Tireless punk band Pup wants to make the most of second Polaris prize nomination

Members of the band Pup (clockwise from bottom left) Stefan Babcock, Nestor Chumak, Steve Sladkowski and Zack Mykula are pictured in Toronto, on Tuesday, August 27, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO - Punk road warriors Pup missed their first opportunity to bask in a Polaris Music Prize nomination three years ago, so when they landed a second shot at the event on Monday, all other priorities were tossed aside.

Not that deciding between the notoriously off-kilter Polaris awards or a now-cancelled show in Jacksonville, Fla. was really a tough choice, they admit.

"Frankly, playing the Polaris sounds way more fun than playing Jacksonville," declares singer Stefan Babcock as he sits alongside his bandmates in a Toronto coffee shop.

"All of us had always wanted to play the Polaris, and last time was impossible because we were in Switzerland."

The Toronto band, whose name is an acronym for "Pathetic Use of Potential," appreciates those rare moments spent in their hometown.

Only a few hours earlier, they were flying back to Canada after a stretch of U.K. festival dates to plug their Polaris-contending album "Morbid Stuff." Running on the fumes of jet lag and cups of freshly brewed coffee, Babcock wonders if anybody got an update on his missing luggage or the pieces of their gear that disappeared in transit.

Given the circumstances, the band known for powder-keg rock anthems "If This Tour Doesn't Kill You, I Will," "Full-Blown Meltdown" and "See You At Your Funeral," is surprisingly nonchalant about their travel woes.

This is the typical drama of life on tour, they say.

Shortly before their first Polaris nomination for 2016's "The Dream is Over," Pup was living in miserable conditions on the road and skipping meals they couldn't afford. On their first European tour, they agreed to live on $5 each, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. — just enough for coffee and meal replacements to tide them over until the venue usually fed them before the show.

"It was pretty bleak," admits Babcock.

"Back then, being the first time we'd been in Europe, or the first time we played the States, everything was exciting. You can ride on that sort of momentum for a long time."

As critical accolades and a fan base grew, the Polaris panel invited them to attend and perform at the 2016 awards show.

Stuck in a European tour they couldn't duck out on, they sent their parents to the Polaris bash as stand-ins. They watched as their moms and dads mingled with fellow nominees, chowed down on hors d'oeuvres and tweeted about the experience from the band's official account.

"I was getting text updates from my dad saying, 'They just keep bringing wine,'" chuckles guitarist Steve Sladkowski.

Babcock wishes Pup won the Polaris that night, if only so everyone could've watched their tipsy parents climb onstage to deliver a slurred "thank you" speech. It didn't happen, but they're not too sore about it.

This year, Pup will be at the Polaris themselves, as an 11-member jury holds an evening debate behind closed doors about the merits of contenders that also include electronic mixer Marie Davidson, soul singer Dominique Fils-Aime, and pop songwriter Jessie Reyez.

A rock band hasn't won since experimental act Godspeed You! Black Emperor in 2013, which could work in Pup's favour. Critics say "Morbid Stuff" shows the band's progression from scrappy upstart to punchy thinkers.

The album explores Babcock's depression, but strikes a certain levity as he confesses his own disdain for self-pity.

"It wasn't really a conscious decision that I wanted to write about depression or dealing with it through humour," he says.

"I just wrote what I know, and thankfully I feel like people have found something to take away from it. It's always good to open up that conversation and kind of normalize what a lot of people go through. But that's just kind of a nice by-product of the record, it certainly wasn't the intention going in."

Mental health is a topic Pup has never held back on, and they've been equally vocal about how little is being done in the music industry to improve support systems.

Earlier this year, Toronto independent record label Royal Mountain Records said it would give its artists access to $1,500 per year for mental-health services, a decision that received widespread applause in the industry, even though none of the major labels matched it with substantial commitments.

When Pup announced they would play the Polaris show, they took a swipe at record executives who fail to support artists who work in a grinding industry.

"We can't wait to rip a bunch of songs about how toxic this industry is in front of some of its most esteemed members," they tweeted in July.

Babcock says he doesn't fault record label employees, in particular. He believes there's enough blame to go around.

"It's time that everybody took stock of how they're making their money," he says.

"We're in this place where a lot of bands, certainly us included, are making money ourselves — and for other people — based on publicly dealing with that darkness. It's all fine and dandy for people in the industry who maybe aren't creating music to just say, 'We got a product out of this.' They don't have to (expletive) deal with it."

The band says they'd like to encourage change, rather that just wallow in the misery. Earlier this year, they partnered with local charities during their first headlining tour to highlight issues around mental health, music education and at-risk youth & LGBTQ people.

"We're pretty privileged in every sense of the word," Sladkowski says. "Sometimes it's about not occupying that space and allowing other voices."

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