Damian Abraham of Fucked Up
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Toronto band Fucked Up has been raising Cain in the underground since it formed in 2001, but with its latest album, The Chemistry Of Common Life, the progressive hardcore powerhouse is becoming a household name—even though the name itself is unutterable in some households. Situationism, anarchy, property destruction, and general provocation have been Fucked Up's M.O. over the years, complemented and complicated by a slew of obscure 7-inches (at least 26 of them) adorned with mystic sigils, jumbled text, and the occasional photo of a Hitler Youth Rally. The group's 2006 full-length debut, Hidden World, offered glimpses of a formidable musical prowess, but the medium didn't overtake the message until this year. Chemistry, released in October and ranked number two in The A.V. Club's year-end album list, might be the greatest hardcore record since Refused's The Shape Of Punk To Come. A true feat of mood, musicality, and intricate arrangement (call it Pro Tools prog-punk), Chemistry proves that Fucked Up has mastered high intensity at both ends of the spectrum. And yet in person, it's hard to imagine 29-year-old lead bellower Damian "Pink Eyes" Abraham even raising his voice. If people can be Minnesota-nice, then he's Canada-polite, married with pugs and as quick to reference Pink Floyd's influence on his band as Poison Idea's. His role within Fucked Up tends to be a bit hairier.
The A.V. Club: Chemistry reportedly has 70-plus tracks per song, yet it remains remarkably coherent. Was it a full-band effort to keep these songs from becoming unwieldy?
Damian Abraham: With the previous record, we were rushed. It was our first time being on a label [Jade Tree] that had rules about the way you release an album—you know, they need six months lead-time before they put it out, and they won't release between November and January. By the time we actually sat down to record, we only had two weeks. There was no time for self-editing. With Chemistry, even though there's a lot going on, we were able to say "This doesn't fit," or "This song's not going anywhere, let's trim it down." The last record was about 20 minutes too long.
AVC: This album actually makes good on the promise of The Shape Of Punk To Come by innovating, as opposed to just imitating. Do you feel a kinship with the Refused classic?
DA: Absolutely. When that record came out, it was a watershed moment. Every band that was even remotely hardcore-ish changed its approach, like, "We're gonna be this band from now on. We're gonna start dressing better, and we're gonna put more weird stuff in our music." In Toronto, it was as if people discovered fire or the wheel. That record was amazing, but some of the things it spawned Like Crazy Town covering "New Noise"—you're definitely better off having never heard that. But even people who don't like that record have to acknowledge it's not just a collection of songs that could have been on singles. Everyone in Fucked Up owns a copy of Shape, and when we sat down to make an LP, we wanted it to be an experience start to finish.
AVC: A solid album is a rare beast, whereas an EP can easily show a good band at its conceptual best.
DA: Exactly. We'd put out only singles for so long. An LP needed to be its own thing. I can name, like, 30,000 great punk singles, but as far as classic LPs? A couple dozen, maybe.
AVC: Fucked Up seems to share a few of Refused's ideological interests—Situationism and anarchy. How would you define your band's political ethos?
DA: Well, we're all left-leaning, but we definitely didn't come together out of any sort of ideological kinship. During the last American election, certain people in the band went to a Ralph Nader benefit, while others of us thought that was really tacky. We all have different views. Of course, that's not to say anyone in the band is racist, or believes we should do away with our socialized medicine here in Canada.
AVC: So it's essentially anarchy within the band as well?
DA: Whatever our ethos is comes from the fact that we are six very different people with very different personalities who don't get along on any issue. Well, we all like sushi; I think that's the only thing we can agree on. Oh, and we're all happy when we get to stay at a hotel on tour. But even in that, we find ways to argue. Like some people are vegans and won't eat fish sushi, while others don't like the vegetarian stuff. Even the way the band sounds comes from the fact that we don't get along. When we recorded Chemistry, I remember there was one day when we all went into the studio because we all wanted to eat Ethiopian food, and that was the only time the entire band was there at the same time. Often it would be just one of us at a time—two or three at most. It was a mosaic approach to recording.
AVC: Some great records have been made that way. TV On The Radio's Return To Cookie Mountain, for one. And not to harp on Refused, but its members hated each other.
DA: I think for a lot of bands, when they stop being friends, things start to get interesting. Look at Gauze from Japan. They've been together 20-odd years now, and they know nothing about each other. Their entire approach is getting together once a week for a five-hour practice, avoiding anything personal, and they make some of the most intense music in the world. I think that's the trick: stop letting friendship and camaraderie get in the way of music.
AVC: But isn't it hard to make a record that way? You've said that you'd need a producer for the next record to act as an argument-settler.
DA: Well, we certainly worked better when we weren't together. You tend to eat your own in those situations, in the studio. You're under the gun in terms of time, and trying to work out so many little things, down to what to order for dinner. But when you're alone, you get your own time with the music, away from the pressure. We do want a producer for the next record, though, now that we have three guitarists. Ben [Cook] coming in has prolonged our lifespan by injecting another point of view into everything, but we'll need an outside influence to help sort it all.
AVC: Has the band's fate come into question often over the years?
DA: Absolutely. I've quit the band—like seriously quit—three or four times. Like, "Fuck you. I'm out of this. It's over," constantly. The only thing holding this band together is Well, it's certainly not friendship. It's just being in a band.
AVC: What was your last reason for leaving?
DA: [Laughs.] This will make me look like a fool, but I'll tell you. We were leaving England to do a West Coast tour, and certain members of the band had been up all night partying. Other members, like myself, had wanted to go home and sleep. So we got up the next day and went to Heathrow Airport. Tensions were a little high, nerves were a little frayed, and when Sandy [Miranda] threw a roll of tape at Ben, my head got in the way. I might have overreacted. I yelled at Sandy, kind of freaking out, at which point she went into a violent rage and hit me. And then I swear I said, "If you do that again, I'm going to smash you." But people in the band now claim I said, "If you do that again, I'm going to kill you." Josh [Zucker] tried to restrain me, and I thought he was attacking me, so I smashed him against the van and judo-flipped him. But because we were on the departure level of Heathrow, three stories above the arrivals level, Josh nearly went over the edge and died. So I decided right there, "I quit. I don't want to be in this band anymore. I'm going home. I'm not doing the tour."
AVC: It's hard to believe they even let you on the plane after that.
DA: We were outside of the airport, but there was definitely a crowd of people staring at us. Luckily, Ben saved the band in two ways: literally, in that he stopped Josh from flying over the edge and dying, plus, afterward, he talked me down from quitting.
AVC: An easy criticism leveled at the Situationists is that they were acting out for the sake of acting out, or worse, for attention. What do you say to those who would accuse your band of the same?
DA: I think it's a valid criticism. I have very low self-esteem; I love attention. And I think anyone that's in a band, with the exception of maybe Jandek As soon as you release your music, you want people to notice. It's not necessarily that you want people to love what you're doing, but you want them to react. And playing live, you're there as an entertainer. Your job is to get people to leave feeling they've made the right decision sacrificing their time and money to come see you. You have to be the court jester and the provocateur. It's your job, and if you don't want to do it, you can stay at home.
AVC: So there's no greater philosophy behind, say, splitting one song over two sides of a 7-inch record accompanied by unintelligible liner notes?
DA: When we do that stuff, it's really just us trying be the band that we'd want to see. We were record collectors. We loved the idea that Melvins did a 5-inch of Flipper covers, or that The Feederz had a record sleeve with sandpaper on it so it would destroy all other records beside it. These things are really cool, so when we did "Baiting The Public," we thought, "Wouldn't it be great to take a song and break it up over two sides of a single?" I can understand why it would be frustrating for some, but we just thought it'd be cool to own a record like that. We get a lot more credit than we deserve sometimes for having some grandiose plan, but it's more like, "Oh, that'd be weird."
AVC: In one interview, you defined the theme of this record as "acceptance and subversion," but aren't those two concepts contradictory?
DA: I don't think they are. You can accept subversion, you know, you can accept the subversive nature of the world around you, and that's what this record is hoping to do. You want that culture ingrained in our everyday world; that's what allows the world to function.
AVC: The album also deals frequently with religion, and your approach, while often critical, is never cynical. Is there a part of you that seeks to understand, or even embrace, spirituality?
DA: Oh, absolutely. I'm incredibly envious of people with faith. I went through a complete anti-religion phase, you know, wearing T-shirts that said angry things like "Jesus should have been aborted," but I think the anger came from wishing I could just believe wholeheartedly in something. I was sort of a lapsed Anglican, and now I'm more of an agnostic. I really wish I could surrender to the idea that there's some sort of divine purpose for everything. I would love nothing more than to wake up one day and be like, "Okay, I believe." People who can do that are incredibly lucky—the ones that can rationally look at the world around them and say, "Yep, I still have total faith in this unseen power." I find that remarkable, and that's definitely where a lot of the religion on the record comes from: wanting to believe while living in a world that prevents you from doing so. There's also this book I read called The Passover Plot. It's all about Jesus as a mortal person who would have viewed himself not as being a born messiah, but as working to become one. I found that incredibly empowering—to think that we could approach life that way, become our own faith. That's what the first song on the album, "Son The Father," is about.
AVC: Which gets to the contradictory nugget at the heart of organized religion: In spite of the deeply personal nature of spirituality, to find that kind of faith in oneself is usually considered heretical.
DA: That's definitely the contradiction debated on the record—at least, on the songs I wrote. Mike [Haliechuk]'s are the ones all about nature and magic and science. With organized religion, you have a lot of people who are not believing so much as just surrendering. There should be a difference.
AVC: You say you've taken intentional measures to keep the band from selling out, by naming the band Fucked Up, or yoking otherwise accessible songs with titles like "Black Albino Bones." Is making good money off your work inherently bad? Does money corrupt absolutely?
DA: For us it would. We're in a position now where we are paying our rent out of this band. I'd be better off if I was working a minimum-wage job, but for right now, the lifestyle is really exciting—touring around the world and being able to come home to an apartment afterward. On that level, no, I don't think money has corrupted us, but I think any sort of greater success opens the door to a lot of evils that you can avoid by calling your band Fucked Up and having a sketchy name for your would-be hit single.
AVC: Wouldn't you be able to do more if you had more funding? You just played a free, 12-hour, guests-welcome gig in New York; think of what you could accomplish with a serious bankroll.
DA: Oh, sure. I've had friends who've made a ton of good money out of being in a band, but I don't trust myself. Even some of the options we've been presented with recently Me five years ago would have been mortified at the decisions I'm making today. We do these things as a sort of built-in self-destruct feature that prevents us from crossing ourselves even more.
AVC: Isn't that somewhat masochistic?
DA: [Laughs.] Yeah, definitely. I wish it didn't have to be this way.
AVC: But you've personally received the shit-end of that philosophy. You were hit in the head with a bottle at a show after printing a photo of Hitler Youth on a record sleeve. What went through your head as glass was going into your head?
DA: "You reap what you sow." If you're going to be provocative, you can't be mad at someone when they're provoked. We've had to accept that in Fucked Up. Is the hardcore kid going to be super-mad at you for putting something potentially offensive on the sleeve? Probably. Is a pop-punk kid going to be pissed when he hears someone screaming on his record? Probably. But as a band, you can't worry about these things. You just have to do them and let the chips fall where they may. I think we've gotten off easy. There's been some stuff that's completely [Shudders.]
AVC: Like what?
DA: Like we have this song called "Teenage Problem," which Mike wrote, which is basically advocating pedophilia.
DA: Yeah. Wish we didn't have that song. I mean, we didn't write it as an anthem for pedophilia; it's more like us exploring the last taboo, but thankfully it was on a limited 7-inch that not many people heard. [Pauses.] Maybe that isn't taboo any more. Maybe in the wake of R. Kelly, pedophilia is now socially acceptable. [Laughs.] What a horrible world we live in.
AVC: You recently said you're hoping to get visas to tour China. Do you think they'll let your band in?
DA: Oh, it's happening. We're working on it right now. It's going to be insane. We'll probably all get arrested and put inside some sort of work camp. This might be the thing that finally undoes Fucked Up.