Some bands hide the fact they’re playing the industry’s game, but Pup have made an album about the ‘unsexy’ world of business – complete with vacuous lingo
The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown workers of all kinds into long-term illness, poverty, homelessness and death, and musicians are among them. Unionisation efforts have hit back, including the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers; anti-capitalist and pro-worker commentary from musicians on social media – spurred at least in part by the hilarious, acidic Twitter rants of Eve 6 frontman Max Collins – has brought new language to exploited artists who are struggling to maintain integrity while record labels and streaming companies leech the profits of their labour.
Pondering these tensions while stuck at home, unable to tour, were the noisy, beloved Toronto punk band Pup (an abbreviation of pathetic use of potential). “For two years, we’ve been a glorified webstore and that’s it,” says lead singer Stefan Babcock. “I was writing about us navigating this weird spot we’re at in our careers, where art and commerce are at direct loggerheads with each other.” The band had grown further than any of its members anticipated. Another group in their position may glad-hand their way to bigger gigs and cheques, but Pup decided to make a record that chomps down on the hand that feeds.
Messing around on a keyboard, Babcock started mumble-singing lyrics about how he and his bandmates – guitarist Steve Sladkowski, bassist Nestor Chumak and drummer Zack Mykula – comprise a “board of directors” at a quarterly meeting, and Babcock has blown the label money on a piano. It became a suite of interludes full of mocking, tongue-in-cheek business lingo (“The board of directors is growing impatient / The budget is shrinking, but we can’t agree, so we vote on the issues / Like, are we tuning the vocals?”) that set the tone for the punk-rock acid trip of Pup’s fourth album, The Unravelling of PupTheBand.
Formed in 2010, Pup have established themselves as the punk world’s nice Canadian boys: they create loud, carefully arranged melodic yell-alongs about dead pets, doomed camping trips and killing each other on tour. Their third LP, 2019’s Morbid Stuff, confronted Babcock’s anxiety and depression in blunt, bleak terms, which made for a difficult press cycle. “I didn’t clue in to how exhausting it was going to be to have to talk for an hour every day to strangers about my mental health problems,” says Babcock. But rather than clamming up, the new album hurtles like a chop-shop clown car toward a cliff while inside the four bandmates – bug-eyed, overworked, sleep-deprived, extremely caffeinated and a bit drunk and stoned – bash and yell their way through the part-comedy, part-horrorshow, part-best job ever that is being a working band in 2022. “Writing about how the business of your band works is one of the most unsexy things you can do,” says Babcock, “and therefore it’s very in Pup’s wheelhouse. It felt like a way to let people into our world a little bit.”
To make the album, they lived and recorded at a mansion in Connecticut, using the same piano played on the National’s Boxer (“I should go to jail for playing those songs on it”, shudders Babcock). A familiar spectre appeared in Babcock’s lyrics: the tension between being an artist and a business. On the closing track, PupTheBand Inc Is Filing for Bankruptcy, Babcock snarls about being stoked to receive good reviews and free shoes, before announcing semi-sarcastically: “I sold those Nikes, I bought a new guitar case / It’s called protecting your investment!” The visuals, merch, and marketing look like the stuff of 90s infomercials. It’s all a parody, but also, it’s not.
“The four of us are PupTheBand as a business, whether we want to admit it or not,” says Sladkowski. “Any time people are willing to talk about things such as streaming royalties, work permits or any of the ways in which the music industry mirrors the business world and the movement of capital, I think that’s good. I don’t think it’s something musicians should feel they have to do necessarily, but I do think a level of transparency and honesty is important, and people are starting to realise that. You have to do some of this because we all have to pay our bills.”
Pup’s approach to the subject matter is as goofy as it is grim. Babcock says he was “having a tantrum about something, being a little pissy pants baby” while writing a first set of lyrics for the closing track. He ended up scrapping them and wrote something funnier. “It was so shitty and serious,” says Babcock. “That cannot be what Pup is, just angry songs with angry music.”
“We are elite complainers but I do think something that we’ve always been conscious of is that juxtaposition,” adds Sladkowski – namely anger colliding with fun. Because even if they’re being exploited, they still get to make music with people that they love. “That doesn’t change the fact that there are bad people running this shit,” says Babcock, “but it does make it a bit easier to accept your lot. I wouldn’t switch this job for anything.”
The Unravelling of PupTheBand is out now on Rise Records/BMG.