The path to happiness isn't linear — but PUP turn life's miseries into blisteringly honest punk
Being at the top of their career doesn't shield the Toronto punk heroes from the realities of mental health
I'm sitting with Stefan Babcock and Zack Mykula, the singer/guitarist and drummer of Toronto punk rock band PUP. Babcock is on his second coffee of the day; Mykula is on his third. The caffeine is much-needed fuel after a busy few weeks for the band. PUP just put out a limited edition fanzine, started a record label and announced that their third album Morbid Stuff is due out in April. The band will be touring the record for most of the year with dates across North America and Europe. Days after tickets went on sale, shows in Brooklyn and London sold out. The entirety of the group's Canadian gigs filled up even quicker.
From the outside it seems like PUP are poised to make another big leap in their careers — but as I excitedly tout their accomplishments, Babcock and Mykula seem mostly unphased.
"We're like the Forrest Gump of the music industry," says Mykula. "Stumbling idiotically and succeeding somehow."
I've known PUP for a few years now, in that casual way that everyone who grew up going to punk shows just sort of knows one another. Watching the band grow from local openers to a much-hyped headlining act has been a genuine pleasure. They're a success story, hometown boys made good, a friendly reminder that putting in the effort can actually pay off. Chatting with the band, it's clear they're grateful for the support — but after a few minutes of goading about ambitions and next steps, the conversation starts to peter off. Babcock and Mykula remain polite but seem skeptical of the "next big thing" narrative I'm trying to put on them. Maybe it's a cautious modesty. Maybe it's the fact that things always feel different from the inside. But as the conversation starts to steer towards the new record, I begin to wonder if the evasion is due to something else entirely.
The first single from Morbid Stuff is the track "Kids." The song is a blistering three and a half minutes, showcasing PUP's signature blend of punk, technical prowess and pop sensibility. The song slaps. It's a definite banger. But at the same time, the lyrics paint a bleak picture of day-to-day life. The track opens with the following words:
Just like the kids / I've been navigating my way through the mind-numbing reality of a godless existence / which at this point in my hollow and vapid life has erased what little ambition I've got left
The introspective lyrics play in stark contrast to the uptempo and catchy tune. They're hardly the perspective you'd expect from a band undergoing the biggest success of their career. And Babcock is forthright and honest about where that juxtaposition is coming from.
I'm not really the kind of guy who wants to make songs that make people feel bad. I want to make people feel good despite how bleak they are. It's a chance to show maybe we're not alone and maybe it's alright.- Stefan Babcock, PUP vocalist/guitarist
"I'm very conscious about speaking in universal terms because I don't know anything. I only know about what this stuff means to me. One of the things that has definitely exasperated that battle with depression is this idea, both internally and externally from other people, saying, 'What are you so bummed about? Look around you. Things are good for you. Your band's having success. You have a really incredible partner.' All of these external factors point to something that should make a happy individual. That's not really how mental health — for me — works. Having success with the band doesn't mean I'm happy."
"I think there is a mistaken perception that the path to happiness is linear," adds Mykula. "It doesn't matter what good happens — as long as you don't value what you do, you're going to be miserable...[The lyrics on the record] are reflecting on the discovery of what it means to be depressed, what it is to fight that and what it means to be OK even though sometimes it's not OK...but, you know, sonically it's really fun." Everybody at the table laughs as he says that. "It's a great thing to be able to laugh at misery."
An anxiety with the state of things, both personally and at a broader societal level, underscores Morbid Stuff. It's extended beyond the music to the artwork and even the merch for the album. A presale bundle called the ANNIHILATION PREPAREDNESS KIT included a copy of the record, a multi-tool, themed bandaids and a literal inflatable boat. While the merch was made for novelty purposes, it feels like a decent metaphor for the album's themes: the recognition that — yes — the degradation of society is a lot more ridiculous than we could have expected, but maybe having some stuff on hand to deal with that ridiculousness might not be a bad idea. It's kind of similar to how channelling depression and self-doubt into making punk songs with your friends can help to alleviate some of those feelings.
"Writing songs, for me, is about probing that darkness and then playing music with my friends. Touring and doing all the fun shit that goes with being in a band is a way to do something productive with that darkness," says Babcock. "I'm not really the kind of guy who wants to make songs that make people feel bad. I want to make people feel good despite how bleak they are. It's a chance to show maybe we're not alone and maybe it's alright."
PUP's Morbid Stuff is out April 5th.