Getting hold of Stefan Babcock of the punk rock band PUP took some work. Some miscommunication between the band’s publicity team and me resulted in missing Eugene Weekly’s print deadline, but I was determined to talk with the guitarist and singer of PUP no matter what.
I called Babcock a few more times the day our interview was scheduled — no dice. I finally got hold of him, and he told me that the band was driving through spotty cell coverage in the Midwest.
I don’t dedicate this sort of energy for getting in touch with just any band or musician — and PUP isn’t just any band to me. I first heard PUP after they released The Dream Is Over (2016) on a hot summer day in Eugene, and their music hit me in the gut the same way when you first hear a band like The Beatles or The Clash.
Morbid Stuff, the latest album by PUP (an acronym for Pathetic Use of Potential, which is what Babcock’s grandmother called the band), is one of the best albums of 2019. I’m not saying that as some sort of fanboy — NPR agrees with me. The Toronto-based band balances hooky melodies, self-deprecation, complex rhythms and catchy riffs throughout the album without losing their punk sense. With these complex musical elements, their work reminds me of Weezer’s masterpiece Pinkerton and Ivy League rockers Vampire Weekend.
I had a lot of questions for Babcock about the band’s songwriting process, their recent commercial success and how they get along on tour when their 2016 album opens with “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will.” Luckily, while in a van heading to the next show, Babcock had answers for me.
PUP doesn’t follow that punk trope of a few chords under a common 4/4 beat — and maybe they’ve finally transcended that genre. “Bloody Mary, Kate and Ashley” from Morbid Stuff shows off the band’s knack for an irregular time signature, resulting in an interesting rhythm to the song.
But Babcock says although he doesn’t know anything about music theory, the three other guys in the band do.
“They’re pretty well educated and know theory pretty well,” he says. “I am not at all. I don’t know which chords I’m playing. I just know where to put my fingers and what sounds good.”
Whenever the band has a song with an irregular or complex time signature, it’s because Babcock writes the melody first and then finds the chords that fit accompany the melody. When presenting songs to the band, that’s when he learns it’s in an uncommon time signature. But the rest of the band embraces the “quirkiness of it all.”
“The three of them then have a powwow, which I’m excluded from and talk music nonsense about what’s going on,” he says, “They come back and play along, and it often sounds different than I imagined.”
Babcock adds that his songwriting approach has left the drummer Zack Mykula with the mentality to “take all the weirdness and make it sound as normal as possible.”
Throughout Morbid Stuff, Babcock fills the album with lyrics of self-deprecation and negative thinking in a way that reassures me that I’m not alone with how I have to answer every compliment I get with some sort of negative reaction.
“What helps me is making fun of myself and finding a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “For me, this band is therapy.”
He adds that the other guys in the band keep the music from going too far in the darkness, especially since the band has so much fun writing the music.
“It’s kind of hard — and counter-productive — to hold back that enthusiasm,” he says. “We just let it go and let it live with the dark parts and hope that together the darkness and the fun cathartic side of things find some symbiotic relationship and the songs make sense.”
Before PUP released Morbid Stuff last year, they sent out the chords and lyrics for the single “Free At Last” and asked fans to record their own version without hearing the original. The band received 253 submissions — even one from Finn Wolfhard of the Netflix series Stranger Things (who was also in PUP’s 2013 video “Guilt Trip”).
“Lyrics and chord structures are two of the main parts of songwriting but they could be interpreted in different ways,” he says. “It was cool to hear what some of these people were coming up with. There were creative versions that sounded nothing like ours.”
Babcock says he listened to every single submission — which took about 14 hours — though he didn’t feel an itch to steal any riffs or melodies imagined by fans. However, after hearing all those versions, he says he did start to wonder whether the lyrics made any sense.
As a band, PUP has six years of touring under their belt. Babcock says it felt natural back when the band was playing to about 300 people in “shitty dive bars.” But in the past year, PUP’s shows have gotten bigger and none of the band members totally understand why they’re achieving so much success.
“The four of us have the imposter syndrome going on,” he says.
But don’t let the song title “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” concern you too much about how they get along with each other.
“We would fight a lot, but underneath it all, we’re still getting along great,” he says about writing that song from their 2016 album. “I don’t think a band can have a song like that in their repertoire and play it every night if they legitimately hated each other.”
PUP plays with Screaming Females and The Drew Thomson Foundation at Sessions Music Hall 8 pm Wednesday, March 11.