Published May 07, 2019PUP's live shows can be pure catharsis — chugging beer, shouting along to gang vocals, and hopping in the mosh pit can provide escape, even if just for a few minutes. But offstage, there's often a dark cloud looming above Stefan Babcock, Steve Sladkowski, Nestor Chumak and Zack Mykula. The band's third record, Morbid Stuff, hears them cranking out another 11 catchy-as-fuck pop punk songs, but this time, they're addressing mental health head-on.
"It's a slow slog through mental health and trying to figure out what's wrong with me by writing music," Babcock says. "My experience with mental health is unending hopelessness and apathy. That's kind of drawn out over several years, and something the four of us all struggle with to a certain extent. A lot of this record was trying to figure out how we can make something fun that would actually be a positive experience for us, something that would help, rather than just fucking whining about how shit the world is."
A scrappy group of friends who got their start in Toronto basements playing as Topanga, 2016's The Dream Is Over catapulted PUP to a new level of exposure. But success didn't necessarily make life easier.
"It's a phenomenon a lot of people fall into, as you find a degree of success," Mykula explains. "You're still chasing after the happiness that comes with it, because of a self-directed frustration. And you never find it just because of either self-hatred or self-pity. It's a lot of us getting in our own way."
Success meant that PUP became their full-time job, and while they don't feel the pressure of critics or fans, there's certainly a tangible and financial obligation to "not shit the bed" — for their partners, their crew and each other.
"We've kind of built our whole career on shitting the bed," Babcock admits. "But when that financial pressure is added, do we have to stop fucking up even though fucking up is what made us get to this point?"
From the outside, it's hard to picture such a hard-working and beloved band as fuck-ups, but even they can see that they've grown up a lot in the last couple years.
Mykula says he hit a low during The Dream Is Over, but "took a harder look at how I deal with things internally" and came out the other side able to cope with the stresses that depression can impose. As a result, he's "better able to navigate away from that mindset" and the whole band are "better at working together."
Babcock, meanwhile, acknowledges that being so blunt about mental health in his lyrics has led to a lot of people sharing "heavy stories" with him, but he finds it rewarding. He grapples with that decision on "Full Blown Meltdown," the band's heaviest-sounding song to date, in which Babcock says he's "trying to figure out if I'm doing more harm than good by doing this thing."
But despite the ever-present pessimism, there's hope on Morbid Stuff too — if just the slightest glimmer.
"A lot of growing up is just doors closing around you. Every year the path narrows," Babcock says. "Part of finding happiness — probably, I wouldn't know anything about that — is accepting that and embracing it, you know? In some ways that's what 'Kids' is about, just trying to find that positive spark in a seemingly bleak world."