They're Cursed!

They're Cursed!
Cursed, on stage, take musical intimidation to a new level. The pulsing of their punk/metal hybrid disrupts heart rates and pushes bowels to the brink of release without warning. Singer Chris Colohan flails about with fiery eyes, neck veins bulging to the point of bursting. Bassist Dan Dunham shakes the foundations of the building, and while guitarist Christian McMaster’s feet are firmly planted, his head flails about like an Exorcist outtake, all while Mike Maxymuik pounds his drums like he caught them cheating. The sonic intensity — and sheer volume — puts levels into the red, and threatens permanent damage to speaker cabinets and eardrums alike.

It’s a common stereotype that extreme, menacing music must come from extreme, menacing people; in this case, nothing could be further from the truth. Sitting down with Colohan and Maxymuik (the Toronto half of Cursed; Dunham and McMaster reside in Hamilton) for sushi in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, the duo are disarmingly affable.

Since their inception in 2001, Cursed have become standard-bearers for extreme music in Canada and abroad, celebrated for their consistent and challenging material, hailed for their untouchable live performances, and admired for their down-to-earth self-image. In the last five years, they’ve enjoyed opening stints for scene heavyweights like Converge and Bane and toured the world for months on end. They’ve also suffered through some of the worst luck, well beyond the dues-paying inevitabilities of being an independent band playing niche music in a huge but sparsely populated country. Their challenges have included the relatively typical (member changes, financial setbacks), the unusual (van doors flying open on the highway) and the nearly tragic (guitarist McMaster’s bout with carpel tunnel syndrome). It’s a wonder they haven’t changed their name, just in case they’ve angered the gods of good luck, turning their moniker into its own prophecy.

"All the shit we went through over the past few years — the good and the bad — was instrumental,” Chris Colohan says. "As a band, you’re defined by the adversities you have to deal with and overcome. Being able to survive and prevail, well, you come out the other side and that’s who you are.”

For Cursed, the "other side” of that musical wringer has taken some two decades to reach. Trolling through the band’s past and present members is like a family tree for independent Canadian hardcore punk. Over the course of almost 20 years, Colohan, Dunham, McMaster and Maxymuik have worked in D.I.Y. acts including Left For Dead, the Black Hand, Shallow, North Dakota, Haymaker, the Swarm and more. Each made a contribution to the evolution of Canadian hardcore/metal, yet wider recognition eluded them all.

The members of Cursed acknowledge the importance of those earlier efforts, personally and professionally, but have no interest in covering the same ground, musically speaking. But even though many of those bands ventured no further than a day’s drive from home, some fans can’t let it go.

"Some people obviously have a special place in their heart for some of those bands,” Maxymuik says. "That’s great but we’re still hearing people say they want us to sound like Left For Dead, or at least play a Left For Dead song. Those people are really few and far between though. Cursed is reputable enough that we have our own identity but some people just want to hold onto the past.” Colohan in particular is intent on maintaining a personal evolution, with little or no regard to his own past, or for that matter, his future. "We’ve never thought further ahead than the song we’re working on at the moment. We don’t consider the implications of changing anything. We’ve had that mentality since we started in the winter following 9/11. The kids listening back then are grown up and gone and probably don’t have an opinion at all anymore. You have to do this for yourself. It’s not a job — it’s your interest, your life.”

The Swarm, a key force in Canadian hardcore punk, with a personal, straightedge focus, immediately preceded the formation of Cursed. After their end in 2000, Swarm band-mates Colohan, Maxymuik and bassist Radwan Moumneh made up the initial Cursed line-up. To find a guitarist, Colohan and Maxymuik turned to their old Left For Dead band-mate, Christian McMaster, who completed the line-up in late 2001.

In 2002, Cursed entered a studio to record their debut album, One (commonly written as I), with bassist Tom Piraino subbing for Moumneh and an assist from Dan Dunham, whom they knew from his work in another seminal heavy Canadian band, Shallow, North Dakota. The album made an immediate impact in the scene, garnering critical respect and fan support, and Cursed quickly surpassed the notoriety and success of any of their previous efforts.

In 2004, Cursed enlisted Canadian guitar hero Ian Blurton to produce their follow-up effort, Two (II), which furthered their evolving vision. Its massively overdriven and static-laden attack befit the band’s increasingly dystopian style and monstrous sound yet left some heads scratching as to whether or not Two was over- or under-produced. Regardless, the band continued to win fans over with boisterous songs and energetic live performances as seemingly endless touring resumed once again, this time as a five-piece with Moumneh returning as a second guitarist. When he and Piriano departed in 2004, the band nixed the five-piece experiment and turned back to Dunham to play bass. A 2006 EP called Blackout At Sunrise solidified the union. The four-piece spread the Cursed word the only way they knew how, logging endless miles on the road while misfortune tried to tear the band apart. "There were so many things that kept trying to force us down while we were on the road, it’s tough to think of just one,” Maxymuik says. "I mean, getting paid $100 to open for Converge is great, but when you’re not selling any merch, it’s tough. You don’t have enough funds to keep going. And then we lost our merch. I think we forgot it at a show or something so we didn’t have any income on that level, but we agreed to forge on and kind of had to laugh at it.

"I think it was when I lost my cymbals that I almost cracked,” he continues. "We were driving down the highway and the door to the trailer broke open. My cymbals were last thing to be put in there so they went flying out and were gone forever. I shrugged and decided I would just get drunk for the rest of the tour. Which is what I did. But we got through it.”

"The last couple of years we’ve been in a lot of overdrive,” Colohan interjects. "It’s like a weird dare where no one wanted to be the pussy and give out so we’d just keep touring and touring until we collapsed. We had to take some time off away from the band to collect ourselves and our ideas before we could tackle [new album] III: Architects of Troubled Sleep. We also had to address some other internal issues.”

Those "internal issues” were essentially the health of guitarist Christian McMaster, who’d suffered for years with debilitating carpel tunnel syndrome, exacerbated by a day job involving strenuous physical labour with the added stress of years of touring. "He was always in pain,” Colohan says. "During some shows, he wasn’t even using a pick any more because he couldn’t hold it.” McMaster went so far as to write and record the new Cursed album before finally facing the inevitable choice: surgery, or never play guitar again. He went the surgery route, and was still wearing casts on both forearms when Exclaim! cover photos were taken.

Architects of Troubled Sleep is Cursed at their most cohesive: comfortable expressing themselves musically and lyrically, experimenting with their sound in the studio and letting the music flow naturally and spontaneously. The album’s raw turmoil and torment, its ravenous fury, urgency and desperation results in bowel-rumbling low-end, the churning rhythms only serving to accentuate the forlorn bleakness and frustration within the musicians, let alone the music.

In keeping with the album’s musical belligerence, it also follows a loose yet cantankerous lyrical theme — something Cursed maintains with each album. Colohan hesitates to call these bits of inspiration "concepts,” — common threads rarely span more than a few songs — but the general topic is present. Where their debut tackled issues of sex and morality and II featured Colohan’s therapeutic release of dealing with being "an individual in the city” while coming to terms with relocating back to Toronto from Montreal, he says Architects of Troubled Sleep takes on a more global approach.

"A lot of what’s on my back now — and what Architects speaks about — is how modern civilization is being dumbed down, overwhelmed and intentionally made to walk through life with your mind blown. It’s about how there’s a whole economy and world revolving around people shocked to the point where they can’t make informed decisions.”

Colohan’s lyrics are devoutly personal, even when the topics are informed by politics or outside influences; they are rooted in his point of view. But having come from the Swarm, a much more personal, lifestyle-oriented straightedge outfit, some fans still expect similar pronouncements from him. And he’s weary of explaining — even defending — his perspective to fans who’ve not really taken the time to listen or understand.

"[Conceptions of Cursed’s opinions] get heaped onto me because I’m the lyricist,” he says. "Sometimes it seems as though people [have] decided what’s political or personal without really reading what I write. I write for cathartic reasons and I’m glad that it connects with them but there are some who latch onto idealism in an OCD way. It can be alienating because we’d rather just hang out with people on a personal level instead of getting mired in debates. It’s really tiring to have people expect some sort of overt political slant to everything. It’s almost as if they see something that’s not there. I think my lyrics are pretty clear.”

With the relative success of One and Two backing them up, recording III: Architects of Troubled Sleep should have been a cakewalk, carpel tunnel issue aside. They could return to Ian Blurton, they could enlist Dan Dunham to help like he did with One, or they could take advantage of their newfound stature and go for a name producer. Instead, they revamped their recording approach, tapped a producer with no experience, and overhauled the writing process.

"This was the first record with a looser writing process,” Maxymuik says proudly. "There was a lot of interaction between everyone because we took a massive break after two years of killing ourselves. We worked on songs together where in the past Christian would have entire songs ready for us. This time, we had a bunch of songs that weren’t even done when we went in to record so we could let them evolve.”

Leaving large portions of songs unfinished in order to take advantage of in-studio inspiration, Colohan hammered out the finer points of his lyrical vision at the last minute, often changing the direction of songs as they were being committed to tape. When in the studio, time and money do not wait for bands striving to channel their muse, and this pressure can prove disastrous. Cursed jumped on it as another challenge to overcome.

"The song ‘Friends In The Music Business’ is a perfect example,” Maxymuik continues. "We wanted a song with Chris screaming and me playing drums. We were giving each other hand signals while we were recording so it was almost like a jam. [Chris] is standing beside me screaming and waving his hand, gesturing to keep going or stop, but it worked out so well. At the same time, he had a loose idea of what he wanted to do lyrically and once it was formulated in his head, he was like, ‘Stop what you’re doing! We have to record this right now! I’ve got it!’ That’s the relaxed approach we took to most of this record and I think it came out more powerful because of it.”

The second self-inflicted challenge was twofold: if the songs were to be raw and spontaneous, the finishing product needed to embody that, and they wanted to capture the vitality of their road-seasoned performances. So they chose the most logical person at hand — long-time soundman Donny Cooper, who’d been behind the boards at shows for most of their career. That he had zero experience as a producer didn’t seem that important. "There was talk of [approaching] producers like Steve Albini but we thought, ‘Why not go with the guy who knows us?’” Colohan relates. "[Donny’s] the guy who mixes us in our rehearsal space and when we play live, so he knows us. He’s our recording translator because we can put out an idea and he makes it happen. To take yourself out of your element into someone else’s studio is going to breed frustration. It’s better to be at home and work with people who know you.”

"We’ve never been perfectionists but we really wanted the live feel of the band on this record,” Maxymuik adds. "We got it thanks to Donny. This record captures the core of our live performances.” In fact, Cooper’s limited recording experience proved beneficial. Unattached to traditional recording methods, he was less beholden to a "This is how I do it” mentality of more established producers. Together, they approached each song as an individual identity, unconcerned about putting a wash of consistency over the whole product.

"We tailored production to the sound and theme of every song,” Maxymuik says. "If you listen to this record, each song is a different character. The type of song and the way they sound are all individual. You could have the same approach to each song but it wouldn’t have the same effect. This way, each song accosts you and doesn’t sound slick but there are songs that are quiet. On most albums — even a lot of heavier records — that’s the same kick or guitar sound I’ve heard through the whole record. I like to have parts that startle you. That’s why we didn’t master it so it comes at you super-loud too. We wanted people to be able to crank it up and enjoy it so that it’s not distorting.”

Moving forward, the best news for Cursed has been McMaster’s clean bill of health; he’s recovered and anxious to get back on the road in support of Architects of Troubled Sleep. At the same time, Maxymuik is happy, in retrospect, to have had a break. "Christian’s surgery sort of demanded that we take a break right after recording, which worked perfectly. We could step away, take a breather and get the artwork and business out of the way before going on tour.”

"He’s had to overcome a lot to play again but he’s on the track to recovery,” adds Colohan. "We will be out on the road in support of Architects. Of course, now he says he can’t lift guitar cabinets anymore… or so says the guy with five of them.” Health scares can do wonders for putting things into perspective, and Cursed don’t spend a lot of time musing on what the future might bring, or lamenting lost opportunities. Maxymuik reiterates that the completed Architects of Troubled Sleep — and Cursed for that matter — is an entirely selfish pleasure that just happens to appeal to the rest of the hardcore world. The band hasn’t so much overhauled their sound as they have continued on the same journey, refusing to tread the same musical ground. "It bothers me when people compare our records [with one another],” Maxymuik says. "With every new record, I like to think that our heads are in a different space; we have different ideas of what we want to do with the band. I just don’t want people to come up and say, ‘How come it doesn’t sound like II?’ We’ve done that. We’re trying to move forward.”