Canadian punk band Fucked Up have just released their third album, a crazy 80-minute 'rock opera' set in 70's England. After supporting the Foo Fighters they're ready to break Britain and shine a light in people's eyes.
It’s a Thursday night in East London and in the dimly lit basement of an exhibition space, a 300 pound Canadian man crushes a plastic cup into his forehead whilst screaming a song from an 80 minute rock opera he wrote with the five friends surrounding him on stage. It’s an admittedly tamer affair than the bloodletting which once cost MTV $2,000 in damages, but the man recently became a father, so we’ll forgive him.
The man’s name is Damien Abraham, he sometimes goes under the charming moniker of Pink Eyes, and together, the six of them are provocatively known as Fucked Up. With heads still spinning from a support slot with the Foo Fighters, this intimate setting is more familiar territory for the band. A small section of the crowd cheer as the gregarious frontman asks if anyone attended the band’s first London show in 2007, just yards away at the Old Blue Last. “Back then I was only interested in mainlining records into my veins,” he bellows. “Now I’m trying to figure out how to smoke them with marijuana sprinkled on top.”
Having spent his teens and 20’s as part of the teetotal straight-edge movement – triggered unintentionally by Washington DC punks Minor Threat – at 31-years-old, Abraham starred in an internet clip instructing viewers how to make a bong with a plastic bottle and an apple. He’s still no Steven Tyler – he playfully mocks his bandmates for blacking out in a Moscow hotel room, following 18 shots of vodka just two nights earlier – but Abraham’s breaking of ‘the edge’ is perhaps an indication that Fucked Up have outgrown the humble trappings of hardcore punk. Better still, is a listen to David Comes to Life, the band’s said 80 minute opus and third full-length, released in June. It’s a concept album in the tradition of the Who’s Tommy or Husker’s Du’s Zen Arcade and with its walls upon walls of heavily textured and intricately melodic guitar parts, sounds like a supersized bar band.
Appearing to have left his hangover in Russia, drummer Jonah Falco admits his uneasiness about the band losing its association with the music they grew up on. “I still consider myself as part of the fabric of hardcore although I’m not sure how much the fabric of hardcore would consider me as part of it,” he laughs. Having maintained a number of smaller side-projects, including the quietly revered Career Suicide, throughout Fucked Up’s recent success, he is perhaps the band’s strongest tie to the underworld of paper fanzines, staunch ethics and stagedives which spawned them back in 2001.
It’s taken a lot to get over myself and my own persona as a consumer of the hardcore subculture. I really lived it.
“I consider Fucked Up a hardcore band, if only in the sense that it has the continuity of all these lives that have been involved in it,” says Falco. “It’s part of the continuum and part of the momentum of this music that has been evolving for 40 years, but I think it’s maybe taking too big a slice of the pie to say that we’re songwriters or that we’re psychedelic and still say that we’re hardcore.”
Do think you would have listened to a band like Fucked Up when you were growing up?
Jonah Falco: “I would. I would have definitely mocked the hell out of Fucked Up. I would snidely remark at any opportunity I could and believe me, I do to this day. I have to have a split personality. It’s taken a lot to get over myself and my own persona as a consumer of the hardcore subculture. I really lived it. I loved it and I still
love it, of course, but I had to say goodbye to a lot of my apprehensions about being different from what hardcore was, to continue to cultivate this band.”
As a band you’ve changed quite a lot over the years, but the most consistent thing and the aspect still most reminiscent of hardcore is Damien’s voice. Do you ever feel that his voice is holding you back?
JF: “I don’t think it’s fair to say that he’s holding us back because his voice has also opened a lot of doors for us. I always think that the most important and the most impacting work comes from when you cross two disciplines; when you come at something from an angle that you don’t expect. The fact that Damien has been so consistent and we have been so divergent creates this clash and makes things a bit more interesting.
“It’d be interesting to script this and set it up with a bunch of different singers, which was kind of the idea for a little while, but in being a constant, Damien’s voice is in there in the same way the cymbal reverberates, the guitar oscillates and the bass rumbles. It’s part of the whole sound. And live, it’s a different story. The instruments do what they have to do and Damien acts as this satellite. Like an Anglerfish, he’s out there shining lights in people’s eyes.”
Now, all comparisons between Fucked Up and James Joyce you can take with a grain of salt, but I think you understand what I’m saying.
Through his voice and stage presence, do you feel that Damien ever overshadows the band?
JF: “As a live band, his presence definitely overshadows what we’re doing on stage, but I think that’s as much about his presence as it is about ours. If we want to balance the scales, it just means we better play a bit tighter. There are obviously times when we just can’t compete with Damien’s more adventurous side. I think it was at a festival last summer that he led the audience out of the tent we were playing in this Pied Piper parade. There was just the five of us playing on stage and the staff who were responsible for handling cables when the entire show was happening 600 yards away.
“His antics are important and they’re great. It’s like someone saying: “Here’s Ulysses by James Joyce. You can read it cover to cover and tell me every single detail about it or you can have someone read it to you, who tells you things about it, puts on funny voices and really brings you into the text?” Now, all comparisons between Fucked Up and Joyce you can take with a grain of salt, but I think you understand what I’m saying.”
David Comes to Life is an ambitious tale of lost love, death and redemption. It follows a British factory worker named David who falls in love with an activist named Veronica before things to start to go a bit pear-shaped. Set in a fictional Northern town against a backdrop of civil unrest and industrial action, it’s a million miles away from modern-day Toronto and the middle-class hardcore scene that the band came of age in.
“It’s partly a kind of benign and happy fetishisation of England,” says Falco, wearing a short-sleeve Ben Sherman shirt tucked into his jeans. “We’d always been part of the undercurrents of punk and on people’s radars here and there, but when we turned up in the UK for the first time, it felt like we’d stepped into a completely new stream.”
Falco’s wife is English, so it goes without saying that in recent years he’s spent considerably more time in England than his bandmates. “We wanted to pick a place that was easily relatable but that wasn’t our own home,” he says. “It was a little too close to base it in New York or somewhere like that. Part of it is aesthetic and part of it is a historicity that we were grasping at.”
You started talking about the idea of a rock opera a few years ago, is it the album which you intended to make?
JF: “It has to be said that this conceptual idea has been batted around for a long time, but realistically speaking it was always in the same breath as something very sarcastic and humorous. In terms of the record itself, it’s definitely exceeded what we thought we were swinging at. We wanted to make it musically thematic. We needed something better to talk about than just a vague, introverted thought. We invented characters, we invented a place where they’re from, we invented a record where they’re from [the David’s Town compilation, featuring Fucked Up playing under 11 different guises] and ideas kept sprouting. So, not only has this exceeded our expectations of what we wanted to do, it has just spiralled out of control.”
We’d been putting our acorns away for winter, collecting songs.
Are you aware of people’s reactions to it? Do you care?
JF: “We get the clippings, so as far as we know, people seem to like it. It would be dishonest to say I didn’t care, because with a project like this, you’re putting a lot of yourself out there and really hoping that everybody has the patience for your silly plan. So, I’m very, very happy to hear that people like it and also hear that people relate to it on more than one level. The important thing about this record is that as much as it’s this over-the-top project, it has to be an album that you can sit with and listen to. It’s not the soundtrack to Cats. It’s the Fucked Up LP and it just so happens that it’s a musical.”
You touched upon the album starting off a joke, but when did the joke become something real?
JF: “We’d been putting our acorns away for winter, collecting songs, but when we started to actually sit and write it, I think we just announced to ourselves that it had to be the rock opera. As soon as we admitted that we were brazen enough or stupid enough to do it, everything kept piling on. We had already put in place a cast of characters dotted in the credits of our records, so we decided to do something with these people. It’s as if everything was connected by a single string and like a Venetian blind, we reined it in and you get David Comes to Life.”
There’s been talk about an uncertain future for the band…
JF: “It’s fair to assume that the future is going to be uncertain, but the future has been uncertain ever since we started doing this full-time. I think we all anticipated a collapse every six or seven months. This record has been the most monumental success, and I can say that with all humility, but it’s really the truth. We’ve never made something that’s been quite as well received or something that we’re quite as proud of. So, I think we’re going to try to push what we can and see where the energy takes us. I think we’re all getting a bit worn thin by the exhausting schedules but we have been presented with one of the most phenomenally lucky opportunities.”
Can you honestly see yourselves recording another album?
JF: “I certainly can. In the time it took to make this record, I think we collectively produced over 350 minutes of music. That includes the Year of the Tiger, which is the next in our Zodiac series that should be out by mid-Autumn, the David Comes to Life album, the David’s Town compilation, all the singles and as well, we were asked to score a silent film called West of Zanzibar for a film festival in Toronto. We definitely still have the creative juices flowing and I can’t see us not wanting to write music together.”
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