Punk Rock in a Whole New Light?
That’s Just Fucked Up!
Everything in this article may be wrong.
Apologies for the Vonnegut-like opening, but given the subject, fair warning seems in order. You see, Toronto’s Fucked Up has a history of playing fast and loose with the facts in order to create its own alternate reality. Upon release of 2008’s monolithic The Chemistry of Common Life, the band claimed its ginormous guitar sound was the product of overdubs that at times ran 90 tracks deep – a feat they later disavowed, admitting they didn’t even know if it was possible. Or the comment that their guitarist once worked in a lightbulb factory, conveniently matching the resumé of the protagonist of Fucked Up’s current master stroke, the “rock opera” David Comes to Life. All harmless stuff, mind you, done in good fun – well, aside from the Nazi imagery that adorned some early singles. And all indicative of a band enamored with the grand statement, one that quickly elevated above its hardcore punk foundation.
Fucked Up’s Wikipedia page (presumably penned by the band itself, or its emissaries) mentions manager and graphic designer David Eliade, their mysterious “fifth Beatle… who has never attended any of their live shows.” It’s surprising the site has allowed such disinformation to stand uncorrected for so long. Eliade (the name inspired by a Romanian academic and onetime fascist) initially appeared on the track “David Comes to Life” on Fucked Up’s first proper album, 2006’s Hidden World. He now returns as the central figure to a 78-minute album by the same name.
“We came up with the guy in 2005 or ’06 – not that it was premeditated with the first song, but we sort of knew we had a character we could use,” guitarist Mike Haliechuk explains to me from the back steps of the EARL prior to their June show. “It’s always been in the back of my mind to come back to him, but for whatever reason we didn’t really approach it until last year.” David Comes to Life tells the tale of an anonymous everyman working a dead-end job in a small English village who suddenly falls in love with a radical activist. She dies when the two are assembling homemade bombs. David is accused of murder, a prosecutorial voice emerges in the narrative, and things quickly take a turn for the surreal.
Haliechuk explains that the plot was laid out before lyrics were written. “We sat down and divided the story up into 18 different parts (the first is an instrumental). We were kind of in a rush so we just grabbed songs and kept doing it.” Haliechuk is credited with lyrics for most of David’s back half, which becomes increasingly meta and, frankly, incomprehensible. Fortunately, the music behind it is so strong that one can enjoy the ride without even noticing the storyline. Without sacrificing the band’s trademark intensity, Fucked Up have crafted indisputably their most melodic and approachable batch of songs – a logical progeny to Hüsker Dü’s epic Zen Arcade and after all, one didn’t need to follow that album’s “troubled boy leaves home” plot to be blown away.
“I grew up with that record,” Haliechuk says of Ze Arcade, “but it’s been years since I’ve listened to it so I’m not really a reliable source. I’ve never even heard some of the touchstones people mention, like the Pretty Things,” whose oft-cited but seldom heard S.F. Sorrow was an early entrant in the concept album sweepstakes, but whose gentler sound has little in common with David Comes to Life. Better to think Tommy or Quadrophenia, as Fucked Up have never shied away from injecting the classic rock move into their hardcore punk charge.
The public’s perception of the band inevitably focuses on Pink Eyes, the nom de Fucked of Damian Abraham, their literally and figuratively larger-than-life vocalist. Abraham’s among the most outrageous frontmen of the era, his outsized presence threatening to obfuscate the contributions of his five bandmates. It’d be easy to imagine his mates chafing at the spotlight-hogging by now, but Haliechuk insists the opposite remains true. “He really fires up the rest of the band to go about our business,” the clean-cut Haliechuk shrugs, with the same aw-shucks understatement that permeates our conversation. Whenever I try to engage him on their media shenanigans, he flashes a wry smile and gingerly changes the subject. Meanwhile, Abraham has parlayed his gregariousness into a recurring stint as a Fox News guest commentator, and more recently appears with his wife on the reality TV series Newlywed, Nearly Dead? on the Canadian equivalent of HGTV.
While the “90 guitar tracks” claim may have been a crock, Haliechuk stands by the notion that the band rarely spends time in the studio together. “We did more than half of this record in New York, and only me, Damian and Jonah were ever in that studio. Usually it’s me and Jonah who do the bulk of everything at the start, and then everyone comes in and adds their parts individually. Every band has their own style of recording, this just happens to be ours. I do the bulk of the recording, so I take up the most time, and it’s awkward when you’ve got six people standing around in the studio waiting for something to do. We’ve never really done live recording – we don’t really know how to do that.” In a bit of backwards logic, following the grand statements of its last two albums Fucked Up is pondering a live-in-the-studio recording (“something with 16 tracks tops”) as the next frontier – “also so we can get something out in less than nine months.”
While their de facto leader, Haliechuk is also Fucked Up’s uncharacteristic introvert. Meeting the crew, I’m greeted with hearty handshakes and welcoming smiles more in keeping with a Christian young adult group than a hardcore punk band. Before the set, Abraham and Jonah “Mr. Jo” (formerly “G. Beat”) Falco look fully in their element working the merch table and happily chatting up fans perusing a wide array of immaculately designed vinyl releases, all with a common look and feel. As for those pseudonyms, Haliechuk – aka 10,000 Marbles – concedes, “To me those were always more of a liner note thing. As an adult, it feels kind of weird trying to preserve this punk personality.”
Onstage at the EARL the truth becomes indisputable, and Fucked Up confounds expectations yet again. With a freshly minted and highly ambitious concept album under their belts, the band offers no narratively sequenced run-through of tracks. In fact the only nod to David comes a few songs in, when almost as an afterthought Abraham chuckles over some opening chords, “Oh yeah, we’ve got a new album out…” After opening with David’s agenda-setting track “Queen of Hearts” – which proves bassist Sandy “Mustard Gas” Miranda to be amply capable of shouldering the sweet backing vocals farmed out to female guests on the album – the focus shifts to the most memorable tracks from The Chemistry of Common Life such as the propulsive “Black Albino Bones.” But somehow, the gap is bridged between Chemistry’s heavier riffage and David’s tauter melodies. Then eventually both gave way to punk rock thrash, giving the night a feel of an old-school hardcore show with the shirtless Abraham, a two-day stubble on his shaved head and a bit of a squint making him look oddly like the disheveled doppelganger of former New York Governor David Patterson, holding the mic above the lunging crowd and working his way through the moshpit, winding up atop the bar with a football helmet atop his head. Making multiple references to WCW wrestling, Abraham relishes playing the role of heel, taunting the crowd with the superiority of Pepsi over Coke. Behind this spectacle the band never missed a beat – Mr. Jo’s energetic and rock-solid drumming revealing itself as the band’s stealth weapon, while Haliechuk churned away at stage left without opening his mouth the entire night.
Sounds like the blueprint for what, as it was once reported, began as an experiment of combining a bunch of people who would never normally be in a band together. The most audible example of this is Abraham’s ominous growl more commonly associated with extreme metal, which holds some potential admirers at arm’s length. “I think that was a bit overblown,” Haliechuk protests. “We just weren’t like five or six friends forming a band and then learning our instruments,” he says of his motley crew of Toronto natives. “We didn’t know that many musicians, we just started reaching out, pulling together a bunch of people that we knew from other bands.”
Speaking of reaching out, Fucked Up has managed to amass a remarkably diverse batch of guests (Nelly Furtado, comedian David Cross, GZA, Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould) for a pair of Christmas singles (one a cover of Band Aid’s “Do They Knew It’s Christmas”) to benefit women’s charities. “That’s kind of Damian’s thing – he just started calling a lot of people, and no one’s going to say no. I think it’s more that we’re one of the bands that’s going out and doing it. I mean, there’s this big community of musicians, and people are willing to do a lot of things if you just ask.”
Nor does Haliechuk believe its print- and airwave-unfriendly name has been an impediment. “I think it’s actually been kind of helpful. I always felt like we got press in the first place because the people in the media were able to have fun with it. It kind of made us underdogs. So the people who made those kinds of decisions enjoyed finding ways to get us in there.” Sure enough, the Toronto Globe and Mail ran a front-page Arts feature on the band the day of release, freely mentioning its name after cleverly skirting the issue in the headline.
Of course the band aids the process by giving the press plenty to write about, both real and invented. Perhaps a full staging of a David Comes to Life musical (their own Canadian Idiot?) might be too obvious a move. Haliechuk is mum on the prospects, although I’m sure Fucked Up would bring enough flair to the project to make it quite the event. Just don’t believe a word of it until it actually happens.