Published Sep 26, 2018Damian Abraham has been the face of Fucked Up for their entire career, but his time in the spotlight is over.
The Toronto punk act's latest record, Dose Your Dreams, is their most sonically diverse yet. As the band add a load of different elements to their music, they're also subtracting one key one: Abraham's voice. The vocalist — whose onstage antics have been the most high-profile element of the band throughout their career — only appears on two-thirds of the record, and his involvement will be even more limited moving forward. And Damian Abraham seems more than okay with that.
"It took a couple more years than I thought or hoped, but I think we're hitting that point now where — I know to a lot of people I'm still essential, but I don't think my role in the band has to be what it has historically been for it to still function," Abraham says. "I think that's my hope is we can find ways for this band to grow without having to have me be the guy holding it back."
Abraham, in concert, has been the focal point of the band — a beer glass smashing, screaming, stripping, crowd-member-spinning whirl of furious energy. He commonly wraps himself in microphone cords and regularly leaves stages covered in his own blood.
In studio is where Fucked Up are a completely different band, guided and controlled by a very different leader. If Abraham is the id of Fucked Up, Mike Haliechuk is the superego. The band's thick, layered guitar sound has been driven by Haliechuk's close attention to detail since their beginnings, when they exclusively recorded and released seven-inch singles, and he's maintained that grip throughout, from their full-length debut Hidden World to Dose Your Dreams.
Across the band's history, who and what Fucked Up are has been a push and pull between two disparate visions: the punk-oriented indie rock of 2008's Polaris Music Prize-winning The Chemistry of Common Life or 2011's rock opera David Comes to Life on the Haliechuk side; the straightforward hardcore punk aggression of 2014's Glass Boys on the Abraham side.
This tension between two visions has expressed itself throughout Fucked Up's career. The elaborate, ambitious sounds of Dose Your Dreams are a direct response to the stripped-down direction of Glass Boys, itself birthed in response to the more densely complicated David Comes to Life.
For Abraham, Glass Boys was when he realized his time in the band was coming to a conclusion — he wanted it to be the end for everyone. "We got success on our own terms, doing what we want to do, but then it was like, now what?" he asks. "That was really where I wanted that record to be, like, our last statement.
"I think that's why I had a really hard time with this record," he continues, "because as far as saying what I feel needs to be said, I think I said that on the last one. I'm not saying it won't come again, but I wonder what it would take to get that inspiration again."
Haliechuk is the complete opposite. The guitarist felt Glass Boys wasn't as confident-sounding as it could have been; a perfectionist, he wanted to take the band's sound to places they hadn't gone before.
"As much as Glass Boys was a reaction to the one before it, this record is kind of a reaction to that," Haliechuk explains. "I really stepped in this time like, we need to sort of blast this thing out and make a very maximum record. It maybe takes the most amount of chances and it's the most different."
Facing uncertainty about the band's future — and Abraham's role in it — when it came time to record a followup to Glass Boys, they simply couldn't coordinate schedules, especially given Abraham's increasingly varied activities away from Fucked Up. So Haliechuk and drummer Jonah Falco simply booked studio time, started recording and came to the band with a version of Dose Your Dreams that was mostly complete.
"My initial reaction — and historically my reaction — would be to say 'Fuck you, I'm not doing it that way,'" Abraham admits. "I think, for the first time ever — certainly the first time when we've done an LP — it was just like, 'I'm going to shut up and say yes.' Mike is someone who thinks in terms of the big picture, and I've always been the guy who just disrupts that big picture. This time, I just decided to see what he has planned."
Haliechuk didn't have a plan, though. When he and Falco entered the studio in 2016, they didn't exactly know what they were going to create, but saw there were a ton of different instruments laying around. What came as a result is a very wide-reaching album in terms of sound that includes everything from disco, psych-rock, industrial, punk and straightforward rock.
"We showed up and there were drum machines and synths and stuff set up, so we fucked around and learned how to use these things," Haliechuk says. "A couple of the songs, like 'Normal People,' obviously have this very '70s kind of gritty Supertramp thing going on; '70s guitar music has synths all over it, but a lot of it was just what was in the studio. We didn't have a plan, so whatever was there at our disposal was something we tried to involve."
When Abraham first heard the results, he had no idea how his voice would fit with the music. The vocalist says there were a lot of parts on the album that he would have typically put his foot down on, but after accomplishing what he has with the band, his priorities were elsewhere. Abraham had started working on a podcast and a wrestling show for Vice that took up most of his time.
"I wasn't a fan of it at all," he says now. "I was certainly not in favour of taking that approach to a record. I was very much thinking we should strip it down. We should do something straightforward. Then I got another job.
"There were times when I would be like 'Oh, I kind of see what's going on here,' where Mike would be like, 'You should sing this,' and I would be like, 'No. Someone else should sing this and I'll do something else on the song or not be on it at all.' I think there's a lot of room for the band to breathe."
It was a light bulb moment for Fucked Up, freeing Haliechuk and Falco, with bassist Sandy Miranda and guitarists Ben Cook and Josh Zucker, to explore new possibilities in the band's universe. A whole host of new voices have been invited into their world on Dose Your Dreams: Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis, fellow Polaris Music Prize winner Lido Pimienta, folk singer Jennifer Castle and more take the mic. Ironically, it all stemmed from an idea Abraham had long before the record was conceived.
"A couple of years ago, [Abraham] had this idea where he said he wanted to do this album that was a multitude of voices," Haliechuk reveals. "Sort of indirectly, I feel like this record was a tribute to that idea, where he wanted to do a record that was more thematic and had a bunch of different voices."
Ambitious concepts are not a problem for Fucked Up. Since their debut record, off and on, they've followed the fictional story of David Eliade. First referenced on the song "David Comes to Life," he's since grown into a character who can serve as a stand-in for Fucked Up themselves, saying in-character what they maybe can't in interviews. His story expanded on the full-length David Comes to Life, which straddled a line between fiction and reality, blending his storyline with experiences the band members had gone through.
David's story, in brief: Working at a light bulb factory in 1980s England, David falls in love with activist Veronica Boisson and the two plot to build a bomb to destroy the factory. The bomb fails, killing Veronica, leaving David feeling guilty and the narrator agreeing. The story gets a little meta, with David and narrator Octavio St. Laurent fighting for control of the plot, ultimately ending in Octavio accepting his role in Veronica's death and David returning to the factory to relive the story.
Dose Your Dreams revives David's tale, while reimagining the world he lives in. David is drugged while working in an office and subsequently gets fired; he meets time-travelling revolutionary Joyce Tops in an alley while hallucinating. Joyce sends David on a vision quest where he realizes the true nature of capitalist life. Not wanting to return to this, David dives deeper to find the meaning of existence and, after a long series of twists and turns, he learns to strive for a better existence in spite of harsh realities.
Fucked Up explore a number of topics across the record, including love, existential doubt, suicidal tendencies, corporate culture and anarchy. After the music was written, Abraham's other jobs were taking up his time and creativity, so Haliechuk went ahead and wrote the lyrics without mentioning that he was reintroducing David's story.
"I didn't know until the press release came out," Abraham says. "I hadn't heard [the album] in the proper order because the metadata on my computer assembled it alphabetically. I never heard the proper track listing until the day the album got announced and that press link went out. I got a press link and was like 'Oh shit, there is a story.'"
Tension in the band has lessened, but communication issues persist. Even now, Abraham still doesn't know all of the details of what Haliechuk has planned. "I feel like I'm experiencing this record the same way other people are," Abraham says. "I had no idea. I still have no idea what the Raise Your Voice Joyce compilation is about."
When the band released David Comes to Life, they also released the David's Town compilation as a companion piece. The compilation claims to be recorded by bands from "Byrdesdale Spa," the fictional town where the record is set.
With Dose Your Dreams, the band are doing another companion called Raise Your Voice Joyce: Contemporary Shouts From Contemporary Voices. And Haliechuk says there are even more releases planned.
"There are a bunch of records coming out in the universe, but I sort of want them to just filter out and people can figure out what they are," he offers, mysteriously.
Abraham admits that he and guitarist Josh Zucker overruled Haliechuk when it came to writing David Comes to Life, and that the original vision may in fact finally be reflected in Dose Your Dreams.
"I think doing that wrestling TV show that I did, I honestly feel like that was such a fantasy and such a 'Wouldn't this be amazing if this actually happened' thing. When it finally did happen, I was able to let go of some of the control that I was holding onto in Fucked Up," Abraham says, "and surrender to this being someone else's chance to have their vision come true."