Fucked Up Celebrate Their "Weirdest, Most Difficult" Music as 'The Chemistry of Common Life' Turns 15
"It feels to me like a confident record, in the way that a cat brings a dead mouse to its owner to show off her teeth"
Published Nov 07, 2023It starts with a woodland flute solo and ends with a seven-minute finale that reprises the riff of that first song. Certainly, 2008's The Chemistry of Common Life is made up of different DNA than your average hardcore punk record, and it propelled Toronto collective Fucked Up to a level of renown that most bands of their ilk can only dream of: rave reviews from the mainstream music press, the fourth-ever Polaris Music Prize, and a spot on the cover of Exclaim! Magazine.
Remarkable as it is, the album's ambition is par for the course with Fucked Up; their debut album, 2006's Hidden World, was a 72-minute epic, while subsequent releases have included four-act rock operas, compilations of songs by fictional bands and writing/recording sessions that took place within just 24 hours.
The band have continued to explore — but, as guitarist Mike Haliechuk tells Exclaim!, The Chemistry of Common Life still occupies a special place in the band's history. A time when their artistic vision had come into focus, but their technical ability was still developing, resulting in a breakneck tension between ambition and execution. He told us about harnessing lightning during the recording sessions, achieving success even as they remained in a humble community of "dysfunctional" artists, and why even an upcoming 15th anniversary reissue (out February 23 on Matador Records) can't make him look backward for inspiration.
What do you remember about making The Chemistry of Common Life?
Almost everything prior to 2020 is a blur to me now, but a few things stand out. We did all the bed tracks at Halla Studios, which is in the east end of Toronto and no longer there. In those days we'd all be present for essentially every minute of recording, unless one of us had work. For us, these were complicated songs still — I remember watching all of the Godfather on the tiny TV/VHS set up in the lobby while Sandy [Miranda] worked out the bass track to one of the songs.
I remember bringing every guitar amp we owned to the studio, and setting them all up in a wall — this is probably three half stacks as well as four or five other combo amps, as well as a handful of amps that the studio owned. We stood in the room with that wall of amps while we played, and it felt like being underwater. After a bit of tracking, we noticed that the vibrations had broken all the strings of the acoustic guitars hanging on the walls of that room.
There is a place in the east end called Gails, which is a diner out of time — falling apart, original menu from maybe the '60s, nothing cost over $2, so we were eating $1.50 egg and cheese sandwiches and 75 slices of pie for two weeks, fuelling these 14-hour days in there.
I remember coming up with the "Son the Father"/"Chemistry" riff over probably a period of a few weeks, recording it at my house onto an old tape deck, slowly figuring out the notes and where it should go, and blowing my own mind that a few songs from one album could share a riff — at this point not understanding anything about motifs or structure really. We were just winging it at that point.
What does this record mean for you as a band — both at the time it first came out, and now in hindsight?
Chemistry was the first record that people outside of hardcore really took seriously, and put us in this little wave of music with people like Vivian Girls, Jay Reatard, No Age — these punk bands that really still had no idea what we were doing, but managed to hit on something all at the same time. It's strange to me that that record got the attention it did, because it's probably our most raw and unhinged album. For myself personally at least, I was facing inward, to the past, writing lyrics about swans and the chemistry that formed life millions of years ago, just truly reading biology text books and trying to draw meaning from them. It's strange, looking back, why that record resonated like it did. Musically, it's that short period every band with longevity gets — the record where you've perfected your ideas and your dreams, but you still don't quite yet have the chops, so it sounds like a speeding car that someone ripped the wheel off of, just careening all over the road, unstoppable.
The night before it came out, we were on tour in the UK, all stuffed into Ben [Cook]'s aunt's house somewhere outside Bristol. I remember waking up and reading these great reviews and I'm looking around the room I'm in: it's some kids bedroom, I'm in a sleeping bag on the carpet. Surreal.
Listening back to The Chemistry of Common Life 15 years later, what stands out?
I haven't listened to it in years, but it feels to me like a confident record, in the way that a cat brings a dead mouse to its owner to show off her teeth. We were writing and performing on instinct at this moment, doing these primal things, singing about these primal urges, trying to get into the blood, trying to harness the lightning, just blind to motive, just knowing we had to do it. We just played a bunch of the songs last weekend for probably the first time in like 12 years. There is still this weird electricity in that music, some charge that we held for a minute.
This album won the Polaris Music Prize and earned glowing reviews in the mainstream music press. Given that you came from a hardcore punk background, did you expect that your music could cross over to the kinds of audiences you reached with The Chemistry of Common Life?
At the time, it was hard not to feel that, this crossover thing that people always talk about when a punk band sells some albums. But it didn't feel then like we were stepping into a new world — it felt like we were bringing them into ours. We were just as dysfunctional, unmanaged; the cast of characters on that album is just all our weird friends and people from our small community in Toronto. It took a year to make that album, and it took the same year to get the contract sorted with Matador, and, underneath it all, we're talking to lawyers, going to New York for meetings or whatever. It was hard for that stuff to rub off on us, since we're all weird, difficult people, and we were pointing our weirdest, most difficult music up to that sun.
The Chemistry of Common Life is getting reissued. How will this experience of digging into the album again influence what Fucked Up do next?
It probably won't. When the past calls back, let go, say no. We wrote Chemistry when I was 27 — the magic number between brazen youth and age, when disillusionment starts to set in. Thats a place you can never go back to, no matter hard you try. You can just reflect on it from a distance, but only a fool would try and walk back that way. I've always got about 10 albums lined up in advance anyway!