Published Feb 10, 2021With touring still off the table in early 2021, the first PUP performance of the year saw the beloved outfit shoot a Tiny Desk (Home) Concert for NPR, much to the chagrin of frontman Stefan Babcock's now-former neighbours. "In the spring and the summer we were recording demos, and I was doing them all in my car," he tells Exclaim! "I just had too many awkward encounters with the neighbours upstairs being like, 'So you're pretty angry eh?' Well, no, I just write angry music!"
As the pandemic drags on, Babcock shares that writing new material to follow 2019 LP Morbid Stuff and last year's aptly titled EP This Place Sucks Ass is an exercise in extremes. "It's like, either everything's clicking and it's awesome, and we're cranking out the tunes, and then we go for three months where none of us are capable mentally of picking up our instruments," he says with a laugh. "So it's kind of been all over the map in that regard, but there's not much else to do aside from try to write, or try to just not be extremely depressed."
What are your current fixations?
Bassist Nestor Chumak: I'm really into flavoured soda water in a can.
Drummer Zack Mykula: This hasn't really changed from my typical interests, but trying to read as much about what ails all of us in general, but also myself in particular with mental illness. I've just been trying to absorb as much information as possible. It's been amplified by the fact that basically our livelihoods were taken away. So I think more than ever, I owe it to myself to kind of investigate new ways of trying to survive with a mental illness. So that's been a big thing for me over the last year, and it definitely has helped me improve and I hope will translate into future scenarios, especially within a band and, you know, basically just existing in this industry.
Guitarist Steve Sladkowski: I still watch a lot of basketball.
Why do you live where you do?
Sladkowski: My parents are still here [in Toronto], and most of my immediate family is kind of within the GTA. So for me, it's always kind of felt like this is home.
Mykula: Yeah. I mean, not to get too anthropological, but it is a human instinct to just stay where you consider home to be. And I feel like this city has pretty aggressively been trying to push out people that are less able to stay here, and the margins are getting thinner. I just feel like everything I am so far is here, and I want to stay despite there being almost no reason to stay.
What was the last book or movie that blew your mind?
Babcock: I just read The Innocents by Michael Crummey — it's a pretty fucked up book. It's about this family that lives on the coast of Newfoundland — it's just a rock pretty much — and the two parents die suddenly. Then these two children are just left to figure out what the world is around them. It's pretty dark, but it's an interesting read especially now. It really hits on the topics of isolation and perspective on the world. You get to see the world through the eyes of these two children who have no who have no preconceptions about it. So if you're if you're okay with being bummed out right now, I suggest reading that book.
Chumak: I just watched an incredible movie, Promising Young Woman. I thought that was fantastic.
Babcock: Yeah, I saw last night. It's so good.
Mykula: The book I read recently, Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice, is thematically similar to what Stefan was talking about. It's about isolation in an apocalyptic setting in a Northern community in Ontario. It's really engrossing, and it was a pretty quick read just because of the characterization was amazing, making you feel like you're part of the community. I would really suggest that book.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational concert — one you played or attended — and why?
Mykula: I'm never inspired by our concerts. [laughs]
Babcock: I had to unmute just to laugh!
Sladkowski: I was lucky enough to see Run the Jewels at the Danforth Music Hall a couple of days after the Ferguson protests. They had come straight from St. Louis to Toronto, and just to be in the room and kind of see them processing things in the moment, it speaks the uplift and the power that the live concert experience can have. As much as there have been some great livestreams and there've been some really great ways in which people have tried to replicate that, I think it really does kind of speak to the unique power that those sorts of events have for people.
Mykula: During lockdown, one that really stuck out to me was the Illuminati Hotties livestream. I know my relationship to watching video of a live performance, and it's not my favourite thing, but you can feel all the energy they put into it. So that was pretty inspiring and, as far as I'm concerned, set the bar as just a pure live experience.
What's been the greatest moment of your career so far?
Mykula: Meeting Chad Smith.
Chumak: I think one of my favourites would be when we were playing… I think it was a festival in the States where Weezer were headlining. Babcock and I tried desperately to get backstage, and he was saying he was Rivers Cuomo's cousin. That seemed to work for like two minutes, and then a huge security guard just threw him out. It was pretty great.
Babcock: It was worth a shot!
Mykula: It's all, like, surmounting stuff. There are small levels to everything; it's great at the time, and then the next thing is slightly better. Not to be too cheesy, but every time we play a show with Jeff Rosenstock, that's a pretty great moment for me.
Sladkowski: We've been really lucky to be asked to play in a bunch of different foreign countries where English is not the first language. To have people singing the lyrics back and so enthusiastically not in their mother tongue is kind of the craziest thing. It's always like a kind of a crazy, surreal kind of experience.
Mykula: Yeah. That in particular, like going as far as Croatia and having people yell our lyrics. Sometimes it's endearing when their grasp of English isn't quite there and they're still trying to just be part of it. That's amazing to me. Also, I can feel our management team yelling "Tiny Desk" and "Seth Meyers." [laughs] Those are definitely huge, just reflecting on those things is, like, mind-boggling.
What's been the worst moment of your career so far?
Mykula: We played [Poland's FEST festival] a few years ago, and I made a minor mistake that ended up flipping the entire feel of the first song of our set around, and I just had a panic attack for the rest of the set. I was convinced, like, "This is the worst. I've just blown my chance of ever being a successful musician." But I went and looked at an article that someone wrote about it and it read, "Wow, that show was so good." And I'm like, "That's the opposite of what I perceived." So I consider that my worst moment.
Babcock: Playing Seth Meyers was an incredible opportunity for us as a band, and I'm sure it was great for the other guys. But the hour before we played was the worst hour of my musical career. I had laryngitis at the time — I've lost my voice before, you know that story from The Dream Is Over. It wasn't that my voice was gone because I was screaming, but I was so sick that I couldn't make sounds and just couldn't hit any notes. There's this one story that's always stuck with me. I won't name the band, but they signed a huge record deal, everything was going great. They played a big show, in like New York or London, where the label came to see them live for the first time, and the singer had lost his voice. Immediately after that show, the support just dropped — the label stopped funding stuff and the band got buried. So that entire hour leading up to the Seth Meyers performance, all I could think was "I'm going to fuckin' ruin it for all of my friends. This is it. This is the worst thing in the world." I got through it and felt pretty good afterwards, but had a bad hour there.
Mykula: Not to diminish that, because that's totally a horrible and valid experience, but Seth stood with us on stage afterwards. I'm like, "This is impossible. There's no way he liked that performance that much." But he was just amazingly charitable, and just the nicest person.
Sladkowski: I think for me, it wasn't an actual performance or band-specific moment. We once got to play a show in the Canary Islands, in Tenerife. We had played the night before in Madrid, and we went onstage super late, and I think we had to be up at five in the morning for the flight. The flight was — I can't believe I remember all of this — Norwegian Air. I have never been so ready to die on an airplane as I was on that flight. I don't know if it's because of the geography of like landing on a series of islands off the West Coast of Africa or whatever, but it felt like the pilot didn't have confidence that they were going to land the plane. I'm a good flyer, I don't get nervous. I don't get anxious. I don't get airsick. But I thought I was going to throw up. I was sweating bullets. I wasn't even hungover. Like, there was no real excuse for me to be having this physiological reaction. And I was like, "Well, if I go out, at least we die this way." And when we landed, the plane bounced on the tarmac, I don't know you guys remember this…
Mykula: Oh yeah, I remember.
Sladkowski: It just was, end to end, a bad experience. And then I found out this week that Norwegian did not survive the coronavirus pandemic. So, I lasted longer than that airline, and I feel pretty good about that. But that's probably one of the worst moments for me.
Babcock: I want to hear Nestor's, if Nestor has one.
Chumak: This is a go-to, but we did a traveling summer festival and…
Mykula: I hate remembering things!
Chumak: Yeah. Every day was another level of hell.
Mykula: Yeah, a waking nightmare.
Babcock: Conveniently, I had completely wiped that experience out of my mind until this moment, so thanks for that. Calum, I'd like to change my answer to what Nestor said. Forget about Seth Meyers.
Sladkowski: I would like to point out that it's another foul capitalist institution that we've outlasted, though.
Who's a Canadian musician that should be more famous?
Babcock: There are a lot. The OBGMs, I think, are amazing. They haven't gotten their due yet.
Chumak: Casper Skulls. We took them on tour in the States, and every night they were just blowing people away. That was awesome to watch.
Sladkowski: Sandro Perri.
Mykula: I feel very put on the spot, so I'm afraid to answer. [laughs]
Babcock: I really liked the Ellis record [Born Again] that came out [last] April, and was absolutely fucking torpedoed by the fact that it was so early in the pandemic that no outlets were really writing about music at the time. So, and it was her first record and it just got torpedoed. So I think that's pretty big shame. That record's pretty good.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Babcock: You won't want to play in a ska band by the time you're 22.
Sladkowski: I ended up taking this advice, but for a long time I resisted it. Just journaling and going to therapy, I wish I had done that earlier.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
Babcock: I think I was 14. I had been playing guitar for two weeks, and I wrote the most unimaginable, terrible song. It was called "Grey" and it was about how the whole world appeared grey to me at that moment. Very good stuff.
Mykula: I like that. We should work on that today.
Babcock: Yeah, we can do that. I've got a whole whack of those kinds of songs from when I was fourteen. You guys would love it. We could put out a whole record.
Chumak: What about that KORG multitrack thing you had — the Toneworks?
Babcock: That's how I recorded it! The only reason I'm remembering this is because I found it on there. It will never see the light of day. I think a lot of people are embarrassed by their first attempts at any kind of art, which is to be expected because no one's immediately at things like this. But this is like especially horrific.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Mykula: There's a lot of stuff wrong with Canada, and it's just the stuff that's wrong with it that immediately comes to mind. Especially our treatment of marginalized people and Indigenous people. The rise of populism, ignorance as kind of a religion for the right, unbridled capitalism in the face of ethics…there's the list. There's the sense of moral superiority because we're Canada, we're the polite country. And people just have this bias towards that, as opposed to actually looking for and seeing the issues that are here. It's quite tiresome to see people on their high horse about this country. And then you voice your opinion and people are like, "Well, leave." That is the dumbest thing you can say to somebody. That is the definition of a thought-terminating cliché, and you're exercising absolutely no critical thought.
There are good people working to make a difference, but it's hard not to lose faith in a country that engenders these things — and quite willingly — every day.
Sladkowski: A friend of ours named David, who's much smarter than the four of us, put it in a way that I think kind of speaks to what Zack just said, and in a way that is a little bit more glib and possibly more succinct as well.
Mykula: Wait, more succinct than me? That's impossible!
Sladkowski: He said, and I will paraphrase him here, that this whole country is embarrassing. Like, we had a bunch of political leaders just go to Hawaii, and to fucking Mexico, and to holidays after standing in front of cameras and microphones and telling people not to see their family at Christmas, and not to see their family over holidays. That's fucking obscene. We're in our early 30s, and there are Indigenous communities in this country who have not had clean drinking water for nearly the time the four of us have been on the planet. It's embarrassing.
What's the meanest thing anyone has ever said about your art?
Chumak: On our first tour of the UK, our first time playing in Manchester, we got a legendary heckle: "Bring on the next band." It didn't matter whoever was on next, it was just, "End this now, please."
Mykula: We were like three songs in as well! And then the next two or three times after that in Manchester, somebody threw garbage at us, which is a kind of commentary I guess.
Babcock: Not just "garbage," but a full bin. Hit me square on, mid-song during the second song of our set. I think it was plastic, but it was one of the huge-ass bins, and it was filled with beer bottles. We had to stop playing: broken glass, leftover piss beer all over the place. We had to leave the stage and get it cleared off before we could start playing again.
Chumak: But the crazy thing was, that guy did it out love though. He did it, like, "Isn't this awesome?"
Sladkowski: He was too excited, and that was how he expressed his excitement. Then when Stefan was like, "We're asking you to leave now," he was confused. Like he didn't know why he was being asked to go.
Mykula: That's like an existential insult. It's like, the best fan that we have; this is the way they repay us, by throwing garbage at us.
What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
Sladkowski: I think it was a double CD of the Who's Tommy.
Mykula: I can't remember which came first: the tape of the Grammy rap nominees in 1999, or the CD of Clumsy by Our Lady Peace. It's one of those. I was really into Busta Rhymes at that time. "Gimme Some More" was definitely worn down on the tape.
Chumak: I forget how old I was, but I went out to the Sam the Record Man on Bloor Street, and bought two CDs with my own money: Limp Bizkit's Three Dollar Bill, Y'all$ and Kid Rock's Devil Without a Cause. I brought them home, and — if people don't know — the disc face for the Kid Rock CD was the middle finger. I remember my dad was really upset with me. He was like, 'Why are you spending your money on this?' And I was like, "You don't get it, man. It's music!"
Sladkowski: Parents just don't understand, you know?
Babcock: I'm trying to remember. I think mine was also a Limp Bizkit CD, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water. Yeah, it was either that or whatever NOW CD "The Hamsterdance Song" was on. I think it would be great if I bought both of those CDs on the same day.
Mykula: And then we went on to work with Dave Schiffman, who worked on [Limp Bizkit's] Gold Cobra. It's like a full circle thing.
What were your first memorable day jobs?
Mykula: I won't name them, but I worked for a temp agency, and they placed me as a lab assistant at a generic pharmaceutical company, where I made sure test groups were metabolizing drugs. So I was just surrounded by piss all the time. Just other people's piss everywhere. I was cleaning piss-covered things, fetching piss from the deep freezer. I accidentally poured titration liquid into my boots. But I was so jazzed by the fact that I was working in this laboratory. I'm like, "This is so cool. I don't care that there's piss everywhere!" The scientists were super nice, but it was ridiculous.
Sladkowski: I worked at the Harbourfront Centre at a visual art day camp. So I just got to hang out while kids drew flowers, which was pretty cool.
Babcock: I didn't know that — do you have a secret visual art background that none of us knew about?
Sladkowski: Absolutely not, nope. My cousins worked there, and they were like, "You're in high school and you are annoying to your parents, do you want a day job?"
Babcock: My first paid job was as a gymnastics coach. It's pretty ridiculous to think about now; I was like 14. But more importantly, the first thing that I would consider a job was a thing that I didn't get paid for but was very much an important responsibility. At Finch Public School, I was captain of the safety patroller squad. You would put your arms out in the road to stop the kids from crossing when there were cars coming, and then you would put your arms down, and let them cross when it was safe. I was in fourth or fifth grade, and it was a very big responsibility, you know?
Chumak: I've had a few jobs, but I guess one of the more memorable ones would be when I was just a horrible, typical employee of Canadian Tire, working in the sports department. People would come and ask me about screwdrivers, or drill bits, and I would use the classic Canadian Tire line, "Oh, sorry, that's not my department." And then I would just go to the back and hang out, crush boxes.
Mykula: I believe it was you that coined the term, "Canadian Tired"?
Chumak: That could be someone else, I don't want to take credit. But yeah, I was very Canadian Tired.
If you weren't playing music, what would you be doing instead?
Babcock: None of us have any backup plans. I don't know what I would be doing, but I would be living far, far from any city or civilized place because I do not belong amongst people unless I'm playing music.
Mykula: I probably would either be trying to do graphic design, or getting a degree in psychology. Not that I have the money to achieve either, but you know, I try.
Sladkowski: I think I'd be a frustrated guitar teacher.
Chumak: I guess I could polish up the resume and go back to Canadian Tire.
How do you spoil yourselves?
Sladkowski: I try and allow myself to go record shopping, or buy a book or some nice beer. Certainly not all of us are being affected by the realities of the pandemic in the same way, but being able to give myself those simple pleasures is a fulfilling and sort of modest way to spoil oneself, in my opinion.
Mykula: There's a lot to that. I would have said "retail therapy" similarly, buying something fun, like a video game or whatever. But I think there's a lot to engaging in simple, more nourishing activities and, especially in a time that's unprecedented and stressful, just being willing to allow yourself space to play so to speak, to do these activities that recharge you. Just trying to engage in a practice of gratitude and setting intentions to actively try to be nice to yourself in such a horrible time. But yeah, other than that, I probably buy a bottle of scotch every so often.
Babcock: I go hiking or camping to kind of recharge.
Chumak: I would say eating donuts. Specifically Bloomer's donuts. I just ate like an entire box yesterday; they're so good.
What's the best way to listen to music?
Chumak: While I'm busy, like making dinner or doing something where I don't have to focus on it too much.
Mykula: If it's newer stuff, I really want to get into it. So I try to be the opposite of busy, and I really zoom in on the different parts and musicianship. If it's a record that I love and know extremely well I, my favourite way to listen is being in a diffuse, non-focused state, to give myself time listening to a record, to process what's happening during the day, just try to maintain a balanced brain overall.
Sladkowski: I love the ritual of vinyl, personally. But I also really appreciate — and this is for any format — just listening to music on like a really like rich set of headphones. Like over-ear, big headphones just to really get lost in it that way.
Babcock: I like listening when I'm like walking, or my favourite way pre-pandemic used to be going someplace far from my house on the TTC and just listening, sort of like forced captivity.
What do you fear most?
Mykula: My fear is pretty much universal ambiguity and not being sure of things, and to that end, just how things are going to look after this. I've spent probably an undue amount of time hand wringing about our future collectively as a band and an industry, and my future as a musician. I think maybe that that fear is rooted in is how capable I think I am. So yeah, just ambiguity is a big thing.
Babcock: I think I'm afraid of what comes after in the life of a fuckin' C-list rock band.
Mykula: The answer is nothing.
Babcock: Nothing, yeah. We're kind of in this interesting spot where we're doing well, so much better than any of us ever dreamed or anticipated, and that's awesome. For the past two years, maybe for the first time in all of our adult lives, we've been financially secure and stuff like that. But, we haven't reached, nor do I expect us to reach, a level where we're set up for life. We've just given all of these years to something that we love, but that will one day be gone. I see a lot of sad stories about people 10 years older than me who were in our position. So, that kind of weighs on me a little bit every day, but I still think what we're doing and what we've done is one hundred percent worth it.
Sladkowski: I'm afraid that we're not going to change our patterns as people to try and counteract all of the symptoms and deeper underlying issues that have led us to be wholly unprepared in this moment.
Mykula: Are you talking about the "Familiar Patterns"?
Sladkowski: Jesus Christ… Yeah, I'm afraid that once people can resume whatever semblance of their lives prior to this, that the extraordinary levels of neglect and depravity that have shown themselves in this moment will be disregarded instead of actively struggled against and fought by a growing part of the population. Because it's very clear that how we've done things in the past is not tenable if we want to avoid mass casualties and mass death.
Chumak: I guess I just had your classic, you know, I'm scared of looking like an idiot.
If you won the lottery, what are you doing with the money?
Mykula: I'd probably buy my mom a house. That's the first thing I'd do, and probably keep some for myself and give some to charity.
Sladkowski: This is going to sound insane, but I would make sure my parents were okay. Then I think I would buy a building in Toronto, open a venue and just make sure that it would never close.
Mykula: You should just preempt all that and make it a condo.
Sladkowski: I guess being a scummy developer would be a different kind of goal.
Babcock: I really want a Fender Rhodes. So, Calum, please make sure to print that if anyone is looking to sell.
Chumak: Maybe put your phone number down as well.
Sladkowski: You know what, give them your account information and credit card number, the whole thing.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter? Perhaps you are the celebrity here, perhaps someone else.
Babcock: When I was growing up, I was a huge fan of that band Thursday. I loved that band; I had posters of Thursday on my bedroom wall and stuff. A couple of years ago, Thursday asked us to do a short tour with them. So it was pretty big deal for 15 year-old me. Geoff Rickly is the singer of that band, and on the first day, we bumped into each other and he spoke first. He was like, "Oh you're in PUP, right?" and I was like, "Yes." He was like, "I love your band," and I was so… I don't know, confused that that's what we were talking about, that I just said, "Thank you," and walked away.
Sladkowski: Wow, what an asshole!
Mykula: He knows he's great, what a prick!
Babcock: My partner Amanda was there, she also was a Thursday fan and she knows how important it was to me. She watched this interaction happen, and I walked away right back to her, and she was like, "What the fuck was that?"
Mykula: Mine was at Seth Meyers after we played. The drum set was falling apart while we were playing the one take we had to play the song for. This stuff happens all the time, I'll usually just play through it and it's fine, but I wasn't thinking particularly highly of my performance. I was walking down the hallway and Fred Armisen was like, "Hey man, you're a real good drummer." And I'm like, "Oh, I don't think I was that good. Okay, thanks, bye." So what was weird was me, but he was very nice, and it's also crazy to have met Fred Armisen.
Sladkowski: I think for me it was early on, probably just as The Dream Is Over was coming out, and getting into a very friendly and complimentary conversation with Tom Arnold about mutual admiration of each other's work from the band's Twitter account. And just being like, "Hey! Do you want to come to a show, Tom Arnold?"
Chumak: It also started like…we were listening to John Prine in the van, and you tweeted like, "Oh, John Prine's great" or whatever, and he replied like, "Yeah, he is." What? Out of nowhere.
Sladkowski: We invited him to a show in L.A. and he was like, "I can't, I'm on set." And it was like, yeah, of course. You're a massive Hollywood actor. Of course that's what you're doing. Why would you come to the Canadian band's show in some weird French restaurant's basement in Los Angeles? Yeah, that was a weird one.
Who would be your ideal dinner, guests living or dead. And what would you serve them?
Sladkowski: No. No, I can't go first. Somebody else go.
Mykula: What, are you going to say Marx or something?
Mykula: Karl Marx…
Sladkowski: I was going to say, I want to know what Karl Marx thinks of my dad's cabbage rolls.
Mykula: That's idiotic. I think it depends on how they were produced.
Sladkowski: Oh yeah, I mean, if there was surplus labor…anyway, sorry, somebody else go.
Mykula: I don't think mine's too profound. I'd love to meet and have dinner with Glenn Kotche from Wilco — someone whose brain I can pick about being creative on the drums. I don't know if he'll be the ideal dinner guest: I don't know him; I don't know what he's like. He could be extremely critical of food. But I think that would be cool.
Babcock: It's been a pretty long pandemic; I think it would be nice to have dinner with my friends Nestor, Steve and Zack.
Chumak: Zack owes us a pizza party.
Mykula: It's true, because I took the keyboard.
Chumak: Can I go to someone's house and have their food? I just reread Samin Nosrat's cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. I would love to go to her place for dinner.
What is the greatest song of all time?
Babcock: "Boys of Summer," Don Henley.
Mykula: "I Am a Wild Party" by Kim Mitchell.
Chumak: "Come On Eileen," by Dexys Midnight Runners.
Sladkowski: Oh god…
Babcock: Steve, say the Strokes! Say the Strokes!
Mykula: Say something serious!
Sladkowski: I think the greatest song of all time is "Amazing Grace." I just think it's an all-time melody.
Mykula: I don't remember that one .
Babcock: How does it go Steve?
Chumak: Hum a few bars.
Sladkowski: It's a minor, minor indie rock hit from deep, deep within the pews.
Babcock: Those are all pretty swift and accurate answers!
Every other person I've asked that one to has taken a concerning amount of time with the answer.
Mykula: We already know we're uncool, why do anything else?