The Universal Sign for Choking

Profile: The Universal Sign for Choking

Much music gets born through heartache and sorrow. For the artist, this sadness often finds peace through their individual craft, something singer, songwriter and guitarist Jeff Pupa currently works through.

Pupa, 33, co-founded Vows, a five-piece band from New Jersey he sang, played guitar and wrote for from 2012 to 2017 that released several EPs and three full length albums. (Vows were one of the first profiles featured on Drew’s Reviews.) Today, Vows have disbanded and Pupa, now living in Vermont, continues on as a solo artist working as The Universal Sign for Choking and on Aug. 17 releases an 8-song, 51 minute eponymous album he spent nearly nine months on that addresses themes of loss, love and memory.


Pupa released the first single off the album “House of Ants” last month and indeed it sounds much like 80s era goth featuring elements of The Cure and Depeche Mode with heavy use of synths and long straining melodies that cry. The rest of the album follows in the same vein with day-dreamy synths, ruminating guitars and haunting melodies. Don’t expect a fun time, certainly Pupa has not of late and his new music reflects the inner darkness he’s trying to bring light to.

I spoke with Pupa about Vows, his new solo project, The Universal Sign for Choking, and what’s next.

Jeff Pupa album art for Universal Sign for Choking

Founder: Jeff Pupa

Year Founded: 2018

Hometown: Burlington, VT

Lineup: Jeff Pupa, guitars, vocals, synths, percussion

Influences: Behemoth, Lingua Ignota, Sumac, Chelsea Wolfe

Favorite Song off Album: “Valhalla” because it’s about my dog Ica and when I decided to have her euthanized

Discography: The Universal Sign for Choking (2018)

Track Listing:

  1. Valhalla
  2. House of Ants
  3. Stress
  4. Gray
  5. Pure Bliss
  6. I Have Come to Know Pain
  7. Next Ride
  8. Sugar High


Jeff Pupa of The Universal Sign for Choking
  1. Vows broke up last year but not because of internal fighting or artistic differences. What happened?

 I was actually living up in Vermont at the time, and we were still really working hard writing and rehearsing. I would commute back to NJ on weekends and we would have these marathon rehearsals at Jim’s (Vows co-founder James Hencken). We had released our last full-length, Soon Enough Love on vinyl through Section Sign Records in Burlington, VT, had a new amazing line-up that sounded incredible live.

But trying to keep up with the shows and travel became a major burden for myself personally, in the realm of all five of us trying to pursue working careers. I think we all realized that Vows became something that we couldn’t really pursue as a live musical endeavor anymore. I had been going through some personal issues at the time, following the loss of a close friend, Ryan, and I was really struggling with the idea of trying to keep momentum behind the project. It kind of was just a silent goodbye to the whole thing, even after we had released probably our most notable album into the world.

  1. Unfortunately, you also lost someone else and an integral part of Vows.

Yes, we did lose Sabeel to suicide. (Sabeel Azam – guitar and vocals for Vows) It was a surprise to all of us, and something that I think we will be reeling with forever.  Couldn’t have been closer to someone but also so far away, if that makes sense.  I feel a lot of guilt, and I feel a lot of anger, which may or may not be justified, but it’s all just drowned in sadness.  I think about him every day.  And Ryan.  And how the two of them were also close.  It’s just hard.

Sabeel has always been a brother to me, and all of us.  We all grew up in the same town and have been close since we were younger, all went to school together.  He and I would talk on the phone for hours about music, and usually spend a whole other hour on the phone, literally, each just playing guitar and not speaking at all, just listening to each other play.

But in this case, it’s even more challenging because we lost someone who we communicated with so deeply through music.  Each rehearsal or moment we played together was this deep non-verbal conversation where I feel like we literally could see into each others’ hearts.  And he was one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever had the privilege of experiencing so deeply.  I’m probably doing injustice describing how much Sabs meant to me, or it just never sounds right when I talk about it.  I have so many questions and confusion still looming, but that’s something I have to learn to live with.

  1. Did Vows break-up out of respect for Sabeel or was his death just too much for you guys to continue?

Vows had been sort of officially declared finished prior to Sabeel’s death. But certainly at this point, because of his integral part as being the mainstay member alongside Jim and I, there’s really no way we could continue the project. He passed probably a year or more after the project had stopped.

  1. Personally, you didn’t just lose Sabeel. You had already lost a friend, Ryan, who you mentioned then two faithful furry ones.

That is unfortunately correct. I lost one of my best friends, Ryan, to suicide in August of 2016. The following year, we lost Sabs, and within about a six-month period after that my wife and I lost our two pit-bulls, Evander, and Ica.

Jeff Pupa founder of The Universal Sign for Choking
  1. So, just a rough go all-around.

Certainly. I think difficult or crushing as a description is an understatement. Just an incredible amount of personal loss in such a short span of about two years can really destroy you. Or at least bring out a whole depth of emotions that some people in life may never face or come in contact with. Before you can get back on your feet from the first blow, another comes. Then another, and another. It just became this really f–ked up cycle of horrible feelings that I really had to try to figure out what to do with to be able to even face a normal day of life. And certainly, it affected so many people who knew Sabeel and Ryan more so than me, like their families, but I can only speak from my personal emotions.

  1. How cathartic has the process been? You doing OK?

Every day becomes a little easier. I think by far this is the most I’ve struggled with writing something musically, emotionally, etc. It certainly was cathartic, and definitely served as some sort of exorcism for me. There was a lot of anger and overwhelming sadness, and just a general darkness to the process. A lot of self-medicating, and I honestly wanted to scrap the whole thing multiple times.

With Vows, I was co-writing for years, and using some of the most talented musicians I’ve ever played with as a sounding board. But with this album, it was literally just like being in this totally dark hallway, by yourself, filled to the brim with a gamut of emotion in your body, trying to rip it out to put into some sort of context.

  1. You’re on your own now with a brand new self-titled record The Universal Sign for Choking. Tell us about the album. I assume the listener won’t come away with a skip in their step.

In general, it’s a pretty moody and brooding album, but I really wanted to portray that. All the guitars are in drop D tuning, and I really tried to focus on having the synth sounds be really sort of new wave, ethereal, sweeping saws pads. The majority of it was recorded at night, because of my work schedule, and so I think that affected things too. But no, I wouldn’t say its the most uplifting thing you could listen to, but I really hope people see beauty in it too, because beauty isn’t always happy or uplifting.

Jeff Pupa in home studio
  1. Was the new album born from the flood of emotions or did you make the record as a way to process your emotions?

A lot of the album is just about trying to figure out my own thoughts about everything that happened so quickly. I have always turned to music as therapy for myself personally, and honestly I don’t think I’d be around if I didn’t have that to translate my emotions. So yes, I think just with so many crushing events that took place in such a short period, I wanted to make music to process it all.

It can be hard to relate to people or in social atmospheres when you’re in a lot of pain, or when someone knows if you’ve been through something traumatic. So talking things out, while it’s beneficial and should be done, can only really happen when you’re ready to do that. I think I was just in this state of feeling numb, and still am to a functional degree now, but because of that I turned back to music and writing to find a way to process a lot of grief.

  1. Do you want the listener to feel your pain or do you want the listener going through rough times of their own to know they are not alone and perhaps find solace while listening?

I think pain is something that is so personal to people, there’s so many spectrums of it. In general, in the very f–ked up world that we live in, I think there’s a giant void of empathy or sympathy for others. I don’t think the album was a call to listeners to acknowledge my personal issues, but more of a recognition that pain and sadness exist to everyone on different levels, and it should be recognized when it is. It’s an emotion, and if you’re feeling it, it’s real, and it’s OK. Embrace it. But I did also want to create an audio landscape of solace for a listener to relate to it, and realize that they are not alone in feeling some really crippling thoughts. And I wish that anyone can find some hope in that.

  1. It’s a great album title and of course the “band” name. I’m guessing there’s much meaning behind it.

Thanks! I knew I really wanted to make something new, and for months had been in a spot of just trying to figure out what type of sound that would be. With Vows being finished, I had been toying around with revisiting some of my other monikers like Jon Dice (which is more upbeat electronic), or Bone Blanket (which is more raw, acoustic folk), but nothing seemed to be able to house what I had been working on, which ultimately became The Universal Sign For Choking.

My musical influences are always changing, but I had been listening to a lot of Black Metal, more sludgy stuff, just heavy and powerful music. Behemoth, Lingua Ignota, Sumac, Chelsea Wolfe, things like that. I kind of wanted to draw on that aesthetic of something that kind of left you feeling breathless and a little exhausted at the end of it. So the project title seemed really fitting, under the circumstances.

Jeff Pupa in home studio as The Universal Sign for Choking
  1. Did you take the same DIY approach as you did with Vows? Writing, recording, producing – all you?

I did take that same approach with the recording process, yes. I had updated some of my gear through the years, and switched to a new recording platform, but still embraced some of the DIY approach of recording, using some found sound, embracing nuances. My studio atmosphere changed as well when my wife and I moved back to NJ from Vermont, so I had more space and comfort to play around in.

But with this album, I really wanted the mixing to have more professionalism. It was the first time I had the mixing done by someone else, so for me that was a big leap, but I’m beyond happy with how it came out.

  1. Last time we talked you were juggling a day job while keeping Vows afloat. Are you still working to pay the bills or have you found some financial success to work as a musician?

Unfortunately, yes, I feel that I will permanently be attached to some sort of grindstone in this country we call America, but my work situation has changed much more for the better, so I can’t complain. It’s no secret that its challenging to have music be the thing that pays your bills. Definitely something I’d love to achieve some day for sure. Money unfortunately is just a fact of life, but the real happiness for me just comes from the creative process more than anything. I’m lucky to be able to do that, whenever I want, without any sort of pressure or stigma attached to being a well-known artist that sort of creates a mold for him or herself. I take it very seriously though, so the only pressures there are the ones I put on myself.

  1. Where do you go from here? Are you touring? Do you play Vows music or is this a complete fresh start?

Ideally, I’d love to just get this album out into the world and just see what happens, who it connects with. Currently not touring with it, and this will definitely serve as a fresh start to something new musically for me. I would love to flesh it out into a live act, and I’d love to see a band or musical act come to fruition, but really the first step is putting it out in the universe to see a response, if any. As far as Vows goes, I hold it so close to my heart, even more so now that Sabeel is gone. I don’t see it continuing live, however, at least for the foreseeable future.

Find The Universal Sign for Choking on iTunes, CDbaby, Amazon as well as streaming services like Spotify and Pandora.