Damian Abraham of Fucked Up
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When Fucked Up announced that its first album in three years was going to be a sprawling 18-song rock opera, it was a predictably surprising move for the stridently unconventional Toronto hardcore band. Fucked Up came a long way from the barely heard 7-inches of its early days with the 2008 breakthrough full-length The Chemistry Of Common Life, an artful, furiously dense modern punk epic that famously boasted more than 70 tracks on some songs. When that record garnered rapturous praise from critics—particularly in Fucked Up’s home country, where Chemistry captured Canada’s Polaris Music Prize in 2009—the band decided it couldn’t possibly live up to all the hype it was suddenly receiving in the press. So why not finally embark on a project the members had long jokily discussed among themselves: a concept record set in a fictional British town during the original punk era, about a young factory worker named David who falls instantly in love with a political activist named Veronica, only to lose her just as suddenly in a tragic accident? If the idea bombed, it was probably just part of the inevitable decline from Chemistry, right?
Thematically, David Comes To Life swings for the fences, exploring big concepts like the meaning of loss and the possibility for rebirth that comes in its aftermath. Musically, the album contains the most accessible and possibly best songs of the band’s career, including the thrilling “Queen Of Hearts,” a straight-up love song not far removed from the popular pop-punk of big-selling bands like Rise Against and Against Me!
Along with the band’s musical driving force, guitarist Mike Haliechuk, singer Damian Abraham is Fucked Up’s most recognizable member; his scorched-throat shouting delivers the story of David Comes To Life with hammering force. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Abraham about the record, his possible departure from the band, the therapeutic power of pot, the orthodoxy of hardcore, and how love songs can also address the death of labor unions.
The A.V. Club: You recently said that David Comes To Life is the endgame for this stage of Fucked Up. What did you mean by that?
Damian Abraham: When we finished this record, I thought, “This is the end of Fucked Up.” Not like we were going to break tomorrow, but I just didn’t think we would follow up this record in any sort of real way. You can’t really dial it back once you do a rock opera. You showed it all at that point. The other day, Fucked Up did a score for a silent movie; when I say Fucked Up, I was not involved, I went just as a spectator to watch them score this movie. And I was like, “This is amazing! This is unbelievable!” And I’m like, “It might be the end of me as the sole vocalist in the band.” But I don’t necessarily think it’s the end of the band. This is more the end of this era, or this stage, of the band. I can totally see them doing more stuff, and I love the idea of collectives. I know it’s trendy for us Canadians to love collective bands, but I’ve always loved the idea of having different people that can do different things within the band, like a Swiss Army knife of singers. I hope that’s the direction they go. So, that being said, we have recorded this record, and tomorrow I could just be like, “No, we’ve got another 15 records in us!”
AVC: But it sounds like you could see a version of Fucked Up where you weren’t involved.
DA: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about the band—and this is definitely the way we portrayed ourselves—is that I am the driving creative force. Mike has always been kind of the Svengali; it’s just that Mike’s big problem is that he cannot communicate with people outside of e-mail. That allowed me to step in and be the public face of the band, but I still think the band has a lot more to go on. I just don’t know how I’m going to do the next one, when it comes time to do the next one. I think they’re going to keep doing stuff, and I’m still going to be part of the band, I’m not just going to say, “Okay, that’s it.” I’ll still sing on records. I don’t even know what shape it’s going to take, I just know that there’s no real way for us to do a fourth record as the band exists now.
AVC: When we spoke with you three years ago, you said, “I think for a lot of bands, when you stop being friends, things start to be interesting.” How would you describe relations in the band right now?
DA: I think they’re actually at an all-time high. Maybe not an all-time high—I think that was at the very beginning—but it’s certainly better than it has been in the last couple years, because of me. I was pretty miserable touring for a long time, and now I enjoy touring a lot more. I subsequently started to smoke marijuana, which I think has taken a lot of my edge off. [Laughs.] Live is still the same show, don’t get me wrong, but when you’re sitting in the van with me and I engage in a little marijuana, I’m a lot more pleasant than I was before. I also think having a new record coming out helps a lot, because The Chemistry Of Common Life just reminds me of 2007, and we’ve been doing those songs for four years. Not to say that I’m sick of those songs, or we’re never going to play Chemistry Of Common Life songs, but there’s only so many ways you can change your set list up.
AVC: How did you come to marijuana as a way to make touring more fun?
DA: I was diagnosed as having generalized anxiety and having some issues with bipolar, so I went on anti-anxiety pills, and I’ve been on them throughout the course of the band. One of the first fights we ever had—Mike wrote a song for Fucked Up about how depression doesn’t really exist, and I was like, “How can I sing this?” But I’ve always seen the side effects of the anti-anxiety pills, and it’s almost like it hasn’t gotten better. So I decided to stop taking my anti-anxiety pills—which is not advised for anyone—and in a moment of weakness when we were over in Denmark, I had to go to a mental hospital, and it was a big ordeal. In a moment of desperation, I was like, “Yo, let me hit that joint.” [Laughs.] You could almost hear the needle go off the record. The rest of my band looked at me like, “What?” [Laughs.] And I’m like, “Yeah, let me hit that joint.” So I smoked pot that night, and it really worked at curing my anxiety. I’m not saying it’s going to work for everyone, but I guess I have no regrets.
I would like to think I could probably still be straight-edge if I wasn’t in this band, but marijuana has really helped me deal with the anxiety of touring. It’s not to say that straight-edge wasn’t awesome, and I have no regrets about being straight-edge for 16 years, like at all. But I think for me, this was just something that has allowed me to escape while I’m on tour, which seems really weird, because it seems like all it is is the fun time, which is playing the shows. There are a lot of fun times, but the stuff that really gets you are the drives to and from the show, and sitting around waiting around for the show to start, where you get to a town and everything’s closed. You can’t really explore the town and see the sights. A lot of times, these clubs are on the outskirts of town, so there’s really nothing to see around there. You just kind of sit there and wait. So this was giving me a way to kill time.
AVC: Let’s talk about David Comes To Life. The idea for this record dates back to 2006, and you’ve said that some of the riffs are even older than that. Why did it take so long to complete the record and put it out?
DA: For us, LPs were always this weird kind of thing. When we first started the band, we were like, “We can only do an LP after the second 7-inch,” and then we got to the second 7-inch, and we were like, “We are not ready to do an LP.” Then we came up with this idea after about three or four years of being in a band, that we were going to do an record called Crusades, and a record called Cascades. We were going to release those two albums, and those were going to be the last two things we did before we broke up—actually no, we were going to have one 7-inch that was going to come out afterward called Back To The Womb, and those were going to be the last things we did for the band. So we start recording what was going to be Crusades, and around that time, we met the guys from Jade Tree, and they expressed interest in our record. We were like, “Huh, this is starting to get kind of interesting. Maybe we should start to re-think this, and save Crusades and Cascades for another point, and let’s do this record called Hidden World.”
When we were recording Hidden World, we wrote the song “Ian Comes To Life,” and it was about our friend Ian Dickson, who upon hearing that we had signed with Jade Tree said it felt like he had just been kicked in the nuts. So we wrote this song for him about how Ian is this little boy who’s very angry at us. We were writing the song in practice one day, and Mike’s like, “Hey, what do you think about changing the name to David?” and I’m like, “Yeah, that sounds like it’ll work,” so we started writing “David Comes To Life.” After that, we started joking about how we wanted this to be a rock opera. We kept joking about it until after Chemistry Of Common Life; there was no way we felt like we could live up to the praise that record got, especially in Canada, where we won the Polaris award. We were like, “No matter what we do, we’re going to look like a failure, because Pitchfork is saying something that we cannot possibly live up to for this next record.” We decided at that point that since people would already be disappointed, why don’t we just do this crazy rock-opera idea, and that way, if it blows up in our faces, at least we tried it when no one was expecting anything. That’s why it took so long. When we eventually sat down to start to write it, we had all these songs and riffs and other ideas that we had kind of been saving for different things, and we just recorded so much music. I think that someone told me that between this, the compilation, and all the singles, there’s like 300 minutes of music for this record.
AVC: Fucked Up has created an immersive world around this record. Along with the website that includes lyrics and profiles of the characters, you also released a compilation record of fake bands from the fake town the story takes place in. Did you actually sit down and chart out David Comes To Life like a movie or TV show?
DA: We did. I thought we were going to back out until the very last second. I was like, “There’s no way we’re going to finish this,” so I was kind of waiting for Mike and Jonah [Falco] and Josh [Zucker] to be like, “Yeah, we’re going to do something else, and this is not going to work out.” By the time they finished the music, I was like, “Oh, this is actually going to really happen. We have no story.” At which point Mike, Josh, and I started meeting at the food court in this really shitty mall near where we all live, called the Dufferin Mall. I mean, it’s shitty, but I love it. We would just meet there at the food court, surrounded by teen kids from high school out for lunch, and we would be sitting there with loose-leaf paper and computers, just trying to write this story. We would come with character sketches for all the five main characters, a rough skeleton for the story, what we thought each song should get across, and where each song should go. We sat there over the course of, I think, three weekends. The mall was neutral territory, because we were not getting along very well at this point. Then we wrote from there.
AVC: At any point, did you guys think, “People are going to think we’re pretentious for doing this”?
DA: Oh, absolutely. The thing that is great about this record was the fact that if people don’t care about it or don’t like it, they weren’t going to like the record that we were going to make that was going to sound like Chemistry Of Common Life, either. It’s always been the same thing that we find ourselves in: “People might not like it no matter what we do, so let’s just try to be ourselves. Let’s just try and figure out the way to do this that seems right for us.”
AVC: David Comes To Life opens with this scene from “Queens Of Hearts,” where David meets Veronica, and she gives him a pamphlet, and instead of having this political revelation, he ends up falling in love with her. And that sets the tone for the rest of the record, which is very much a personal journey. That’s a new lyrical perspective for Fucked Up, isn’t it?
DA: It’s funny, this wound up having the most personal lyrics any of us have ever written. Maybe because you’re hiding behind a character, it becomes easier to do, but this was the first time I’ve ever talked about actual relationships I’ve been in, or my constant fear that all the great things that are happening will fall apart the next second. Those are all things I think about all the time, but never really felt in place to sing about them on a Fucked Up record until now.
AVC: Have you reached the point in your life where the personal trumps the political, or are you just more comfortable expressing those things?
DA: I’m more comfortable expressing it. And the personal aspect allows me to talk about a lot of the political stuff without it coming off as a piece of North Korean cinema, where the dogma overtakes the story. I’ve kind of always looked at Veronica as, in addition to being a real person, just falling in love with the idea of being in control of your own destiny and workers coming together to improve their lives. It’s almost that moment you get as a kid where you realize that there are other systems to this world than the ones you’ve been exposed to, be they political or musical, and just that feeling you have like, “Oh my God, you mean there’s music out there that’s not the crap I’m hearing every day? Or people out there that don’t think this world is functioning perfectly well and want to change things?” And I think that’s David—he’s just a workaday kind of guy. David is as much me as anyone. And then all of a sudden he’s exposed to this whole world by Veronica, and it just changes his life. I can’t believe how pretentious this is getting, but also like when she dies, I think that’s symbolic of the death of organized labor in Western democracies; that happened specifically in the United States, England, and Canada, which is kind of an amalgamation of the systems, but that’s the rise of Reagan, that’s the rise of Thatcher, and that’s the death of organized labor, so Veronica dying is almost the death of organized labor that happened at that time. And it’s a love song, too. [Laughs.]
AVC: There’s also disillusionment with the limits of activism on this record. In “Running On Nothing,” there’s a line that goes “So Mother may I please submit the notion that I no longer believe in this shit.”
DA: He’s talking about love, and he’s also talking about labor practices that were dying at that point. You had strike-busting, you had union-busting, you had the sort of attack on the working class giving rise to the neo-conservatism that came later. I think all that kind of stuff is definitely there, that era to me, especially the late ’70s/early ’80s, because that is such an amazing time for music. So many interesting things happened because of the hip-hop explosion, DIY record explosion, DIY music explosion, but you also have this dark undercurrent that runs throughout the whole thing, which is, we’re about to enter this really dark period in our history where we have secret wars, and we have a war on drugs that winds up being a war on the poor, and we have all these kinds of things that also emerge in that time. So it’s like this bittersweet moment where for the first time, kids were in charge of the manufacturing of their music and the creation of culture in a real way. It always had been, up until that point, a culture marketed toward youth. Even the hippies, the ’60s, it still kind of felt like older people marketing to younger people. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, when you had kids putting out their own records, their own magazines, kids putting on their own concerts, designing their own aesthetics, inventing their own forms of music. That’s like the first time I think you really had a youth culture that controlled its own destiny.
AVC: A central theme of David Comes To Life is appreciating the good things in life through the lens of loss.
DA: You have these moments in your life that are amazing, and they’re disrupted by these moments which are terrible, but unfortunately, in order to have these amazing moments you have to have these terrible moments, and in order to have all this amazing alternative culture, you need to have something that it’s being alternative to. I think David learns that. David at that point hits a realization that he’s going to have to do this again; you’re going to have to love and lose again. And it’s going to suck and it’s going to hurt really badly, but at least hopefully the memories you get before that happens are going to make the bad memories worth it.
AVC: Have you thought at all about how you’re going to stage this? Are you going to present the songs in a different way than just performing them as a band?
DA: We’re getting an actual script finished now, with stage directions and things like that. I would love it if a bunch of high-school kids did it; that would be like the most flattering thing in the world for me, if a group of high-school kids did it for their high-school play. That would be the best. But yeah, we haven’t come up with any plans to stage it right now, just because I think for us, we’ve gotta make sure we’re still the band. We can’t start thinking we’re Andrew Lloyd Webber, because that’s going to benefit nobody. [Laughs.]
I still definitely think of it as a rock opera. But it dissolved to this weird point when we were writing the record, where I had these designs on me only playing one of the characters, Octavio, and all the other characters would be played by different people, like friends we’d bring in. I asked my friend whose dad was in Phantom Of The Opera if he’d be in it, and he said, “Yeah, he think we would.” It got to a point where we realized, you know, this isn’t going to be a Fucked Up record anymore, with all these sorts of things, it’s going to have very little to do with us as a band. So it’s almost like we decided to steal it back in a lot of ways. We cut all the guests, we have no extra musicians on this record, and only three extra vocalists. I think that this, more than any of the other records, is a straight-up Fucked Up record, because there’s no guest musicians, and the only guest vocalists are there for the roles of the female characters, just so it wouldn’t sound very atonal when I’m doing all the voices in one song. But apart from that, we just wanted this to be as much of the record we wanted to make as possible.
AVC: It seems inevitable that people are going to compare David Comes To Life to classic concept records like Tommy and Zen Arcade. Did those albums influence Fucked Up when you were making this record?
DA: Oh absolutely, without a doubt. I love Tommy, that’s my favorite Who record. I know that’s sacrilege to a lot of people. That’s the one I listen to the most. I’ve always loved concept LPs; that’s like the ultimate expression of the LP, to have some sort of consistent narrative running throughout the whole thing. Even that new Tyler, The Creator record—homophobic lyrics aside, everything aside, no judgment made on the music whatsoever—it was interesting that he had that narrative that runs throughout the whole record. I thought that it was interesting for him to do that. There’s never been a big narrative statement on any of our records, so this one just felt so awesome to try it.
AVC: Given your hardcore background, was there ever a time where you rejected classic-rock bands like The Who?
DA: Luckily, the era that I got hardcore was the mid-’90s. There are always people trying to get me into free jazz, or people playing soul records. Hardcore kids loving hip-hop goes hand-in-hand. I never really felt any pressure to reject that kind of stuff from being a punk and hardcore. I’ve always thought those records are great, and I think it’s because of the time I got into those kind of things and came up, it was never like I had to hide these under my bed so my friends wouldn’t find them, because it’s always been almost encouraged—at least by my elder statesmen of hardcore—to be into other types of music.
AVC: Did you ever have a period when you were younger where you were one of those hardcore militant people, where music had to be a certain way to be acceptable?
DA: I never did, really. My dad was involved in music when he was younger. It’s always been around my house. One thing I did do, which I kind of regret now, is I rejected hardcore bands that tried to bring that influence into the music. That was something I hated, and I still understand when people hate it when we try and do that. But I think over time, I’ve come to think that it’s kind of a necessary part of being in a band. That’s like a universal thing—like in corporate America, or corporate Canada, there’s that expression that if you’re not expanding, you’re dying. And I think that’s true for bands. If your band is not trying to find new ways of doing your sound, or even finding new ways of being generic within their sound, they’re dying. You’re just going to wind up making the same stuff over and over again, and people are going to get sick of it, you’re going to get sick of it, and that’s going to be the end of your band.
AVC: It seems like Fucked Up, especially on the albums, has gone out of its way to buck punk-rock convention, in terms of what a punk-rock record should sound like. David Comes To Life is definitely a punk record, but to me, it’s also an arena-rock record. It just sounds huge. I could hear this music playing in stadiums.
DA: There definitely is that element there, but the bands that really influenced us when we started were like Poison Idea, which always had that kind of real strong rock influence. They always made sure that was a part of their sound, and I think for us, it’s also a big part of the sound. I think the thing about punk is, and especially looking at the early bands, punk was punk rock for a reason. These bands were influenced by rock bands, the rock ’n’ roll bands they heard growing up. When you listen to the Stooges and MC5, they do have those arena-rock moments, because that was the background they were coming from. That was the endgame of the MC5, to be a big rock band. Not that our endgame was to be a big rock band by any stretch, but it’s definitely been trying to get that influence in there.
AVC: Are you still wary of mass popularity? You’ve said that when you guys started, you named the band Fucked Up as a way almost to alienate people, to prevent yourselves from becoming too big.
DA: It was almost like that alienation was so ingrained in us, there was no way someone could like this band that wasn’t from this world, so we might as well call it Fucked Up. It just looked cool on a flyer, and it didn’t matter, because when the band got put together, it was put together on the basis of these personalities not getting along. This was before I even joined—when Mike and Josh first put this band together, they decided to get like the weirdest personalities they could find. So the name almost existed before the band did. It was also like the band was made to live up to the name.
AVC: We might be at a point right now in pop culture where a band called Fucked Up could be huge. Cee Lo Green put out a song called “Fuck You,” and it’s one of the biggest pop songs of the year.
DA: Oh yeah, absolutely. If you’re using a word that’s directly targeting someone, and very derogatory—like a homophobic word, or a sexist word, or a racist word, something that’s targeting someone specifically, that’s different—but I just think the concept behind swear words is ridiculous. People get so worked up about it, and honestly, it’s just a collection of sounds. Every once in a while, I forget that we’re called Fucked Up, and then last week in the Guardian, there was this huge editorial about how dare the Guardian print our band name. It just becomes like a really exciting thing to be a part of, like “Wow, we still are affecting people.”