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Interview: Damian Abraham (of Fucked Up)

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    Damian Abraham speaks with effusive passion. His words gather momentum with each new firing synapse like a tour guide anxious to describe the amazing sights they’ve come to know so much about. He sounds like that nice guy whom no one has courage to say anything bad about — like, intimidatingly nice. This may sound belying if you’re familiar with his role as the lead singer of Toronto hardcore band, Fucked Up. Abraham, a.k.a. Pink Eyes, can strip paint off walls with his screams, but you’d never know it. That’s part of the performance, part of the character, and part of the job.

    Today, Fucked Up’s David Comes To Life hits streets, their most ambitious and accomplished album to date. It’s an 80-minute rock opera with five characters that may or may not exist in small, made-up British town of Byrdesdale Spa, set during the Margaret Thatcher administration (though, Thatcher goes unreferenced on the album). Rock opera aesthetic aside, Fucked Up have reached for something few bands have the wherewithal to attempt by embracing something grand in scope and theme, while still making it a very personal record. After 10 years as a band, it’s an inevitable record and a possible conclusion to the current incarnation of Fucked Up as we know it.

    Abraham couldn’t be prouder of the band and his record. He believes it’s the band’s crowning achievement, and was eager to talk to Consequence of Sound about the history, process, and the soul behind David Comes To Life and Fucked Up. Abraham waxed on about countless bands, the idea of transparency verses opacity, the future of Fucked Up, Lost, and his favorite word, “love”. We spoke over the phone in the early morning, just as he was watching cartoons with his two-year old son.

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    Thumbnail photo by Philip Cosores.

    What are some of your favorite bands that came out of the Chicago hardcore scene?

    I think some big ones would obviously be The Effigies. The Wait 7″ by Articles of Faith is certainly one of the best punk records of the 80’s. I have a special place for Chicago hardcore because it’s got a real rock-y sound to it. All the Touch and Go stuff — there’s always been a special place for Chicago because it has strong ties to Toronto. But the 90’s hardcore bands were huge to me, too. Charles Bronson, Los Crudos, MK Ultra — all those bands I loved them so much. Ahh, what was the pre-Dillinger Four band?

    I truly have no idea.

    Well, I’ve always loved the Chicago hardcore bands. Actually the first bands we went out on tour with were Chicago hardcore bands: Fourteen or Fight and Punch in the Face. The first good show we ever had ever was in Chicago at DePaul University in some classroom, and it was the first time we ever played a show where people we didn’t know were moshing. When someone you don’t know is dancing for your band, you can be sure they’re choosing to do that, and not because I paid them or because I know where they live.

    fucked up cover Interview: Damian Abraham (of Fucked Up)

    Fucked Up has a history of transcending genre classifications. You’re going to have to meet the maker again with the term “rock opera” or “concept album” with this new record. What are your thoughts on those terms?

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    I’m pretty open with calling [David Comes To Life] a rock opera. I think there’s less pretension to rock opera than a concept record — and I think the term “concept record” is almost a cop-out. You can say any record is a “concept record”, you can find a concept with any record, where if you call it rock opera you are definitely making a commitment to the form. When we wrote this record, we kind of wrote it in the vein of a rock opera, but it turned out as more of a straight forward rock album. At times I think we were planning on me barely singing on the record, getting a bunch of vocalists to play all the different parts. But, that really wouldn’t be a good Fucked Up record, you know? It might be an interesting “rock opera” record, but it’s not really what we do as a band. So we kind of scrapped that and ended up doing it with very little guests — there’s only like three guests on the whole record. [Madeline Follin of Cults, Kurt Vile, and Jennifer Castle of Castlemusic].

    This really is the first time we haven’t really had any guest instruments/musicians on the record — not to imply that singers aren’t musicians. But normally we’ll have Matt [Carlson] from The Deadly Snakes just play organ on…all those times we’ve had organ or keyboards. Or we’ve had Jonah’s mom play flute, my old high school music teacher played french horn once. We’ve always had these other people come in and play these little roles, but I think this time we were like “You know what, the idea behind this record is so outlandish, let’s try and make this record as much of a record as we would make as possible.” The record itself feels very straightforward as far as instrumentation goes.

    And you really got a lot of the drive for collaboration out with your companion/context album David’s Town.

    Absolutely. I think David’s Town was emblematic to the fact that we wrote all of the music before we wrote the story, so we had a lot of songs left over. When we were in the studio, it was like a marathon in the beginning and then a sprint towards the end. By the time we were doing vocals, we were doing them back to back over and over day in and day out trying to get as many songs done in a day as possible. So when I would blow my voice out, Mike [Haliechuk, a.k.a. 10,000 Marbles] and Jonah [Falco, a.k.a Mr. Jo] would kind of set up some instruments and start writing songs and those ended up being about half the songs on David’s Town, sort of like an improv jam session.

    And we had a lot of other collaborations planned, there were a lot of people that were supposed to be on the record that weren’t on the record. I love collaborations, though. I think going forward, that would more be the future of Fucked Up. Less of me, more collaborations.

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    You mentioned in the promo trailer for David Comes To Life that this may be the last incarnation, or the ultimate point that you’ve reached as a band…

    Definitely for this period of the band, I think so. I can’t imagine us doing another record in this form. Like, “where do we go as Fucked Up now?” This is our ultimate expression for the band as now. Going forward, I think this is going to be my last solo-singing album. I’m not going to leave the band (and, this is coming just right after this album is done, so who knows how I’m going to be feeling two months from now) but now I think everyone in the band is getting more and more interesting. The rest of the band just scored a silent film the other day, and I just went as someone in the audience, and I was blown away. I was like [laughs] “You guys are way better, I might be holding it back a little bit!”

    No, but I always like the idea of collective bands. I know that’s such a Canadian stereotype cause like every band that comes from Canada is sort of a collective. But I like the idea of certain people in a band doing certain roles at certain times. I think maybe the next record I’d kind of like to see everyone else in the band work with other people — I’ll still be there, I’ll still do songs — but I’d like to see it become a little more band driven, a little less “my ego” driven. [laughs]

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    So the history of the idea/entity/character of “David” has been with the band for at least, 7 years?

    Actually, all the characters on the album are names that we’ve used before on various things. Last April Fool’s, we did this fake lawsuit where we were being sued by this energy drink company and the lawyers and the various witnesses in the legal document that we designed for this were all characters that appear in this story. I think Octavio St. Laurent [the narrator character on David Comes To Life] Veronica Boisson was on there. Oh, and Octavio was also a fake roadie that we put in the liner notes at one time.

    So these have always been names that we’ve been wanting to use one day, we just didn’t know what. So, when we wrote the song on Hidden Life called “David’s World” we started joking almost immediately that we were going to turn that song into a rock opera. And it just kind of kept going and going. Then we did Chemistry of Common Life and we wondered how we were going to follow it up. This album gave us a way to do something, by our standards, completely different than what we did with Chemistry of Common Life. It was different way of looking at songs — the songs on this record are the most personal songs that Mike and I have ever written because we could hide behind characters and pretend that we’re talking about David and Veronica when really we’re talking about my breaking with my girlfriend or something. Most of the time, Fucked Up has taken a third-person detached narrative. We always wrote about things we’re passionate about, but we’re always writing it in the sort of “we”, “collective”, “us vs. humanity” type of thing. This time, it was very much like “Here is what I am going through.”

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    Which is interesting, because I think there’s a sort of stigma with rock operas that they feel calculated and impersonal and too clever…

    I think that’s a fair assessment. A couple years ago there was a rash of bands doing sort of concept records, writing as characters, things like that. With us, it just became an opportunity to reassess how we think about this band and whether or not we think this band is an extension of our own personalities or as sort of a larger exercise to things we’ve been contemplating.

    I think this album gives us the opportunity to do things we’ve never been able to do which is talk about very specific historical times, the moments in those times, and how specifically they effect people. One of the problems with Fucked Up — and this has always been a conflict between Mike’s philosophy and my philosophy — is that Mike has always wanted the band to be sort of aloof and unobtainable and I’ve always wanted it to be the exact opposite. I want the band to be as open as possible and I want to share every aspect of this band with people, if they care. If they want, I’ll tell where the money comes from, how they relate with each other in the van, what it takes to get through tour with each other. That’s what I loved about punk that I never found in any other type of music is that — Punk was a time where a guy would go on stage and talk about how they were broke and been eating crap for the past 72 hours. It was about what you had, but it was about how honest you were with the audience.

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    I mean, there’s whole careers predicated on a band being aloof and cool…

    Yeah, there are! The Residents are cool because they never told you anything about them. And Jandek is cool because no one ever knew anything about Jandek as a person. But the big difference for me is that those bands didn’t try to have a public persona in any real way, and we as a band do have a public persona. So, trying to be mysterious, you almost wind up playing a character.

    Let’s touch on another aspect of David Comes To Life.  Most of the album is written in rhymed couplet. Was that a choice you and Mike made, or something that you both just fell into?

    I think we always just fall into it. I’ve always loved rhyming lyrics and I’ve always felt, especially when you’re writing something like this, that you owe it to tradition. There’s not a lot of rock opera records that don’t have rhyming lyrics. But also I think hardcore music — as much as people may be afraid to admit it — is rooted in pop music. I’ve always loved the convention of pop music with the rhymes and the short songs, and verse/chorus/verse structure. I’ve always thought those conventions were what makes pop music so awesome. So when it came time to do this record, we felt kind of bound to the traditions of rock opera and pop music, I guess.

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    lostlogo  260x146 Interview: Damian Abraham (of Fucked Up)And included in the packaged version of the album is a sort of funny, self-aware, meta poem to the reader explaining the album too, written very much in the meter of most of the album. It talks about how the listener has probably already heard the leak of the album, much to the dismay of the record label…

    I think — you make a record, and its kind of like watching Lost. It doesn’t matter what kind of pretension you put in there. If people are into it, they’re into it. The thing about the record, you can just put it on and say “Oh yeah, there’s a guy screaming, there’s melodic guitars and stuff, it’s not really designed to take in the whole thing in one sitting” or anything like that. But at the same time, I’ve always loved Lost (even though it turned out to be such a disappointment). There’s just so many hidden things going on at any given time, and you want to have that stuff there for people who do want to explore more into the next level, to keep it interesting and exciting. I love when people go through records and break down all the metaphors and references and analogies in part because I love to know that there’s something more going on in that record than what’s initially there.

    Do you feel like David Comes To Life is — and try to answer this question without sounding like you’re schilling — one of those albums that you kind of need to have a physical copy of it?

    I don’t know, it’s hard to say. The relationship that people have with music has changed so much in recent years…I think people are more perceptive as to what’s said in songs and don’t need the lyrics in songs. I do, because I’m older I guess.

    But yeah, I think at the end of the day, once the record gets out there, it’s totally up to the people that hear the record and how it’s perceived. Bottom line, it’s up to them. This record specifically, this challenged our perceptions of how we do an album. We’ve been together for 10 years now and before this process, we hadn’t really figured out how to do this band, and this is the first time that we tried different techniques in the recording process and with the design of the actual package. But maybe liner notes are an antiquated thing?

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    I can attest that the liner notes to this album are especially helpful because I think it will key listeners into some points of the story, and if they want to dig deeper, it’s there in the liner notes.

    And I think to me, it’s a complete aesthetic is what makes a record. Obviously Sgt. Peppers wouldn’t be thought of in the same way if it had Metallica’s Black Album cover and vice versa. Those things are directly tied into the enjoyment of a record. And that’s what I was trying to get at with that last question. I think we live in this era now where records are becoming a lost art form. The idea of doing a record, not just a collection of songs, which is what a record is essentially, but when you do an LP you’re supposed to plot it out and give it some sort of flow to it. I think we live in an era where that’s becoming forgotten.

    Which is interesting, because Fucked Up started its career by releasing a series of 7″records, and now you have this record.

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    I think the main driving force behind Fucked Up is, “Would we find it interesting if another band did it? If Poison Idea, or The Melvins, or Black Flag had done something similar, would we like it?” That’s always been a deciding thing for us, whether or not we would find it interesting as an outsider. Doesn’t mean it’s going to be  good, or it’s a decision other people would actually make, but it works for us because this way we can be like “Well this will be exciting for us to try, to see how this turns out.” You just got to try different things every time, or it becomes like Groundhog’s Day. And so much of being in a band is already like Groundhog’s Day. We’ve played certain clubs in Europe five times in a row. We get there at the same time every time, just when everything is closed. You got to try and make sure that this never becomes a chore. You owe it to the people who coming to see you to give them a show, and who are buying your record that you’re doing something you’re excited about. It doesn’t have to be something that they love.

    You’ve been playing a lot of these new songs on the road in Europe. Is there a marked difference between them and your older material with the performance and the crowds reaction?

    I mean, we toured Chemistry of Common Life for the better part of three years. So you’re playing these songs, and it becomes challenging to play these songs like it’s the first time you’ve sung it. So having these new songs to play it obviously feels amazing cause it is the first time I’ve sung them. It’s a constantly evolving experiment being in a band to try to find ways to make sure you’re excited about it every single time.

    fu david waldman 2 small Interview: Damian Abraham (of Fucked Up)

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    Like stage actors do?

    Exactly. People would resent you for “acting” in music. I would resent myself if I was a character I’m playing. It’s like, you owe these people entertainment, you owe them a show, you gotta make sure it’s fresh and exciting for them every single time. But at the same time, you want to be honest. I don’t want to go up there in a clown suit and pretend everything’s awesome when it’s not. But you owe them a show. So, it’s a balance.

    I hit a point, with my last band, that I’d  get on stage an lecture people. I’d tell people how I thought they were living their lives wrong. It’s like “who the fuck was I to do that?” Especially now, where I’m literally making my living playing songs, I’m in no position to tell someone who just worked an eight-hour day how they should live their life and how they should think about the world .Now, as band, we’re not going to say that we have all the answers. We don’t. But hopefully we can keep coming up with questions.

    Fate is a huge theme on this record, and you talked about the personal connection with this record before. Do you believe in fate?

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    No — I — well, I think it exists. I think it’s way more comforting to believe there’s something out there controlling your fate rather than having it resting in your hands. It’s so much better to think that it’s in fate’s hands. There’s a song on the record called “The Other Shoe” about everything’s going well, and you know something bad’s going to happen. I guess I’m more about karma.

    For me, I think about all the good things that are going to happen when a bad thing happens, but I never think about it the other way around.

    And I think about the bad things that are going to happen when a good thing happens. Life’s a series of up and downs.

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    Is that your kid in the background?

    Yeah I’m just hanging with my two-year-old. He has no idea what I’m talking about, he just knows daddy plays in a band called “Fucked Up”.

    I bet that’s interesting — your kid is one of the only kids who has an entirely different definition of “fucked up”.

    Yeah, I love hearing him swear.

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