Fucked Up Q&A: Damian Abraham

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Photograph: Daniel Boud

For this week's magazine, I spoke to Damian Abraham, frontman for the excellent Canadian punk-hardcore outfit Fucked Up. Damian's such a good talker that it was a shame to have to trim it for the magazine, so I figured I had to post the unabridged version as soon as I could. Down below, we talk about the new, early album-of-the-year contender David Comes to Life, high-school stage productions, Kevin Costner dystopia movies and more.

Tell me a little bit about how you got the idea for David Comes to Life.
We started talking about it in, like, 2006. We made a song called "David Comes to Life" and started saying we were going to do a rock opera based around "David Comes to Life." It was kind of tongue-in-cheek, kind of half-serious. Really after Chemistry of Common Life there was no real way for us to go; we were very lucky that we got a lot of praise for that record, and that praise was insurmountable. We looked at it like this albatross we had to deal with: There's no way we can live up to this. It was a really flattering, but very unobtainable level of praise that we received. We had this idea, and we were like, Let's just go for it now, really nothing to lose—to be melodramatic about it. There's nothing to lose in the sense that if we try it now, Matador's behind us and gave us the money so we could record this thing over time. Luckily, we benefitted from the fact that we can do this full time as a job, so we were able to actually sit down and take our time and do it. That was where it came from.

The story itself came together after we had finished the music, pretty much, and we had just decided at that point, we need to figure out a story. We can't have a rock opera without any kind of story. So we sat down in a mall near my house—near all our houses actually. It's not a very good mall but it has a food court. So we sat in the food court, Mike [Haliechuk], Josh [Zucker] and myself, and we'd hash out the storyline. Eventually, we put this whole thing together over the course of three or four meetings like this, we knew we wanted to have a setting that was conducive to other themes we wanted to address—labor, death of modern civilization and things like that—so late '70s/early '80s seemed apropos. And also musically that's the most important decade to us as a band, the DIY culture. So that was hugely important to us. And we knew we wanted to have a love story, so it just became more a matter of like, we knew everything we wanted to have in the story so it was just a matter of checking it off and finding a way to incorporate it.

Click past the jump for the rest of the interview.

There's a lot of the bombast and brutality of past Fucked Up releases, but David Comes to Life is definitely more accessible and crammed with hooks. How did you achieve the right balance?
We just knew, when we sat down to do it...we knew we wanted to try and write something on a poppier bent, because we hadn't tried that before, and that's more conducive with a love song. I think that because we had this really grandiose idea of doing a rock opera, it gave us a lot of time to play with different things, so I think that led us to try different types of songs on the record, try shorter poppier songs but also have the usual Fucked Up weird, psychedilic-y influence. We wanted to try and incorporate them all. Musically, it was just taking all these ideas we'd had for songs over the years that didn't necessarily fit on the other records and then just start retooling them and reworking them until they form the songs that wound up on the record. I think we've always been a fairly prolific band, but it's just something like when you are doing this for a living, you can't be lazy; we're also one of those bands that when we're not moving, we're fighting. The album's run time is about 79 minutes.

Did you have to cut stuff out?
There were definitely songs we cut out at various stages. We had this mass of songs finished and we were going to put on a song called "David's Plan" from a seven-inch we had done earlier, a B-side to the benefit seven-inch we had done last year called "Do They Know It's Christmastime?" but when we finished writing the music—I don't know why I keep saying we—when they finished writing the music they said there's not enough room for this song, so we cut that song at this point. When we had finished recording it and started doing all the vocals, we realized that the limits of a physical CD is 79 minutes. You can't go over that, it won't fit on one CD, and two CDs would be more expensive. We had to start cutting songs from that period, and those are the songs that basically formed the seven-inches and the 12-inch that are coming out around that time. I think there's only two or three songs total. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe there's way more than four, eight songs. But they're just providing backstories. And there's one song that came at the very end, which actually just kind of explains the whole thing.

I'm guessing a lot of people are asking you what your favorite rock opera is.
People ask me about them. I'm a huge fan of the Who's Tommy, which is a prototypical rock opera. But also, like, Phantom of the Paradise is my favorite movie of all time, which is Brian De Palma's foray in to the rock-opera realm. I'm also just a fan of narrative; I love TV shows that have a continuity, a basic narrative. I like the idea of investing in something. When I think of Tommy, I always think of the movie.

What would the David Comes to Life movie be like?
I dunno! I would like to see that happen. I would love to see a high-school production of it. I think there's minimal staging involved and a high school could do it quite easily. We need a drama teacher that has tenure and isn't worried about getting fired to do it. I can see right now, with the conservative government that we have in Canada, it would be grounds for a national debate if a band called Fucked Up was introduced into a curriculum of a high school. But if we can wait till there's a more liberal government in power in Canada, I think we can find a way.

Maybe a private school in NYC would do it.
My knowledge of New York private schools comes entirely from "Gossip Girl," so I think that'd be a very sexy idea.

Was there any particular moment on the record that you're really proud of?
I think we were all really proud of the record when it came out. It came for us at a time where we were almost like, We're ten years in and I think we finally made something that's a fairly accurate statement of where our heads have been at. It's not that the other records weren't heartfelt in their own ways, but we finally made something that we all got involved in 120 percent to get it done. It ended up being kind of rough toward the end. I think we're all satisified with the way it turned out. Pretty much every one of us wrote lyrics for one of the songs on this record, and most of us contributed vocals to a song on the compilation David's Town. It was a process, even though we did it in the same sort of isolation that we always do, it felt a lot more collaborative than the other records did.

So, David's Town is basically this compilation of fictional punk bands from David's town assembled by Fucked Up bandmembers as well as a lot of friends. It's a fucking awesome idea. Why did you do it?
I'm a huge fan of Kill by Death comps, regional comps that came out of various towns in England and America and Canada, region-specific compilations that reflected the bands of the time. It's always been a fantasy to make one of these comps where you can try all these different styles and sing about things you wouldn't normally sing about and do these sorts of thing. After Owen Pallet had his record come out last year, he did a folk seven-inch that was songs that were meant to have been from the story. And I thought that that was such a cool idea, so I said, "Let's try and do that but as a compilation." I started talking about it in interviews and talked it into reality, more or less. Everyone in the band had to figure out a way to make it real. Fortunately, with the exception of "My Old Man's a Ginger," I'm terrible at writing songs. I can't write a song to save my life. That was my one foray into writing a song, so on this record, I am totally at the mercy of the rest of the band. I'm also a big fan of the artwork associated with the record and the comp. It's really hard to come up with an aesthetic for an imaginary play. We don't want the aesthetic to dictate how people relate to the storyline, but you also want it to be interesting and exciting in a weird way. I think Sandy, Mike and Josh, who did the artwork, deserve a lot of credit for that.

For the Terminal 5 show, you'll be opening for Dinosaur Jr.
And they're being interviewed live on stage by Henry Rollins. J. Mascis is certainly a different interview. I cannot wait to see that.

I understand that they'll be playing Bug in full. Do you have plans to play David Comes to Life front-to-back?
We've definitely played the other two records full. We have no designs to play this one from start to finish, but we'll see where the road takes us. We're definitely a band that has lived far past our life expectancy. Hopefully we survive to a point where we're comfortable enough to play this whole record start to finish.

What do you make of all of these indie-rock icons playing old albums in their entirety? I feel pretty weird about it, depending on who's playing and what the record is.
I think it'a weird trend; I think it's a really exciting trend. For certain records, I think that's a really exciting thing because some records were conceived as whole pieces. You get to see them performed live in whole—Sleep Jerusalem or something like that, that's awesome. There are some bands that are just performing records that are just a collection of songs, if the band I like the songs by, like Mudhoney, I'll forgive the fact that there's no real need them to be played in order. But that being said, it's Mudhoney; I'll take them however I can get them.

I saw Weezer play The Blue Album straight through recently, which is one of the first records I really became obsessed with as a teenager, and it was beyond lame. It kind of ruined the record for me, in a small way.
That's the other risk. Seeing all the songs played together, if you have some real strong nostalgic to the record, hearing those songs together can really bum you out. See them live, done badly, and it could ruin the record for you. If there wasn't a narrative at one point, there becomes a narrative because of the way you listen to those records.

Is there anywhere in particular you're excited to be playing?
Places we've been, but the best part is that by touring so much we've got so many friends in different cities that we haven't seen because we haven't done a tour like this in a while. We're looking forward to seeing Cici in Boston and Jay in New Jersey, these hardcore kids that we've know for years. I'm also looking forward to playing new songs. I cannot stress how revitalized as a band we feel, to be playing new songs. That's not to say we're not playing the old songs and playing only new songs or something like that, but it makes everything sound newer when you have a new song in the set. And now we have a few new songs in the set, and it just breathes life into everything. There are songs that we do draw out and do little freakout moments. But beyond that, we're not really a band that writes on the road, we're not really a band that can sit there in the soundcheck and come up with a new song by the end of the tour. For us, the only time when we get new songs is when we put out a record. Until you really have enough new songs, it doesn't really make an impact on the set. We have four or five new songs, that's a good quarter of the set, so it changes the whole set, mixing them in, changing how you transition from song to song. That part of it I'm really excited about.

Since this record is a little hookier, new fans might turn up at the shows. Will the Fucked Up live experience remain as raucous as it has been?
Absolutely. I don't think I could do a live show another way. I'm not saying I'm going in there bleeding every night or doing something stupid every night, I just think that the whole way I could enjoy doing a show is if it's sort of like an honest expression of playing a lot, and that would be going out into the crowd and getting jumped on. That's what I love about the show, about hardcore shows; I don't love the aggression, but I love the release of energy. That's what I have always found so intoxicating about going to a punk show that you don't really find in other shows. You see it more now with hip-hop and stuff like that, and I can't think of a lot of other types of music where people are jumping on top of each other—not in an aggressive way but in a fun kind of way. I just want to try and bring that, no matter wehre we're playing, whether we're opening for Arcade Fire to 16,000 disinterested Barcelonans or whether we're playing a basement show to 50 pumped up kids. I think it's the same thing, a good Fucked Up show, which is just trying to make an honest experience for everyone involved.

I really liked that quote in your Pitchfork interview about how your kids are just going to be able to pull up a Google image of you doing stupid stuff, like your example of doing "the mangina" at Reading Festival. It's hard believing that anything about you or by you posted to the Internet is permanent.
I'm of the mindset that, like, I'm screwed. I'm gonna have to start saying "do as I say and not as I do." Now there's permanent records of so many things that we do, like, it is crazy to think that there is no way for me to hide the fact that I've done the mangina several times.

Maybe there will be some kind of 1984 scenario where all of that gets deleted.
I'm going to have to wait for the apocalypse, like Kevin Costner as the Postman.

That's the landscape where I want to raise my children.
A Kevin Costner dystopia. Either way, we end up in a bad movie.

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