This has been a big year for Toronto-based punk band PUP.
Their second album — The Dream is Over — was released in May, and made the shortlist for the 2016 Polaris Music Prize. If that already wasn’t enough for one year, the band has also spent the majority of 2016 touring North America, Australia, and Europe.
The Peak spoke with guitarist Steve Sladkowski ahead of their Vancouver show, and he credited the band’s success to a mix of hard work, community, dumb luck, and determination: “I think we went all in from the beginning. We were gonna do whatever we needed to. When all of us were working, we were still playing three to five times a week. When it came time to go on tour and take that leap and quit our jobs, we were all willing to do it.”
Saying “yes” to any opportunity that comes up is one explanation for the band’s exhaustive tour schedule. “I guess part of the reason we spend so much time on tour is that we just wanted to do whatever sounded cool,” Sladkowski said, laughing. “Cool things just kept coming up and so we didn’t say no. That might’ve affected us a little bit in terms of burning us out a little bit, but this is what the four of us dreamed about when we started playing at 12, 15 years old.”
For a band that’s consistently on the road, maintaining relationships at home and keeping things as normal as possible is key. “You try as much as possible to bridge the gap between the touring life and the home life, if that makes sense?” Sladkowski said. “We all have girlfriends who are in Toronto whom we miss, obviously. We played in New York and Boston last month and a couple of our girlfriends were in Boston. It was like a big family affair. So you have little moments like that.”
Sladkowski also emphasized the importance of giving PUP’s fans the best possible experience at every show: “We might drink a bit too much, but it’s not a wild party every night. It’s more like after a show we’ll go to a hotel or a friend’s place and have a couple beers. Even our drinking is boring. But that’s how you’re able to maintain that standard.
“One of the most important things for us is the consistency of the live performances. This is still a job and you want to be good at your job, especially one like the one we have.”
Building a following in the United States is another reason Sladkowski thinks PUP has reached its current level of success: “We were very lucky to very early on focus ourselves on trying to build a following not only in Canada, but in the United States. We were also lucky to pair up with an American record label in Los Angeles called SideOneDummy Records.”
On the topic of the United States, it’s no secret that the recent presidential election results are on everybody’s mind. As someone who was touring the United States for much of this year leading up to election night, Sladkowski said he “wasn’t expecting it. But on the Monday before the election, we were driving through Pennsylvania, which was one of the states that swung for Trump. We probably went about 200 kilometres without seeing a Hillary Clinton sign.
“We only saw Trump signs, and there were a lot of hand-painted, home-made signs. We saw signs that said ‘Pray Before You Vote’ and that sort of thing. So, in terms of a visual sight test, that was when I sort of had this feeling in the back of my mind, like, ‘Something is going on here. . .’”
Sladowski was also able to observe the reactions of fellow Canadians towards Trump’s win. “There’s this smugness, this belief that somehow the decision-making in our country and the political zeitgeist of the country are not connected to the United States, rather than having empathy.
“But Toronto elected Rob Ford, and I saw signs in the suburbs of Toronto on the way back home that said ‘Canadians for Trump.’ This is not something that is contained just within the United States. It’s more important than ever to try and be open and empathetic and have conversations while also not losing sight of the fact that you have to stand up to hatred and bigotry and all that shit.”
In the wake of the election results, the band found a way to give back to communities in America. “We were able to make a donation to Planned Parenthood a couple nights ago from proceeds that we raised in Chicago. Our merch guy donated all of his tip money from the event in Chicago to an LGBTQ community centre in downtown Chicago. We’re trying to help however we can, whether that’s through donations or through moral support. We’ve made enough money in the United States and we work here a lot, so we felt like that would be an appropriate way to show solidarity with people that we love and friends that we’ve met here.”
On a lighter note, we also talked about the difference between music festivals and club shows. Sladkowski weighed the intimacy of club shows (“They’re sweaty, or at least our shows are, and there’s beer everywhere and people are having a great time. It’s kind of like human soup.”) against the opportunities to play with your idols at festivals.
He talked about a festival PUP played with the Smith Street Band in Tasmania in 2015: “It was in this little town of like a thousand people. We played in the hills of these mountains and we were playing as the sun was setting. So we were watching the sunset in the mountains in Tasmania playing this show, and you get those sorts of experiences that are kind of burned into your memory.”
After a whirlwind of a year, Sladkowski is ready for some downtime. “I think first and foremost we are all ready for some time off and a little bit of rest and relaxation over the holidays.” However, the downtime will be somewhat short-lived: PUP heads back to Europe and the UK in early 2017.
Sladkowski has his sights set on more new adventures, too: “We all really want to go tour Japan and South America and stuff and get culture shock. We would love to play in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. So those are all things that are on the wish list right now.”