Interview: Steve Sladkowski on Building PUP's Expansive Punk Sound

There’s something to be said about bands that gain notoriety through extensive touring. Everyone loves a success story, but few realize what it takes to succeed, especially when it comes to the music industry. Cue in Toronto-based PUP. With more than 200 shows per year—more than 600 since the band's founding—PUP is making a name for themselves the hard way, by hitting the pavement.

Steve Sladkowski, the group's lead guitarist, is a player with many voices. Sometimes he'll place a searing lead on top of the band's backing changes. At other times the band seems to chase his frenetic, fuzzed-out runs. And in many moments, he faithfully serves the song at hand with crystal-clear chords or subtle atmospherics. That Sladkowski is a longtime student of the instrument, with influences ranging from punk icon Tom Verlaine to flatpicker extraordinaire Tony Rice should come as no surprise.

Sladkowski was kind enough to chat with Reverb in-between tours to talk about his varied influences, PUP's work ethic, and, of course, his favorite gear.

Who were your inspirations growing up?

I think the first person that I ever heard who made me want to play the guitar was Eric Clapton. I really love that solo on “Badge,” the Cream tune that he co-wrote with George Harrison. Then, kind of as I was getting into high school, I got pretty deep into Robert Johnson and then kind of through there to Jimmy Page.

Cream - "Badge"

But I think a big one for me was actually discovering Doc Watson, the kind of country bluegrass player. From him I kind of found out about Tony Rice and Mississippi John Hurt, a lot of those virtuosic acoustic guitar players. Because that really kind of made me focus on my right hand a lot and just getting that sort of clarity.

At the same time I was kind of getting into more and more contemporary rock music, so people like Nels Cline from Wilco—he is probably one of the most important guitar players that I’ve ever seen live. I was also a huge Trey Anastasio fan growing up. I’m very, very proud to admit that. I’m not ashamed of liking Phish.

Do you feel those influences translate into your work with PUP?

Yes—take someone like Tom Verlaine from the band Television. I really identify with a lot of that music that came out of New York City in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when CBGB was a real big deal. Because a lot of that stuff, as much as it is kind of punk music, to just call it punk music is kind of doing it a disservice, because it’s broader. One of the things for me I think is really interesting is to take all of that information and distill it in our songs.

In the band, we do kind of get to use a lot of odd time signatures, and we’ll take those risks—we’re not interested in being safe. I think that sort of allows me to kind of expand that part of my identity as a guitar player and use all those influences. It kind of works in the band.

In PUP songs, a lot of times the rhythm is so distinct that it could easily work alone but then your leads take it to another level. They kind of tell a story on their own right, within the song. What is that writing process like?

We don’t have a perfectly set way that we write each song all the time. Sometimes a song will come in very fully formed, and there will be a vocal melody and a set of chord changes and kind of a basic structure, and it’s sort of a matter of just filling things in. Other times it will be a little different. You’ll have a riff or just sort of a couple of sections of a song where you kind of then take apart and put back together.

Often one of the things that I’ll try to do is—it’s actually stolen straight from George Harrison and the Beatles. I remember reading that one of the skills that George Harrison had and why he was endeared to the band was because he could really, really quickly learn the chord changes and learn about a song. And his parts would grow out of the foundation of that.

PUP (All Photos by Vanessa Heins)

Sometimes it will be a matter of going home. And I always, always, always have a Boss Loop Station, an RC-30, going in my apartment. Often, if I’m feeling like anything I’ve been improvising and working on in real time in the jam space isn’t fleshed out enough, I’ll come home and I’ll isolate that part and loop it over and over and improvise over it until I kind of get an idea, you know?

Sometimes what I’ll try to do is take the melody that Stefan is singing if I’m trying to write a supportive part, like in a verse, and I’ll play that on the guitar, and I’ll write another guitar melody around it. So basically what’s going on is counterpoint.

So the vocal melody will sit on top and I’ll either try to write something in a lower register that maybe is a little bit more active or, if I’m in a higher register, so as not to distract too much, it can be more of an extended, portal rhythmic thing.

Once you’re happy with the lead melody that you created, how do you take it to where you want it sonically? Is it something that you’re imagining as you write it or do you take it back into the jam room and see what kind of effects go on top of it?

It’s a little bit of both. I generally try to write with maybe a little bit of overdrive—and that’s sort of it. But that’s more just for clarity's sake. So from there it’s just an idea of, okay, this is a delay—I’ll often use delay in more of a ‘70s sense, where it acts as more of a slapback. It’s like kind of a cross between a delay and a reverb rather than one or the other. And then, you know, whether or not it’s fuzz.

I keep cycling back trying to find ways to make the guitar not sound like the guitar using an [Electro-Harmonix] POG, or I really like the Electro-Harmonix Pitch Fork a lot for that sort of thing. And just different pickup selectors to bring out different tonal qualities depending on the melody and the attack.

Your tone has a lot of personality. I’ve seen footage of you guys playing, and it seems like you have a Tele with some interesting mods. Can you run me by what your setup is?

So that Tele I’ve recently retired, just because it’s pretty sentimental to me and I don’t want to take it on the road. But yeah, that is still the guitar I’ve done all our recording with and probably will continue to do all our recording with. It’s a 2007 Fender American Deluxe Ash Telecaster. So it was a stock model from the custom shop. It’s a vintage cherry sunburst, which is I think the first year—it had been a new color that year.

It came stocked with the Samarium Cobalt Noiseless pickups and medium jumbo frets. I swapped out the bridge [pickup] for just like a small—I can’t even remember the name of the maker, but it’s a German maker—they do hand-wired pickups for Fender-style guitars. It’s meant to emulate a ‘50s Broadcaster.

So it’s a little bit louder, a little bit punchier, and definitely a little more microphonic, which I really, really love, just in terms of how it creates feedback and it’s a little bit unpredictable. I always like to have an element of chaos.

So what’s your main one now?

The main one now I was really, really lucky to receive from Fender. It’s their new American Elite series. It’s a Thinline Telecaster from the American Elite series, which I was told they used to replace the American Deluxe.

I love it. It’s the lightest guitar I’ve ever played and a Thinline Tele sort of speaks a lot to earlier when we were talking about my varied influences of rock, folk, country, and jazz. And then I’m running that through a Tyrant cab and a Dr. Z head.

Then I use an Ernie Ball volume pedal tuner. For guitar strings I play Ernie Ball Cobalt 12 to 56. We detune on recording a half-step, and we detune a full-step live. 12s are good for that. I think also the old jazz and acoustic guitar player in me has always kind of preferred thicker strings. I played flatwound for a long time when I was in school. I think also part of it is just like, Hey, if Stevie Ray Vaughan could do it, so can I.

What’s on your board?

On my pedalboard I use a Boss tuner. I use a Union Tsar Bomba Fuzz pedal. It’s from a place in Vancouver, British Columbia, called Union Tube & Transistor. It’s essentially a Sovtek Big Muff, but there’s a greater decibel input and output than an original Big Muff, so it’s a little bit louder and it kicks a little bit cleaner. You can kind of control both the input and output volume. It’s a really, really nice blend of modern and traditional, which is cool.

I use an Electro-Harmonix Pitch Fork Polyphonic Pitch Shifter and a Klon KTR for overdrive. I use a Malekko 616 MKII Analog Delay, and then I use an Electro-Harmonix Freeze Sound Retainer, which is the single attack, infinite sustain. I’ll often use that for song loops or feedback or just sort of to sit on a chord to create tension. That’s often used in the live show as a way of transitioning between songs or maintaining some sort of ambient sound.

When you're out on tour for the majority of the year, how do you find the time to write and record?

We’re workaholics. We all live kind of within walking distance of our jam space. So it’s pretty easy for us to just go, Hey, let’s go and hang out. And it was never like we felt any external pressure. The only real pressure is what we put on ourselves to kind of not repeat ourselves, to create something that we feel is both true to the band but also a step forward.

We’re one of those bands where because there’s not just a single songwriter—Stefan and Nestor will contribute things, I’ll contribute things, Zack, our drummer, will make arrangements and come up with ideas that we can execute—we tend to work a little bit slower because of that.

At this point, we are almost writing a new record. We’re going to be in the jam space four days a week, and we have a demo recording session in Pro Tools open basically the whole time.

So just so this doesn’t fall between the cracks, you guys are currently writing new material? Is this something that you hope to release next year?

We don’t know exactly what the recording and release plan is, just because it still is in just a writing and demoing phase, but yeah, as I say, we’re the kind of band that doesn’t ever really stop working. Whether that’s just at home or on the road. That, to me, is kind of the only way for a band like ours to be able to do this full-time the way that we do.

Do you guys not have to hold jobs when you get home?

Yeah, no, not really. We’re very, very lucky. We don’t have a lot of money by any stretch of the imagination, but enough to pay the bills and have some food and beer in the fridge.

You’re booked all the way through February with U.S. shows, and then you’re going to Europe. As you guys are demoing new material and hitting the road, what are you and the rest of the band looking forward to the most?

We always love to play in places that we’ve never played before. We have a couple of gigs coming up. We’re playing our first ever gig in the state of Kansas, in Lawrence, in a couple of weeks, which is cool. We’re really, really excited to go to Spain for the first time at the end of that European leg, including a gig on the Canary Islands, which is going to be really wild. We’re going to Budapest for the first time, so that will be cool too, and our first Austrian gig.

I don’t know man, it’s fun to be on the road, and it’s fun to be writing new music. That’s sort of where we’re at right now. To be kind of able to do both in a full-time capacity and really get to treat this whole thing as our whole lives, we’re very, very lucky and so grateful for the opportunity and just trying to make the most of it.

PUP (All Photos by Vanessa Heins)
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