Q&A with Fucked Up's Damian Abraham
The February 4 profile "Fucked Up Pushes Punk Into the Future By Understanding the Past" is pretty hefty -- nearly 1,400 words. And yet it only uses a small portion of the quotes offered by Fucked Up frontman Damian Abraham during a sprawling, wide-ranging and hugely entertaining conversation that can be found in its entirety below.
Abraham talks about Fucked Up's Toronto base of operations and the influence of his parents, who have unique musical backgrounds: Mom was a dancer on a Canadian variation of American Bandstand, while Dad played in an art-rock band before it got progressive, then became one of the biggest new-wave fan in the advertising business. From there, he discusses his own musical development, which led him away from an unnatural love of rock operas to an obsession with seven-inch vinyl punk singles; his fondness for the "purity of obscurity" as it applies to little-known groups; Fucked Up's origins and the antagonism between bandmembers, most of which he blames on himself; the ways in which Fucked Up's sonic innovations were prefigured by earlier punk acts -- some of them from Denver; the diverse instrumentation on the outfit's latest recording, The Chemistry of Common Life; two highly combustible performances on Canadian MTV; a tribute to Ron Asheton, the late guitarist for the Stooges, who Abraham got a chance to meet (read Westword's Asheton Q&A here); and his hope that Fucked Up goes out in a memorable blaze rather than flickering for years to come.
No eternal flame for him.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Are you originally from Toronto?
Damian Abraham: Yeah. Toronto is one of those cities... It's, I guess, the Canadian version of London or New York, where no one is actually from there - except our band. Every one of us was born and raised in the metro Toronto area, or downtown Toronto. It's really bizarre, because every other band that's supposedly a Toronto band is actually from 45 minutes outside of Toronto or something like that. But we're actually all downtown kids.
WW: Tell me about your family. What did your parents do for a living?
DA: My mom was a flight attendant and my dad was in advertising. Both of them were away quite a bit when I was younger. And both of them came from a music kind of background - less so for my mom than my dad, but for my mom, too. My dad played in an early, early, early incarnation of Gentle Giant when they were still an R&B band. He played drums, and the got kicked out because he has no rhythm. And I've inherited his rhythm. And my mom, she used to be on a TV show called Like Young, which was 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.
WW: So it wasn't just dancing to records?
DA: No, bands came on - but it was also dancing to records, too. And my dad, he became a graphic designer and did illustrations for underground magazines and did show fliers and posters. He used to book shows in London and worked for Track Records. So growing up, music was always around from the get-go.
WW: What kind of music? Based on their backgrounds, it was probably a wide array...
DA: Yeah. My mom listened to the oldies stations. The time I was growing up, in my early, formative years, it was the time Madness was getting played on TV with "Our House" and "Hit Me With Rhythm Stick" and songs like that were big - and my dad was really into that stuff. He was never a punk by any stretch of the imagination, but he went to the odd punk show in Toronto, and had the odd punk record. But he was more like a new wave kind of fan.
WW: There was a period of time when writers would identify someone like Ian Dury as a punk artist, and at a certain point, they decided that didn't make a whole lot of sense...
DA: Yeah. And then Warner Bros. said, "Hey, let's invent a term called 'new wave'!" My parents ended up getting divorced, but all my dad's records and books were in my house growing up, and when I started getting into punk, I went through my dad's library and found he had a book called The International Discography of New Wave, which was like finding the Bible. It was the most important book I've ever had in my life. It's basically just lists of bands and names of records. And once in a while, there'd be a little review underneath of the band. It's really thick; it's like a thousand pages. It's up to date up to the year 1982, and when I started collecting records and going a little deeper than just the punk stuff that was fed to me by skateboard videos or magazines - when I started to try to find older bands, I would go through that book to no end.
WW: I get the sense that there's a historian vibe to the way you feel about music...
DA: Oh yeah. I'm a nerd. I'm a total nerd about a lot of things, but about music especially. Nothing brings me more joy than poring over my records. Thinking about compilations I would put them on and reorganizing them and then breaking them into subsections and things like that. And that was definitely the birth of it - going through this book and reading about all these obscure bands. It gave me an idea that punk was something bigger. When I first got into it, punk was, like, the Clash and the Sex Pistols. Those were the big bands, and then there was this under-tier. But going through this book, I realized how big punk really was. Hardcore and DIY music from that era. 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.
WW: I'd read that you first got into punk music when you were in about eighth grade...
WW: ...but it sounds like the seeds were sown well before then.
DA: Oh yeah, absolutely. I kind of look at it as my wilderness. Sort of those missing years. It's not that I see myself as a Christ-like figure, but you know those years between the birth of Jesus and when he comes back to die? These are my wilderness years. That's when I was into some pretty embarrassing, terrible stuff. Actually, I wouldn't say it was embarrassing, terrible stuff. It was like when I steered away from good music and got more into anything kind of rock opera-y. Anytime a band put out a rock opera, like Pink Floyd's The Wall and some things that I still like, like the Who's Tommy. But those were the records I really liked, and then to be popular with my friends at school, I'd say I was into other stuff.
WW: There are plenty of people who wouldn't find liking The Wall or Tommy to be embarrassing...
DA: I'm definitely not embarrassed to like Tommy. But The Wall is something else, I think. The Pipers at the Gates of Dawn is by far the better Pink Floyd record - and even Dark Side of the Moon I like better now than The Wall. But at the time, The Wall was the only Pink Floyd record for me.
WW: As you did your exploring, did you find yourself gravitating toward lesser known bands? Was it cool to be the only one to know about some obscure band that was way out on a far branch of the punk family tree?
DA: Definitely. On the new record, there's a line on the song "Black Albino Bones" that says, "the purity of obscurity." And that's kind of the thing I've been exploring the last ten years. Just to find music that hasn't been corrupted by other people's experience. I'm not saying you're the only person who's heard of this band. But the way you find the band is so pure that there's nothing to interfere with it. I've always kind of had a bad taste in my mouth for the way I heard "Hard Day's Night" by the Beatles the first time; it was used in a beer commercial up here. And so now I can't hear that song without thinking of the Molson X commercial it was used in. So you want to find something that's untainted - sort of this pure artifact. And you're kind of saving it from the ocean of obscurity. Kind of plucking it out and placing it in a place of honor. I like buying compilations with a bunch of terrible, terrible songs with one great power-pop song buried on it. Just finding something like that brings out the anthropologist in me. It helps bring meaning to the otherwise meaningless existence of collecting records.
WW: That purity aspect you were talking about really comes through when you're talking about punk singles. There's really nobody between you and the artist if the artist not only made the music, but recorded the music...
DA: ...and folded the sleeve, too.
DA: I wish I could just be satisfied owning a reissue or owning a CD-R or owning an MP3 of these songs. But there's something about touching the past through this record. Knowing that the seven-inch you're holding, Ian MacKaye actually folded and sold at a Minor Threat show. The providence of that makes it so exciting - makes it feel slightly more real, even.
WW: Today's listeners don't have that connection to the physical that previous generations of music fans did.
DA: Oh, I know, I know. I remember when G7 Welcoming Committee, the label that Propaghandi and the Weakerthans are on in Canada, stopped producing physical CDs. They talked about how they were making this decision because they didn't want to contribute any more to pollution and to the waste from CDs. And I think that's true to some point, but in some ways, it's much more true of an MP3. It's not physical waste, but I feel like people are so able now to just delete and move on. I think what's missing from the MP3 world is that physical connection. Maybe it's a nostalgia thing, but I think there's actually something inherently good about owning something. Not in that you want to possess something so that someone else can't possess it, but I think that connection is something that's missing from a lot of music today.
WW: How soon after getting into punk did you start making it?
DA: Pretty quick. I was the guy who was perpetually in a band. Not a band that ever did anything. There was never any higher aspirations than playing the odd show or practicing. But before I was in Fucked Up, I think I was in, like, four bands that got to various stages of completion. I think only two of them ever recorded anything. The rest of them, I think, just played a show or practiced a couple of times. I was in bands right from the age of fourteen. Urine Trouble was my first band. I think we played twenty shows, maybe, and recorded a demo tape that thankfully never got put out, because that would be really embarrassing. A lot of people can say, "This is my embarrassing early band," but this is like crazy embarrassing. Humiliating.
WW: How old were you when Fucked Up came together?
DA: Twenty, I think, or 21. Yeah, 21, because it was right after 9/11. In the year after September 11 was when I joined the band. Mike [Haliechuk] and I were living in a house together, and Mike and Josh [Zuker] and Sandy [Miranda] and Jonah [Falco] put together this band. I was like, I can't believe you put together this band with all these people who are completely not alike at all. And then the next thing I know, Josh goes to train-hop across America, and they asked me to fill in on vocals. And then when Josh came back, they were like, "Do you want to stay on and Josh will play second guitar?" And that's how I joined the band. It's funny, because I'm probably the most confrontational personality of anyone in the band, as far as being hard to get along with. But the band was originally assembled of people who aren't supposed to get along with each other.
WW: That's something you've talked about before - and even though combustible personalities can add excitement to music, it doesn't usually make for longevity. What is it that's kept you guys together for more than seven years?
DA: I think it's one of those things where you have to love someone to let them go. You have to love them a little bit. We're like that old, bitter couple that's like, "Who's going to die first?" We're going to see who breaks first. It's funny, because 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.
WW: I heard about that...
DA: Yeah, there are moments where it's really bad. Really, really bad. I had to go to a mental institution in Denmark on our last tour because I had a nervous breakdown. It's a weird band to be in sometimes.
WW: Was your breakdown from the stress of interacting with each other?
DA: Yeah, just the stress of being in the band. I think it's also because I haven't changed at all. I've obviously grown out, if not much taller. But I haven't really changed at all, whereas everyone else in the band has gone through these sort of metamorphoses over time. And I'm like the guy who's stubbornly still the same guy I was when I was seventeen.
WW: Have you felt a part of yourself wanting to change and you've consciously resisted that?
DA: I think to a certain extent. I also think at seventeen I hit my peak. I'm not going to say it was my social peak. But the stuff that I got into... That was the point when I started collecting records, and it was the point when I was comfortable enough with the music I was listening to that I was able to broaden by palette. Maybe it is me resisting change, but I think if I am resisting change, I realize that was my idea - at seventeen.
WW: At the same time, something that's clear from the new album is that instead of just reproducing punk the way so many bands have over the years, you're really pushing at the margins of the music, to take it to different places. Is that a contradiction in your mind? Your love of the music's past juxtaposed with your eagerness to do something new with it?
DA: I think it's also embracing a lot of these bands. If you were to look at punk on the surface and said, "These are the bands. This is punk. This is the sound," then of course you'd be like, "The new Fucked Up record doesn't have a lot in common with those bands." But I think by collecting all these records and finding all these obscure groups, you realize how broad this movement really was. You have bands like Wire, and you have bands like the Homosexuals, that were pushing the envelope even back then. I'm not saying we're equal caliber, but I did want to be part of that continuum - and I picture Fucked Up as being part of that continuum. We're obviously not the most traditional punk band, but I still think we're part of the broader punk movement that existed at that point. Like the DIY explosion that happened, where you had all these different types of bands doing weird things. It was connected to the punk movement, but it wasn't "punk rock."
There's that compilation of all those Denver bands that came out recently, and it's got Bum Kon on it, and it's got the Frantix - more pure punk and hardcore bands. But it's also got these weirder bands, these less successful, artier-type bands. And that's the great things about the punk movement. You had bands that didn't sound sonically very similar, but ideologically they could be together on one label.
WW: And yet a lot of the punk groups that have surfaced and become popular in recent years don't really represent the kind of eclecticism you're talking about. Instead, they tend to go for the most obvious template.
DA: I just think stuff gets codified over time. It's definitely happened with punk, and it's definitely happened with hardcore. And on one level, I kind of like the purity of that, too. But at the same time, I think it's important not to lose sight of the fact that it was a broader movement. It wasn't just Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols inventing a movement. It had its roots in bands like Dr. Feelgood and the Fugs and all these bands that came prior to it. It was part of this larger continuum. It was much larger than these two-hundred bands that are supposedly quote-unquote punk. A lot of the stuff that's come out, and that's been labeled punk, is very generic and very cookie-cutter and picking up on certain things and ignoring the sonic diversity of a lot of bands. But at the same time, I think now there actually are a lot of bands that are coming out that are definitely rooted in punk rock, like the No Age guys, or Jay Reatard, or Mind Eraser - all these bands that sonically might not be playing pure punk rock, but are firmly part of the punk-rock ethos, or the broader sonic palette.
WW: I was going to mention that I thought I'd heard prog elements on the new album, and then you started talking about how your dad was in an early version of Gentle Giant...
DA: Yeah! But like I said, he was in it when they were still an R&B band. He did not have the chops to play R&B, let alone prog.
WW: Do you agree, though, that you get a big proggy on the album?
DA: Oh yeah, and it's like a dirty word. Like punk killed prog. But right from the get-go, you listen to Gang of Four or other bands that were there. What they were doing had touches of psychedelic rock and funkier stuff that isn't pure rock and roll, like punk was espousing to be.
WW: I remember back in the day seeing Talking Head referred to as an art-rock band, which was the term for prog back then...
DA: Yeah, and Pere Ubu, too. Pere Ubu, you can hear right on that first record these artier leanings.
WW: Right - and at the time, I%