Hotstar: Despite The ‘Morbid Stuff,’ Toronto’s PUP Drawing Biggest Crowds Yet

Vanessa Heins
– Not-So-Morbid Stuff
PUP is playing to the biggest crowds of its career this year.

PUP’s breakthrough second album, 2016’s The Dream Is Over, opens with a song that would seem to bode poorly for live longevity: “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will.” Thankfully, the members of the fiery Toronto pop-punk group aren’t only alive, but thriving: On March 26, PUP kicked off its biggest headlining tour yet.

“The kind of music that PUP makes, there’s not a whole lot of paths to success,” the band’s charismatic frontman Stefan Babcock tells Pollstar. “Our music isn’t synced in a lot of advertising or movies or anything like that. The way that we have managed to have some success and pay our bills is just by touring endlessly. For the past four or five years, we’ve been on the road almost nonstop.”

Along the way, PUP – which takes its name from a comment Babcock’s grandmother once made that playing in a rock band was a “Pathetic Use of Potential” – has been through the ringer. The Dream Is Over’s opening track chronicles intraband strife and the album’s title references the harrowing words a doctor told Babcock, now 31, after a cyst on his vocal cords hemorrhaged in 2015.

“Although I’m fully recovered and I’m doing quite well in terms of my vocal health, it’s something that is on my mind a lot,” says Babcock. “When you tour as much as we do and sing the way that I sing, there’s always that possibility that the end is nigh.”

The apocalypse tends to feel closer when listening to PUP. “I hope the world explodes, I hope that we all die,” Babcock screams on “See You At Your Funeral,” one of many deceptively catchy songs on the band’s third record Morbid Stuff, which debuted on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart upon its April 5 release. PUP is selling an “Annihilation Preparedness Kit” that includes Morbid Stuff, a multi-tool cutlery set and a dispenser with custom bandaids; its current string of dates is named “The Morbid Stuff Tour-pocalypse 2019.” But that looming dread also forms the backbone of PUP’s live appeal.

“The live show is real and raw and authentic,” says The Feldman Agency’s Steven Himmelfarb, who has represented PUP since 2012, when it still went by Topanga. “Stefan, as a songwriter, is a man of the people. He’s worked a lot of jobs and has slogged it out in bands for a good amount of time and understands and deals with a lot of issues and frustrations their fans deal with. It comes across live.”

PUP also has strengths that many stylistically similar groups lack. “The songwriting is something that sets them apart from a lot of bands that have come out of that emo-pop-punk world,” says Brilliant Corners Management’s Joe Goldberg, who has co-managed PUP with Jordan Kurland since 2017. “That’s why at the shows the entire audience is singing along.” Adds Babcock: “We really feed off the energy of the crowd. The crowd sings half the stuff; I don’t even sing half the time.”

Those crowds have grown substantially. PUP sold out San Francisco’s 429-capacity Rickshaw Stop in June 2016, grossing $5,198, and headlined the city’s even-smaller Bottom of the Hill in Sept. 2017; come June 22, PUP will top the marquee at The Fillmore, which holds 1,315. In New York, the band headlined Bowery Ballroom and Music Hall of Williamsburg, which hold 575 and 650, respectively, in 2016. An upcoming concert at 1,800-capacity Brooklyn Steel, meanwhile, sold out in less than a week.

Chris McKay / Getty Images
– A Bigger Sense of Community
PUP frontman Stefan Babcock performs at Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Music Festival in 2017.

“We were really confident about selling that room out,” says Goldberg. “We did not know that it would sell out in less than a week.” (Paradigm’s Ali Hedrick, who joined the PUP team last year, helped plot the band’s 2019 dates.)

“In the bigger rooms, while people aren’t in my face as much, I feel like it becomes even more of a personal experience,” Babcock says. “It’s great when there are 20 of your friends yelling the words along with you, but when there’s 1,000 people it forms this bigger sense of community.”

According to Goldberg, “people are coming back every time [PUP] comes back to play, and then they’re bringing their friends.” That matches Himmelfarb’s early realization that PUP “can play in many circles and incorporate a larger fan base.” When promoters tried to pigeonhole PUP as a punk band, Himmelfarb pushed back: “To me, PUP were more Pinkerton-era Weezer than a Warped Tour band.”

Naturally, PUP continues to blaze new trails on the road. Before embarking on the bulk of “Morbid Stuff Tour-pocalypse,” the band announced an autumn trek – aptly named the “Falls Apart” tour – that will hit markets not touched this spring, including Baltimore, St. Louis and Indianapolis.

The band also wants to bond non-musically with fans. PUP has a strong streak of social awareness and, on “Morbid Stuff Tour-pocalypse,” will partner with a different charity in every city it headlines.

“Touring, you roll through towns, you see them for 24 hours if you’re lucky and you don’t always get a real sense of what’s happening in that community,” says Babcock. “This has been a way for us to work with local charities and get a better sense of what’s going on in the neighborhoods where we’re playing shows.”

The decision epitomizes PUP’s inviting earnestness. “A lot of the people coming to our shows can identify with the things we’re speaking about lyrically and find some sort of relief in the energetic part of the music and find some sort of release in being in a room full of people who maybe can empathize and understand what everybody around them is going through,” says Babcock. This spring, that shared catharsis will reach new heights.