Before Headlining Trees, PUP’s Guitarist Talks About The Relationship Between Art And Geography, Why His Band Works With Charities In The Cities It Tours In.
Since introducing themselves to punk fans with their brash 2013 self-titled debut, the four members of the Canadian band PUP have made a point of carving out their own, distinct lane in the music industry.
Over the years, that’s manifested itself in a number of ways, but can perhaps best be seen through the lends of the band’s music video output. By embracing these visual representations of its music as an opportunity to elevate its music rather than as a means to simply complement it, the band has consistently used its videos to push the creative envelope, be it through conceptual concepts that embrace nostalgia and Internet culture or by casting young actors (including Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard) in narratives that tell the story of the band’s origin.
During a recent phone call with PUP member Steve Sladkowski in advance of the band’s sold-out headlining date at Trees tonight that comes in support of its terrific new Morbid Stuff LP, the lead guitarist explained that the band’s DIY scene upbringing is to credit for that extra creative effort. Actually, he said, that mentality is to credit for a lot of the band’s moves. It explains the band’s decision to self-release its new album through its own new Little Dipper record label. It also explains, at least in part, how the band views the various cities it travels to while on tour, and why the band feels compelled to give back to the communities it visits where it can.
In the below Q&A, Sladkowski discusses all of the above, and a few additional topics as well.
Hey Steve! Can I ask where you are right now?
We’re in… traffic! Somewhere in Michigan, I think.
How’s the tour been going so far?
Pretty amazing. It’s been crazy. People seem really excited about the new music, and it’s nice to finally be back in the swing of things.
That’s not too surprising to hear. It seems like you guys have had a really successful album roll-out for Morbid Stuff. One of the big changes with this release is that you guys you got to put this out yourself, right?
Yeah. Well, it’s through a partnership with Rise Records.
Partnership or not, how does this release roll-out differ from how you were doing things in the past? Does it set things up to be more controlled on your end — or easier in any way?
I don’t think it’s harder or easier in any way. We’re such control freaks anyway, so we were already self-directing a lot of stuff. We really love to be involved in every part of the process as much as possible, which is part of our background coming from the whole DIY and punk world. I mean, it’s certainly a way for us to keep a lot of that creative control. But, like, we’re not booking shows ourselves any more, and we have management, and a lot of other help in the background, which is great. It’s mostly a way for us to maintain some of that control, I’d say.
Well, one way that you recently gave up a lot of control is with the video for the Morbid Stuff single “Free At Last,” where you released the tabs and lyrics to your fans, and then combined their efforts into your music video. By nature, that’s very much an act of giving up control. How did that go for y’all? How did that idea come to be?
Like a lot of our ideas, it just came with us just hanging around, sitting in a bar or apartment somewhere, drinking beer and trying to make each other laugh. So that initial idea came up where we thought it would be cool to release the chords without any melodic reference point, and just see what people came up with. What was cool was how people just kind of ran with it in really fun ways. We were getting really cool submissions, so we decided to just open it up to the rest of the internet and see what would happen. And then people started sending us videos of their stuff. At that point, we kind of realized, “Oh, we really have to put this all out!” It just sort of rolled over from there. We had no idea people were going to get so conceptual with it or whatever. We were just trying to make fun of the YouTube tutorial concept. That was the inspiration in the editing and all that. It ended up being a really cool thing.
I thought it was really cool, too. And I imagine — and tell me if I’m wrong — but it’s really representative to me of the way you guys really connect with your audiences. In regards to this video, was that at all overwhelming? I mean, you guys had well over 250 submissions, right?
Yeah, it’s insane. But it was especially insane for [lead vocalist] Stefan [Babcock] because he actually went and watched every single one of them.
Is he the only one to have done that?
Well, most of us watched all the ones that ended up in the video — like, the 78 or whatever that made it in. But he watched them all.
Is that just a massive dedication on his part to your fans? Or is there a little bit of vanity at play?
[Laughs.] I mean, if people are going to put hours and hours of work into it, then that’s worthy of our time. Plus, we are nothing if not tenacious in following through in our stupid ideas. I do just want to say, though, that the band-fan relationship is a really special relationship, and we really believe that. We’re very normal dudes, and we don’t buy into the whole rock star bullshit. Doing this, it was another sort of way to tear down that barrier. It was definitely worth dedicating the mental energy to.
It does seem to me that that’s at the forefront of the personality of the band. Even on your social media, you guys seem to place self-deprecation at the forefront of all that you do. By that same token, you guys have also made some serious moves of late — and getting attention for it. I’ve read a couple interviews that you guys have done to promote the new album, and pretty much every single one of them centers around what the Late Night with Seth Meyers appearance meant for a band on the rise like y’all. I do feel inclined to point out in response to those other pieces that it wasn’t your first late-night gig, since you guys played on The Chris Gethard Show, which was a rad performance.
Do things feel different this time around to you, though? Or is that being overblown?
There are certain things that are different. Like, this is our first time on a bus. So I am speaking to you right now from a bus, which is pretty wild. We’re used to being in a van or in, like, a car with a trailer. Overall, I’d say our band’s growth has really been pretty gradual, at least on the business side. And, on the other side, our process hasn’t really changed that much. Like, the songwriting is mostly the same, but since we’ve had a little bit of success, we’ve had a little bit more time to work on the songs on that creative side of things. Really, you never really know what to expect when you put out a record. With the creative control and work we put into it, we can get the record to a place where we think it’s done. But then you put it out, and you don’t really know what’s going to happen. You go out on the road and tour, and people hopefully come to the shows. But, yeah, things are going well. And it does seem like people like the record. We’re hitting a wider audience than we were hitting previously. That all to me just kind of reaffirms our approach, though. It just makes us want to work harder and keep plugging away.
You hit on something there that I’ve talked to a lot of artists about over the years, which is that once you put some songs out there, they’re no longer necessarily yours, they now belong to the ether. They’re kind of out there, and people can interpret them how they choose to. But one thing that I think is interesting about PUP songs — and maybe I’ve keyed into something that isn’t the case — but I think certainly in “Kids,” with its lyrics referencing a ’97 Camry, and “DVP,” which is about the Don Valley Parkway in your hometown of Toronto, there’s a lot of specificity in the lyricism of PUP songs that you don’t necessarily hear in a ton of other places. You definitely hear it in some artists, of couse. But I wonder how intentional that is with you all.
I think geography and physical landmarks tend to find their way into creative work whether they’re directly referenced or not. Stefan as a lyricist, his words are very much formed by personal experiences. But, at the same time, everyone has a road like the Don Valley Parkway, y’know? So, even though that’s a very specific reference and a very direct call to a very specific place, in a way, at a certain point, something becomes so specific and so personal that it moves through the looking glass to become a little more universal, I think. Or that’s the hope.
Another band that does that a lot is Titus Andronicus.
I happen to have lived in some of the places that they reference, and that’s a cool nod, for sure. But, in many ways, I think it also helps brings the audience into the world of the band. And you guys, whether it’s intended to come off this way or not, Toronto is such a huge part of your identity. So the “DVP” nod seems to be indicative of that badge of honor. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, totally. There are a lot of ways in which that’s stated, and in which it isn’t. But then there’s also the fact that I’m wearing a [Toronto] Raptors jersey on stage like 90 percent of the time. But, again, whether you’re actively engaging in it or not, where you come from definitely informs what you are. Like, Toronto is definitely a part of me — and all four of us, really. Toronto is a major city — it’s a lot like a New York or a Los Angeles, where a lot of people move there. But we all went to elementary school there. and grew up in the city proper. We all are also kind of seeing it change and seeing the places where we grew up, which were just sort of like ho-hum neighborhoods, become so crazy.
That must be something that I imagine you’re able to see all over while touring, and by no means just in Toronto. Like, that same thing is happening in Dallas and other big cities all over North America. A lot of cities are experiencing what I guess you would call the gentrification of some of its more traditional music neighborhoods. Is that something that you’re able to see when you’re driving across the continent from city to city, just the changing landscape?
Oh yeah! I mean, look: We’ve played Deep Ellum a couple times and seen how that neighborhood has changed over the years. That area definitely seems like a flash-point for exactly what you’re talking about. It’s a really strange thing to negotiate. And it was part of the motivation in us launching these charity initiatives where we’re trying to give money back into the communities we’re playing. I don’t think all that change should necessarily fall on the shoulders of the artist, but there is a very complicated relationship between artists and the places that artists inhabit, which often become the front-lines for gentrification. Do you know the podcast “The Theory of Everything”? I just listened to a really interesting episode of that podcast, and it was essentially about this — and specifically California and Oakland, I think. It talked about art galleries versus communities and all that. It’s fascinating. Sometimes, I’m made very uncomfortable by it. But sometimes I’m not really sure what you can do. Like, how do you stop it or counteract it?
Well, it sounds like you’re trying with the charity stuff you mentioned doing in the cities you’re playing. Can you tell me more about that?
Yeah! So, basically, in every city that we’re visiting, we’re trying to partner with a local charity that focuses on stuff that we value, the four of us. Sometimes, it’s working with, like, at-risk youth in LGBT communities. Other times, it’s been women’s charities. We do it… well, we do it just because we can. Because we should.
I know Jeff Rosenstock did something similar on a tour through Dallas a few years ago. And I understand that you guys are pals with him, and that he worked on the album a little bit with you?
Yeah, he helped us workshop a lot of stuff.
Is that an idea that you guys shared, or is it just a fortunate, happy coincidence that you both decided to get involved with local charities like this?
Well, his wife Christine [Mackie] was one of the first people I called when we decided we were going to do this. Now, by no means are Jeff or we unique in doing this. There are a lot of people doing this, and I think that’s great. I think it’s really important that, when you have a platform, to find a way to use that platform properly.
So what does it look like?
We just try to get in touch with a charity — like, call them or email them — and get a representative of the charity a table to distribute literature and information at the show, and to have, like, a donation box if they want. And we’ll shout them out from the stage and direct people their way, which is usually over by the merch table or whatever. We’re in the process of figuring out the Dallas organization we’re going to be working with now. We usually figure them out in chunks at a time. [In advance of tonight’s show, we reached back out to Sladkowski to see if the band had settled on an area charity to work with. He confirms that the band will be supporting the Genesis Women’s Shelter at its show, although he has not yet been able to confirm whether the organization will be present at the show. Regardless, Sladkowski says the band plans to shout out Genesis from the stage and direct people on ways they can e-donate to the cause.]
I think that’s a really cool, responsible way to dip in or dip out of a city — like it’s a sort of thank you for welcoming the band in, and maybe a way to counteract some of that change we discussed earlier.
Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly the point.
PUP performs Wednesday, May 8, at Trees. The show is sold out. Cover photo of PUP by Vanessa Heins.