What’s bad for democracy, human rights, and general decency is good for punk, which is to say we’re probably coming into the biggest boom of fast-and-loud protest music since the reign of Ronald Reagan.
Despite this, PUP singer Stefan Babcock isn’t in a jovial mood when he picks up the phone in his hometown of Toronto. Donald Trump has just been elected president of the most powerful nation on Earth, and the ripples are being felt everywhere.
“I can say that I feel very lucky to be Canadian all the time, but especially today,” Babcock says. “We have a lot of American friends because we spend so much time touring in America, and from what I’ve been seeing, they just feel hopeless.
“It was shocking what happened—I still feel like there’s something wrong. I follow politics, but I’m far from an expert or authority on the subject. I’m aware, but probably not as much as I should be or would like to be.”
Indeed, while Pup is solidly on the frontline of Toronto’s booming punk scene, the group isn’t about to join Anti-Flag, Crass, or Millions of Dead Cops in the political wing of the Punk Rock Hall of Fame. Babcock instead excels in distortion-glazed alt fury that’s all about the personal, the very title of the band’s sophomore LP The Dream Is Over providing a window into his world-view.
By his own admission, he’s anything but an optimist, which explains lines like “I’ve never been good at anything except for fucking up and ruining everything” from “Old Wounds”. His disillusionment—often tempered by a self-deprecating sense of humour—is understandable.
“After playing in music in different bands for his entire life, Babcock finally started to feel he was onto something with PUP’s self-titled 2013 debut.
Then doctors discovered a hemorrhaged cyst on his vocal chords, leading to the recommendation he stop singing.
“Since I was 15 I’ve been touring in bands, so that’s 13 years that I’ve been at it,” Babcock says. “Obviously, like anything else in life, there are setbacks, but I never ever had to consider the possibility that maybe I couldn’t do it anymore.
“After 13 years of working and pouring my life into this, it was difficult to hear. But I’m also far too stubborn to let all those years of my hard work get flushed down the toilet.”
Instead, Babcock set about writing a record that not only cements PUP’s place in a scene that’s given us the new-school likes of Greys and Metz, but also stands up to iconic Toronto-punk classics such as Youth Youth Youth’s Sin.
Along with bandmates and childhood friends Nestor Chumak (bass), Zack Mykula (drums), and Steve Sladkowski (guitar), Babcock out-snotnoses Blink-182 on “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You I Will”, and captures the tortured soul of emo with the razor-honed “Familiar Patterns”.
Lest one conclude that PUP is all about self-flaggellating lines like “I had every opportunity/And I ruined them all” (“Can’t Win”), rest assured the singer isn’t above penning loving odes to his dead chameleon (“Sleep in the Heat”) or Canadian ghost towns (the country-grunge sleeper “Pine Point”).
The ultimate message, then, of The Dream Is Over is that maybe life isn’t so bad, even if you’re talking the election of Donald Trump.
“Most of things that I’m pissed off about and complain about are things that I’m responsible for,” Babcock offers philosophically. “Everything that I consider wrong with my life is something that I’ve done to myself.
“I do try and get that across lyrically. And when I get together with the guys and we work on the music, we all remember that we play in this band because it’s fun, not because it makes us money. We realize how lucky we all are to get to be doing this.”
PUP plays the Cobalt on Monday (November 21).