“I have been grappling with a lot of negative emotions for many years,” PUP singer-guitarist Stefan Babcock says. “I deal with depression a lot. Writing songs has just been a way for me to kind of explore what was going on in my own brain.”
Babcock got to know himself a little better lately, as he was writing lyrics for the Toronto indie-rock quartet’s third album, Morbid Stuff. Between dual-harmony guitars and punky rhythms, he confesses to dwelling on “morbid stuff” on the title track; he wishes death on somebody in “See You at Your Funeral”; and he sings about feeling like a failure on the country-ish “Scorpion Hill.” All this might make the album sound like a bit of a buzzkill, but he and the rest of PUP keep the music lively enough — occasionally recalling bands like Cursive, Say Anything and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists — that it’s never as dreary as Babcock’s lyrics.
“It’s a process of self-discovery for me,” the frontman says. “Playing super-fun, rowdy, high energy songs about miserable shit is really a cathartic, productive, fun way to deal with all these negative emotions. It’s great to have an outlet of angst and aggression and it’s also four best friends having fun. It’s wonderful.”
It’s early in the morning in Vancouver, where PUP will be playing a gig later that night, but he and guitarist Steve Sladkowski are wide awake, thanks to a 4:45 a.m. flight. “It’s weird to be getting on an airplane just to go and play gigs,” Sladkowski says. The band has had a few years now to become accustomed to the touring life, as they’ve built a steady following since forming in 2010. PUP, whose name is a self-deprecating acronym for “Pathetic Use of Potential,” have previously released two well-received albums of frenetic, punkish indie rock — 2013’s PUP and 2016’s The Dream Is Over — and have toured North America, the U.K. and Australia, among other places, signaling a gradual ascent.
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That level of success has made Babcock somewhat uneasy: Although he knows he should be enjoying it, he says, his mood disorder often makes that difficult for him. “I can objectively look at this band and what were doing and feel good about it,” he says. “But that kind of adds to my anxiety of being depressed. I feel like I shouldn’t be feeling that way, because there’s no reason to be.”
He’s tried therapy to mixed results and has started feeling more stable thanks to medication. Although he estimates he mentions drinking and taking drugs “a couple of times on every record,” he says drinking to excess is no longer a part of the PUP routine. Sladkowski offers that in the past the group used to drink until they passed out “when we were sleeping on some stranger’s floor” but that they’ve welcomed more stability into their lives. “Maybe you can say I do the correct drugs, as well, and not the bad drugs,” Babcock says with a laugh. “Only the good drugs.”
Despite the somewhat brighter outlook and push toward mental health (the band is donating a dollar from every ticket on their current tour to the Trevor Project, which provides crisis-intervention counseling for LGBTQ youth) Babcock still feels most comfortable pouring all his despair into PUP’s songs. Even the supposedly romantic ones.
“‘Kids’ is the first love song I’ve ever written,” he says, referring to the bouncy Morbid Stuff tune that opens with him saying he’s been “navigating my way through the mind-numbing reality of a godless existence.” “I’m a very nihilistic person, in case you haven’t figured that out. My partner’s the same way. I’m so lucky to have her in my life, but at the same time, my sense of humor and her sense of humor is so bleak that the way that I can express my love through a song to her is by talking about how fucking dogshit the world is and how she has made it slightly less dogshitty for me. You know, I don’t know how she really feels about the song or my description of it. … I’m sure she thinks it’s stupid as fuck.”
“You haven’t been thrown out on the street yet, so I think you’re all right,” Sladkowski offers.
“Yeah, we’re doing all right,” Babcock says. “Even if I throw a little barb towards her once in a while, she knows that 90 percent of this record is just me ripping on myself. So it makes it a little better.”