Fucked Up pushes punk into the future by understanding the past
Plenty of punk-rock fanatics claim to be founts of information about their favorite musical style — but compared to Damian Abraham, frontman for the groundbreaking Canadian hardcore combo Fucked Up, most of them seem like hopeless poseurs. In addition to a deeper-than-deep knowledge of the form's recognized innovators, he's able to quote chapter and verse about obscure acts that made relatively few marks beyond their local scenes — including the Denver groups assembled on Local Anesthetic, a 2008 compilation named for an imprint run by Wax Trax's Duane Davis that released some fierce singles during the early '80s.
"It's got Bum Kon on it, and it's got the Frantix — more pure-punk and hardcore bands," he enthuses. "But it's also got these weirder bands, these less successful, artier-type bands. And that's the great thing about the punk movement. You had bands that didn't sound sonically very similar, but ideologically they could be together on one label."
Fucked Up takes a similarly eclectic approach on its latest recording, The Chemistry of Common Life. Instead of sticking to the standard punk template that far too many contemporary practitioners continue to employ, FU's members (lead guitarist Mike "10,000 Marbles" Haliechuk, rhythm guitarist Josh "Concentration Camp" Zucker, bassist Sandy "Mustard Gas" Miranda, drummer Jonah "Mr. Jo" Falco and Abraham, also known as "Pink Eyes") regularly stretch and twist their songs into intriguing new shapes, often with the help of some unlikely assistants. "Son the Father," the album's first track, begins with perhaps the least punk of all instruments, a flute, as tootled by Falco's mom. Moreover, Abraham notes, the disc features a French horn "played by my high school music teacher, Mr. Wade-West... Well, I can call him Tom Wade-West now, since he's not my music teacher anymore. And there's bongos, twelve-string guitars, Farfisa organs, synthesizers, keyboards..."
These tools don't sap Common Life's strength — far from it. "Son the Father" develops into a thrilling raveup replete with shrieked vocals and Ron Asheton-style wah-wah riffing, while tracks such as "Crooked Head" and "Twice Born" ring with the sort of conviction that inspires barricade-storming. But they're supplemented by "Golden Seal," an atmospheric mélange of squiggly sounds, and "Royal Swan," which manages to incorporate operatic touches and more than a hint of prog. The results are unusual at times, but the material feels organic rather than unnecessarily showy or ostentatious. "It's not like when we started to make the record, we thought, 'How can we make this as weird as possible?'" Abraham insists. "It's just like you write these songs and you need to find ways of making them real. Or you want to find an element a guitar won't provide."
Abraham's been exposed to a wide array of creative influences throughout his life thanks to his parents, for whom music has been an enduring love. Prior to becoming a flight attendant, his mom was a regular dancer on the TV show Like Young, which Abraham describes as "kind of like the Montreal equivalent of American Bandstand. They used to have musicians on, and it was a teen sock-hop kind of thing." Not surprisingly, she tended to spin rock oldies around the house. As for his father, he ultimately drifted into advertising — but years earlier, he was in an early incarnation of the British art-rock outfit Gentle Giant "when they were still an R&B band," Abraham says. "He played drums, and got kicked out because he has no rhythm. And I've inherited his rhythm."
From there, his dad transitioned into booking shows and working for Track Records in London — and after moving to Canada, he kept up with the trends, developing a special fondness for punk and post-punk music. Abraham remembers hearing a lot of Madness and Ian Dury and the Blockheads in his youth. But a far more important discovery was a book he found in his dad's library: The International Discography of New Wave, which for him was "like finding the Bible," he enthuses. The massive roster of lists, which was complete up to the year 1982, helped him realize "how big punk really was," he goes on. "The scope of it was really exciting for me, and I set out, much to my parents' chagrin, and now to my wife's chagrin, to collect every record that's named in that book. Or at least hear every record that's named in that book."
Obsessively listening to music naturally led to making it. Abraham joined Fucked Up in 2002, when Haliechuk, his housemate at the time, recruited him to sing in place of Zucker, who'd decided to train-hop across America; when Zucker returned, he took over second-guitar duties, leaving Abraham to wail. The band soon began issuing seven-inch vinyl singles in between fights and disagreements of the sort that would break up most bands — but not this one. "We're like that old, bitter couple that's like, 'Who's going to die first?'" he says. "I think a lot of people think we play up the idea that we don't get along. And it's true that there are moments where we're really close to each other. But there are also moments where we're nearly killing each other. Like, I nearly murdered Josh by physically throwing him off the departures level at Heathrow airport." On top of that, "I had to go to a mental institution in Denmark on our last tour because I had a nervous breakdown" due to "the stress of being in the band."
For the most part, fortunately, these on-again, off-again combatants use the tension to their advantage. In the studio, they've gotten more ambitious over time even as their live shows continue to be combustible in the extreme. Two infamous appearances on MTV Live, a program on the Canadian version of the music network, serve as cases in point. The first took place in early 2007, when the band, which was referred to throughout as "Effed Up," drove the audience into a havoc-wreaking frenzy. "We did about $2,000 in damage," Abraham recalls. "It was a really fun experience, but we were like, 'Okay, I guess they'll never want us back.' But right from the get-go, they were like, 'Please come back. Please come back.'"
The FU crew agreed this past October, and upon their arrival, they discovered that MTV staffers had decided to shoot their performance in one of the facility's bathrooms — because the setting seemed punk, presumably. "All day, they were coming into the dressing room saying, 'Are you guys going to trash the place?'" Abraham notes. "And we're like, 'I don't know.' And they were like, 'Do it! It'll be crazy!'"
They were right. The performance of "Twice Born" quickly spun out of control, with fans practically demolishing the bathroom as Abraham broke ceiling tiles over his head. According to him, "It was one of those moments where you're like, 'Is this really happening? This can't really be happening the way I'm seeing it happen.'" MTV personnel were even more freaked out, pulling the plug as soon as the song was done even though the band was slated to play two more. "They went to black on the screen on live TV, and they threw us out of the building," he says. The year before, MTV hadn't demanded that Fucked Up pay for repairs, but this time, the players received a bill for $5,000. No, they haven't ponied up — and since they never signed a release amid all the chaos, MTV can't show the clip again, despite its notoriety. "It's just like this perfect moment in history," Abraham says.
He hopes the band's eventual demise is equally memorable, not to mention timely — perhaps with the group flaming out after one more album. "I want Fucked Up to get to the point where we reach our natural end. But God knows what that would be. Probably homicide." He laughs as he adds, "When they're pulling my cold, dead fingers from around Mike's throat, I'll know the band's over."
Just like the careers of those obscure punkers from the past that he loves so much.
For more of our interview with Fucked Up's Damian Abraham, go to blogs.westword.com/backbeat.
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