“It felt like anything could happen”: The Menzingers and PUP discuss their wild years

We sat down with the punks to talk basement shows, crashing on floors and keeping it personal when success comes calling.

“It felt like anything could happen”: The Menzingers and PUP discuss their wild years

“Singers, huh?” says The Menzingers’ Greg Barnett, as he peruses the pictures of past performers – Prince, The Who, Cyndi Lauper, to name but a few – lining the wall of the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire’s upstairs bar. “Oh, tell me about it,” retorts PUP’s Steve Sladkowski. It is a Saturday night in February and the joke is they both sing in their bands and we’re waiting on their respective singer-guitarist counterparts, Tom May and Stefan Babcock.

The story of The Menzingers and PUP is a tale of two cities. While The Menzingers made a name for themselves in Philadelphia’s bustling underground network of basement gigs and borderline-illegal shows in friends’ houses, Toronto natives PUP found a fertile proving ground in The Six’s all-ages venues and vibrant DIY scene. Separated by 336 miles and a couple of years, both bands had their fair share of (sometimes literal) trials by fire and early tours spent living cheek by jowl, relying on the kindness of strangers for a floor to sleep on.

It is those years spent ducking punches in human blenders, close enough to smell the beer breath as every word is yelled back in your face, that informs their raucous punk rock. Yet how do they square their everyman, DIY mentality with where they find themselves tonight: playing a West End theatre to nearly 2,000 fans, an entire ocean away from those basement beginnings?

Eventually Tom and Stefan materialise and we get into it...

How did you guys get into going to house shows?

Stefan Babcock (vocals/guitar, PUP): Well, in Toronto when we were growing up there weren’t a ton of house shows, but there were a lot of all-ages venues. Promoters were always very encouraging of kids at the shows to make bands together so they could open for the bands touring through. So there were lots of opportunities to play opening slots even if you were in a pretty shitty band, which we all were. I don’t think I’d be in a band if we didn’t have an all-ages scene.

Was it a similar case for Menzingers?

Tom May (vocals/guitar, The Menzingers): In Scranton there were no places that we could play that had their own venue infrastructure. So they would open, then they would close. It had us in a situation where we had to book our own places and some of those included people’s houses. So by the time we got to Philadelphia we were so used to playing wherever that it was an easy transition, and there was that perfect scene in Philly at the time. I think it’s akin to the housing situation that was going on in the United States. There was not much work for people with degrees and there were a lot of people living crammed into the same house, so it was just easier to play shows there and it all came together that way.

The Menzingers in the old days. Photo: Erica Schultz

Was it informal or was there an established network?

Greg Barnett (vocals/guitar, The Menzingers): It was definitely a network. Philly had real music clubs and we wanted to be a part of it. But the problem was we just couldn’t get booked anywhere for forever, so it was more out of necessity that we started playing house shows, loft spaces or warehouses. So those were the shows that we were getting until finally one of the big promotion companies was like, ‘There’s 200 people coming to this warehouse to see this band. What are we missing out on?’

Steve Sladowski (guitar/vocals, PUP): I feel like we caught some of the tail end of that when we first got to know you guys, because the first gig we did in Philly was at [now defunct legendary spot] Golden Tea House, which was crazy! We didn’t have a real presence of that in Toronto, but for us the DIY network came in because we got to know punk promoters in nearby cities. When the band first started we played a couple of house shows, but it was like the venues you were talking about that would close immediately. And the rent in Toronto is so out of control that people aren’t going to jeopardise losing their place.

Where did you play?

Stefan: Toronto is a pretty big sprawling suburb, so there was definitely a long phase in our early 20s of playing church basements in every shitty suburb. There was a place in Oakville called The Dojo, which was an actual dojo and you had to take off your shoes and play barefoot. It was cool.

Tom: Now that I’m thinking about the Philly house show scene, it’s funny to think about how it was kind of a subgroup of the population. Each house would be anchored on a band and some places had really unique architecture, especially in West Philly. Golden Tea House was basically like a venue and had a balcony inside of the house.

Steve: We got up there.

Tom: Did you really?

Steve: Yeah!

Tom: Nice. And if you lived in Ava House or something, it was a total badge of punk rock honour.

What houses were around at the time?

Tom: Ava House was one that was founded by people from Northeastern Pennsylvania who moved into this open loft above a garage, but each bedroom of that was built into the loft and the wall didn’t stop at the ceiling. There was a two-foot gap between the ceiling and the wall, so they basically just lived in a common room together. That place was amazing. There was Dad’s House. What was that house on 16th street?

Greg: Oh, did it have a name? I think it was just 16th and Wharton. Philly has changed so much.

Tom: There were so many. I wish somebody with a more clear memory of the time could just make a chronological account of the whole thing. Romanticise it all, y’know.

Steve: It sounds like there’s a book there.

Tom: Yeah, definitely.

PUP live, by Amanda Fotes

What are some of your favourite memories from early shows?

Stefan: One of the first shows we did as PUP was at this place called The Magpie. It’s this disgusting dive bar that doesn’t really do music, they’d just clear out the tables so you could do your show. It was one of our first shows ever and it was a crazy heat wave in the middle of July.

Steve: It was like 40 degrees in the venue.

Stefan: They didn’t have an official capacity, but if I had to guess I’d say about 50 capacity, and I’d say there were about 200 people crammed in there (laughs)! It was brutal. My amp caught fire in the middle of our set. The experience was definitely more badass than our band! At those shows… fuck, it felt like anything could happen. And whatever happened, you just rolled with it. It didn’t matter if you played well or your gear fucked up, it was just about being there together.

Wasn't one of the first shows you guys did at the Bovine Sex Club?

Stefan: Mmhmm, that was our first show with our old band, Topanga. My parents came to that show and my dad’s kind of a wine connoisseur, he’s a fancy man. It’s the kind of place that just serves Jäegermeister on tap, so my dad was like, “I’ve never tried this ‘Jäeger’ before. I think maybe I’ll give this a shot.” So I was like, “Yeah, great idea, dad. Go for it.” So he ordered it and it comes in those little plastic shot glasses, and he’s like, “Oh, that’s weird. They don’t serve it in a glass?” and I’m like, “Nuh-uh.” So he goes to take a little sip of it and he goes, “Oh! This is horrible!” It’s like, welcome to the fucking punk life, bud!

What are your memories from playing house shows, Tom?

Tom: Oh my God, there’s so many… Sometimes they all blur into one show. There’s this one guy, I don’t know why I always think of him, but he’s the epitome of the house shows. Do you remember that poor kid playing drums for that band from Titan House? Somebody had smashed all the lights out so they had no lights left?

Greg: Oh yeah.

Tom: All they had in the house was a heat lamp lightbulb and they screwed it in above the drummer. So the whole time they were playing he kept stopping to throw up because it was too hot!

Steve: Oh my God (laughs)!

Greg: He went outside, covered in sweat and you could see his heart beating!

Tom: We played a place in Boston called Fort Fuck Awesome with Cobra Skulls. It was in [Boston suburb] Allston, Massachusetts and it had a half-pipe in the backyard. So these crust punk kids were causing trouble, the cops came and started talking shit, and through to this day we still make fun of that cop… What did he say? “Who throws a pah-ty on a Monday night? At two in the mah-ning!” And then somebody kicked a beer bottle across the floor at him and they lost their fucking minds. They started grabbing people and it turned into complete chaos. Then one of the crust punk kids had a chain on the street during the fight and they just arrested all of them. And we all stood there drinking and the cop comes over, like, “Are you seriously gonna stand here drinking? Get the fuck outta here!”

Another old Menzingers one, by Erica Schultz

You both went through a phase early on where you had to ask the crowd, "Does anybody have a floor that we can sleep on tonight?" I take it you don't miss those days...

Steve: Well, you do and you don’t. Some of the best friends we made on tour are those people that put us up in those early days. But we did sleep at a house in Portland, Oregon once and the guy who offered it to us was a little bit sketchy. We go back to his house and he says, “Two of you can sleep in this empty room and two of you can sleep downstairs in the basement,” So Zack [Mykula, PUP drummer] and I slept in the concrete basement where I guess one of the dudes was living. There was a piss-stained mattress and a green, rotting Subway sandwich underneath the bed…

Tom: Oh God (laughs)!

Stefan: But there is a very human side to that kind of shit. This guy was willing to put us up in his weird basement where clearly he has a lot of issues with drugs and poverty. There was this picture of his four or five year old kid on the fridge… It was kind of dark, but the reality is there’s a lot of places like that and –as much as I hope never to stay in a place like that again – it was nice of them to offer up what little they had.

Greg: I totally agree with that. It’s such a good point. We saw so much about humans and people and generosity that is unbelievable. I’m just so forever grateful for those opportunities that let us travel across the world, people just letting us have a place to stay because we can’t afford a hotel.

What did you do when something happened like the van gave up or equipment got stolen?

Stefan: Luckily for us, I can say we never got in a position when we were really poor where our van broke down, but y’know on our first tour in the UK things are expensive, especially for Canadians…

Steve: Oh God…

Stefan: So we were trying to make it stretch on £5 per person, per day. So we did something that we called “The Hunger Strike”, where we would wake up in the morning and go to M&S and get this drink, Nurishment. Little can, like a bad milkshake. So we got those every morning and drank them, then we’d drive and hope that the venue fed us and that was every day for a month.

Tom: When you mention getting robbed, we got robbed here and lost a lot of money and things you can’t replace, like notebooks and stuff…

Greg: That was also the last time I was ever trusted with the money again… We decided to go to this nightclub and I left the bag right on the front bench of the bus.

Tom: We got fucked. But we put a plea online saying, “Hey, we got robbed. If you want to donate to us, you can donate here,” and so many people responded to us that I had to cut it off. So that was a real example of how much support we have from the international community and that was a really big deal for us.

Steve: I think that’s an extension of the generosity and reciprocity that comes from letting people crash at your place. And whether or not people put us up, they’re people who love punk and that kind of ethos. We still put people up and when Jeff Rosenstock’s van got broken into it was like, “Oh, we can help out.” You don’t even think about it.

PUP way back when, by Amanda Cotes

Do you feel like the collective identity of the band is greater than any individual member?

Stefan: Definitely. Speaking for PUP, we have all tried to do this in different configurations with other people and it just didn’t work. So realising that and getting the egos out of the way early and, heh, almost being resigned to the fact that I’m stuck with these fuckers! And being down with it makes life way easier because, fuck, we get to do something really cool.

Steve: And it’s the same with anything, right? Communication is important in life, in existence on this planet. I think the more time we spend together, the easier it is to talk to each other or know when something that’s bothering you is just your own shit and you can deal with it yourself. I don’t know about you guys…

Greg: Pretty much exactly the same. It might be a harder thing for bands where they have one singer and that singer is their identity. So I think it’s a strength of both of our bands that the band is the identity more than any one person. It makes it more of a collective idea that you’re all putting your lives on hold together and doing this for each other, rather than it being one person’s dream.

Stefan: Yeah. It’s nice to know that you’re gonna succeed or fail together. It’s going to be a wild ride and maybe it will turn out great, maybe it won’t, but it’s the four of us in this together no matter what.

Now you find yourselves touring internationally and playing the occasional big theatre, how do you find the dynamic at shows has changed?

Tom: Well, that’s definitely a new aspect that we have to take into consideration. I don’t think it necessarily makes it more impersonal, but more broadly personal. We’re trying to relate to more people at once. And we can be louder! So that part’s amazing.

Steve: It’s like people can do dumb shit a little bit safer, y’know what I mean? Like the crowd surfer gets caught and put down and you’re like, “Huh, how about that!”

Stefan: We’re still at the stage where every other show we play is a small room, it’s bloody and the crowd is in your face, while we’ve been getting to do more big stuff like this. But whenever I start to feel a bit disconnected on some of the bigger stages, I like to go into the crowd. I just like to feel people’s sweat and remind myself that there are people standing just a few feet in front of you, who are there for the experience. Then it feels like a little show again.

We've thrown the term DIY around quite a lot. What does that mean to you all now?

Greg: It’s a tough one and I could just put my foot in my mouth, especially when we’re playing a place like this, but I do think the term just changes. We’re lucky to be able to employ one of our best friends as a guitar tech. Our best friend is our tour manager, another best friend is our front of house and another is our merch guy. That’s the dream, y’know?

Steve: I think it reminds me of tenacity. If you’re going to be doing something yourself, it’s because you want to do it largely on your own terms. And whether or not you end up at Shepherd’s Bush Empire or you crash on floors the whole time, it’s staying committed to your own principles, which feels like what we’ve all done. There’s this element of luck, but behind it all is tenacity and hard work.

Tom: I think along with that tenacious DIY spirit of “there’s nowhere to play, so we’ll make somewhere to play,” that goes hand in hand with a self-awareness. If you’re self aware about the process and you’re involved along the way, that in itself is half the battle.

Words: James MacKinnon

The Menzingers play London's O2 Kentish Town Forum, London on August 3 with Lagwagon, The Lawrence Arms and more. Tickets are on sale now.

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