productive enough that day — which is almost every day," Mykula adds. "It's a gnawing need to make progress, which I think drives all of us. And it's not unique to just this band, it's every band. It's such a fickle industry, so you think about what's going to happen the next day, and have I worked hard enough to earn it?"
It seems to stem from an understandable sense of insecurity. They're humble enough to know their place — that they're far from the biggest acts in music, and that even the biggest ones are rarely immune from the ebb and flow of audience interest. Mykula cites "imposter syndrome," a psychological term that describes a person who's always waiting for people to find out they're a fraud — to discover that they suck. "We're all talented enough, but none of us have incredible talent that blows everyone else out of the water," Babcock explains. "So how do you overcome that and cut through the noise? You work harder than everybody else."
So they did. And on The Dream Is Over, it shows. PUP originally planned to block off a chunk of time to write the record, but again, more tours kept coming their way. So they wrote the new songs in the precious time between them, constantly flipping switches in their heads to adjust between the fast pace of touring and the slow steps of writing. The process was worlds away from PUP's first album, when they were writing songs just so they'd have enough to play a live set. This time around, they made a concerted effort to make a concise record — helped by the fact that it was written in a matter of weeks, rather than years — and the band believes fans will notice the difference. "We're confident now that this is what we should sound like," says Mykula.
"We're also just a better band now," says Sladkowski. "You can tell we've been playing together for a lot of shows. We dig in harder, and there's some funk to it — not like funk music, but funk from being on the road," he says.
"Like, smelly," Mykula interjects. "The songs are smelly."
It's been a long road for PUP, but they've made it through the first (and possibly toughest) leg in one piece, in spite of their setbacks. Babcock says he's made a full recovery. Their friendships are stronger than ever. They still worry about what's ahead — Will my voice be alright? Will this work out? And if it doesn't, how will I go back to the real world? — but for now, they're staying the course as one of Canada's premier punk rock bands, despite ups and downs.
"Playing in a band is either the best day or the worst day of your life," Babcock says.
"But," Mykula adds, "I'd rather have the best day followed by the worst day, than have the same day over and over."