pup hysteria

PUP // Embrace The Abandon

PUP guitarist Steve Sladkowski chats about recording The Unraveling Of PUPTheBand, the band’s ace latest and fourth album, in Grammy Award-winning producer Peter Katis’ “spooky” bat-filled Connecticut mansion.

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On 12 January, 2022, PUP posted some details about recording Robot Writes A Love Song (the second single release from their upcoming The Unraveling Of PUPTheBand record), alongside the track’s striking accompanying film clip, on their Facebook page: “Robot Writes A Love Song was one of the most fun tracks to record. I remember Steve playing the guitar riff and Nestor kept saying ‘Shittier. Make it sound shittier.’ Pretty incredible stuff since we usually don’t need any help sounding like shit. Check out the music video here …”

Once reminded of this post, Steve Sladkowski– he Toronto punk band’s guitarist–chuckles before elaborating, “You know, I don’t think you wanna play PUP music as though you’re playing something like Mozart, right? There’s that joke about Mozart where you’re supposed to play it [while wearing] white gloves; it has to be perfect and there has to be no hesitation, or almost no personality, when you’re playing Mozart. And I think the thing that we have kind of realised is that the band’s best performances and the best recordings that we’ve made–in the past three records and on this record as well–walk this line of almost being off the rails or, like, not being usable in how imperfect it is versus having the right energy and having a performance and sort of like a personality, you know? And I think that was the thing with Robot [Writes A Love Song] just kind of being like, ‘That sounds too nice. Make it sound a little bit more edgy or not as safe.’”

“I think something that we’ve been learning is that the band functions at its best–both live and on record–when it feels like things could fall apart at any minute; even when we’re feeling confident and prepared and ready–as we always are–I think there is sort of an abandon that we need to embrace in order for it to be the band that we know it is.”

Listening to The Unraveling Of PUPTheBand’s opener, Four Chords, is all you need to get an insight into the sonic direction of PUP’s latest and fourth studio album as a whole: “Quarterly meetings/The Board of Directors, we try and determine how best to proceed/I said, ‘I play piano, I started learning last Thursday. I spent every cent of the label money on this thing’…”. The track starts off with just lead vocalist/guitarist Stefan Babcock accompanying himself solo on piano–about which Sladkowski explains, “He was teaching himself how to play the piano throughout the pandemic –before the arrangement is invaded by all manner of instrumentation.”

I don’t think you wanna play PUP music as though you’re playing something like Mozart, right?
[ Steve Sladkowski ]

Alongside the band’s usual vocals, guitars and drums, The Unraveling Of PUPTheBand also incorporates piano, synths and horns for the first time–expect PUP’s most varied, experimental set of songs to date. “We definitely tried to be open to whatever direction we wanted to go in and sort of embraced an openness and an experimentation–at least for us, you know; not super-experimental, obviously,” Sladkowski clarifies. “A lot of that was just based on the four of us collaborating together–in writing the songs and in creating the arrangements–and then by the time we got to make the record in Connecticut with [producer] Peter Katis, yeah! Everyone was just in a really open and creative mindset.”

Of the genesis of Four Chords, Sladkowski shares, “It’s so funny. Stefan actually sent an email, with the demo that he had just recorded at home. The actual subject line of the email was like, ‘A Funny Song For All My Friends,’ and I don’t think he expected Zack [Mykula, drums], Nestor [Chumak, bass] and myself to react so strongly–like, I think he wrote it as kind of a joke; as a way to make us laugh and to alleviate some of the stress that we had been putting ourselves under to kinda get the record finished and, yeah! We all really loved it and so we were like, ‘Hey, depending on how it goes recording, we definitely should try and record this just to see if it gives a different flavour to things.’”

“And, as we were in the studio working on it, it kind of just kept going and it was really reflective of that mindset where, you know, Zack would take an arrangement back and sit in his room and kind of work on a synthesiser. And then when we were thinking about getting horns, Nestor talked to the trumpet player that he knew and we got the trumpet player on there. And I was kinda playing guitar and, you know, all of a sudden it became this really collaborative, fun thing that still feels in the spirit of PUP, but it’s just such a different kind of flavour than the way in which we’ve opened our previous records. And we just thought it was an interesting way to kinda tie the record together and, for listeners–I hope, anyway–it helps state where our heads are at after a pretty intense couple of years.”

Also interspersed, chronologically, throughout The Unraveling Of PUPTheBand are a pair of sequel, companion tracks–Four Chords Pt II: Five Chords and Four Chords Pt III: Diminishing Returns–which provide updates from “the Board of Directors”. The latter and  penultimate track sees Babcock simply stating over sparse piano chords: “The Board of Directors are almost finished this record – that’s it!”

When asked whether these three ‘Chords’ songs were intended to chronicle this record’s evolution, Sladkowski offers, “We wanted to embrace any direction or any kind of idea in the studio that felt like there was an energy. And so when we realised, you know, that there was a spark there, we also realised that it could be sort of like a goalpost for the record and could be laid out in such a way that I think, yeah! It does help the flow of the record.”

Lockdown obviously threw up many challenges for musicians the world over and Babcock even wound up recording some of his vocals for this album (see: Robot Writes A Love Song) in the backseat of his car. “I think that was something that Stefan started to do because, at the time, he had neighbours–and obviously people were spending tonnes of time at home over the past little while–and he didn’t really have an ability to record demos for us while giving the kind of performance [that was needed], you know? So I think, even on demos, you wanna have a sense of where the energy needs to be, because–I know for myself, as a guitar player–one of the easiest ways for me to know that the part that I’m working on for a song is going in the right direction is if it feels like the intensity, or the intention, of the part matches the vocal, right? That’s a huge part for us, so I think going into the car was a way in which Stefan could kind of communicate some of the emotion and the intensity that he envisioned for the song, and he envisioned for his part. And that was a way that he could communicate that to us so that when we were writing in response to his lyrics and his melodies, we could do that in a more proper way.”

I mean, who hasn’t been sprung belting out a tune in their stationary car at the traffic lights!? But while singing in his car, Sladkowski reveals, Babcock attracted some unwelcome attention: “I know [Babcock] made mention of being harassed by police and all these kinds of things. It’s like, ‘Wow!’ If [he had] that kind of issue, imagine people who are in situations that are much more unfortunate having to deal with the police–whether that be, you know, experiencing homelessness or anything; it’s wild that there was that much harassment even in doing such a small and insignificant thing like singing a song in your car.”

Having recently binged the excellent Netflix series Maid, we recall the carpark of a massive chain store in the States was mentioned as a place where you can sleep in your vehicle overnight. “Sure, yeah, in Walmart,” the guitarist confirms. “Yep, yeah, we’ve done that before. But that was in the early days.”

“I mean, I think it’s indicative of how willingly our culture has maybe let some people slip through the cracks. But, also, [parking and sleeping overnight in Walmart’s carpark] was useful as a touring band, it’s useful–I’m sure–for people who are working as truckers or whatever else and for people who are down on their luck.”

This album’s accompanying presser mentions recording took place across five weeks “in Grammy Award-winning producer Peter Katis’ bat-filled mansion in Connecticut”. So obviously we need more info on PUP’s bat encounters.

Sladkowski sets the scene: “Most nights we worked late and we were not partying or even staying up that late after having worked; we would kinda do the work we needed to do and then maybe have a drink and have some dinner and go to bed. But the night that we met the bats, it was a Friday night and we had finished working at about 7 or 8pm. And I think a friend had come to visit us in the studio for the weekend and so we were getting into the drinks a little bit and, you know, one thing led to another, all of a sudden it’s two, three in the morning and we realise that we’d left the studio console on–like, the power was still running in the control room–and we were like, ‘Oh, shit,’ you know, whatever, ‘We gotta go up and turn that off before we go to bed.’ And so we did that and, as we went up there, Zack came down and was like, ‘There are bats in the studio’,” he recounts, chuckling. “And so, I guess, they were living in the roof–or there was a hole in the ceiling in the roof somewhere that they had come through–and so there were these two bats.”

“And Peter–he’s such a cool guy, he’s such a funny guy–but just was completely unfazed. He texted us and was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that happens. The bats’ll go away during the day and, if you’re seeing the bats, that means you’re up too late [laughs]. And we were like, ‘Oh, Peter. I dunno, man. I dunno if that’s exactly it,’ but, yeah! We just sort of left them alone. And then waited until the morning, lo and behold the bats disappeared and we never saw them again.”

“We have a friend who says, ‘Nothing good ever happens after 2am,’ and I suppose he might be right! I mean, we stayed up one night, super-late, and then we saw dangerous creatures that spread disease! So, who knows?”

Okay, now we need to know whether the mansion in which PUP recorded The Unraveling Of PUPTheBand was The Addams Family-esque. “Yeah, it was a little bit. There were definitely some rooms that were a little bit kinda freaky and scary–like, in the basement and stuff–but we did some good exploring. It was just an old mansion in a town in Connecticut, close to New York City. I mean, it was a beautiful, beautiful space and really encouraging of creativity.”

“And I think, really, the way we wanted to make this record–with the different synthesisers and moving in different creative directions, while still kind of maintaining the things about the band that make the band what it is–I don’t think we could’ve done it anywhere else, you know? I think it was so important to be holed-up for five weeks, only really leaving to get groceries and just sort of getting into this unravelled headspace–you know, that was why we chose that title: The Unraveling Of PUPTheBand. And I think we needed to do it in a different way than we had in the past. And we couldn’t think of any better way to do it than to go live in a spooky mansion,” he concludes.

Give that PUP recently announced an Australian tour for July this year, we can’t help wondering whether extra touring band members be required in order to translate material from their latest album for live performance. “The plan is still to be the four of us on stage and figuring out how to make it sound like the band, you know,” he enlightens. “I think the nice thing about us and the nice thing about people who like our band is that they know that the live performance is something that we really kind of hang our hats on, and really think is important to our identity. And that’s not gonna go away any time soon. I think we’re still gonna be the live rock band that everyone has come to expect of us and I think we’re just slowly kind of figuring out ways in which to play songs–you know, even a song like Robot ... One of the fun challenges after writing the record and sitting with it for a while has been to kind of figure out how to do it as the four of us and still make it sound compelling and interesting, and very much like the record, without having to rely on completely upending what it is that we think makes our band kind of special, or what people identify with when they come and see us live.”

Purchase and stream here.

meshuggah hysteria

Catch PUP at the following dates:

Tue 19 July // The Gov // Adelaide
Thu 21 July // The Croxton // Melbourne
Fri July // Factory Theatre // Sydney
Sat 23 July // Splendour In The Grass // North Byron Parklands

Tickets available here.

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