By Meg Fair
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
When Stefan Babcock of PUP answered the phone on a chilly morning several weeks ago it was 7:30 a.m. Toronto time. For one of the writers of a record called Morbid Stuff, he sounded truly pleasant and upbeat, impressive for someone who wrote the line, “I hope the world explodes, I hope that we all die / We can watch the highlights in hell / I hope they’re televised.”
PUP with RATBOYS. 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 30. The Rex Theater, 1602 E. Carson St., South Side. Sold out. www.rextheather.net
Over the phone, Babcock chatted about Morbid Stuff, an amorphous personal project called Little Dipper, and approaching vigorous touring in advance of the band’s sold out show with Ratboys at the Rex Theater.
Whenever I first opened the lyric sheet for the record in the press kit–without hearing any of the songs–there were several lines I read that had me saying, “OUCH” out loud. There’s a lot of really dark content on the record, but I’d argue the music is really catchy and high energy. Was it intentional to balance those things out?
I think a lot of the songs come from a pretty dark place for me, they start pretty dark. But PUP is so fun for us, and we’re pretty grateful that we get to do this for our full-time job. I think just because of the nature of the four of us in a basement having fun and writing music about how the world sucks, it turns out pretty joyous.
A lot of this record was bottom of the well for me. I’d like to think i’m pretty self-aware, I’m a pretty lucky individual, to have the partner that I have, to have the life that I have, so a lot of the lyrics are me making fun of myself for feeling so bad. I think sort of that dichotomy between humor and snotty tongue-in-cheekiness, the darkness of it—it kind of makes that message ‘Everything is shit, but it’s probably fine, you’ll be fine.’ It makes the message palatable.
If you’re writing bummer music and are self-serious, it’s a recipe for the worst emo bands ever. Even if we’re writing the bummer stuff, I want people to listen to this and feel good and feel better and a little less alone or something, so I’m trying my best to not be part of the problem, and to kind of have this band be a positive influence on people despite how dark a lot of the songs are.
Being able to laugh at the absurdity of your own despair is definitely a coping mechanism. Is that one of your personal tools?
That’s so important, it’s so easy to just get sucked down into the mud and be like–and this happens to me all the time–feel like there’s no escape and that everything just sucks, but if you can find a way to kind of laugh at yourself and laugh at how ridiculous it is to feel like that, maybe there’s someway out temporarily. I’m not an expert, but it works for me.
How are you feeling about Morbid Stuff personally after feeling a little rushed on The Dream is Over?
We wrote [The Dream Is Over] between tours in three months and we talked about this before, but I’m super proud of that record, all four of us are really stoked on it, but looking back if we’d had a few more months it would have been a lot better. We try to elevate our game every record.
We took six months off touring and said no to things that were hard to say no to and really kind of focused in. I think we filled in the gaps on this record that we missed on The Dream Is Over.
How do you balance road life and personal life? Is it hard to be on the road on such an aggressive touring schedule? I feel like aggressive is the only way PUP tours.
It’s tough because when you spend a lot of time on the road, I hate it. I need to go home, but when you’re at home for too long, I start to get antsy, a grass is always greener situation. We’re planning on touring really hard with this record, and I think if we had gone into it the way we did the last time without taking a good break from touring, I think it would have been a recipe for the end of this band.
None of us are violent people at all, we’re very … passive? Very violence-is-not-part-of-our-lexicon,’ but we definitely, especially when we’re writing, there’s a lot of emotional violence, a lot of people shutting down or people telling them they are totally fucked, or tuning out, or telling them all their parts are not good. Lots of badgering each other, have high expectations of each other and ourselves, comes out in a passive aggressive way. Lots of 20-minute silences of fuming. We’re all guilty of it, it’s funny for us to look back on it because we feel good about the record, but there are songs on the first record and one on the second we don’t like, and those wounds are festering. We can look back on those days, when we were in turmoil in hell with each other in the jam space and look back with humor.
Morbid Stuff has a lot of really personal material. Is it hard to share such intimate details of your life with strangers? Is it hard for your family and friends? How do you decide what’s okay to share and what’s off the table?
That’s a nearly constant battle with myself, especially, you know there are a lot of things about myself I care not to share about myself but I do anyway, because that’s the nature of this job, but where it gets really tough is when I’m talking about other people in my life I care about. Sometimes I’ll write what I think is a really great verse, chorus, one-liner, but I know it’s too hurtful to that person, even though it’s gonna help the song and band and me, it’s too much of a selfish decision, and I have to rein myself in. Which is a bummer artistically to have to suffer a little that way, but on the other hand I’m already taking such personal relationships publicly. I love Amanda [Fotes] so dearly and she’s so incredible, and I air a lot of our dirty laundry to the world.
There’s a song about “Sibling Rivalry” about my sister, she’s my best friend in the world, but there are some jabs in there she’s not used to, I’ve never written a song about her, and sent her the song, and she tried to be cool about it.
I think a big thing, [that helps] Amanda at least, has been that I trash talk myself the most. Ninety percent of the lyrics are me trash-talking myself, how seriously can you take me? I hope everybody I talk about in these songs has the realization I’m pissing and moaning about everything. That’s why the rest of the band welcomed the lyrics of “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” [off The Dream is Over] with open arms, they know most of the record, they can take a bit of the heat.
It’s still pretty fresh off its release. Immediate feelings post-release?
There’s a lot that I’m still processing about this record, you know every song, every line has a very specific meaning to me. Whether it’s couched in metaphors or not, the way I write is everything is very specific to me, but coming out of the whole process of being so close to the song your vision starts to blur. There’s still so much I’m trying to process and parse, what this record as a whole means and what it kind of says about this snapshot in my life, the six months we were writing it, what was happening in my brain. I’m still trying to fully understand and articulate, I feel like in general I articulate myself best in song form, lyrically. So it’s hard for me to revisit the songs and talk about them.
I was just thinking the other day, I wrote the line, but I think about how the very first line on the record is me wondering if anyone I’ve had sex with is dead yet…and it was unintentional to start the record that way, I wrote it one day and didn’t think about it again, and now it feels like this real fucking crazy portal into what this record is gonna deal with. I try to think about how messed up that is, and how funny it is to me, and what my parents and grandma are gonna think when they hear that. I’m still trying to understand.
In addition to Morbid Stuff, you’re working on a little collective publishing project called Little Dipper. What do you hope to do with Little Dipper?
I have a lot of ideas, but I’ll be completely honest with you, it’s pretty murky. I’m of the opinion of letting it unfold as it unfolds, and there’s so many projects I’ve been a part of that have started as pure fun, but as soon as it gets pretty serious, it gets harder to enjoy it. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy playing in PUP, I love it, it’s the best job in the world.
[Little Dipper] came about because, you know, before PUP I worked for labels, and I’ve always been super involved in those aspects of the band. When we were on Royal Mountain I was the marketing manager there. I was involved to an annoying point with Side One Dummy.
This time I wanted to see if we could do the label thing and be super involved in the label thing and get the help we needed from BMG and Rise, and they let us run the ship. I don’t want to say we’re a DIY band, there’s so many people helping us out and doing it with us, but we’re so much more involved in the business end than most bands of our level.
So you don’t want Little Dipper to be just a record label or publishing company or one specific, rigid thing?
I don’t really want to run a traditional record label, starting a label in 2019 is really dumb. I’m more into putting out music adjacent art, and books and that kind of stuff. I’m working on a comic book, we put out Amanda [Fote’s] photo book. I want to help people who are in bands who want to do something that’s not a full record. I think a lot of folks really want another kind of experience with the bands they like beyond a t-shirt and a show, and I kind of want to see what’s out there.
I think it’s a really important part of being a working band at this time in music. You have your whatever Imagine Dragons or whatever trash is on the radio, and you have the legacy acts, and obviously they’re millionaires, and that’s great, but if you’re a band like us and you’re not on the radio and you’re playing guitar rock that people don’t really care about, the only way to grind out a living is to tour a lot and be creative all the time. You can’t sit back and hope your band is going to be on the radio or an Apple commercial, you have to get off your ass and make something.