The Tensions of Fucked Up

BY Sam SutherlandPublished Sep 28, 2008

I am rubbing the glass-shard-filled head of a 300-pound guy named Pink Eyes. Damian Abraham, vocalist for the hipster-punk-baiting Fucked Up, is telling me about a recent bout with a pint glass in Calgary. "Someone handed me a glass in such a way that I just kind of pushed it into my head,” says Abraham. "We played two more songs, hung out for a bit, then decided to go to the hospital.” Abraham now sports a hunk of glass buried just above his left eyebrow; the back of his head boasts a similar set of collected beer bottle shards. "I feel like I wanna follow in that tradition — the Iggy Pop tradition, the Darby Crash tradition — where you bleed for rock’n’roll.”

A day earlier and a little further east, Mike Haliechuk is the quieter half of Fucked Up’s two leaders. The band’s self-professed studio Machiavelli, it’s Haliechuk’s obsessive guitar layering and endless attention to minute sonic details that have crafted the mind-bending hardcore that Fucked Up champion. "Fucked Up live and Fucked Up in the studio are completely different bands,” he says. "If it was up to me, we wouldn’t tour or really play at all.” And here’s where Fucked Up, on the verge of releasing their second full-length record, become something more than just a really good punk band from Toronto. Beyond a brutal live show and an endless string of vital small-run vinyl releases, they represent a tumultuous vision of rock’n’roll that died with the rise of the online age; in a era where the most trivial details of a band’s inner workings are constantly on display, it’s near impossible to decipher the multitude of tiny dichotomies that comprise Fucked Up.

The band came together in April of 2001, a bunch of kids from Toronto’s still-burgeoning punk and hardcore community. Haliechuk, along with then-vocalist Josh Zucker, bassist Sandy Miranda, and drummer Chris Colohan (Left for Dead, the Swarm, Cursed), wrote some songs, played them, and basically broke up; Zucker went on summer vacation and Colohan left the band. Abraham stepped in to sing in Zucker’s absence, Jonah Falco joined on drums, and when Zucker returned he opted to make the move to guitar. The band’s first demo tape came out in early 2002 and marked their arrival in Toronto’s tight-knit scene. After two well received seven-inches on Vancouver’s Deranged Records, they unleashed Baiting the Public, a six-minute epic split over two sides of a single. It was the first sign that Fucked Up weren’t going to play by the rules. They proceeded to release approximately 25 singles in four years.

"The question I get from kids most often is, ‘How did you do that? How did you make that many records?’ And I don’t know,” Haliechuk says. It wasn’t just the band’s output that impressed and galvanized fans and collectors: it was the variations. The series is defined by small runs and regionally-specific artwork; some by mistake and others crafted deliberately by the band in an attempt to generate controversy and collectability. Fans turned records over for hundreds on eBay, aided by the band’s explosive word-of-mouth popularity and staunch refusal to tour. "Honestly, when we started, that was partly just us fucking with people,” admits Haliechuk. "It’s more annoying than funny now. Everyone just complains about it.”

Those singles, compiled on CD for Epics in Minutes (Deranged, 2004), stoked anticipation for a full-length release, an album that would introduce the band’s progressive, psychedelic-leaning hardcore to a world outside of punk’s sometimes-limited walls. Hidden World, released in 2006, was every bit that record; a monstrous (clocking in at 72 minutes) collection of old and new songs tied together by ambitiously varied interludes, it announced the band’s arrival into a much larger world. It topped best-of lists, saw the band perform on MTV (where they did $2,000 in damage), and turned them into heroes in their native Toronto.

It was also horribly mishandled by their former record label, Jade Tree. "They thought we were these ‘crazy punks’, and they’d said shit like, ‘Yeah, we’ll put out your record, but we’ll only put in as much work as you do,’ I guess thinking that we weren’t going to tour or do anything,” says Haliechuk. "But the record came out and we went on tour for eight months and they literally didn’t do anything.” The label stopped returning the band’s emails and left them in contractual limbo for almost a year, stunting the band’s growth outside of the United States, the only place the record was ever properly released.

More than a legal nightmare, Hidden World aggravated existing tensions within the band. It alienated some of their earliest fans with its left-field progressive leanings, excessive running time, and (compared to early material) high production value. Over the next two years, Fucked Up entered a constant touring cycle that guaranteed either their complete destruction or total creative redemption. With The Chemistry of Common Life, their follow-up to Hidden World, the band is, at least, still alive.

"Sandy threw a roll of duct tape to someone and it hit me in the head,” says Abraham, recalling the conclusion of the band’s recent trip to England. "This is on the departures level of Heathrow airport. We were all kind of tired because we had been up super-late the night before, it was kind of tense, and so the tape hit me and — I admit I overreacted — I started yelling, ‘Why the hell did you just throw that?’ Sandy, who was probably a little hung over, yelled, ‘I did it by accident!’ and charged at me with fists-a-flailing. Got a couple of body shots in and kind of clipped me in the face, so I said, ‘I’m going to smash you.’ I didn’t throw a punch, but Josh thought the threat was real enough that he was going to try and restrain me. So when Josh grabbed hold of me from behind, I smashed him against the van, at which point he let go and I grabbed one of his free arms and flipped him over my shoulder. The problem was, because we were on the second level of Heathrow, he nearly went over the edge.” Abraham isn’t kidding; he’s started our casual conversation with this story. The tensions in Fucked Up are very real. "At that point I’m like, ‘I’m done, I’m not doing this tour!’ So I got in the van and I told our driver to take me back to London,” says Abraham. He was talked down. But when asked how many times he’s quit Fucked Up, Abraham counts three genuine attempts to leave, along with a handful of less serious threats to end his role in the band; both Haliechuk and Miranda have also threatened to quit at various times.

"When something like that happens, I realize how much we tear at each other’s throats,” says Abraham. "Sandy took a swing at me on stage in Long Beach. One time I shoved Mike because he refused to load in. Then there’s a whole level of psychological war.” Those warring parties didn’t have much to fight over for most of Fucked Up’s existence; the band never toured (no one could drive) and day jobs kept them functioning on a level that all members were comfortable with. With the reception to Hidden World, however, came the decision to adopt the responsibilities of being a full-time band.

"Touring caused a lot of tension in last two years because we had no money,” says Haliechuk. "We’d come back from being on tour for three months broke with no job, and we’re not 18-year-old kids who are just like, ‘Oh man, I love touring.’” On a recent European jaunt, the band added to their entourage by taking on Ben Cook, former vocalist for Toronto hardcore vets No Warning, as a third guitar player. Cook’s levelheaded influence, according to Abraham and Haliechuk, has had as much to do with balancing out the band socially as adding to it musically. But things haven’t gotten any less volatile. Abraham has been accused of playing up the level of disagreement in Fucked Up, but spending any amount of time with two of the band’s disparate factions provides two very different visions of what Fucked Up should be. "I want Fucked Up to be the most transparent band in history. I don’t want there to be any secrets,” says Abraham. "Mike wants this be as ephemeral as possible. I want it to be the every band, and Mike wants it to be the perfect idealized band.” Haliechuk’s efforts to maintain an enigmatic quality to Fucked Up in an information-saturated digital age are actually pretty impressive; over the course of our interview, I ask at least two questions that prove to be based entirely on lies perpetuated by the band. Fucked Up have built up a mythology as hefty as their discography: they have alternately professed to the use of sigils for magic purposes, claimed that Abraham is the father of a child named "Eli,” and deflected questions to their manager, David Eliade, whom no one has ever met but who taught Haliechuk to garden. When they’ve bothered to include credits on their releases, it was under pseudonyms that often changed; currently, they’re known as Pink Eyes (Abraham), 10,000 Marbles (Haliechuk), Mustard Gas (Miranda), Gulag (Zucker), Young Governor (Cook), and Mr. Jo (Falco). Haliechuk still requests to be referred to by his 10,000 Marbles moniker. Abraham doesn’t care.

"It comes from the fact that it’s six people that have very different expectations of what they want from a band,” says Abraham. "Because we never had a clear shot, like we’re gonna do this, this, this and we’re gonna get famous. It all just sort of spiraled out of control with no clear-cut idea of where we wanted to go. You just have six people with totally different ideas of what this band should do and how we should act on tour and on stage. Six people who don’t agree on anything. Literally anything. I think we all like pizza and sushi. When it comes to what kind of sushi or what’s on the pizza, then there’s all kinds of controversy. But, you know, at least we’re not all vegan anymore.”

The Chemistry of Common Life is the sonic distillation of those intra-band controversies. For starters, the fucking thing opens with a flute solo. As a wall of guitars swells behind it, "Son the Father” explodes like My Bloody Valentine fronted by Negative Approach’s John Brannon, and as the record progresses, the band’s musical tangents and divergent interests are only brought into starker relief. The influence of Poison Idea and the Wipers, so prominent on their first singles, is still apparent on songs like "Magic Word” and "Twice Born.” But the overwhelming weirdness of songs like "Royal Swan,” which sees Abraham vocally sparring with the operatic indie styles of Katie Stelmanis, along with "Golden Seal” and "Looking for Gold,” which recall David Bowie’s Low-era soundscapes, is demonstrative of a band fighting some unique internal battles. Teaming up with long-time producer and co-conspirator Jon Drew, the band’s process necessitated an equally unique recording situation.

"We recorded the drums parts, some riffs, and then left the studio,” says Haliechuk. The band, whose previous recording experiences pretty much involved straight recording of well-rehearsed songs, had only constructed skeletal demos of the songs that would comprise their sophomore full-length. "We went on tour for three months, and I would just write more guitar parts. So we came back and I added 12 guitar tracks to every song. Then we went on tour again and came back and added more guitar parts.” The process of building songs in the studio over a prolonged period of time (recording lasted nearly a year) could have easily resulted in a bloated, sprawling epic, and yet somehow, the opposite is true; The Chemistry of Common Life is leaner and more focused than anything Fucked Up have done since Baiting the Public, aggressively pushing the boundaries of the band’s sound but keeping those deviations within set parameters. "It’s not like we’re Yellowcard or something where we’re trying to mix violin in with our choruses,” says Haliechuk. "When we use stupid instruments, it’s either percussion, so it doesn’t matter, or it’s in an intro. When we were doing the last record with Owen [Pallett, aka Final Fantasy], he asked if we wanted him to play on any of the actual songs, and we decided not to. I guess it would be cool to be like, ‘Yeah, I’m in a hardcore band with a flute in it,’ but that can come off as audacious for its own sake.” Pallett, whose string work helped to enhance the bizarre-hardcore factor of Hidden World, wasn’t around for any of Chemistry’s scattered recording sessions, but the album is littered with other Toronto musicians adding their own character to the band’s creations. From the raspy screeching of Justin Small and Kay Taylor on the chorus to "Son the Father,” to the horn work of Falco and Abraham’s high school music teacher Tom Wade-West on "Days of Last,” nearly every song on the album is buoyed by some unexpected outside contribution.

"I love that about rap music, and I wanted to bring that to hardcore,” says Abraham. "We started bringing in guest vocalists around our fourth single. I really like that aspect of a community of friends coming together and getting people who offer different things from the people in the band.” One of the people most likely cause a stir in the Fucked Up camp is the mysterious chorus vocalist on "Black Albino Bones,” the band’s closest-ever attempt at something vaguely poppy and, as a result, one of the most shocking moments on the whole album. It barely made it off the chopping block.

"In the article you have to say that it’s Kevin Shields,” says Haliechuk. "It’s Dallas Green,” says Abraham, who tells us to ignore Haliechuk’s request. Buried under a mountain of effects and low in the mix, the distinctive croon from the Alexisonfire and City and Colour vocalist could kind of be mistaken for the My Bloody Valentine mastermind. Maybe. "I read on the internet some dude saying, ‘It’s Kevin Shields.’ And some other dude was like, ‘No, I think it’s Dallas Green,’” says Haliechuk. "Then all these other kids were like, ‘You fucking idiot. There’s no way it’s Dallas Green.’” Adds Abraham, "It’s just because they don’t want to admit they like Dallas Green.”

Live, Fucked Up belongs to Abraham. He’s a big guy, a brash mixture of the Cro Mags’ John Joseph’s voice and Iggy Pop’s stage presence. He palms razor blades to cut open his forehead, and his massive frame becomes a lightning rod for the violent impulses of the crowd.

"I would never want to be in a band where someone could leave and be like, ‘Meh.’ Even if they hate it, they can’t deny there’s a lot of pizzazz,” he says. "When we go in to the studio, I can’t offer that much. My vocal range is pretty limited. But in a live setting, it’s my job to put on a show. I take it really personally when the band ignores the fact that I’m going out there, and even when I’m not blading or hitting myself, I’m busting my knees and stuff.”

"The shit he does on stage takes the pressure off of everyone else,” Haliechuk admits. "We could just stand there with our backs turned and it would still be a good show because he would be out there tearing shit up.” Which is, ultimately, where the band splits into two almost separate entities: the frequently sloppy, consistently abrasive and physically demanding live Fucked Up, and the mysterious, meticulous, and perfected studio Fucked Up. So while Abraham steers the band on stage, Haliechuk runs the band in a very different off-stage fashion.

"I sort of want to quit the band and just do the bullshit part,” says Haliechuk. "Hopefully in 20 years I’ll be doing an interview and I’ll be able to say that Fucked Up was a joke. We were kidding. About everything. And then 20 years after that I’ll admit I was joking about that. And the Fucked Up renaissance shall begin.”

Until that day, the band will have to contend with the divergent interests of six very different people; and, hopefully, it will keep them in good supply of the type of inner conflict that produces records like The Chemistry of Common Life.

"I’m more at peace with Fucked Up’s sound now than I was two years ago,” says Abraham. "There was a time when I was like, ‘Well, if we’re not a hardcore band, what the fuck are we?’ We all want to be a different band. I don’t think it’s a good show unless kids are going crazy. For Mike, he wants people to be like, ‘Oh, I really like what you did with your pedals there.’ There are those days where I still close my eyes and imagine I’m in [pioneering ‘80s hardcore band] Infest with walls of kids falling down on me, and I open my eyes to see Mike fixing his pedals and go, ‘Yeah, I’m still in Fucked Up.’”

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