Stefan Babcock, all 120 pounds of him, is standing at the edge of a tiny stage, motioning for everyone in the room to come closer. “Can we do one more crowdsurf?” he asks into the microphone. “I’m about to jump!” It’s 2014 and his band, PUP, from Toronto, is playing one of their first New York City shows in the small space at the back of a bar that most patrons don’t even know is there, tucked away behind an unremarkable steel door. They’re playing “Too Drunk to Fuck,” a Dead Kennedys cover, which is a good way to fill time when you only have a handful of original songs to your name. The problem is, there might not actually be enough bodies to catch him if he stagedives. It’s the kind of show where everyone in attendance is a member of one of the bands playing. Unfazed, or maybe too reckless for his own good, Babcock looks out onto the 20 or so awaiting palms and leaps headfirst into the unknown, like he always does.
This five-year-old memory is replaying in my head right now as I watch the four members of PUP—Babcock, guitarist Steve Sladkowski, bassist Nestor Chumak, and drummer Zack Mykula—as they’re escorted by their publicists in to NBC Studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. They’re entering through the same iconic doors that countless celebrities and politicians have passed through to make TV history. It’s the building where Brian Williams announced that Barack Obama had been elected President, where George Carlin hosted the very first episode of Saturday Night Live, and where Tracy Morgan stood when his 30 Rock character asked a passerby if they had change for a $10,000 bill. In a few minutes, PUP will etch their own small mark into NBC history by making their network television debut, performing their song “Kids” on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
It’s a fitting benchmark for PUP to cross off. Each time they’ve swung through New York since those early shows, things have felt a little bigger for them. Bigger venues, bigger (and extremely rabid) crowds, three Juno Award nominations here, a Polaris Prize longlisting there. No one can accuse them of not putting in the work to get here. They’ve maintained a relentless, worldwide touring schedule, the physical and emotional tolls of which were reflected on their last album, The Dream Is Over.
They’re also innately good at promoting themselves. Loyal fans who pre-ordered their new album, Morbid Stuff, for example, were sent an annihilation preparedness kit in an inflatable raft. The band has also essentially reinvented music videos, with their library now including a choose-your-own adventure game, storylines that transverse multiple videos, and the bragging rights of giving actor Finn Wolfhard his pre-Stranger Things start. Their recent video for “Free at Last” served as a contest, giving fans the sheet music before the song’s release and challenging them to try their hands at recording their own versions.
And now they’re about to perform on a late-night talk show. It’s as enviable of a trajectory an indie rock band can hope for these days. And yet, despite the good fortune that’s followed them, their third album Morbid Stuff is true to its name, jam-packed with the most fatalistic songs they’ve ever written. “I’ve been having some pretty dark thoughts,” Babcock sings on one song, which is a massive understatement for an album that kicks off with him wondering if any of his former sexual partners are dead. “I hope the world explodes, I hope that we all die!” goes one song. “If the world is gonna burn, everyone should get a turn to light it up,” goes another.
“I guess that’s just me trying to express this idea that I think runs through a lot of Morbid Stuff,” Babcock explains. “We’re all pretty nihilistic, pessimistic, fatalistic—whatever you want to call it. But there’s this whole element to this band and this record about taking all that negativity and trying to do what you can to make it fun, or to poke fun at your own situation. Just find some glimmer of light in the darkness.”
Despite the glints of positivity peeking through the cracks, releasing a record called Morbid Stuff, that is in fact about a wide array of morbid stuff, is bound to elicit questions about his mental health in press interviews. Naturally, when you write a song like “Full Blown Meltdown,” which is about, well, you can probably guess from the title, the topic is bound to come up.
“It has been tough. It’s something that is in the back of my mind when I’m writing,” Babcock says of reckoning with his macabre lyrics in real life. “Sometimes I’ll be like, holy fuck, I don’t know about this. I try to squash that as much as possible. I always say that that’s a problem for Future Stefan, and now I am Future Stefan and it’s like, fuck me.”
Even more difficult than facing his personal admissions in interviews is having loved ones learn about the darkest corners of his psyche by reading about them. Babcock recalls having one of his weekly dinners with his parents and the two asking about an interview in which he opened up about fighting depression. “I don’t really talk about this kind of stuff with them,” he says. “My parents said, ‘We read the article. So… I guess you have, uh, depression?’”
Babcock’s voice drops out as he finishes that story, sensing that maybe he’s overshared. But before the grim implications of it even have the chance to set in, drummer Zack Mykula jumps in with his best impression of Babcock’s parents. “‘Depression? When did you catch it?!’” he jokes. “‘It was that from Zack guy wasn’t it?’” And just like that, Babcock is bent over laughing. That’s PUP in a nutshell—a wrecking ball that’s swinging too hard to stop for bad vibes. They can’t spend too much time dwelling on the end of the world because they’re too busy conquering it in a van. Too busy outrunning the morbid stuff.
As I say my goodbyes to PUP so that they can head upstairs to make their big television debut, Babcock mentions that they’ll be back in New York in a month to headline Brooklyn Steel, an 1,800-person venue they sold out in mere days. Feeling nostalgic, I ask if he also recalls that night five years ago when he closed his eyes and took a leap of faith into the tiniest of crowds.
“Was that the show at Shea Stadium?” Babcock asks, referring to another defunct New York venue. “No,” I say. He then rattles off three more small venues the band has played, none of which are the right one, before giving up on trying to remember. “Well,” he says, looking up at the neon glow of the NBC Studios sign, “it’s all kind of a blur at this point.”