Interview with Stefan Babcock of PUP | By John Silva | Photos by Jacki Vitetta
PUP’s third album, Morbid Stuff, released on April 5 via Rise Records and the band’s own Little Dipper, was one of the most anticipated releases of 2019, and it doesn’t disappoint. The Canadian four-piece have grown to become one of the most beloved bands in the punk scene, and they’ve even received mainstream attention, making their television debut on Late Night With Seth Meyers in March.
Despite their rise in popularity over the past few years, PUP have remained undeniably, authentically themselves. They keep fans wondering, “What will they think of next?” as they come up with—and execute—one zany idea after another, like including a full-sized, inflatable raft in one of the preorder packages for Morbid Stuff.
Following their beloved 2016 LP, The Dream Is Dead, PUP’s latest album is darker than anything they’ve done before, yet glimmers of light and hope still peek out from underneath everything morbid. Vocalist and guitarist Stefan Babcock weighs in on Morbid Stuff, the appeal of dark humor, the band’s unique methods of engaging their fans, and more.
This might be your darkest album yet. The title, Morbid Stuff, is pretty accurate. Does playing these dark songs and confronting these themes head-on help you overcome some of the sadness that you talk about on this album? Or does it just bum you out?
No, it’s a definite positive, calming experience for me. The reason I write songs is to kind of figure shit out for myself. With music, with this band, there’s a chance to do something productive with something that’s pretty self-destructive at the same time. You get to make—I hate to use the word ‘art,’ but you get to make art out of something that’s really shit. That’s a really positive thing, I think. I think you’re right; it might be our darkest album, but I also think, at the same time, it’s our most joyous and fun. To me, it’s kind of celebrating the fact that we’re kind of working through all that shittiness.
There are elements of humor on this record, albeit dark humor. Do you and the other PUP guys use humor and jokes to deal with all this dark shit?
Yeah, that’s just kind of a reflection of all of our personalities. For the most part, we can be pretty bleak individuals. I think we all kind of suffer from our own crap, but we all use humor; it’s just, like, how we deal with things in our band and how we deal with conflict internally and how we make sense of all the shitty things that are happening in the world externally. It’s always kind of been like that with these guys. They’re really good friends of mine, and we’re all really close—even back to the last record, writing a song called “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” about them and them just embracing it wholeheartedly. That kind of sense of humor just sums up how the four of us operate together. We pick on each other, and we can be shitty to each other, but at the end of the day, we’re brothers, and we’ve got each other’s backs, and we get to have fun together.
You had fans record their own cover versions of “Free At Last” before releasing the actual song. Where did that idea come from? Have you gotten any good submissions?
I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of covering songs that we’ve never heard before and just how that compares with the original. So, we put that out there—I shit you not, we’ve had well over 200 covers, and some of them are fucking awesome! There are a few that I’m like, “This legitimately might be better than ours!” [laughs], which is really funny. But also, the interesting thing is that of these 200-plus covers, not a single one of them sounds like ours, and not a single one of them sounds like another one that was submitted. It’s fucking crazy! We’re making a music video using all of these clips, and it’s coming together really well, and I think we’re gonna post all the covers in a huge SoundCloud playlist. It’s fucking 17 hours or something ridiculous, and I’ve literally listened to every second of every single version that’s been submitted—so I’ve listened to 17 hours of “Free At Last” covers, which is a bit mind-numbing at times, but it’s really cool to see how different people interpret those words and those chords.
Something you’re known for is creating incredible, innovative music videos. What is it about music videos as an art form that appeals to you?
Well, I should start off this conversation by saying that there’s a fifth member in PUP, and he doesn’t write any music, but he is in PUP. His name is Jeremy [Schaulin-Rioux], and he makes all of our videos. “Kids” was the 10th video we’ve done together. He’s made pretty much every single video that we’ve done. The first video he ever directed was “Reservoir.” He is just so good at what he does, and the thing is, he totally gets our band; he gets our humor; he gets where we’re coming from in a way that I think—not a lot of bands have that sort of relationship with their directors, like a really intimate sort of friendship and knowledge about one another. So, that’s sort of what makes us such good collaborators. Either we come up with the idea or he comes up with the idea. Often, it’s him, and then, we just kind of get into it together and flesh out the ideas, insert our own brand of humor, and just run with it. I can’t say enough good things about this guy; he’s so smart and talented and works hard and has made some really fucking incredible music videos for us, so we feel pretty lucky to know him.
It seems like part of the reason your videos are so popular is because a lot of them tell a story. What’s fascinating is how you are able to tell these complex stories with very little actual dialogue. When you’re writing the story for these music videos, is it hard to figure out how to tell it without using dialogue?
Yeah, definitely. That’s a thing that we work on with Jeremy a lot. Usually, if you look at any of the PUP videos, the simpler concepts were usually ours that Jeremy came on and directed and fleshed out, and the more complex storylines were Jeremy’s. So, it’s something that we definitely work on a lot. Usually, with the more complex videos, he’ll pitch us a really crazy idea, and we’ll have to go through it and pare it down and figure out how we best tell that story. He is so good at that. I think what PUP contributes to that is, we help rein him in a little bit, ’cause at the end of the day, it’s really hard to tell a story in three and half minutes with no dialogue or very little dialogue. So, he thinks pretty carefully about almost everything we’ve shot in every video, and how he’s gonna get the message across. We don’t slap these videos together. Usually, we start talking about the concept, like, six months before we even shoot anything. We definitely put a lot of thought and energy into this stuff.
You do so many creative things, from creating a 3D zine to including an actual boat in the preorder package for this album to the interactive “Choose Your Own Adventure” music video you released a couple years ago. How do these ideas usually come up? Does it start out as a joke, but then, you’re like, “No, let’s actually do it”?
Literally almost all of them start that way. PUP just started our own label, Little Dipper, and part of the reason we started that is because, in my experience, people have really great ideas, and they’re afraid to follow through on them. You don’t even know how many times I’ve pitched an idea to a label or somebody who we’re working with and said, “This is something that we wanna do,” and they go, “[laughs] That’s awesome! It’ll never work.” I’m just sick of it. I really think so many people have great ideas, and the fact that people generally don’t follow through on them, it’s really a shame.
So, literally all of these ideas start off as jokes. Like, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if—whatever,” and then, we sit down and say, “All right, how do we actually accomplish this?” I think one of the things that I’m pretty proud of with this band, that I think has really set us apart, is that usually, whenever we come up with a pretty wild concept for anything, we try to follow through with it. Like, who the fuck would put a boat as a part of their preorder? Like, nobody! But we did it! I just think that people think their ideas won’t work, and more often, if they really cared about them and try to figure out a way to make them work, it’ll happen and be cool.
So, as of right now, you are the only band on Little Dipper, but you’re planning on working with other bands too, right?
The idea for Little Dipper—I have a pretty solid idea for what I wanna do with it, but I’m also kind of leaving it a bit open-ended. I think that we made this label for a few reasons. One, we wanted to execute pretty crazy ideas that no one in their right mind would let us do, and the other thing, as this band sort of gets a bit bigger and more popular, we need to keep growing out our team. We need to work with more people than just the five of us, and this was just one way that we could sort of keep that DIY ethos alive a little bit.
To keep a little bit of control of your band?
Yeah, it just gets hard to do everything yourself, but if you can keep the rights to your music and make sure that all the creative ideas stem from you and are controlled by you, then that’s a pretty solid thing to do. I’m just looking forward to working with a few of my friends’ bands, photographers who I know, and artists who I like and to create more wacky ideas and actually try to pull them off. That’s kind of the vibe with this label right now.
I heard you say on a podcast once that it’s difficult for Canadian bands to break into the U.S. Why do you think PUP have been so successful here in the States?
That’s a tough one to answer. I think it’s just hard work and being committed to our plan. We have so many friends who are in bands, Canadian bands, that do super well in Canada—much better than us—and they just never worked in America. I think that’s because they started to get some popularity in Canada, and it wasn’t quite happening yet in America, and instead of working harder in America to kind of break through the static, they just said, “Well, we can make money being a Canadian rock band, so let’s just do that.” With us, from day one, we were focused on this idea that we wanted to grow this band everywhere. So, the big difference, I think, was just we toured a lot more than most bands would. We did so many shitty tours playing to five people a night. We spent three years playing 250 shows each year, just on the road for 10 out of 12 months, three years in a row, doing crappy gigs, sleeping on floors, just trying to make it work. I think that resilience has paid off for us. I feel really lucky that we’ve managed to do that and that people in the States and Europe and Australia and wherever are responding well. It makes me feel like all the effort is worth it, and I feel really lucky.