Views From The Sticks: Pain and Smiling with PUP
“It wouldn't betray the onslaught that’s to come,” is the answer drummer Zack Mykula gives when I ask about PUP’s mental space before they go on stage. “We try to get relaxed. We don't have a ritual or anything. I think part of a good performance is still having a little bit of nerves, and we've kind of grown out of that, but still that adrenaline rush kind of pushes the show forward. As long as the audience is pushing back we tend to feed off that and don't worry too much.” An onslaught is arguably putting it lightly as PUP is a sheer force of nature on stage. It’s as brutal and aggressive as any hardcore show, but instead of a grimace you find yourself wearing a shit-eating grin throughout. The first time I saw them they were supporting Pure Love in 2014 and I had no idea who they were. Their 30 minute set was one of the best I've ever seen from a support band and got me to the Old Blue Last for their headline show the next the day, and what a show it was. My only clear recollection is Stefan, the lead singer, hanging from the roof by his feet and screaming into the mic. The rest of it is just pain and smiling.
“Before every show he checks the ceiling for shit to hang off of,” Zack smiles as I tell him the story. “There's normally something and it's a bummer if there isn't, but there's always something to climb up and jump off of. That's just how he is.”
Every PUP show I've seen since has been similarly cataclysmic, and conversations about them tend to take on a conspiratorial ‘if you know you know’ tone. PUP seem incredibly natural on stage, as if they’re at their most comfortable when wreaking havoc, and Zacks says it’s been like that since the early days. “I think it has always been like that. We haven't always had shows like Old Blue Last where we had double decker crowd surfing. We've always had audiences that were a little more reserved, but part of really enjoying playing is that it doesn't really matter when nobody's reacting. If you like what you're doing you just do it, it doesn't matter.”
PUP on record aren’t much different. The songs are relentless and drive towards a cacophony, thanks in no small part to Zack’s monstrous drumming, before stopping on a dime and jumping off in a completely new direction. It’s LeBron James bulldozing his way through the defence, then performing the most delicate of crossovers and throwing the hammer down while your still recovering from the moment of beauty amongst the destruction. It’s the kind of music you feel worn out just listening to.
“Our problem is we have too many ideas,” Zack says of their song-writing process. “We end up trying to fit too many ideas in songs, and then we cut it down till its coherent and then our producer comes in and he cuts it down too until it's even more coherent. I think it gives us a unique edge, very ADD. It definitely sounds like we played a lot of video games growing up. It's hard because you can't be precious and it's hard because it's like your kid that you're hacking apart, but it's necessary.”
Their new record, The Dream Is Over, will be released on May 27th and the album opener ‘If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You I Will’ perfectly encapsulates this style of writing. Based on something Zack said – “One day I said that, I guess Stefan liked it” – it ebbs, flows and changes constantly as the band discusses the strains of touring by metaphorically (and literally in the video) murdering each other in a number of graphic ways. The band are jokers on stage and off, even in the few minutes before the interview multiple jokes about sexual prowess are thrown about, and it’s easy to see how this can build up when you spend months trapped in a little box together. Still, as with the borderline violence of their live show, the track and video somehow feel joyful and cathartic.
“It's very cathartic,” Zack agrees, “and also it was such a group effort. Without being saccharine it feels a part of us more than a lot of other songs. We definitely mean it to be tongue in cheek, and you'll find that across the new record. We played a version of it first in New York at a headline show and that was a very personal moment for us as it was our first show since having to quit the Modern Baseball tour. It was coming to terms with whether we have limitations as a band, and then saying no we don't. We have to keep going.”
The reason PUP had to quit the Modern Baseball tour was almost the reason they had to quit altogether. Stefan had developed a cyst on his vocal chords that had ended up haemorrhaging, and the doctor advised he quit music altogether. As with Zack’s ‘if this tour doesn’t kill you’ quip, the band decided to use what she said next, 'The Dream Is Over', as inspiration.
PUP have come back stronger than ever, but Zack concedes they had to consider if their journey was over “as soon as [they] heard” about the problem. “Stefan had been suffering with something for a week and I guess he feels like we all do, beholden to the future of the band, so we didn't find out till the day after [the diagnosis] that he was having this issue. I'm sure he was tortured by it for the week previous, and I can't imagine that. “Then there was the moment when we all heard where it was well if this is it, this is it. Not much we can do, there's no one we can blame. We can just support Stefan because that's what he needs. But there was definitely a second where we were like what if this is it? We're all hyper-neurotic so that was just us catastrophising. We can work through anything I'm confident about that, but it was one of those moments that drags you to your lowest and that's definitely what happened.”
This is the beauty of PUP, whatever the world shoves down their throats, sometimes literally, they chew up and spit right back out. If a tour’s making them want to kill each other they write a song about it and strangle each other in the video. If a medical emergency threatens their existence as a band they turn it into an album because that’s just who they are. It’s dark, cynical, a little bit silly, and absolutely glorious.