In what's both a blessing and a curse, Morbid Stuff has meant downtime in short supply for PUP these days

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      As much as he loves his hometown of Toronto, PUP frontman Stefan Babcock has discovered that nothing compares to the place he’s now fortunate to call his own.

      “I have a cabin near Sudbury where there are a lot of lakes,” the thoughtful singer and guitarist says, on the line from an Indiana tour stop. “I’m super lucky to have it. I knew early on that it’s pretty unlikely I’ll ever be able to buy a house in Toronto—it’s not as crazy as the prices in Vancouver, but it’s pretty close. So my partner and I decided that we would buy a little cabin on a lake for almost no money and then just kind of rent in Toronto in the winter and live up there in the summer.”

      A big reason why he loves his cabin is that it allows him to get away from it all. The importance of that to Babcock is clear if you pay attention to PUP’s third and latest album, Morbid Stuff. As evidenced by lines like “This city’s slowly poisoning me,” it’s not always summer sunshine and magical snowfalls in Toronto.

      Quiet by nature, Babcock cheerfully admits he’s happiest when the only person he has to worry about entertaining is himself.

      “The cabin suits my lifestyle really well, because when I’m touring everything’s crazy and I have to be around people all the time,” he says. “When I’m at the lake, I get to do the exact opposite.”

      As both a blessing and a curse, downtime is in short supply for PUP these days, now that the band has come a long way from playing booze cans for beer money. An eponymous 2013 debut established the group as an important part of a Toronto punk rebirth that includes the likes of METZ, Greys, and Fucked Up. A 2016 sophomore outing, The Dream Is Over, suggested that PUP was going to be around for a while, thanks to distortion-blazed anthems salted with confessions like “I’ve never been good at anything except for fucking up and ruining everything.”

      In hindsight, such lyrics seem a little disingenuous, mostly because Babcock and his bandmates—bassist Nestor Chumak, drummer Zack Mykula, and guitarist Steve Sladkowski—have done anything but fuck things up with PUP. Morbid Stuff is one of the best fast-and-loud records you’ll hear this year, and the group is being rewarded for that.

      March brought an appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers—PUP’s network television debut in America. Billboard described Morbid Stuff as “must-hear punk”, while on this side of the border Polaris Prize jurors deemed the record worthy of their shortlist. A spring tour saw the band sell out shows both in North America and overseas, including dates in such iconic venues as the Fillmore in San Francisco.

      What makes all the adulation kind of funny is that Babcock in some ways doesn’t seem any more at peace with his existence than he was when he started exorcising his demons with PUP. Consider, for example, the very title of Morbid Stuff, and the fact the record kicks off with the lyrics “I was bored as fuck/Sitting around and thinking all this morbid stuff/Like if anyone I’ve slept with is dead.”

      “Humour is a coping mechanism for me,” Babcock says. “I think that when I’m in my darkest places there’s not a lot of humour in the situation. For a lot of people who deal with mental-health stuff—more serious stuff than I do—I can see how things would never be funny, so I hope that I’m not being offensive in the way I approach things.

      “But for me,” he continues, “humour is the only way that I’ve been able to get through a lot of stuff. When I’m deep in the pit, I become very self-serious, and that’s not a good place for me to be. That’s when I have to remind myself that my problems are not world-ending, and that I need to keep that perspective. And if you can do that, suddenly there’s levity there.”

      Nothing makes him angrier than those who’ve made a career out of wallowing in the darkness because it’s good for the bank account.

      “You know, there’s something about the commercialization of depression that is so fucking disgusting to me,” Babcock says. “I know that PUP plays a role in that, so I’m trying to make sure that everyone who listens to the band and who likes the band knows where we’re coming from.”

      With a laugh, he adds: “The songs that we write are just sort of a byproduct of being a miserable piece of shit.”

      That’s selling himself short, of course. PUP does indeed suggest things are often hopeless on Morbid Stuff. Consider how the turbocharged power-pop number “Kids” weirdly celebrates true love: “Just like the kids, I’ve been navigating my way/Through the mind-numbing reality of a godless existence/Which, at this point in my hollow and vapid life,/Has erased what little ambition I’ve got left.”

      If that makes it sound like Morbid Stuff isn’t a shitload of fun, it shouldn’t. There’s a reason PUP is on an upward trajectory that Babcock and his bandmates never predicted when they formed the group a decade ago. While they’re filed under “punk” at the record store, that label doesn’t begin to do them justice.

      Consider the way “Scorpion Hill” starts out in bourbon-scorched alt-country territory before lighting out for pure-pop heaven. Or the way “Free at Last” updates Wire-era new wave for the Spotify generation. Or how “City” slowly morphs from hushed antifolk ballad to a feedback-splattered alt-rocker.

      “We kind of got labelled a punk band, but that was never something we set out to be,” Babcock says. “I started out writing songs, and then my bandmates would take them and they would change drastically into something even better. Sometimes I’m in a really introspective mood, and that’s what I’m writing, and sometimes I’m pissed off and writing heavier shit.”

      And when he’s at his cabin, he’s mostly at his happiest. As much as Babcock loves PUP, he understands there’s more to life.

      “I’m pretty good at turning it on and being sociable when I need to, but because I’m kind of an introverted guy, that starts to exhaust me after a while,” he says. “When we’re on tour for a couple of months, by the end of things, I’m really ready to be by myself with the dog, exist in nature, and recharge the batteries.”

      PUP plays the Vogue Theatre on Tuesday and Wednesday (October 8 and 9).