Laugh until it hurts

Stefan Babcock of Canadian punk quartet PUP on balancing humor and heart

Left to right: Zack Mykula (drums), Steve Sladkowski (guitar), Stefan Babcock (vocals/guitar) and Nestor Chumak (bass). Photo by Vanessa Heins.

Like much of how singer-songwriter Stefan Babcock deals with the relentless pressures of life, the opening interlude on his band PUP’s latest album started out as a gag. Four clumsy piano chords, a new element for the guitar-heavy punk outfit, welcome listeners to a quarterly meeting of the group’s “board of directors” as they determine “how best to proceed” with the new record at hand. 

“I play piano — I started learning last Thursday,” Babcock sings alone in a warbling indoor-voice spin on his usual vicious-but-vulnerable sneer. “I spent every cent of the label money on this thing.”

But like all jokes worth telling, the goof at the heart of this opening salvo contains a kernel of truth. PUP is a band of big personalities, no doubt as fussed-over among themselves as the most high-stakes corporate board, and the bigly titled THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND — the Toronto quartet’s fourth and most ambitious album to date — finds them spending every creative dollar in the bank. 

Courtesy Little Dipper / Rise

Babcock did, in fact, learn to play piano while recording the album. (“It was so nice I didn’t deserve to touch it,” he says.) And as the unadorned intro ticks on, we hear the 34-year-old guitarist and singer hit a wall on his new instrument as a sour note spoils the delicate melody. “Fuck,” he mutters, before a rumbling timpani roll sends the band exploding into a maximalist pop-punk carnival that crashes on through the album’s breakneck 35-minute runtime. 

“It’s definitely a coping mechanism,” Babcock says about his use of humor to reckon with self-doubt and the weight of success for a band who never thought they’d make it past the Ontario basement show circuit. “The kind of music we make can really get into this territory of self-seriousness that’s really kind of cringey to me. A lot of the songs are very emotional and deal with some pretty real subject matter, but the four of us don’t take ourselves very seriously.”

As a result, PUP’s music has always toed a gossamer line between smirking self-deprecation and disarming sincerity. With jokes in tow, Babcock picks at scabs encrusted over intrusive thoughts, bummer benchmarks and the looming specter of death. But while albums like the band’s self-titled 2013 debut and breakout follow-up The Dream Is Over dove into this duality with a stripped-down punk simplicity, their latest takes those core ingredients that have built an international following for the band over the last decade and splatters them gleefully against the wall. 

“We made three records with kind of the same spirit: two guitars, bass, drums and four of us singing — just trying to squeeze the most out of that. With our third record [2019’s Morbid Stuff] we reached the logical conclusion to that sort of trilogy,” Babcock says. “So with this record, we wanted to push it a little further.”

Credit: Vanessa Heins

‘It’s supposed to be fun.’

In the year since the release of THE UNRAVELLING, Babcock and company have been taking their boundary-smashing new sound on the road — including a Late Night with Seth Meyers performance last summer, following local gigs with guitar-rock stalwarts Sheer Mag at Boulder’s Fox Theatre and The Ogden in Denver. 

PUP returns to the Front Range on March 7 for a co-headlining show at Mission Ballroom with marquee emo revivalists Joyce Manor and emerging upstarts Pool Kids for one of the region’s most anticipated big-bill punk shows of the year. But despite a monumental U.S. tour ahead, and a decade of success in the rearview, Babcock and his bandmates are eyeing the future with unease. 

“This band is not going to be a band forever, and I don’t really have any transferable skills,” he says. “That starts to loom pretty large on my psyche, and I think on the other guys’ psyches, because we know bands that have done fairly well but it did not necessarily set them up for the rest of their lives. Life can be pretty challenging into your 40s when suddenly you’re not really making money doing music, but you’ve spent 10 or 15 years not having a career. It’s hard to pick up from there.” 

Like the rest of life’s gnawing uncertainties, Babcock digests the pain with punchlines on THE UNRAVELING. (“So you’re selling insurance? That’s so inspiring,” he spits on the album’s closing track. “Give me two more years, let me know if they’re hiring.”) But whether PUP stays on top of the world for another decade or another tour, Babcock will be shining some light on those darker corners for as long as it lasts. 

“Playing in a band is supposed to be fun, so we’re always trying to balance out the seriousness of the subject matter with some humor and some levity,” Babcock says. “I think it’s really important for us to remember that at the end of the day, this is rock ‘n’ roll — we’re not saving anyone’s lives. We’re just out here trying to write fun songs … I want to make sure people coming to shows and listening to our records are having a good time doing it, and not just wallowing in misery.” 

ON THE BILL: PUP with Joyce Manor and Pool Kids. 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 7, Mission Ballroom, 4242 Wynkoop St., Denver. Tickets here.