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Unexpected Live Moments: Seeing PUP Come Home to Toronto

We chronicle the ascent of everyone's favourite punk yungbloods, PUP and their lengendary homecoming show at Toronto's Lee Palace
November 21, 2014, 9:11pm

Photos by Joe Fuda

Whenever you're talking about successful bands, there’s always a show that, in retrospect, is considered as their coming out party. It’s most often in their hometown, usually their largest headlining gig thus far, and always remembered as having that raw energy that comes from everyone in the room knowing, on some level, that things are changing. I'm no band biographer, but I’m going to open my big unaccredited mouth and posit that for Toronto band PUP, that show just happened.

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Two days before the show, the 600-person capacity Lee’s Palace announced they’d sold out of tickets. That’s an achievement for any up-and-coming punk band—but all the more impressive when you consider last summer, they were playing the Magpie Tavern that holds just 75 people. What happened in between? The release of one of the year’s best albums and fifteen months of beast-mode, near non-stop touring.

That model has long been a staple of musicians looking for success, and I don’t think it’ll ever fully disappear. But, if I can go full “‘Kids These Days’ Grandpa” on you for a second, the industry realities today mean many bands can and will try to find success in other ways. Another recent Ontario success story, Walk Off The Earth, has parlayed a combination of musical virtuosity, creative visuals and online-promotion savvy into a loyal fan base and wildly successful new business model. In my opinion, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. What does suck a large stinky one, however, is the blatant attempts by many newer artists to recreate this type of success solely through some shtick without a lick of half-decent music to back it up. That’s probably why, even more than before, everybody loves that band with the gradual build over time. The type where, at every show, you look around and go, “Huh. More people here than last time. Nice.” Till at one show you look around and realize there’s a shit ton of people, and they all know the words.

Photos by Joe Fuda

I asked lead singer and guitarist Stefan Babcock when the band itself noticed things were changing. “I think the turning point was our summer tour with The Menzingers,” Babcock muses. “We would walk out every night to hundreds of people, and half the crowd at every show would be singing along. It was a really mind blowing experience. We didn't realize that anyone in the States had heard of us until they were all suddenly screaming the words in our faces. We feel really lucky. It's been a pretty incredible 6 months.”

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The great thing about a transitional concert like last weekend’s is that it’s pretty much a two for one: you’re getting the good stuff you expect from a ‘big’ show, but the little idiosyncrasies particular to gigs by bands that aren’t yet fully established are still there as well. As with a larger show, the supporting acts Life in Vacuum and Indian Handcrafts were excellent – I could easily see them opening for (and upstaging) artists at the city’s biggest club venues. The lighting and sound were on point, and the energy before PUP’s set was the very recognizable type from a crowd that’s been waiting for this moment to see their favorite band and is about to explode.

On the flipside, the band, having not yet graduated to having a technical crew, came out a few minutes before hitting the stage to set up their gear. At which point the place went absolutely batshit. The best part: the band looked genuinely bemused at the crowd’s response to their mere presence. Leading up to the set, there was also a second type of energy – the type from an audience not just wanting to celebrate a band but also celebrate with a band that’s starting to see success.

From the get go, that celebration was something special. When the lights went down, the first thing we heard wasn’t a heavily distorted guitar chord or Babcock’s strident voice but the Danny Brown hit ‘Smokin’ and Drinkin’ (the guys are actually huge hip-hop heads). Sufficiently hyped, the band hit the stage and instantly banged out the thundering intro to ‘Guilt Trip’. Word for word, the crowd yelled the lyrics in unison while pummeling the bejesus out of each other. As expected, the sing-alongs were most deafening when PUP pulled out the singles (you could barely hear the band during the impossibly catchy ‘Mabu’). Still, it was noticeable how much of the crowd kept it going for every track. This wasn’t a case of one hundred fans and five hundred lookie-loos/wanna-be hip kids. This was a room full of people that straight up dig this band.

Photos by Joe Fuda

It’s a given things are going to get pretty wild at a PUP show. At one point, Babcock had to implore the stage divers to go easy on their upward trajectories so they wouldn’t hurt anyone. He and bassist Nestor Chumak helpfully displayed the correct form by regularly hurling themselves into the audience mid-song at a perfect ninety-degree angle. PUP: all about geometry. Throughout, the band sounded exactly how you’d expect after fifteen months on the road – tight as hell. At times it was almost indiscernible from the record – and since their recording mantra was that the album should sound like the best show they’ve ever played, that was definitely a good thing.

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To the surprise of no one, the band ended the set with the lose your Goddamn mind anthem ‘Reservoir’. At least twenty kids blatantly flouted the ‘no cannonball-style stage diving’ rule, but in the insanity of those three minutes everybody just sort of let it slide. Clearly just as (or more) exhausted than the audience, PUP didn’t bullshit too long before returning for a one song encore. After profusely thanking everyone one last time for coming out, they launched into a riotous version of the Beastie Boys classic ‘Sabotage’. Sure, Cancer Bats did it first and absolutely killed it, but PUP’s version is a perfect show closer – teetering on absolute chaos and impossible not to take part in.

Throughout the show, Babcock couldn’t stop saying how “FUCKING happy” he was to be home (like, literally each time - at no point was he ever just ‘happy’). Afterwards, he confirmed that while they’re blown away by the support and having the time of their lives, a 200+ show year wears you down some.

Photos by Joe Fuda

“As soon as we came off stage we all had a big band hug. I think we were all relieved and exhausted and so happy that the last show went well. We had been on tour for almost 15 months straight, and this was the last show, and it's just such an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion and happiness. Like taking your final exam in school and knowing that you killed it after pulling a week of all-nighters.”

I dig that analogy a lot. I think a more fun one, though, is gaining your freshman fifteen. At first, you sort of notice your clothes are a little tighter but don’t think much of it. After a while, you know something’s definitely up but the gravity of the situation still hasn’t hit you. That is until you get home for Thanksgiving, when you step on the scale, scream “Holy Shit!” and then burst into tears. I doubt PUP’s crying, but they sure are looking a little bigger right now.