There’s a line in Toronto punk band PUP’s single “Free At Last” that goes “Just ’cause you’re sad again, it doesn’t make you special.”
This one line puts a whole generation on blast. It’s a self-eviscerating take on millennial snowflakes and all their concerns, whether they be mental health, the environment, the rise of fascism, the lack of meaningful work, the machinations of the one percent, or a whole host of other entirely justifiable reasons for being sad.
Thing is, in PUP’s case it’s kind of a lie. PUP – Stefan Babcock (vocals, lead guitar), Nestor Chumak (bass, backing vocals), Zachary Mykula (drums, backing vocals), and Steven Sladkowski (guitar, backing vocals) – are special. And it’s specifically because their intensely personal songs so perfectly capture the turbulence that comes with stumbling through the world each day.
It’s working for them. Formed in Toronto five years ago, PUP quickly became favourites of the punk scene with their first two albums, winning accolades everywhere from the New York Times to Pitchfork, NPR to Rolling Stone. Their last album, The Dream Is Over, not only debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, but also catapulted them into international waters, selling out shows worldwide throughout 2016. They also won the $10,000 SOCAN Songwriting Prize in 2017, for their song “DVP.”
Their new third album, Morbid Stuff, continues in their sad and special vein: it’s 11 songs of deeply-mined observation on anxiety and despair. In particular, it’s a window into songwriter Babcock’s soul, exploring his bouts with depression, his heartbreaks and existential angsts, and the difficult journey of trying to find one’s place in the world. It also flips the script for PUP. The band’s last album The Dream Is Over was built around a physical health crisis of Babcock’s that could have forced him to quit singing and cause the end of the band. The inward-looking catastrophizing on Morbid Stuff, though intensely about the self, feels paradoxically more universal. Anyone who feels things too deeply can see themselves reflected in these songs.
Babcock can certainly be accused of feeling the world too deeply.
“I have absolutely noticed that about myself,” Babcock says, accompanied by Mykula at a west-end Toronto café, to talk about songwriting with us. “My mom pointed it out. She said, ‘The world is always ending for you,’ and holy shit, is that true. Because even when something is going good, I tend to create problems in my own brain. Which can be really hard for my bandmates and my girlfriend.”
All this morbid stuff Babcock thinks about is, however, good for making songs. Babcock’s pointed lyrical style is ripe with slogans perfect to be carved into desktops, or Sharpied onto handmade T-shirts. The single “Kids,” for example, is a nihilistic love song with the tear-it-down line “I don’t care about nothing!” “Scorpion Hill,” a tale of dark thoughts and life spiralling out of control, features the slogan-worthy “If the world is gonna burn / Everyone should get a turn to light it up.” The metalcore-adjacent “Full Blown Meltdown” sums things up with “I’m still a loser and always will be/ So why change now?”
Listening to “Full Blown Meltdown,” inarguably the heaviest, most frantic song on Morbid Stuff, shows that however hard Babcock may be for his bandmates, they understand how to package his thoughts around bristling, appropriate sounds. The song sounds like a breakdown.
“This song is just rage,” says Mykula. “In that song the lyrics are really aggressive and snarky, and that was injected into the music.”
It helps that Babcock’s lyrics come from an honest place.
“They’re very much based in real life, and from personal experiences,” says Babcock. “It’s not about the similes, or the metaphors, or whatever. It’s just about saying what I want to say as directly as possible.”
Distilling this soul mining down to its essence is far from an effortless process. It requires extensive self-editing.
“This stuff certainly doesn’t just fall out of me,” he says. “The lyrics usually start off as gibberish, but I know what I’m trying to say. I do melodies first and I know what the theme of the song should be, but I don’t know what to say yet. I’m really not articulate. So for the first couple months of playing the songs, the melodies will be exactly what they end up being. But the words won’t be there, and I’ll be thinking in my brain, ‘How am I gonna say this thing that want to say, and not make it gibberish?’ And I definitely work way harder on the lyrics than anything else, because writing melodies comes naturally to me, but writing lyrics doesn’t.”
Getting to this place isn’t easy. During the writing process Babcock frequently checks out from the urban world to commune with nature. This comes with risk (see sidebar). It’s why any nature references in PUP songs are more rough waters and groddy reservoirs than gorgeous sunrises.
“I’ve almost died in nature many times,” says Babcock, who can tell a mean yarn about the time he and his sister were trapped in a snowed-out valley in Cape Horn, Chile, with no food. “I’m very into survival skills, survivalist culture, and when I say camping, I don’t mean car camping. I’m, like, in the middle of the Northwest Territories with nobody around.
“There’s a lot of pristine beauty, but more so we’ve found ourselves in complete disaster situations, where we felt like we might not get out of it.”
Cheating death? Isolated adventures? The deep exploration of self? These things may involve sadness, but they sure sound like living, and that is special.