After they've unloaded their van, just hours from their third gig with The Menzingers on this summer tour with Lemuria and Cayetana on May 31, drummer/vocalist Zack Mykula, vocalist/guitarist Stefan Babcock, guitarist/vocalist Steve Sladkowski, and bassist/vocalist Nestor Chumak – known collectively as PUP – sit in a half circle on the ground in the Union Transfer parking lot in Philadelphia to chat with the Weekender as openly and comfortably as they would with a group of old friends.
The sounds of The Menzingers' tuning up in the background, PUP's chemistry is clearly natural, as three out of the four members grew up together, playing in admittedly bad ska bands before forming this buzzed about punk rock act in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. They also admit it was “insanity” that made them quit their day jobs to focus on the band full-time, but it wasn't so crazy an idea that it wouldn't work.
“We had been playing for a couple years together and we were looking at doing our first album, and then we were thinking about producers and who it could be and our manager was like, 'Well, you've got to shoot for the stars,'” Mykula recalled.
“We all picked this guy Dave Schiffman, and we just took a chance and sent him demos. And then he's like, 'I love this and I want to do a record,' and he came like a couple weeks later to do preproduction and then that was it. We were like, 'This guy is willing to take us that seriously. We kind of have to take it personally,' so we all quit our jobs on the same day basically and all got wasted in celebration.”
Schiffman had worked with everyone from Rage Against the Machine to System of a Down to The Mars Volta, so the compliment was a high one. Once the self-titled record was released, they didn't expect anyone outside of Canada to hear it, but someone at SideOneDummy Records did and saw them in New York, offering to distribute it in the United States.
“They got behind it and it was kind of amazing to have these people that also just believed in it, and they've been great to us. Having people like that actually stand up and say, 'I believe in your band enough to spend all this time working for you,' really is like a 'holy s—t' moment for us,” Babcock enthused.
“The passion is amazing on their part, which makes us, I guess, want to keep doing it,” Sladkowski added.
When choosing a name, PUP was simply a word they didn't all hate, coming from the term “Pathetic Use of Potential,” although it's not an acronym – it's just PUP.
“We had a lot of really offensive names, and we realized that that's just not going to fly for us. Like we can't name our band Cysted Fister no matter how much we want to,” Babcock noted with a laugh.
“Some were ridiculous, like Hyena Beam,” Mykula pointed out.
Their serious focus is in their songs, and while the album was an integral project for the band, their raucous live shows are what truly drive them forward.
“A large part of the record was we wrote songs so we could play shows. But I think each in our own way we're all kind of nerdy kids and that kind of plays a part, too. I've often heard Stefan be obsessed with melody,” Sladkowski said. “We try and not repeat ourselves. Bands can write one song and then write a whole record that is that one song…”
“…and we can't make up our minds,” Babcock continued.
“Yeah, and we're the opposite,” Sladkowski emphasized.
“Every song we write is the worst experience of my life,” Babcock acknowledged, referring to the amount of work that goes into each tune. “I'm not really an angry guy; I'm a pretty happy dude. I like to write lyrics when I'm pissed off because I find that unless I'm really happy, when I'm just like normal, it's not an extreme enough emotion to warrant writing a song or being creative or feeling inspired.”
In the studio, they “tortured” themselves to get each part perfect, but Schiffman encouraged them not to overthink the songs in order to capture their inherent energy on tape. The track “Back Against the Wall,” Mykula said, is the perfect example.
“We played through a take and he's like, 'It sounds like you guys are thinking about it. I can hear that it's too perfect, so why don't you just go off the rails for a second and just try to play it s—tty?' We did, and there are mistakes there and on the rest of the record, but that's kind of a breathing thing,” he described.
“We recorded before we did the record with other bands and that kind of thing and we tried making everything sound perfect and it just didn't sound like us, listening back to it. We knew sort of going in that it would have to have mistakes on it because that's how we play,” Chumak added.
Directed by their friends Chandler Levack and Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux, the cinematic music video for “Guilt Trip” portrays young members of the band growing up as runaways who end up murdering a police officer and covering up the evidence, but PUP isn't confessing anything directly to the Weekender.
“It's based on a true story, loosely,” Babcock emphasized.
“We did form a band. That part's true,” Chumak joked.
What is true, however, is the effect their powerful music has had on their fans.
“The best thing I ever heard from a fan was we played in New York and he said that he was going through some really s—tty s—t, some bad stuff, and his fiancÚ and him had called off their wedding, and he was really into our record and he sent her the record and he's like, 'This record describes how I feel right now. Just listen to it and then let me know what you think,' and they ended up getting back together,” Babcock related, “astounded” by this revelation.
“That kind of bulls—t has never happened with me, but the way he was talking to me, it was like the exact way that I would speak to the people who had made my favorite albums, like the albums that you hear at the right moment in your life.”
The Menzingers can be counted among these fans. The first time PUP played in Philadelphia at Golden Tea House, it was “madness,” with fans climbing the walls and balcony. Three days into this tour, they're back in the city that has shown them so much Brotherly Love at a much larger venue, thankful that their music has gained them so many new friends and opportunities.
“The punk network that we've sort of been welcomed into kind of extends across borders. The Menzingers are really good friends with The Flatliners, and The Flatliners have been a band that even though we don't really know them, we've e-mailed them back and forth,” Sladkowski explained.
“It kind of cuts across any perceived national border. The only thing that's really a pain in the ass is crossing that border, like physically, but even that is starting to become easier.”