It's all too easy for a young band to bite off more than they can chew. Toronto punk band PUP learned that lesson the hard way in 2015 after setting a goal that turned out to be a little too ambitious for even the most gung-ho, hard-touring road warriors. The band set a goal to play 250 shows in 2015, following the release of their 2014 self-titled debut album. As they approached that goal, however, things began to break down—van spinouts, poor eating habits, too much drinking, not enough sleep, not to mention the petty intra-band arguments that crop up when you're five weeks into a six-week tour.
In late 2015, things got even worse. Frontman Stefan Babcock developed a cyst on his vocal cords, which hemorrhaged and threatened to end his career. With a little space and recuperation, however, Babcock was back on his way to performing, against the advice of his doctor. As guitarist Steve Sladkowski says from a phone call ahead of the band's U.S. tour, it was a wake-up call for the band.
"Stefan has the same injury that plagued Adele," he says. "And Adele has elements of the machine behind her that allow her to take a year and a half or two years off of touring or recording, to having the surgery that costs $10,000 and the recovery time. Now, that's not to say that the body can't heal on its own just not as fast. So Stefan, he's seen specialists and has a great team of doctors and we're lucky that it doesn't cost very much in this country. But it's been a matter of learning how to preserve your voice and your body day-to-day on tour. That's something that we've all had to learn. And it helps you put into perspective how lucky we are to do what we do and if we want to continue with this, we have to kind of put in the time to learn how to take care of ourselves."
The album that resulted from PUP's year of touring and near-collapse is The Dream Is Over, which was released last week via SideOneDummy. The title is a direct reference to a harsh turn of phrase that Babcock's doctor uttered when delivering the news of his vocal cord injury. It's, of course, used ironically in this context—PUP sounds more energized and defiant than ever, with a set of songs that push the band's limits in terms of both intensity and accessibility. First single "DVP" is a punchy rocker in the vein of Titus Andronicus, while "The Coast" and "Old Wound" explode with the ferocity of classic hardcore.
The Dream Is Over is overall a diverse record that shows just how much ground Babcock, Sladkowski, bassist Nestor Chumak and drummer Zack Mykula can cover under the umbrella of punk rock. Sladkowski says that what goes into their music, influence wise, comprises a lot more than punk itself.
"We all listen to a diverse range of music, and we try to pull influences from everywhere," he says. "We want to write songs that are also immediately accessible. We always want songs to be catchy. We all love pop music. It's just a matter of us...trying to figure out what works. Can some songs be a little bit heavier? And does that obscure the hook? And if so does it obscure it in a way as to be effective. One of the things we always go back to is the music of Michael Jackson. Everything in Michael Jackson's music is a hook. And to have that and still be making interesting music...I don't think it's a binary thing. Different musical elements can coexist."
Lyrically, there's a fair amount of doom and gloom on The Dream Is Over, but there's humor as well. The opening track is titled "If This Tour Doesn't Kill You, I Will," and finds Babcock singing, "If this tour doesn't kill you, I will/ I hate your guts and it makes me ill/ seeing your face every morning." It's partially sung in jest, but it's not the only moment where PUP sound like they're ready to throw in the towel. On "DVP," Babcock sings, "I get so drunk that I can't speak/ Yeah, nothing's working and the future's looking bleak," and the title of "Can't Win" sort of speaks for itself. It's important to remember that this is all sung in hindsight, however. Having learned some lessons from pushing themselves too hard, Sladkowski says they've regrouped with a stronger commitment to being the best band they can be.
"We set a goal to play 250 shows in a calendar year after releasing our first record. And we did that. And there were consequences—the most prominent of which was the injury to Stefan's voice," he says. "And he's dealt with that and it's fine. It was important for us to realize it was an impermanent situation. And it can be so fleeting and it made us appreciate what we have and what we've accomplished, but also want to accomplish more. There's nothing like adversity to band everyone together and stick up a middle finger a little bit."
The band can laugh about it now, and have slimmed their ambitions back just a little bit. But Sladkowski has a new outlook on what life on the road is like, and the options that are presented in front of you.
"I tell people that our life as a band is kind of like a perpetual Thursday," he says. "Thursday night can go one of two ways. You can stay home and watch Netflix...hang out. Or you can go out and party. And yeah, on Friday you might not feel great about it, but it's Friday so it's cool. And shows are kind of like that too. So you just gotta say, 'which Thursday night am I going to have?'"