Whether it's their singer's damaged vocal cords or a warming planet, the Toronto pop-punk foursome is intent to find ways to soldier on, and to also have a few laughs along the way
Don’t expect to see Steve Sladkowski sipping from a plastic water bottle in between songs Friday at Newport Music Hall.
The guitarist in punk foursome PUP, like a good portion of those in his generation, is concerned about the warming planet. Bringing his own water jugs, he said, is the least he can do.
“Touring puts a serious demand on resources,” Sladkowski said. “We fly a lot, and it’s really hard to care about the environment and be faced with the fact that you fly a lot. We’re lucky enough to be on a tour bus right now, but even that, it’s also very demanding in terms of energy consumption. The amount of bottled water that’s backstage on any given night when a band is performing is insane. We’re trying to figure out how to reduce the footprint as much as possible.”
Recently, lead singer and chief songwriter Stefan Babcock tweeted that he would draw 50 bespoke tattoos for $30 each, with all proceeds going to Canadian clean energy company Less.
He sold out in less than 20 minutes.
For a band that perfected its songs in scuzzy Toronto punk venues — Pup started when Sladkowski, bassist Nestor Chumak and drummer Zack Mykula played together in high school (Babcock joined the fold in college) — the visibility is still somewhat of a shock.
After slogging it out for two years following the 2014 release of the band’s angry, unpolished self-titled debut, PUP hit a low point when Babcock’s doctor told him to stop singing with his obliterated vocal cords. Babcock ignored the advice, instead visiting a physical therapist and changing his tour eating habits.
Second album The Dream is Over, a direct reference to the medical professional’s comments, earned the group a Polaris Music Prize nomination (a prestigious best new album award in Canada).
That record offered a laid-bare look at the realities of touring. (Album opener “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” is only sort of joking in its interpretation of band conflict.) It also gave PUP enough public traction to upgrade to a tour bus, which Sladkowski said is another source of environmental and professional tension.
“None of us have ever experienced this level of success before. … We had very low expectations because if you have too high of expectations you become entitled, or a diva, and it becomes less about the work: writing good songs and being a good band,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out ways to do this effectively and in a sustainable way, given that it’s growing at a pretty steady clip.”
They’re also careful to not overextend themselves.
“The desire to do more, if you’re not careful, can lead to self-defeat as well, if you feel guilty about not doing enough,” Sladkowski, 31, said. “There’s a fine balance you need to strike.”
Balance has become a bit of a buzzword for PUP.
The group’s third album, Morbid Stuff, is like a clown showing up to a wake. Just when the tears well up, the laughter starts instead. (Or more tears, if clowns creep you out.)
“See You at Your Funeral” hides a depressing encounter with an ex — “I hope I never see you again, or if I do it’s at your funeral” — beneath an irrepressible chorus and Sladkowski’s juicy opening riff. It’s as funny and joyous as anything in the band’s catalog.
A few songs later, “Full Blown Meltdown” is PUP’s closest brush with rage-y hard rock and early punk. Babcock talk-screams, clearly pushing those delicate vocal cords to their limit, while Sladkowski shreds behind him. The final 30 seconds go full Black Sabbath. (Recent shows have added a “War of Pigs” singalong immediately following the song.)
Babcock often discusses mental health in his lyrics, but rarely indulges in self-centered existentialism or navel gazing. Instead, he prefers to keep a light hand. “Just ‘cause you’re sad again doesn’t make you special,” he repeats over and over on “Free at Last.”
Juxtaposing serious topics with off-color observations has become PUP’s specialty, never more crystallized than on Morbid Stuff, also nominated for a Polaris Music Prize.
Sladkowski acknowledged that the bandmates don’t take major issues like climate change or mental health lightly — Babcock has been especially open with his bouts of depression — but that a lighthearted attitude is part of the balancing act.
“For us, the catharsis comes with being able to recognize the problems and take them seriously, while not forgetting to laugh,” he said. “That doesn’t change the fact that some people in this band see therapists and take antidepressants, but we need to laugh and have a good time together.”