Late one night, around 2 or 3 a.m., PUP were knocking back drinks after another day spent grinding in the studio when Nestor Chumak remembered he forgot to turn off a system upstairs. When he returned, he announced that there were bats living in the roof, and the rest of the band went to investigate.
Given that bats are harbingers of good fortune and happiness, rather than fear and evil, the discovery feels like kismet. Why? Because THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND, out today, is the group’s strongest, most varied work to date. It draws its power from an ability to deviate from past records seamlessly, hurling self-implemented rules that they could only rely on drums, bass and guitar out the window.
“This is the first time I left the process being like, ‘I really like this record, and I don’t really give a shit about anything else,’” vocalist Stefan Babcock says when he connects with Alternative Press, accompanied by his three bandmates. “That’s all you can hope for, that you’re proud of it and that the people who made the thing with you are proud of it, too. A lot of people are going to hate it. I think it’s going to be a very divisive PUP record, and I can’t say that bothers me at all. I think that the four of us [being] stoked on it is enough for me, for the first time ever.”
Rather than create another Morbid Stuff, their critically acclaimed third album, PUP were game to try any idea that steered them in a positive direction. That meant including never-seen-before musical components, ranging from saxophone freakouts (more on that later) to trumpets and synths. “With every record that passes, we feel a little bit more freedom to fuck around,” Babcock says. “With that freedom, it makes everything we do a little bit better and more fun for us. I think one of the things I’m proudest about this record is that it’s different, but it still sounds so much like PUP. It sounds so much like the four of us, even though there are some weirder elements to it that weren’t on the first three records.”
Veritably, you can hear that experimental abandon in the electro-tinged intro and trap drums on “Habits.” It hardly sounds like the same band — until the huge guitar riffs and gang vocals kick in, and you’re reminded that PUP are constantly evolving. “That is just a natural part of maturing; as you get older, you’re more comfortable being yourself,” drummer Zack Mykula says. “This version of PUP was always inside of us, but it’s a slow crawl to finally being able to express it.”
With a new approach to their sound, however, the band resolved to add absurdity wherever they could. For one, comedic interludes are threaded through the album, where Babcock lovingly refers to his bandmates as the “board of directors” from the start. Led by sparse piano, opener “Four Chords” is a soft ballad that blooms into grandiosity, the type of arrangement that’ll make you grin because it’s just that over the top. Elsewhere, they added vocal trilling to the end of “Waiting,” a song that emphatically captures the pain and frustration of a one-sided relationship, and wrote a love song from the perspective of a robot.
“I think a lot of that grew naturally out of wanting to be creative in a different way and experiment and have these happy accidents turn into interesting creative turns that helped make the songs different but still spiritually connected to the rest of the work,” guitarist Steve Sladkowski suggests.
That ambition reaches its climax on “PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing For Bankruptcy,” an equally explosive and cathartic banger that embodies the album’s title, and the band’s ethos, more than any other track. It closes the record with the band finally snapping, leaving a gaping hole in their wake. Chumak, their bassist and the record’s engineer, encouraged Babcock to sing “whatever fucked-up shit [he] felt like saying,” leaving the field open for the track to take any shape it wanted. The result is the band careening toward a wall, aided by a screeching saxophone that makes the song momentarily feel like free jazz.
“I think it’s the snottiest PUP song and the stupidest PUP song,” Babcock says. “We already had a record that we would be proud of. We might as well just do whatever the fuck we want on this last song. Because of that, [it] turned out to be one of my personal favorites from the record, just because it is the most quintessentially PUP song that we’ve ever written.”
“We did agonize over the bidet line,” Chumak points out.
“In my heart of hearts, I always wanted the bidet line to be in there, but I knew that if there was one part on the record where I was pushing too far, it was that,” Babcock admits, laughing. “So I just let it sit with everybody to see if anyone eventually was like, ‘Man, we can’t do that.’ And at the end of the process, everyone was like, ‘Yeah, I’m used to it now,’ so I’m glad it stayed in there.”
After completing the record in five weeks (their first time ever meeting deadline), PUP spent their final night in the self-described “American Horror Story mansion” cracking open drinks and letting loose. The evening spiraled into the four bandmates telling one another how proud they were of each other, emotions inevitably backed by years of friendship and appreciation for how far they’ve come.
“Maybe that’s just [because] men are bad at expressing their feelings,” Mykula posits, laughing. “Maybe that should be a thing that happens more. That’s the thing that really stuck with me. Something Stefan said was, ‘I don’t tell you guys how much I like what you do.’ And I think that’s an important thing. That last night was just us telling each other how good a job we did. We all recognize each other.”
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After 25 minutes or so, there’s still one thing worth debating. With there being an entire narrative wrapped around the band unraveling, would PUP ever consider this to be a concept record?
“Oh, there’s going to be a band fight,” Mykula utters.
The answer is a knowing smile and a polite no. “We don’t use that term, ‘concept,’” Babcock answers slyly.
But that doesn’t stop PUP from launching into jokes and playfully jabbing one another about times when it was once suggested, back when narrative-driven records like Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs permeated the music landscape. Because while the themes on PUP records become more palpable with each listen, to the point where they feel like they’re creeping over your shoulder, the band don’t have the need for such devices. They’d rather the songs speak for themselves, bluntly and boisterously. That’s always been PUP’s shining attribute, the ability to conjure such depth and realness that speak to feelings you keep buried inside while employing enough bleak humor to have you laughing at your own misery.
“It’s our Dark Side of the Moon,” Mykula teases. “If you set it to Wizard of Oz, all the weird sounds line up.”
“Yeah, set it to Wizard of Oz, you get super high, and let’s see what happens,” Babcock riffs.
“And then when they break the fourth wall, you have to put the record on,” Sladkowski adds.
“All that happens is that you’re disappointed,” Mykula deadpans.
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