It’s 11:30 a.m. on July 2, and the gates at Aaron’s Amphitheater in Atlanta opened a half-hour ago for Vans Warped Tour. It’s the South. It’s summer. It’s ungodly hot and humid, the kind of day where your shirt clings to your back the moment you step outside, and even breathing is difficult in the thick, wet air.
All four members of PUP are already sweating their asses off. They’ve been hard at work for several hours, setting up their merch tent and positioning gear for their set this afternoon. Now they’re seeking refuge from the sweltering heat by sitting in their van with the doors open, drinking stale water out of Monster cans and getting stoked over the prospect of a friend from another band dropping off some bud later.
A life of luxury it’s not. PUP is one of the only bands opting to brave Warped Tour in a 15-passenger Ford E350 with a U-Haul hitched to the back. Most artists rented a bus; RiFF RAFF’s looks ready to take 50 seniors on a weekend getaway to the Creek Casino in Montgomery, Alabama.
But Warped is not for the faint of heart. It snakes through the United States and up into Canada in the dead of summer, when triple-digit temperatures are not uncommon. There is no handholding or special treatment, especially not for up-and-coming acts. They have to earn their keep every day, both onstage and off.
That’s fine with PUP, a band already well versed in roughing it. After quitting their jobs to pursue music full-time, the scrappy, punk rock foursome from Toronto set a goal to play 200 shows in 2014, an outrageous number by any admission. More outrageous yet, they blew past that goal, hitting 250 shows by the year’s end.
“Opportunities kept coming up,” guitarist Steve Sladkowski says. “It’s like, the Hives want you guys to play in London, and it was like, well, we can’t not.”
On the contrary, they could’ve easily turned down the offer. Nobody would’ve blamed them. But that ironclad work ethic and one-track mindedness separate PUP—who in just over a year have seen half the world and shared stages with some of their favorite bands—from the posers and the quitters, showing that yes, it’s still possible to break through the clutter in this day and age. You just have to want it bad enough.
12:05 p.m. Sladkowski moseys over to the amphitheater’s backstage area to catch some of RiFF RAFF’s set. (Heads up: the hilariously bad rapper isn’t funny or good live.) Members of several other bands hustle past him, setting up gear or checking schedules with their tour managers.
“All these bands, we’re kind of like fringe bands,” Sladkowski says. He’s talking about artists such as Citizen, Man Overboard and The Dirty Nil, who run the gamut from moody post-hardcore to unabashed pop-punk but all share the same goal: to play hard and have a good time. Ironically, their lack of gimmicks and pretense make them stick out like a sore thumb on this year’s Warped Tour, which is split between trendy metalcore bands (We Came as Romans, I Killed the Prom Queen) and bubblegum pop artists masquerading as rockers (Metro Station, Night Riots).
Lead singer and guitarist Stefan Babcock weighs the pros and cons of being an outlier on the largest traveling festival in the country. “I would guess that 98 percent of the kids coming to Warped Tour have no clue who PUP is, just because we’ve never played with any of these bands before,” he says. “So it’s kind of a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse in the sense that it’s harder for us at these shows, but it’s a blessing because I think every show, we’re gonna play to all new fans, or potential new fans, you know? People that will hear us for the first time and hopefully get into it.”
2:30 p.m. The thick, dark clouds looming above the amphitheater finally give way to a torrential downpour. Hundreds of teens wearing cutoff shorts and band tanks or too-tight crop tops run for cover as the guys in PUP watch from the safety of their tent. “Holy fuck! Stay dry out there!” they shout smugly, and as I watch the gravelly festival grounds transform into a mud pit, I feel especially grateful for the all-access badge that earns me a spot under their tent as well.
The guys use the rain as an opportunity to hawk their self-titled debut album, which they released in the U.S. last April via SideOneDummy Records. “Five dollars! What a deal!” they yell at passerby, just in case the cardboard sign with a crudely drawn “$5” didn’t get the point across.
They need all the help they can get unloading merch today: much to everyone’s dismay, their tent stands caddy-corner to Pierce the Veil’s, who could probably pack this amphitheater with hysterical teenage girls without the help of the other 90-plus bands on the tour.
But PUP aren’t always the odd men out. Last summer, they opened for punk rock kinsmen the Menzingers on their U.S. tour. It helped get the word out about their brand-new album, and it gave the band their first real break in the States. “The Menzingers are like the best gateway to meeting people, cause they’re just the friendliest people,” drummer Zack Mykula says.
It also paved the way to other parts of the world. “Soon after that tour, the Front Bottoms took us to the U.K.,” bassist Nestor Chumak adds. “It opened up a lot of other avenues, which, I mean, who knows what would’ve happened [if it had gone] differently?”
“Maybe we would’ve joined the metalcore scene,” Babcock muses. “Who knows?”
I venture that they could’ve been opening for Attila, whose misogynistic lyrics and one-note breakdowns inspire waves of teenage fans to spin kick, whirlwind and throw elbows in the mosh pit—otherwise known as “hardcore dancing.”
Babcock is only vaguely familiar with the band, reciting their catchphrase with uncertainty: “Suck … my … fuck?”
Chumak takes the capitalist approach: “We’d have a different merch spot.”
4:00 p.m. The guys seem slightly out of their element right now. They can’t fathom why they have to do a signing in a half-hour. After all, who could possibly want to hang out with them when Pierce the Veil’s tent is only 10 feet away?
Our formal, sit-down interview is awkward at times; PUP answers every question with uncharacteristic reserve. Mostly, though, they just seem amazed to be here at all.
“I don’t think any of us thought that we would be sitting here where we are, in Atlanta, on the Warped Tour, having been to Europe a handful of times last year, and having gone to Australia—all these crazy opportunities that presented themselves,” Sladkowski says. “Not that we didn’t hope that the record would allow us to do interesting things, but for it to have happened in that way is really humbling, and you wanna keep that going.”
The record’s success should come as little surprise. PUP’s music touches on several universal themes—anger, frustration, loneliness and the desire to get more out of life—and condenses them into 10 songs that are bursting at the seams with youthful energy, each one sounding different from the last. “Reservoir” and “Lionheart” are the obvious punk blasters, with thick riffs, frenetic drumming and irresistible gang vocals. But there’s also the slow burn of “Yukon” and the disarming vulnerability of “Dark Days,” where the guys admit just how hard life on the road can be. (“We’re sleeping through the days/We’re sinking like a ship/We’re wasting away/Bit by bit.”) As a result, it’s hard to peg PUP with a specific sound. They are, quite simply, a kick-ass rock and roll band.
But any band can be quickly forgotten without new music. “The thing about touring for a year-and-a-half is you don’t have any time to write a record,” Babcock says. “And suddenly a year-and-a-half has gone by and people are asking you, ‘Well, when’s your next record coming out?’”
So in the two months between their last tour and their current jaunt on Warped, they’ve been holed up in their practice space every day trying to bang out album number two. “It’s just a totally different process, and there is some pressure,” Babcock says. “Writing the first record, you can take your whole life to do it if you want to. And writing your second record, [you only have] that two months between tours.”
But they all agree they’re better off for it. “The first record was super piecemeal over time, just songs that cropped up out of necessity,” Mykula says. “And then this one is just, I think, a little more coherent.”
If that’s the case, and pressure really does create diamonds, then surely the band wouldn’t mind another year of 250 shows, right?
“No,” Babcock says immediately, before the rest of the band chimes in.
“Three hundred and fifty!”
“Four hundred shows—in half a year!”
“What’s wrong with optimism?”
There’s a pause.
“I just wanna be a normal band,” Babcock says with a smile that can’t hide the weariness in his voice. “You know, we are not a normal band. We did more shows in that year than anyone that I’ve ever heard of, and I’m looking forward to having a year where we maybe play 150 shows.”
Mykula agrees, summing up the entire band’s attitude in two words: “I’m tired.”
5:55 p.m. PUP takes the stage inside the amphitheater. In theory, this should be the most populated part of the venue, but it’s segregated from all the other stages and vendors across the property. As a result, attendance is sparse—200 fans at best.
Still, the band makes the most of their set, tearing through three-quarters of their album while even finding time to crack a few jokes. “I wanna thank Atlanta for two things,” Sladkowski says. “The first one is Outkast: they’re one of the best things to ever happen to music. The second is the 1992 World Series.” (For those who don’t know, that’s the year the Toronto Blue Jays, PUP’s hometown team, beat the Atlanta Braves.)
“These people weren’t born in ‘92!” Babcock counters. The sad part is, he’s mostly right.
They finish their planned set with a few minutes to spare, and they quickly discuss what their last song should be. Rather than break out another up-tempo track from the album, Babcock ditches his guitar and the band rips into an electrifying version of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” Babcock stalks back and forth across the stage, yelling until he’s red in the face and the veins in his neck are bulging. He leaps offstage and hangs over the barricade so the audience can bellow into the mic with him, putting a cap on a terrific set.
At least, that’s what I think. “That was rough,” Babcock says with a grimace when I catch up with him backstage. But it was better than yesterday, he reasons, so hopefully things just keep going up.
They don’t dwell on it long. There are more important matters at hand, like getting some free ziti at catering.
7:45 p.m. As the last bands of the evening take to their respective stages and another day of Warped Tour draws to a close, PUP have already packed the U-Haul and piled into their van to hit the road. They’ve got a seven-hour drive to St. Petersburg, Florida, but when I try to give them $20 for a t-shirt to put some gas in their tank, they adamantly refuse.
What are they, a punk band or something?
As they drive away, I remember what they said earlier in the day about their long-term goals. “I think I would feel really, really, really pleased with myself if I felt like playing music was providing for myself like what a normal, shitty job would be,” Babcock said. “I feel like I’m living the dream right now and doing exactly what I wanted to do when I was 14. And I just wanna keep doing that until I’m too old and bitter and tired to do it anymore.”