Jhe Covid-19 pandemic has thrown workers of all kinds into long-term illness, poverty, homelessness and death, and musicians are one of them. Organizing efforts fought back, including the Musicians and Allied Workers Union; anti-capitalist and pro-worker comments from musicians on social media – spurred at least in part by the Eve 6 frontman’s hilarious and sour Twitter rants Max Collins — has brought a new language to exploited artists struggling to maintain their integrity as record labels and streaming companies take the profits from their labor.
Reflecting on these tensions while stuck at home, unable to tour, was the loud and beloved Toronto punk band Pup (an abbreviation for Pathetic Use of Potential). “For two years we’ve been a glorified online store and that’s it,” says singer Stefan Babcock. “I was writing about us navigating this strange place we find ourselves in our careers, where art and commerce are at direct odds with each other.” The group had grown further than any of its members had anticipated. Another band in their position can make their way to bigger gigs and checks, but Pup decided to make a hand-gnawing record that feeds.
Playing on a keyboard, Babcock began mumbling lyrics about how he and his bandmates – guitarist Steve Sladkowski, bassist Nestor Chumak and drummer Zack Mykula – form a “board of directors” during a quarterly meeting, and Babcock blew the label money on a piano. It became a series of interludes full of derisive and ironic business jargon (“The board is getting impatient / The budget is shrinking, but we can’t agree, so we vote on the questions / Like, are we tuning the vocals?”) that set the tone for the acidic punk-rock trip on Pup’s fourth album, The Unraveling of PupTheBand.
Formed in 2010, Pup have established themselves as the Canadian nice boys of the punk world: they create loud, carefully arranged melodic screams about dead animals, doomed camping trips and killing each other on tour. Their third LP, 2019’s Morbid Stuff, confronted Babcock’s anxiety and depression in blunt and somber terms, making for a difficult press cycle. “I had no idea how exhausting it would be to have to talk to strangers for an hour every day about my mental health issues,” Babcock says. But rather than shut up, the new album hurtles like a chop-shop clown car towards a cliff while inside the four bandmates – bug-eyed, overworked, sleep-deprived, extremely caffeinated and a little drunk and stoned – punch and scream their way through part comedy, part horror show, part best job ever that is a task force in 2022.” Writing about how the business of your band is one of the least sexy things you can do,” Babcock says, “and so it’s very much in the wheelhouse of Pup. It was like a way to let people into our world a little bit.
To make the album, they lived and recorded in a Connecticut mansion, using the same piano Matt Berninger played on National’s Boxer (“I should go to jail for playing those songs on it,” Babcock shudders). A familiar specter appeared in Babcock’s lyrics: the tension between being an artist and a business. On the closing track, PupTheBand Inc Is Filing for Bankruptcy, Babcock grumbles that he’s thrilled to get good reviews and free shoes, before announcing semi-sarcastically, “I sold these Nikes, I bought a new guitar case / That’s called protecting your investment! “The visuals, merchandising, and marketing resemble those of ’90s infomercials. It’s all a travesty, but also, it’s not.
“All four of us are PupTheBand as a company, whether we want to admit it or not,” says Sladkowski. “Anytime people are ready to talk about things like streaming royalties, work permits, or any of the ways the music industry mirrors the business world and the movement of capital, I think it’s good. I don’t think it’s something that musicians should necessarily feel, but I think a level of transparency and honesty is important, and people are starting to realize that. You have to do some of that because we all have to pay our bills.
Pup’s take on the subject is as wacky as it is dark. Babcock says he was “having a tantrum about something, being a little piss-pants baby” while writing an early set of lyrics for the closing track. He ended up scrapping them and writing something funnier. “It was so shitty and serious,” Babcock says. “It can’t be what Pup is, just angry songs with angry music.”
“We’re elite complainers, but I think something we’ve always been aware of is that juxtaposition,” adds Sladkowski — namely anger clashing with pleasure. Because even if they are exploited, they can still make music with people they love. “It doesn’t change the fact that there are bad people running this shit,” Babcock says, “but it does make it a bit easier to accept your fate. I wouldn’t change jobs for anything in the world.