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07 Mar 2020

Longevity Through Unity: PUP Brings a Decade of Punk Music and Friendship to Coachella

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PUP. PUP.

If I was in charge of HGTV, I would use PUP’s music as the soundtrack for the home-demolition processes in each show: Songs like “DVP,” “Reservoir” and “Back Against the Wall” make you just wanna go destroy things. Heck, the video for “Mabu” even features the guys destroying their car, in true punk-rock fashion.

However, a handful of tracks are more somber, and may even bring a tear to your eye. “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will,” “Sleep in the Heat” and “Dark Days” still bring that heavy sound, along with a little bit of sentimentality. It’s OK—it’s totally punk rock to cry.

PUP has a story unlike any other, and I was excited to get the chance for an interview. The Toronto-based band’s decade of screams and headbanging could have been cut short a few times, yet here they are, about to play one of the biggest stages in the world, barring any pandemic postponements: You can catch them at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, aka Coachella, on Friday, April 10 and 17.

“It’s crazy,” said guitarist Steve Sladkowski during a recent phone interview about the Coachella booking. “I still remember when I got the email. I was walking home, and it was freezing cold outside. I was alone and walking to my apartment, and when I saw it, I just blurted out, ‘Woah!’

“It’s still a very surreal feeling. The guys were in shock. We thought it was fake. It’s gonna be a great time, and we’re all looking forward to it. Just being able to see Rage Against the Machine, I’d do it just for that.”

PUP includes Sladkowski, drummer Zack Mykula, bassist Nestor Chumak and frontman Stefan Babcock. The quartet has been crafting its unique punk sound and going batshit insane at live shows for a decade now. I saw them in San Diego last year, and the entire crowd was a mosh pit. Take my word for it, or check out “PUP Live in the K! Pit (Tiny Dive Bar Show)” in the media section below.

“Our first record came out in 2013, but we played under a different name before that,” said Sladkowski. “We’ve been writing songs, hanging out, drinking beer and piling into a van for a hell of a long time. We’ve been able to see so much more of the world that I’d ever thought I’d see: Europe, Australia, weird Spanish islands off the coast of Africa, every province in Canada and Late Night With Seth Meyers. It’s been a whirlwind, and it’s so crazy to me that this is our job and that we can make a living while still being a close, tight-knit family.”

There have been no lineup changes since the inception of the group, which is uncommon these days. I mentioned this to Sladkowski, and he explained the amazing relationship he and his bandmates have.

“We spend New Year’s together every year, so it’s not like the four of us are just in this because we’re having success; we’re truly friends,” he said. “The band is so dependent on the four of us, both socially and musically. Each of us brings something to the table when we are working together to write songs. It wouldn’t be the same without any one member.”

I was curious if this concept of working together translates to how the group crafts their songs.

“It’s totally a group effort,” Sladkowski said. “Some days, someone will come in with a song that’s as close to fully formed as you’d hear on a record, and other days, someone will come in with a shell of an idea, and the four of us will work together to build on it. We’re willing to do whatever works, and are willing to try to serve the song, and not repeat ourselves creatively, which can be a challenge, and very-time consuming. But at the end of the day, putting in that time and effort to find new ideas and creative directions is totally worthwhile.”

PUP’s success is due in large part to the band members’ tremendous work ethic. They’ve released three albums, two EPs and 15 music videos, all while touring relentlessly.

“When we’re at home, we always try to work on stuff,” Sladkowski said. “We’ll send around demos to each other, or try to relearn some of the songs that didn’t end up on Morbid Stuff (the band’s most-recent LP) just as a creative exercise. We’re always working, tinkering and writing. We’ve never been the type to stick to one process at a time—writing, recording, touring. It’s kind of a mish-mash of whatever is happening at the time, but we’re always very intent on working. We’ve gotten to a level of success that no one could ever have dreamed of, and it doesn’t feel like the time to coast on that. It feels like the time to continue working, and trying to make interesting things.”

While this does sound rigorous, Sladkowski assured me that it never feels like a hindrance.

“This is what I’ve always wanted to do, so even on days when it’s tough, it’s a lot easier to make sacrifices for it,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is my job, and it’s the best job ever. You never know when something like this is gonna end, so you have to make the most of it.”

Part of the reason for the band’s opportunity-seizing ethos has to do with a moment that every musician fears: Babcock at one point was diagnosed with a cyst on his vocal cords. His doctor told him “the dream was over.”

“That’s the kind of thing that makes you realize how lucky you are to be in that position, but how fragile that position can be,” said Sladkowski. “It’s something as random as a cyst on a vocal cord that shows you how quickly everything you have can unravel, but I think that made us really strong as a band, as friends, as family. I remember Stefan coming to us and him fearing he wouldn't be able to sing again, and him blaming himself for it.

“We got through it, and came out stronger as a unit. We learned there were some things we had to do, long-term-oriented, in terms of health and wellness, and learned how to take care of ourselves. Not only was it a wake-up call, but it was an opportunity to really figure out how to do this in a more physically sustainable way. It’s something you could have never predicted. We had shows to play, and then we had to finish and tour the record. All of a sudden, Stefan couldn’t talk for a month, and he had to relearn how to speak and sing. We’ve been through so much together that it would be crazy to do anything other than have unwavering support for one another.”

In true punk-rock fashion, the group named that album The Dream Is Over. Since then, the group has been on a roll, releasing Morbid Stuff last year and landing a spot at Coachella.

“I think a lot of bands lack great support in their relationships, as (do) a lot of people,” Sladkowski said. “It’s causing people a lot of pain and fear that they can’t come forward and talk about things. No one should ever feel that way, so if there’s anything to be taken from what we went through, it should be that it’s OK to lean on your friends, and it’s OK to ask for help.”

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