PUP's Stefan Babcock on Songwriting and Surviving the Music Industry

PUP's Stefan Babcock on Songwriting and Surviving the Music Industry
PUP courtesy of Vanessa Heins
PUP courtesy of Vanessa Heins

‎I love PUP and think they're one of the best rock bands going in North America right now. They have a great new album out, The Unraveling of PUPTHEBAND, and I was happy to talk to vocalist/guitarist Stefan Babcock (not to be confused with fellow Canadian and Degrassi legend Stefan Brogren) about being a musician and the art of songwriting.

Upgrade to paid

When did the writing start on this record?

Right around April 2020. We were on tour until March 2020, we came home, I was sad for a few weeks, and I started writing. [Laughs] It's been a much more thought-out process than it usually is.

I think myself and the band, as a whole, wrote a lot more songs this time around, and I only wrote songs that I actually cared about, not just because we had to make a record. It's a different experience to have a year to make a record, versus "You guys have two months off of tours, can you crank something out?

I've talked to people over the last few years about how the pandemic affected their creativity. Some found solace in creativity, others couldn't create at all. What was your experience?

It wasn't anything that I hadn't experienced pre-pandemic. Creatively, all the terrible shit aside, it was a pretty positive time for me. In the past few years, I've gotten really excited about songwriting in a way where—I always loved writing songs and being in a band, but I've found a new appreciation for it and thrown myself into it full force. I've been lucky enough to do a bunch of co-writes on other people's work, which has been really rewarding too.

Out of all the PUP records, I think the songs are the strongest on this one, and it's just because, for myself, I renewed my love for writing songs. For the other guys, I don't want to speak to whether it was easier or harder for them than normal—I think it was a mixed bag—but they had a lot more time to sink their teeth into the songs, try new things, and think more deeply. It was great for them, and it was great for me to have that support.

What are the different muscles you flex when doing a co-write versus writing PUP material?

I think PUP has, for me, such a specific voice when it comes to the music, and especially lyrically. A lot of the time, I'll be writing something and I'll throw it in the garbage even if I think it's good. It doesn't make sense for PUP, it's too poppy, it's too heartfelt, it's too much of a happy "nothing" song. Those are all things that we've all really stayed away from in PUP.

But putting myself to this idea that things like that have a place with other artists has been pretty amazing for me. It's been really liberating to try and find a different voice to write in. Lyrically, the voice of PUP is just my inner monologue—that's a real part of me. Being able to step outside of that and write a non-ironic love song is really fun and fantastic, and opens a whole new world of possibilities to me.

I haven't been able to find that voice in PUP—to write a non-ironic, non-dark love song. I got really into pop music over the past year or two, and to a certain extent, there's a little bit of room for that in PUP, but I'm not going to write a pop banger for them. I'm really into pop bangers, so it was nice to see if I could do that.

Do you remember the first song I ever wrote?

I do, yeah. [Laughs] I was probably 14 and had been playing guitar for maybe two or three weeks. I knew four chords. I haven't thought about it in a long time, but it is the worst. I think it was called "Gray," and it was about how the whole world is gray and lifeless, and nothing is good—which is funny, because that's still what I write about. I'm a bit more articulate and multi-dimensional at this point in my life versus when I was 14.

How else do you feel like you've changed as a songwriter, even in the last five years?

I definitely care more about songwriting than I used to. When we first started a band, the point of writing music was so we could go on tour, have fun, and get sweaty on stage—which is still a big part of this band. But for the first record, that's what it was all about, and now it's about me doing my best, not to sound so cheesy, to put something out in the world that matters to some people.

On the first record, I'd never been a main songwriter in a band, and I didn't care about lyrics. I certainly didn't feel like I'd found my voice as a lyricist at all. I've always been more capable of coming up with strong melodies than strong lyrics. So there were no expectations, and I was just learning to write songs and not worry too much about the lyrics.

I went through phases where the lyrics became very important to me, and now I'm at a point where I'm trying to figure out how to put it all together—to get the best melodies to hit with the best melodies at the right moment, with the right feeling. There's a lot to it that I still don't fully grasp, and that I get a little better at every time I write a song, but there's still so much to learn.

The other guys have also had their big journeys. Everyone in the band is so much better at playing music than they were when we started. They're so much creative with their instruments. Nestor's a recording engineer, Zach programs synths and drums, and Steve's just an incredible guitar player. As we've played more with each other, we've learned to trust each other more, and that factors in a big way with the songwriting.

The first record, that was the fuckin' Stefan show. Now, it's very much the PUP show, where it's the four of us. With trust comes less neuroses on my part and more willingness to hear others' ideas and go on journeys with them, even if I'm not really sure about it. If one person in the band is really excited about something, then I'm down for the journey. With every record, it's become more of a collaborative experience, and it's become much better because of that.

My perception is that your guys' fanbase has grown exponentially over the last several years, especially between The Dream Is Over and Morbid Stuff. What's it been like to balance that with the inherently personal act of writing music?

As much as I agree that the fanbase has grown a lot since we started, and I'm so grateful that people connect with the songs and like what we do, it hasn't felt like as much of an explosion to us from the inside. We've been doing PUP for eight years, and before that we were doing separate things in separate bands for seven or eight years. So I'd been at this for 15 years.

Even with PUP, we tour so much that change has always felt pretty incremental—but on an upswing. We'd go to a town on the first record and play to 20 people, and the next time we'd be playing to 80 people, which doesn't seem like a big jump but felt like a change. Then it'd be 200 people, and now we're at where we're at now. Part of the reality of touring as much as we do is that we can see it organically. It's not like we played to 20 people, had a smash hit on the radio, and then we were playing to 1500. It was more steady growth on the inside. It's great, and it's also helped us not think about it too much.

What's your general experience with the music industry over the last 15 years?

I'll be careful not to get myself into too much trouble here. [Laughs] I come from a very DIY world, where when I was a teenager I played in bands and we were making records on our own, starting labels that weren't really labels, pressing CDs, and booking our own tours—and a lot of that carried over to PUP. But I also had a career working full-time working at a record label in Canada before I quit to focus on PUP full-time.

I was seeing the music industry from both extremes—what the corporate music industry looks like with big record contracts, publishing deals, and building a team, and I was going home and booking tours myself and figuring out how to make this project work in the punk community, playing basement shows. It was an almost paradoxical experience. As those two worlds started to merge as PUP got bigger, I was very wary of what was happening, and we had some pretty negative experiences.

It's easy to take advantage of bands when they're young and excited and feel like they've got nothing to lose, and I like to think that I had more of a handle on that than most because I worked in the industry, but because of where both my careers were at, there was much left for me to learn, and it was learned the hard way. Since then, we've been lucky enough to get to do this for a bunch of years, and the main thing we've discovered in those years is that holding on to an element of the DIY mentality is really important to us—making sure we're calling the shots and not letting anyone entice us with these fake ideas.

A lot of people at labels, and managers, are obsessed with get-rich-quick schemes. For a lot of bands like ours—a band that's not playing middle-of-the-road rock or pop, something a little left-of-center—it's very rare that there's something that can just happen that will make you successful. It's all about hard work and grinding, and making the right decisions for your own moral compass.

We're now in a place where we've surrounded ourselves with people who think like us, who we like and respect. And for the most part, they're people who I would consider friends first, as opposed to "members of the PUP team." We've been pretty fortunate just to work with people who share our vision and are passionate about the same things, and aren't trying to sell us on things we don't want to be sold on.

You've mentioned how much PUP tours several times in this interview. Obviously, touring is a tough thing right now. How has that been for the band?

It's been fuckin' rough. At least 75% of our income, prior to 2020, was based on touring, whether it was tickets or merch, so it's been a pretty massive blow. But at the same time, I treated it as a bit of an opportunity for myself, along with the rest of the band, so that's been positive. I also try to remember that, as much as the money's been dried up, I think about what this would've been like if it happened three years earlier. I can say pretty confidently that if it happened before Morbid Stuff came out, we would not still be a band.

A lot of our friends are in tougher positions because they're earlier on in their career and don't have the momentum or money in the bank to weather the storm. My heart breaks for our pals in Ratboys—who are doing great, and they're touring, and they're gonna do awesome things in the next couple of years—but I think it was a rough couple of years to be in a band like that, where they had put out a record in early March 2020. Their whole plan just got railroaded.

From my perspective, they were this band who were a little more under the radar than they should've been, but were on the cusp of breaking through. It's still harder to see that happen to our friends' bands than for us, because we knew that if this lasted for less than three years, we'd still be OK. We're coming up on that three-year mark, though. [Laughs]

Subscribe to Last Donut of the Night

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson