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Stefan Babcock should have been happy. It was 2018 and his band, the Toronto-based punk-rock battering ram known as Pup, had just toured long and hard behind its acclaimed 2016 album, The Dream Is Over. The title of that record was a quote from Babcock’s doctor, who advised that Babcock quit music after shredding his vocal cords from years of screaming his way through hundreds of shows. Instead, Babcock fearlessly stormed back into the rock-and-roll breach, and came out the other side with more fans, more press attention, and a brighter musical future.
And yet, as he prepared to write songs for a new Pup record, Babcock couldn’t get out of his own head. Even though he was more successful than ever — Pup will be touring by bus this spring, a rare extravagance for an up-and-coming punk band, and just made its US television debut on Late Night With Seth Meyers — he couldn’t help feeling like… himself. Same hang-ups, same persistently dark thoughts. Only now it was compounded by the fear that he would never escape those anxieties. What happens when you finally get what you want and still feel miserable?
“I think it’s probably the same for a lot of people,” Babcock confided in an interview last month. “Feeling like you should be happy and there’s no reason to feel this way, and so something must be seriously wrong with you. It just puts a lot of pressure on you to feel better when maybe putting pressure on yourself is not the way to feel better.”
Here’s an example of a random, troubling thought that plagued Babcock: “Are any of the people I’ve had sex with dead?” Yes, on paper, it sounds silly. Maybe even a little insane? But in your mind, perhaps in the middle of the night, it’s the sort of stray notion that can slowly fester into a full-blown crisis over impending mortality.
Fortunately, Babcock was able to put that poisoned idea into a song. It’s called “Morbid Stuff,” and it’s the title track of Pup’s exceptional third album, due April 5. It also opens the record on an appropriately pensive note. “It really is a laundry list of all the f*cked up things that run through my head on a daily basis,” Babcock said. “Starting off the record by wondering if anyone I had sex with is dead pretty much sums up a lot of the album.”
While Morbid Stuff is a reflection of Babcock’s fraught mental state, it’s really only half the story. On every Pup album, there’s a clear dichotomy between Babcock’s words — neurotic, conversational, sensitive, and bitingly sarcastic — and the music, which is rousing, party-hearty, pedal-to-the-metal punk rock of the first order. On Morbid Stuff, Babcock’s lyrics are more despairing, but the music is also catchier. It’s the darkest and poppiest record Pup has ever made, and also the best.
“We still want to be a fun band, and that’s always been the goal,” drummer Zack Mykula said. “It’s like, you gotta pick your times to be the overbearing doomsayer, and I think we’re pretty good at juxtaposing those elements.”
“I don’t want leave anyone on a hopeless note,” Babcock concurred. “The whole point of this band is to feel like you can do something positive with something that is absolute garbage.”
Pup isn’t just a fun band, it’s an actual band, at a time when actual bands are few and far between. Formed in 2010 by three childhood friends who brought Babcock into the fold in college, Pup is a gang of buddies who would be hanging out and annoying each other with stupid jokes even if they didn’t happen to play together in an ascendant rock band. (“It’s somewhere between being brothers and being married to each other,” Mykula said of the group’s dynamic.) And that comes through loud and clear in the music. Part of what makes Pup’s albums so endearing is that listening to them feels like being surrounded by your best, do-or-die pals.