Interview

Q&A: PUP’s Stefan Babcock On Unexpected Success, What Comes Next, And That Song About Killing His Bandmates

About one year ago, the Toronto punk quartet PUP released their second album, The Dream Is Over, a set of 10 ferociously catchy anthems that took its name from the diagnosis singer-guitarist Stefan Babcock received from his doctor after he blew out his vocal cords and was told he’d never sing again. He fought through this setback, and based on the rapturous reception that greeted the album and the dedicated fanbase that followed, it seems now that Babcock’s dreams were just getting started.

This past Sunday, PUP played a set full of fist-pumping and crowd-surfing at Brooklyn’s Northside Festival, second-to-last from headliner (and one of Babcock’s favorite bands) Thursday, and alongside young emo and punk heroes such as the Hotelier, Jeff Rosenstock, and Tony Molina. The day felt like a coronation for a group of artists that once struggled to receive much recognition from Brooklyn media types. Speaking in his tour bus a few hours before his group played, Babcock just seemed overjoyed that he still gets to do this at all, much less do it on a much larger scale than he ever dreamed. The very chatty and friendly Babcock (when the wind knocked over his beer, the first thing he did was check to make sure my phone was all right), admits that Dream blew PUP up in a way he wasn’t expecting, but he insists that nothing has changed about his group’s “honesty first” approach, even if he’s now on first-name basis with television stars.

STEREOGUM: You released The Dream Is Over about a year ago. How would you say your life has changed since then?

BABCOCK: I don’t think my life has honestly changed that much. We’re still doing what we did on the first record, just touring like crazy, trying to make the best of the experience. I think it’s cool I’m now getting the opportunity to play with some of the bands that I just really admired growing up, and probably ripped off in a million PUP songs.

Tonight we’re playing with Thursday. When I was 15, they were my favorite band. Yesterday, we got to play with the Specials, which was fucking awesome. All four of us, when we were much younger, played in different ska bands. We’ve all covered every Specials song, really.

We’ve had a couple other really mind-blowing experiences that made the highs really incredible. It’s been a pretty weird and wild ride, and we feel pretty lucky.

STEREOGUM: Today you are second on the bill, playing this huge outdoor festival. Does it feel like The Dream Is Over blew things up for you in a way the first album didn’t?

BABCOCK: Yeah, things definitely feel a little different. I mean, the first record did way better than we expected and we consider that to be really successful, because we were just four Canadian dudes who were playing basement shows in Toronto. I like to think The Dream Is Over is just a continuation of our work on our self-titled [LP], and I’d like to just keep releasing records that are very PUP. I don’t want to make any big changes. But I want every record to be better, as we get more confident as a band.

STEREOGUM: So the next one won’t be a prog-rock opera, then?

BABCOCK: Not if I have anything to say about it.

STEREOGUM: Where do you want the next record to go, creatively? Speaking for yourself, what are you picturing?

BABCOCK: It’s probably a bit early to say, but my mentality with this band is always, keep it quirky, keep it loud. Just try really hard to be a no-bullshit kind of band. We’re actually making the music that we want to make. We’ve all fallen into the trap with other bands that we’ve played in, that it’s easy to start writing music that maybe you aren’t stoked on just because you feel like that’s the logical next step.

STEREOGUM: Like trying to write a hit or chase what’s cool at the moment.

BABCOCK: Yeah. We’ve never been like that, and neither have most of the bands that we roll with. Honestly, guitar rock is not popular right now. It’s not what’s on the radio. But we’re making music that’s as honest as possible and telling people who we are, and hopefully, it will work out for us. And if it doesn’t, that’s OK. We’ve had a pretty good ride.

STEREOGUM: How do you feel about making guitar rock in an era when it’s not on the radio, and many people call it passé?

BABCOCK: People are always going to love rock music, I think. It doesn’t bum me out. It’s just this is how the world works, and if you chase those trends, you’re just always going to be a step behind. I just feel like making music that we believe in and that we would want to listen to, that’s the best we can do. We’re not hit makers, you know? If I wanted to, I couldn’t write one of those pop songs that I hear on the radio.

STEREOGUM: Based on the record label you’re on, I don’t see anyone being on your case, like, “Try to write songs that sound just a little like Paramore.”

BABCOCK: I have a lot of feelings about the music industry that I’ll try not to get into here. But, essentially, anyone who has taken that approach with us is gone now. We’ve just tried to surround ourselves with people who love what we do and believe that we can have success doing that. Anyone, who’s told us, “It’s really important to get that radio single on the next record” had to go. I hope radio happens for this band one day, but I want it to be a totally organic thing. I can’t force that. People would see through it, and that’s not the kind of guys we are. It’s going to sound fake.

STEREOGUM: I’ve heard industry people say, “Yeah, the kids don’t like rock ‘n’ roll anymore,” but it seems like your band gets a really young audience of teenagers and such.

BABCOCK: We try to do all-ages [shows] as much as possible. I would say most of our crowd is early 20s. But yeah, there’s definitely a contingent of PUP fans that are teenagers, and that’s really cool. I’m grateful that people seem to be into us. There’s a lot of bands who are doing the guitar rock thing and doing it real well. I feel like a lot of people are starting to realize that there’s only so much you can do, in terms of writing for other people, before everyone realizes that it’s bullshit. You have to write for yourself, and hopefully, your taste aligns with other people’s.

STEREOGUM: There was a time like bands like yours would be called “pop punk” or “emo” or whatever, and the cool tastemaking sites would most likely ignore you, if not just roll their eyes. But now you’re playing high on the bill at this Brooklyn music festival, and your last album pretty much got great reviews across the board.

BABCOCK: I know we have elements of pop-punk and emo and I always…

STEREOGUM: I’m not saying you are that.

BABCOCK: No, no, I don’t take offense to that. I try not to get too deep into that world. I think kind of what’s becoming cool now is honesty. And that’s important, because I feel like there’s been a lot of dishonesty for a long time. Not that every band that sounds like this is guilty of this, but a lot of bands hide a lack of originality with layers of reverb. A lot of tastemakers have been kind to us, and that’s cool. It’s definitely not something that would’ve happened five years ago.

STEREOGUM: What was the first band you were ever in, and what inspired you to start playing?

BABCOCK: When I was a teenager, I was really into ska. It’s weird that we’re sitting here and we’re about to play before Thursday. But Thursday was definitely one of those bands. So was Built To Spill. A big one for me was Jeff Rosenstock’s old band Bomb The Music Industry!, [because] I remember seeing Jeff play one time. I was maybe 15 or something. And his songs are amazing but also real simple. And it seemed like he didn’t really give a shit about playing them well — in a good way. That whole thing kind of made me realize, “Oh, anyone can play music, and you can be in a band.” In Toronto, there are all these all-ages shows happening, and the promoters and the bookers in that community were really encouraging kids coming out to shows to start bands so that they can open these shows, which is really cool. I remember going to shows when I was like 14, 15, and people being like, “If you love music this much, you should just start a band.” I’m 29. After 15 years, your band probably still sucks like ours, but doesn’t suck as much as it used to.

STEREOGUM: What is it about PUP, in your opinion, that helped you catch on more than other bands you were in?

BABCOCK: I just think we’re a better band. All of us spent a long time playing in worse bands, and we got to understand what it meant to play in a band. A lot of it is finding the people who have the same sort of vision as you have. Everybody in PUP wants to make the same kind of records. We’re all in it for the same reasons, and we all have the same expectations of it. I went through a lot of bands where there’s trouble because one member would want to change the direction of the band or not everyone was as committed. So it’s a real special thing when the four of us got together, and we all realized we were equally committed and have the same kind of idea where we wanted the band to go. We all want to practice, and we want to write, and we want to tour and we want to work. I think if even one of us were lazy about it, it wouldn’t have worked out in the same way.

STEREOGUM: What was going on in your life when PUP started? Did you have a job?

BABCOCK: I had a job. We all mostly have career jobs, all four of us. The thing is, in my brain, more or less, I’d given up on being in a “successful band.” But I still wanted to play music. I always knew that writing songs and playing was going to be a part of my life, but I just thought it was going to be different than what it used to be. The band that I had before PUP, we weren’t very successful, but we were always trying, and we always felt like we were on the verge of making it work. It never quite did. So going into this band, it was just sort of like, “We’re just going to have fun, and I just want to write songs and play some shitty shows, and hang out with my friends.” That was it for us, until there was definitely a turning point a month or two before we went into record the first album, where things started clicking.

We started getting good tour offers, and it made us reassess our approach, and we felt like maybe this could really actually be a thing. It’s a scary thing to go down that road for a second or third time when you’ve already given up on it. But it was like, fuck it, what do we have to lose? We all quit our jobs on the same day, and went on tour and came home and went in and recorded a record. We were lucky, because we took a big risk and it paid off.

STEREOGUM: Where were you working?

BABCOCK: I was working at a record label in Toronto called Arts & Crafts. It was a cool job and I liked it. I got to work with a few bands that I really liked. This is the only thing I would’ve quit my job to do. I don’t regret it, ever.

STEREOGUM: What made you think this might really work?

BABCOCK: I was thinking about doing our first record and thinking like, oh, maybe we should get a producer, because all of us had pretty much just produced our own bands. We made this long wish list of producers we wanted to work with, and the first person on that list was Dave Schiffman, because we had been listening to all of these records that he’s done. He’s done a bunch of other cool shit, but mostly we’d been listening to the Bronx records he’s done and just talking about how rad they sound. We were just like, we’ll send him message and he’ll never reply. This guy’s worked with the Chili Peppers and Johnny Cash and Adele. He’s not going to reply, but let’s just send him some demos and see what he says.

He listened to the demos and was like, “I really like them. I know you guys don’t have any money and are a brand new band but just come be a pet project for me, because I think these demos are real strong.” That was kind of the moment for all four of us. We got that email and were sitting around in jam space like, “Let’s quit our jobs.”

STEREOGUM: Now speaking of The Dream Is Over, the story behind that record is that a doctor told you that you weren’t going to be able to sing anymore after you blew out your vocal cords. What made you decide to push through, and how did you recover?

BABCOCK: I went to see a doctor on the first day of this seven-week tour with Modern Baseball, because something was fucked. She was like, “That’s it.” That was obviously really hard to hear, but in the past three or four years that we’ve been doing this full-time, we’ve just pushed through so much bullshit. Almost every band in the world who does what we do, there’s so many hardships, so many times where you just might think, let’s quit. This is getting too hard. We’ve always just managed to push through it, and that just felt like another one of those things. We should’ve dropped off the tour on the second day, but fuck it. I also felt like if I’m going to blow my voice out, if I’m not going to sing in a band anymore, I might as well just crash this thing into the ground.

We just went out and just did it. We got through six out of seven weeks, and I was pretty happy about that. Then we had to pull out because my throat stopped working. But I’ve been working really hard. There’s a lot of work that goes into coming back from that sort of injury and making sure that it doesn’t happen again. I’ve just been putting in the time.

STEREOGUM: Do you mean physical therapy sessions?

BABCOCK: I do physical therapy for it. I have a vocal coach for it. I just take better care of myself. I warm up all the time before shows. I don’t get as drunk. There’s just a million things. I’m on a strict diet when I’m on the road. It’s a bunch of real boring shit, but if you’re a singer who wants to tour and sing aggressively, you’ve just got to make those sacrifices if you want to do it for a long time. It’s been good. I feel like everything is back on track. It would’ve been too easy to just give up. We worked too hard. We lost too much money doing this band. We’ve given up careers. We’ve fucked up important relationships in our lives, all for this band. There’s been too many sacrifices; it’s going to take a lot more than that to make us stop. We’re going to stop when we hate each other and that’s when it’s going to stop. I don’t want anyone else to stop the band.

STEREOGUM: So last year you got Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things in your music video for “Sleep In The Heat.” How’d that happen?

BABCOCK: He was actually in a video for a song called “Guilt Trip” on the first record before he was in Stranger Things. He just got cast pretty much because he looked like a young version of me and he turned out to be really talented. I could be wrong, but I think that Jeremy, the guy who directed the video, told me that the casting director from Stranger Things was a big fan of that video.

STEREOGUM: Oh cool.

BABCOCK: He’s since gone on to be a huge star. He’s an awesome kid. He’s doing really well for himself. He agreed to come back and be in the sequel to “Guilt Trip,” which is called “Sleep In The Heat.” He came back, and we also got all the kids who are in the “Guilt Trip” video to come back and be in this video. That was really cool. He’s a cool dude. He plays in a band too. He knows a lot about music. He’s just a good hang. We’re real happy that we got to connect with him and the other kids. They all did a great job.

STEREOGUM: Last question is, your first single was “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will.” Have you guys learned how to cool off and deal with your conflicts more maturely?

BABCOCK: Each tour, we get better at addressing those things. I mean, we are all best friends, but relationships do become strained on long tours. We’ve gotten a lot better at it. It’s still challenging. We still have days where we hate each other. But, it’s not like a thing where, “PUP can’t stand each other.” It’s just days. That song’s really a snapshot into a bad day in the life when we’re touring, because nine out of 10 days, we are best friends and stoked to be on tour together. I wouldn’t want to be in a band with any other dudes. We’re getting better at it, but we still have our days and moments. We all have pretty extreme personalities.

STEREOGUM: When you first wrote the lyrics to that song, did everyone think that it was funny, or were they like, “I don’t know if you should be putting it out there like that”?

BABCOCK: Everyone was down. They all thought it was hilarious. The thing about that is, I wrote all the lyrics. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve felt that way about each of those guys many times. But really those lyrics are very relatable to all four of us. When I was writing them, I was conscious of the fact that, lyrically, some of the songs are very personal to me. That was going to be a song relatable to all four of us. That song was really fun for us to write, because the lyrics were the first thing to come. Which is odd for this band. Usually, lyrics are last. And everyone was pretty stoked on the idea of writing a song about wanting to kill each other. All the parts came together super easy. It was probably the most painless songwriting process this band has ever had.

Tags: Pup