Toronto punk band PUP pulls tight in an unraveling world

Guitarist Steve Sladkowski, who joins his bandmates in concert at the Newport Saturday, on the support system that helped give rise to the group’s excellent new record

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive

Early on in The Unraveling of PUPTHEBAND, due on Rise Records Friday, April 1, Stefan Babcock, PUP’s exposed nerve of a singer, delivers a tender but still hard-charging ode to Matilda, his retired guitar, which now “sits in the corner collecting dust.” 

Though ostensibly a paean to a little-used instrument, as the song unfolds it begins to evoke the gathered rust of the last two years, a time in which the coronavirus largely prevented musicians from touring, turning even the stoutest road warriors into uneasy homebodies. “I hardly make a sound,” Babcock sings. “And I'm totally unwound.”

This sense of unraveling carries throughout the cathartic, hook-filled record, the bandmates raising a middle finger to the pervasive sense of dread that has defined COVID existence (“Relentless”), summoning the inner strength needed to slog through another day (“Cutting Off the Corners”) and attempting to hold tight to a sense of self while living under a spotlight that can magnify life’s various anxieties. “I don’t change, I just push right through,” Babcock offers defiantly amid the swirl of the shimmering, synth-streaked “Habits.”

“Anytime we try to do things that don’t sound like us, and things that don’t sound like us processing the world around us, it doesn’t feel right,” said guitarist Steve Sladkowski, who will join his bandmates in concert at Newport Music Hall on Saturday, April 2, along with openers Cloud Nothings and Pinkshift. “It feels like an abdication of who we are as a band. The four of us are pretty intensive personalities, and we care very deeply about the project. We’ve realized over the course of the band that it’s the four of us, and it’s the four of us being pretty up front about who we are and what we’re going through. … Nestor [Chumok], our bass player, he just had a kid. We all have dogs. I just recently got engaged. Real-life stuff keeps happening, and I don't think you can shy away from that.”

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But while the pandemic exaggerated some of the cracks the PUP bandmates viewed within the world at-large, it also served as a reminder of the bond between the four, who were tasked with being one another’s support systems, in a sense, during the time spent in lockdown. So, while there are points on the record where the music feels gloriously pushed to its breaking point, things never come completely unglued, reflecting the way the four Toronto musicians have managed to navigate the last couple of years, pulling closer in response to these growing societal fractures.

“Even in those moments when it was tough … there was still this deeply supportive and caring environment,” Sladkowski said. “And that allowed us to push ourselves past the point of comfort, which was where all of the best creative breakthroughs were happening.”

The 2020 lockdown hit not long after the hard-touring PUP played a March 11 concert in Eugene, Oregon, and Sladkowski said the musicians initially experienced a sense of “whiplash” in adjusting to life off of the road. “It’s one of those law-of-gravity moments,” he said, “where your body is used to going a certain speed and then you just stop.”

The guitarist said he spent the first six to eight months of the pandemic acclimating to this new pace, slowing down to read the books he had accumulated over years of touring, to watch movies, and to “rediscover a love for music,” spinning vinyl records that had been long ignored amid the relentless write-record-tour cycle required of the band. Gradually, though, the musicians started to feel that familiar gravitational pull, which led them to email recorded demos back and forth not with the idea of working toward an album, but more as group therapy, Sladkowski said. 

After taking this unhurried approach for nearly four months, the band started to feel like an album was beginning to take shape, booking five weeks with producer Peter Katis (Kurt Vile, The National) in a Victorian-era mansion he owns in Connecticut, a setup that allowed around-the-clock access to recording — a first for the band.

“We’ve blocked out studios in Toronto for a similar timeframe, but it was almost like an office job, where you show up at 9 [a.m.] and then leave at 5 or 6 [p.m.],” Sladkowski said. “But here we had that sort of access where it was like, oh, we actually live here, and you can stop and cook dinner for everyone and maybe have a glass of wine, and then go right back into the recording studio. … But I do think that’s also where the unraveling set in, and by the fourth week we kind of passed that threshold of being like, ‘I can’t remember the last time we went outside, actually.’ …. It was like a cross between ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘The Shining.’”

Induced mania aside, Sladkowski said the experience of recording The Unraveling of PUPTHEBAND, in addition to navigating a pandemic that for a time threatened the future of the entire live music industry, helped to accelerate a shift that had already started to take root within the band in more recent years.

“I guess [in the early days of PUP] it was about wanting to put a live show together and hit the road to see what that was like, and to see if we even could or wanted to do that,” he said. “And I think now we’re making music because there’s a fundamental compulsion to do so. I realize more and more that the four of us would be doing this whether people were listening or not. … We’re a little bit older now, and some of those things we sang about and some of those party elements of who we were have tempered. And we’re happy to be open about that the same way we were open about struggling with mental health and finding help in therapy and medication. But people change, and some of my favorite musicians, I like to go on that journey with them. I like the opportunity to grow with an artist and see how that person changes. And it seems like maybe now people are giving us that same opportunity.”