ONLY NOISE: How PUP – and Punk Rock – Changed My Relationship with Physical Intimacy

PUP photo by Vanessa Heins.

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Sophia Vaccaro finds empowerment and personal autonomy in the mosh pit, with PUP providing the punk rock release. The mosh pit at a PUP show helped Sophia Vaccaro see the punk tradition as an exchange of energy rather than a violation of space.

“The mosh pit never lies,” Norah reminds herself in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. It took me a room full of friendly punk kids and almost ten years to understand what she meant.

I was not a wild teen. I was not even a wild college kid. Nick and Norah’s world of all-nighters, secret shows, and closet makeouts was as astronomically foreign to me as it was eminently desirable. I wanted to traipse through the post-midnight music crowd mooning over someone while not realizing how absolutely fucking cool I was being, too! But why was it so fucking hard?

It was the pit; moshing was asking too much of me. I spent a long time — too long — hyper-aware of the bodies of men in my space. I can’t stand a casual touch from a man I do not know. It feels like a physical weight, like leeches peppering soft marks on my skin to remind me: you did not want this hug. You did not want this hand on your shoulder. You didn’t want. You didn’t want. Everything was always about what I didn’t want, and it was exhausting.

So how could someone, uncomfortable even with the physical feeling that comes from an uninvited look, willingly throw herself into a horde of sweaty, aggressive punksters? Enter PUP the band — and my friend’s pink backpack.

I love PUP. Formed in Toronto in 2010, PUP consists of bassist Nestor Chumak, vocalist Stefan Babcock, drummer Zack Mykula, and guitarist Steve Sladkowski. Since their first self-titled LP, they have been steadily evolving as musicians and lyricists. But it’s not only the music that’s fucking good; they also seem to be four actual friends who are doing their best to deal with mental health, growing up, and the complexities of the occasionally vagrant musician life. They are more than aware of the community that has grown around them; in anticipation of their third full-length album, Morbid Stuff, which was released last Friday, they asked fans to cover the second single, “Free at Last,” with only the chords and lyrics available. The result was a funny, light-hearted music video compiling these clips that was not only surprising in its musical diversity, but also surprisingly tender and utterly appreciative — of both fans and band alike.

Release is paramount to every PUP song, as it is paramount to punk. Every song is an expungement of all the bad things you were thinking and feeling and have convinced yourself you were floating on top of which you were in fact slowly sinking under. There are many things about this that could be considered unsettlingly hypermasculine and phallic, especially when experienced live — the half-swallowing of the mic, the aggressive guitars, the plain and simple anger of it all. But I believe that this idea of release in punk is fundamentally about the body. Movement in connection with music is a way to take your love for the sound, unwind it from the ball inside your chest, and let it out. PUP showed me how that ball could have somewhere to go.

They were doing a show in Oakland as part of their headline tour for their second LP, 2016’s The Dream Is Over. I wanted to go. I needed to go. They were all I had been listening to for weeks straight at the time. But the part of me that stands between myself and the world, pickax in hand, had some considering to do. What would the crowd be like? What would the vibe be like? And, most importantly: would there be somewhere for me to hide?

The music won, because the music always does.

I bought my tickets, employing my friend Maranda as my chaperone. We Ubered to Starline Social Club, and as we waited outside the entry steps on that cool September night, I prepared to face the masses — and the men — from the fringes of the audience.

Only that is not what happened.

Not even halfway through the show, I was sandwiched between two huge guys, watching them good-naturedly shove anyone spinning out of the mosh pit back into its boisterous center. I watched, and I learned. As I screamed along to “Doubts” and “Guilt Trip,” I let my body relax into flow of the others around me. I began to see them not as violations of my space, but rather as an extension of myself and how the music made me feel. The last piece of the puzzle was watching Maranda, a modern dancer who is in incredible control of her body, throw herself with single-minded joy into the center of the pit, her mini pink backpack the only part of her I could see as she tossed and was tossed.

That’s the key, I realized. The mosh pit is not a stripping of power for the benefit of the biggest and strongest — it is an exchange. It is a release that gets passed from body to body, and if it is too much for one person to take, there are people waiting to pick you up, even you out, and send you back in. I didn’t go into the center of the pit that night, but I felt something loosen inside me. Those ragged and dirty knots of distrust had been tied by fear, but the music and mayhem of punk rock — and PUP — had started to pick them free.

As I said: I was not a wild teen. In fact, I would say the peak of my Big Messy Adolescence is currently happening right now, after a year full of last-minute moves, big betrayals, old friends lost and older friends renewed. So to make it through 24, to do things I had waited long too do, I needed to find a place where physical intimacy with people I did not know was not a cue to panic; I needed to have space inside me for things that were not fear.

Today, I turn 25, and Morbid Stuff arrives just in time to help me reckon with the good and the bad of those experiences. Besides mental health and yes, morbidity, the new LP is more than anything a painful dive into the hell of caring about people who couldn’t be more indifferent towards you. It is a testament to the self-inflicted, full-body bruise of obsession that blooms as you grasp for information and explanation, while those people think about anything else but you. The city of Toronto acts as both peer and antagonist, veering from rapscallion comrade-in-arms in “Morbid Stuff” to looming oppressor on “City.” The fact that it remains unnamed on the latter parallels the theatrical storytelling of 2016’s “Pine Point” and “The Coast” and this album’s “Scorpion Hill.” As Babcock croons “don’t wanna love you anymore” on “City” it’s not clear who this is in reference to — a partner or the city itself.  It’s a pertinent reminder that, in your 20s, the familiar becomes frightening, and your life can seem a folktale rife with monsters that take the faces of the people you care about — or yourself. And while these bigger-scale moments still hit, it’s the smaller stuff — Babcock’s cold-sweat fear about the potential deaths of former partners; running into one of those previously mentioned indifferent people while in the midst of mundanity at the grocery store — that have me inching further and further into the pit.

The first time I heard “Closure” on the new LP I yelped “fuck!” loud enough for a bleached-tip pedestrian at Yerba Buena gardens to look at me in semi-alarm. This was justified, as it was semi-alarm that was ricocheting through my body — at how hard this song was hitting, already, thirty seconds in. At how excited I was, changing my socks on a granite pillar for the benefit of my not-yet-broken-in Doc Martens, to press out my sorrow into the pit and watch it be washed away and returned as something softer.

The second time I listed to Morbid Stuff, I found myself itching to move — it’s hard not to listen to PUP without wanting to thrash. I would have gotten up, walked straight out of my house and put on the blistering “See You at Your Funeral,” but it was pitch dark and 11pm, so I sat, bound to the steps above the kitchen heating grate.

I turned the music off. The first few listens of any beloved band’s new album are a sacred thing, and it wasn’t right.

But those initial run-throughs also illuminated to me how much my listening has changed. I can feel myself anticipating that release of movement, but I don’t imagine myself alone any longer.

That is why the music always wins. It will drag you closer and closer to the stage. It will make you want to feel the bodies of others moving around you, moving against you, pushing and pulling and jabbing and screaming, because not every touch has intent to take. In the mosh, which never lies, touch is trying, simply, to be.

I needed to be reminded that that I could do that.

When Push Comes to Shove: Etiquette in the Mosh Pit

The live music experience is a major part of music fandom, and anyone who attends concerts regularly can attest that there’s an unspoken sense in the air of how to behave and interact with one another at most shows. In venues of any size, hosting any band, of any genre, there is simple etiquette that one makes a contract to uphold as soon as they enter the venue’s doors. Sometimes though, for whatever reason, folks in the audience just don’t get the message, ignoring body language, personal space, and common decency, which can make for an unpleasant experience for everyone around. Here, we lay out the do’s and don’ts of show-going, explicitly stating that unspoken language once and for all.

Photo by Sarah Knoll

First, let’s go through some of the people you may encounter at shows. This does not go for all shows or all genres, but as a photographer and writer who covers live music often, I’ve become familiar with certain types of folks I often share space with. It’s important to identify these people so you know how to deal with them at your next show.

Photo by Sarah Knoll

Here With Friends

This person is typically just along for the ride, more than likely traveling in a pack and sticking with them through the entirety of the show. These people are generally harmless – just be on the lookout if they start to hype each other up a bit too much throughout the band’s set. But even that is better than a big clump of people only there to shmooze, who talk throughout the show about things unrelated to music – especially if the set is quiet. Though they may not talk to anybody else in the crowd, random conversations can be distracting; if it seems like this is going to be the case, seek refuge away from the group.

Die-Hard Fan

If the show is at a larger venue or is a really noted act, you might get those die-hard fans who will go early and wait in long lines to see their favorite band from a prime position. They will be at the front of the stage, screaming every lyric of every song, their unconditional love for whatever act they’re seeing undoubtedly noted by the freshly-purchased merchandise they’re wearing or some attempt to drop random facts about the act between songs. They may get wild, but it’s all for love of the music – generally you can count on this person to promote positive vibes in the folks around them, whether they’re alone or with a friend.

Wacky Flailing Arm Inflatable Tube Man

You will probably see this person in the middle of the venue, as they are often a part of the pit – maybe even the pit starter. Common at hardcore, punk, and even certain types of hip-hop shows, they flail their arms and legs all over the place to build a circle around them and are not to be reckoned or reasoned with. If they’re getting a pit started that you don’t want to be involved in, try and stay safe while giving them space to do their thing. It’s a little more awkward when someone’s just flailing for no apparent reason, but oftentimes these are the people who will be most offended when confronted, so subtle glaring or switching up your spot is all you can really do.

IPA Dude

Outside of shows, you’ll see this person at bars, at coffee shops, at Whole Foods, or walking across the street with their fixed-gear bike. They hold on to their beer like it’s their lifeline and probably won’t stray far from the bar of the venue so they’re able to order again quickly. If they’re not already friends with the bartender, they will be by night’s end, and will hopefully remain chill even if they have one or two too many. They might be very vocal with their opinions on beer, coffee, or even the music, but they can be cool to hang around with if you just want to enjoy your time by the bar, removed from the crowd.

Arms on Lockdown

Similar to IPA Dude, this person is very chill. Usually coming by themselves, they keep their arms and legs to themselves and inside of the ride at all times. They’re just there to enjoy the music, and not be bothered. Just like a bee, if you leave them alone, they’ll be harmless, but it’s likely they take things very seriously – seriously enough that if they’re standing next to Wacky Flailing Arm Inflatable Tube Man or a group of loud talkers there might be a showdown.

Surf’s Up!

We all know those who crowd surf. It is a sport and a gift to those who are comfortable enough to be lifted up by complete strangers and passed along sweaty palms to prove their love and joy of the band. Sometimes they barrel to the front to jump off the stage and into the crowd; other times, they’ll get bystanders to hoist them up and surf toward the stage. They may not appear so before the opening song, but those first few riffs transform them into a thrill-seeker. Once they’re up, it’s hard for them to control where they go or what they’re doing with their own limbs, so if you’re anywhere in their path, stay alert! Doc Martens to the forehead do not feel good.

The Photographer

As a photographer myself, I’ll say this: even though some of us are working, we are just fanatical as anyone else. We typically love the bands we shoot, we love the thrill of a live act, and we love to document that. We have to be near the stage to get good shots, and with that comes some risks. We dodge crowd surfers, flailing arm people, pit-pushers, and more, often with expensive equipment that we’d prefer not to break. A good photographer shouldn’t distract you from the main act – most will get in and get out once they’ve got what they need. If you’re near an amateur with an iPhone who sees a need to record video of every song in its entirety, that’s another story – politely remind them that they’re blocking your view when they do that and ask them to keep documenting the event to a minimum, and hope that they’ll oblige.

Push Pops

At some shows, there may the tamer cousin to the mosh pit – the push pit. The push pit mostly contains people jumping up and down and having a good time. It is a uniform mass and is easy to get in and out of. Those who decide to be a part of this mass are usually not aggressive, but have a gigantic love and appreciation for the band, and let that excitement show with high-energy movements. Joining in can be really fun, and it’s great cardio too!

Photo by Sarah Knoll

Needless to say, a crowd encompasses many types of people, and works almost like its own organism, reacting to the same stimuli. No matter what type describes your own show-going persona, there is some behavioral protocol that should be followed when attending a show. We all want to enjoy the experience, get our money’s worth, and leave happy. But one or two unpleasant folks can sour the mood for everyone, instead bringing negativity and sometimes even danger to the audience around them. Here are some best practices to be conscious of when you’re at a show.

Most importantly: R-E-S-P-E-C-T isn’t just a song by Aretha Franklin (RIP), it’s something that everyone in general life should exhibit, both spoken and silent. In the close quarters of a sold-out venue, this goes double, and the easiest way to tell if a given behavior is acceptable is to look around you. Observe the crowd – if no one’s dancing or moving around at all, it’s probably not an appropriate time to start up a pit and start pushing people around. Though it seems like common sense, unfortunately, some people are lacking of that.

Respect also comes in the form of respecting physical boundaries. Although sometimes show-goers are packed like sardines into a venue, it does not mean that someone should be touched without permission and personal space should always be 100% respected, as best you can. Even a tap on the shoulder can make someone feel uncomfortable, and shoving people aside to get a spot in front of the band is pretty rude. If someone’s in the pit it’s probably safe to say they’re open to the types of touching that come along with that, but – especially for people in the pit periphery who aren’t active participants, keep your hands to yourself.

Photo by Sarah Knoll

The pit can be an amazing experience to be a part of, but it’s also a complicated one. Unfortunately, the pit is heavily dependent on social cues, therefore communication can be misinterpreted. For the most part, even folks who appear aggressive want everyone to have a good time too, and there’s a good deal of helping people up when they fall or doing some protective pushing around smaller moshers.

If you do not want to participate in jumping around, possible pushing, fist-pumping or any of that action, it is recommended that you find a small space where you will not be affected by said pit. Standing along the wall or in corners is a great option as these provide pockets of space where the pit will more than likely not open up, yet you’re able to see the action both on stage and off. If someone keeps pushing you or trying to throw you into the pit from the sides, feel free to tell them to back off, but don’t act hostile about it since you don’t want to start beef with someone who can put you in harm’s way.  If you’re not dying to see the act up and close, going to the back of the venue can put you in the arms of safety. It allows you to be close to the exits and possibly the bar, so you don’t have to interact with the pit people at all.

Photo by Sarah Knoll

If you’re going into the pit, don’t do anything more aggressive than you’d want done to you. If you don’t want to get punched, don’t punch people. It’s as simple as that. It’s sad that this has to be said, but countless times, people have been more aggressive than they need to be. If you’re in a pit and other people are knocking into each other and pushing around, cool. But if people are starting to grab one another by their shirts, push people down to the ground or grab anyone to the point where that person is out of control, don’t hesitate to notify someone. A lot of shows at bigger venues have competent security. Some bands have even been known to call out bad behavior they see in the audience. But whether it’s happening to you or someone nearby, don’t just do nothing. The more aware that people are about a potentially violent or offensive person, the safer that environment can be.

Photo by Sarah Knoll

Be observant of the venue around you, too. Be aware that the space needed for a pit can push other people into uncomfortable nooks and crannies. Assess your space before you decide to flail your arms everywhere or bring the pit further into the back or sides of the venue. Sometimes it’s appropriate and other times it’s not.

The pit can be a unique and fun experience if people can observe behavior and assess before they act. It takes at most five seconds to turn around and look at the people to your left and right and anticipate their next move. You’d do the same if you’re about to turn a corner on a street, so bring those same principles to a show.

Be a Conscious Observer. 

Safety should always be your main concern, even if that doesn’t seem “cool.” Observe and assess your surroundings; with violent events at concerts on the rise, it’s important to know where to go in case of emergency. Also, don’t be afraid to say hello to whoever is nearby you, and make sure they are aware of your presence. Whether offering a simple wave or friendly eye contact, noting your neighbors may help you in the long run if something were to happen, and even if nothing does, you might make a new friend.

It’s also important to note other people’s behaviors. Pit or no pit, some people may act in an unruly or uncomfortable way that can not only effect yourself, but other people in the crowd. Don’t be afraid to speak up if someone is making you or another person uncomfortable. Talk to the bartender, security, someone next to you, the box office attendant, even the band. Try to prevent a person from doing something potentially threatening and dangerous without direct conflict.

Photo by Sarah Knoll

Don’t Be An Asshole.

Pit ettiquette boils down to that one simple phrase. If you wouldn’t want it done to yourself, don’t do it. It’s very easy to be nice, but’s also easy to cross that line when you’re in the midst of your favorite song.

Courtesy extends to the bands providing the music; unless they have asked for requests, don’t heckle them with suggestions for their set list. Bands put time and thought into crafting their set list and try to get a good range of music played to make their audience happy. Sorry if that one obscure song from their very first album wasn’t played – ask yourself if you really wanted to hear it, or if you’re just posturing for those around you so that they know what a longtime fan you’ve been (FYI: no one cares, and true fans come to hear what the band is interested in playing). At the end of the day, though the band is hopefully grateful to have an audience to play for, it’s also an opportunity to play what they’re excited to play, and recycling the same old tunes can get boring on a long tour. Just because you paid money to see them perform does not give you the right to dictate how and what they should play.

Here’s an important one, if you are tall. Please. Let. Short. People. FORWARD. If you’re plagued with the short gene like I am (I’m 5’1”) then it can become difficult to see the band through a sliver of space between two people who are much taller than you, and no one wants to stare at someone’s shoulders and neck all night.

Photo by Sarah Knoll

Bottom line: show-goers want to get the most out of the shows that they go to, and the bands that play want to see their audience have fun. If “fun” entails pushing people around in a mosh pit all night for some, and standing by the bar with arms crossed for others, remember: there’s room for all types of fandom, but all are governed by a golden rule. It’s easy to be nice, so why not do it? You’re there for the music, sure – but also for the experience of being in the midst of a living, breathing crowd, so taking it all in and putting out positivity in turn is the best way to make sure everyone has a blast.