"I'm glad we're a little bit older," Steve Sladkowski says as Jose Bautista gets walked by Drew Smyly and there's finally a Blue Jay on base. "It just feels like nobody tells us how to manage ourselves or our music. Maybe that's why we've been able to connect with fans."
Sladkowski is talking about the runaway success of his band, Pup, after punk fans worldwide gobbled up their self-titled 2014 debut album. It's the bottom of the first inning and the Tampa Bay Rays are already crushing the Toronto Blue Jays in a mid-May series opener; in response, the 28-year-old guitarist and I are crushing $11.75 beers in the Rogers Centre nosebleeds. Pressure and attention, he says, can lead to dumb decisions. "If it happened when we were a bit younger, we would have been more impressionable."
Rather than let their success go to their heads, his Toronto band is determined to stay DIY, even as they prepare to face bigger audiences than ever to support their second album of frenetic punk, The Dream is Over, which came out on May 27 on Royal Mountain Records. By handling most of their own affairs, Sladkowski says, Pup is able to keep their identity, fan base and concerts as inclusive as possible.
"If you're not doing hyper-political punk, and it's more about a good time, it's about creating a safe space and a good environment for people to enjoy themselves," he says, and Smyly throws four balls in a row to Edwin Encarnacion. The designated hitter walks to first. "And maybe get a little bit of escape, and get a little bit of catharsis from whatever's going on in their lives."
Punk and baseball have a frightening amount in common. At its best, each thrives on a balance of cold calculation and incalculable motives. When performed well, they're both ripe for compelling narratives. There are moments of inexorable tension; then, with some luck, release. Catharsis.
Justin Smoak is at bat and the Rays run to the mound for a conference. "This is the tension," Sladkowski says, and the Rays resume positions. Smyly tries and fails to pick off Bautista, then walks Smoak. Troy Tulowitzki is up with two out and the bases loaded.
The guitarist tells me a story about a near-empty show in Arizona where they had to make a clutch hit. "We brought everyone in the crowd up," he says, "and everyone just hung out onstage while we played the show. We're lucky because we have the kind of crowds that will do that." Smyly pitches a fastball; strike one for Tulowitzki. Then a foul; strike two. "When you have audiences who aren't thrown off by that or like the randomness and the chaos, and can embrace the weirdness – that's baseball, too," Sladkowski says. Two more fouls and two balls for Tulo. Strike three. The inning is over. "We'll be drunk by the rate this game is going already," Sladkowski says.
Drinking looms large on The Dream is Over – or, rather, the danger of it. A hammered driver does 180 through Toronto on the album's shredding first single, DVP and there's a drunk-driving death by the closing slow-burner Pine Point. It's a dark record. Like all good punk music, though, there's joy in it.
"In that adversity, and in that struggle and anger, can you find that cathartic experience?" Sladkowski asks and Curt Casali hits a double. After a sacrifice fly from Kevin Kiermaier and a Tim Beckham homer, the Rays are up 5-0. It's only the top of the second inning. "Like Jose Bautista, can he take a punch in the jaw like yesterday? Or Stefan's vocal cords – these things make you appreciate what you have and how hard you have to work to keep it."
Just days after the band recorded the new album last October – during which they took a break to watch the historic bat-flipping American League Division Series Game 5 in the studio – the band hit the road, opening for a Philadelphia band called, aptly, Modern Baseball. Pup front man Stefan Babcock's throat was irritated after recording his vocal parts and, as they toured through Baltimore, he stopped to see a world-renown specialist at Johns Hopkins. There, he found out that a cyst on his vocal cords was beginning to hemorrhage. The doctor suggested a career change with words the band have since immortalized: "The dream is over."
Pup eventually dropped off that tour to give Babcock's voice a rest; rather than give up on the dream, though, he started to treat his throat better. The band has started taking touring a little easier. "A starting pitcher goes every five days," Sladkowski points out.
The guitarist is – obviously – a huge Toronto sports fan, repping Jays and Raptors gear on almost every tour. When he was a kid, his dad would take him to Jays games, showing up early to catch batting practice, developing rituals. Sladkowski insists on getting a hot dog before games, always from the same vendor at Gate 14.
He briefly lived outside Toronto, studying jazz guitar at the University of Guelph. It was a largely self-directed experience, he says and as he studied the work of John Zorn and Bill Frisell, he realized that he might not be a great jazz musician. But he learned how to complement a band.
"If you listen to the mid-period music of John Coltrane, you hear McCoy Tyner," Sladkowski says. "He was a great accompanist. He wasn't flashy, he wasn't over the top. He was always aware of what everyone in the band was doing. Learning from those sorts of guys – how to accompany singers, how to work and play around them – that has been a great thing about jazz."
Upon returning to Toronto, he joined a pair of high school pals – drummer Zack Mykula and bassist Nestor Chumak – and their new friend, Babcock, to form the indie-ish, folk-rock-ish band Topanga. Two things happened: Disney relaunched Boy Meets World as Girl Meets World, from which the band's name was taken, forcing a moniker change; and they rediscovered their punk roots. The band's self-title debut as Pup was a turbulent mess of tight pop-influenced punk, earning them love from punks the world over. Now, they're about to follow Pup up.
"I feel like the Jays are in sophomore-record syndrome right now," Sladkowski says at the top of the third inning. "Last year, the first record came out and everyone loved it, and it was really awesome. And now everyone has really high expectations – what's on the field is not up to what's being expected," he says. "There goes another home run." It's Casali, putting the Rays up 9-0 over the Jays. The game goes downhill from here.
We have a couple more tallboys each before the game ends with a whimper, 13-2 for Tampa. As we shuffle out, Sladkowski turns to me. "We were never worried about the sophomore slump," he says, "because nobody is harder on us than ourselves."