Q&A: Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham On Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Polaris Prize, Music Grants, And Following Up David Comes To Life
Every year, a panel of Canadian music critics awards the prestigious Polaris Music Prize to one album of surpassing merit. They do this in a grand, corporate-sponsored ceremony, and it’s a big deal. This year, the Polaris panel pulled a bit of an unexpected move, giving the award to Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, the crushing double album from the shadowy reactivated post-rock ensemble Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The group didn’t show up to accept the award. Instead, they issued a statement thanking the panel, decrying the wastefulness and absurdity of the entire ceremony, and pledging to use the $30,000 in prize money to support music education in Quebec prisons. In so doing, they sort of upstaged all the past acts who have won the Polaris Prize. One of those acts was Fucked Up, who won in 2009 for The Chemistry Of Common Life. Damian Abraham, who sings for Fucked Up, is a friend of mine; we mostly talk about pro wrestling. So I called Damian to find out his feelings on the Godspeed episode and to see what’s up with Fucked Up. Our interview is below.
STEREOGUM: Have you seen the Godspeed’s statement about the prize?
ABRAHAM: Yeah, I read it. I can’t be mad at them or anything like that because I kind of agree with what they said in a lot of ways. We all take a little bit of this government money in Canada, and so the shot at Canadian money at the end… I think that they definitely made a point of never really taking that, but they have taken it in the past, right?
STEREOGUM: Are you sure about that?
ABRAHAM: Well, yeah. Everyone in Canada is now really up in arms about this statement. I’m really not at all, because that’s what they should be doing. Godspeed! You Black Emperor is that band. Just to clarify, my knowledge about this is based entirely on someone posting a link to the Factor site where they had a press release at the start of this thing, congratulating them for winning the award as past a past recipient of a Factor touring grant. Factor touring grants are different than Factor recording grants. But if you don’t want an award, you don’t have to take it. I totally respect them for not wanting the award. They don’t need the award. This kind of validates the Polaris in a very real way because you need someone to reject the award for it to count. Because what are awards at the end of the day besides this silly, trivial validation? Some people need the title. It’s like wrestling. Some people just need the title.
For us, we certainly didn’t need it for touring internationally or being a recording artist or being written about in places. But in terms of being a Canadian band, we didn’t get any government grants before winning that award, and now we get them. None of that existed for us until we won that award, and I think we needed some of that prize money, too. Ultimately, we did that benefit 7″ with a big chunk of that money, but I think we each took $1000 or $1500 each out of the winnings.
STEREOGUM: What did you spend your $1500 on? Rent? Wrestling DVDs?
ABRAHAM: Probably just rent, actually. Something to just make it through the day. Definitely nothing frivolous. I didn’t make any frivolous purchases until David Comes to Life, at which point I bought a very expensive record. But I sold a bunch of records to cover that, so it all evened out in the end.
STEREOGUM: What expensive record?
ABRAHAM: I bought the Negative Approach test press of the first 7″, but it has the alternate mastering job, which is ultimately a shittier-sounding mastering job. If that mastering had been the one they had gone with, I think that record would be perceived differently today. But it’s ultimately still a classic.
STEREOGUM: Is this your equivalent of buying a Maybach?
ABRAHAM: Exactly. A bunch of people told me they saw Drake’s Maybach driving down the street the other day. [This leads to both of us dorking out about Drake for a while, which you don’t need to read.] And back to Godspeed, I do think they made a lot of valid points about being corporate sponsored, but it’s a weird compromise that indie rock is in 2013. It’s kind of in bed with corporations in a lot of ways. I envy the ability to not be in bed with a lot of these people, but I think it’s a reality of this world and this music. They are one of the few bands: them, Fugazi, Propagandhi. You’d be hard-pressed to find a band in North America outside of the DIY punk world that has actively said no.
STEREOGUM: There’s a million punk bands that aren’t in bed with corporations, but it’s not like they had the opportunity to be in bed with corporations.
ABRAHAM: Exactly. And they were the bands who were able to build up a fan base and a — not a war chest in the sense of money, but a cultural capital war chest before this world that we live in. They don’t have to play any festivals that they don’t want to. Godspeed! You Black Emperor gets paid a lot of money every year, and if Fugazi were to ever get back together, they’d be able to make a lot of money if they wanted to. It’d be interesting if Fugazi did come back, to see how they’d negotiate this present music landscape. It’s different than it was then.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, that’s true. Ian MacKaye’s new band the Evens have played Coachella a couple of times.
ABRAHAM: And Ian’s always at Coachella and hanging out, and is a part of that festival. But I think watching Ian talking about that T-shirt that sold at Urban Outfitters is interesting. I would never critique him in any way, shape, or form for anything like that but, at the same time, it’s telling that he’s throwing up his hands. I think when we won the Polaris, the sponsor was someone different. I don’t question the person at Scion for choosing that for their marketing initiative as opposed to spending it on X, Y and Z as marketing initiatives, and I think it’s kind of cool. There were definitely artists last night that didn’t need that money and don’t necessarily need that award, and there were artists last night that could really have need that money. And that could have been the difference between funding a record or not, or funding a tour or not. That award means different things to different people. And with Godspeed! You Black Emperor being nominated for that award with the corporate sponsorship, it meant more to them as a platform. That’s all that award was going to be, and I think everyone knew, going in that they were going to act that way. They refused to do zine interviews in the early 2000s because they didn’t want to do press stuff. This is a band on their own terms. You knew they were going to do this. I think it’s cool for the Polaris because I think more people are talking about the Polaris this year than they did in the last couple years. Those artists didn’t even need the award.
STEREOGUM: I can’t even remember who won it last year.
ABRAHAM: Feist won last year, and the year before was Arcade Fire. Before that was Karkwa, and then us.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel defensive about the fact that they made this statement and you didn’t? Do you feel like you have to justify having just accepted the award?
ABRAHAM: No, I don’t think so. Because for us, it was important. Our battle was getting in that door. We were actually technically banned from that building, and the Polaris award had to fight to let us in. They were like, “We want this band Fucked Up to play the award show.” But we were banned because that’s where the MTV building is. And it wasn’t even MTV that was banning us. It was the building’s management.
STEREOGUM: You had some kind of crazy show on TV there, right?
ABRAHAM: Yeah. We had a show there where shit got really fucked up, and we got banned from the building. The only way that they would let us play is if we signed all this paperwork. We had to make some compromises to play. We had to be frisked by police to and from the building. They wanted to frisk my wife and child, and I said no way to that.
Ultimately, going in, our fight was getting through the door. That award for us was our way of getting in the door. We got to do some cool shit with that money. We got to do that benefit record, which I still look back on, and we donated a lot of money to some really cool organizations. Getting to do that record and make those donations and make a conversation happen for a little bit about murdering aboriginal women in Canada — not that the conversation wasn’t happening, but we got to contribute to the noise for a second. I’m happy we got that opportunity, and I’m happy that Godspeed are getting the opportunity to talk about getting musical instruments to prisoners and prison reform. I think it’s really admirable that they’re donating the money there.
For us, the award meant acceptance in Canada. Godspeed talked about feeling like dark horses in your own country, and that’s how we definitely felt as Fucked Up. We felt beloved internationally but not locally, and that award felt like people actually liked us here.
STEREOGUM: I don’t really think this was their intent, but it seems like Godspeed got more cultural mileage out of refusing the award than accepting it.
ABRAHAM: Ultimately, it’s this weird thing where we’re all actors in this media play. Everyone plays their role perfectly in this situation. Their rejection of it works for them, and it works for the Polaris, and it works for other bands that didn’t win. For them, it works because they get to reject the award and talk about things they want to talk about. Crassly, you could say they’re extending the media spotlight, but I don’t know necessarily if that was their motivation. It also might backfire. People might be negative on them in the end. Canada is this weird beast because we’re fiercely patriotic. When you call that into question, sometimes it can backfire, as I’ve found out in the past. Everyone played their part perfectly in this situation.
STEREOGUM: Do you think someone like Metz, who was up for this award and didn’t win — I’m guessing you know those guys — do you think that, in a way, they’re like, “Fuck, we could have used that money, and these guys are being dicks about it?”
ABRAHAM: Absolutely. At the same time, Metz is definitely a band that are on Grand Theft Auto V, their record is exploding internationally, and they’re young. They will rise above. There are other bands that may not even be where Metz are financially right now that could have really been helped, too. I’m sure this money could have ultimately helped Godspeed, too. I know they get a lot of money playing those festivals, but I’m sure this wouldn’t have hurt them in any way either. But they decided to make a statement with that money and find a way to donate it, and it’s great that they’re able to do that.
STEREOGUM: Now, the award is based not on who deserved or could have used to money the most, but at least ostensibly, it’s is based on merit, right? It’s supposed to push everything else to the side to say that this is the best album that came out of Canada in the last year. Have you heard the album?
ABRAHAM: [Laughs] I’ve never been a huge fan of Godspeed’s music, but I heard some of the record, and it was cool. I respect them more as a band, but it’s not really the music I listen to, and there’s other bands on the list whose records I haven’t gotten through either — not to discredit them in any way, shape, or form. I never claimed to have the best taste in music. I have very narrow tastes — I like this period of punk, love this period of hardcore, this period of noise rock, and then there’s obviously records and different bands scattered throughout like Metz or Purity Ring. But my music taste never reflects any award show. Maybe in the ’90s there was a poll on the Mullet Board forum that summed up the best releases of that year, but I don’t think I stand by that now. It never reflects my taste.
STEREOGUM: I really like the album.
ABRAHAM: That’s nothing against it! I mean, the Mercury Prize never reflects my taste, and the Oscars certainly never reflect my taste.
STEREOGUM: The Mercury Prize is crazy. That thing is all over the place.
ABRAHAM: Ultimately, I think awards are cool because they cause an argument for the music. I love when someone makes inflammatory lists, and I love when anyone makes an assertion about something being the greatest things ever. It causes people to say, “No, it’s not” and get upset. Someone did a list of the best punk of all time, and I was frothing at the mouth at the exclusions and inclusions on that list. I love that — I love reading lists when people do that. I think that’s part of the fun of being a music fan.
STEREOGUM: You guys are working on a record now, right?
ABRAHAM: Yeah. That’s why I didn’t go to the award show. Last night, we were recording “Year Of The Dragon,” which is the new Zodiac record. But we’re also working on the LP right now, and it’s coming to a head. We’re getting to the point where I’m going in to record vocals. We did some vocals, and they didn’t really work sonically because the recording set-up we used didn’t really work at the time. We tried it in a different spot, and it was pretty awful, so we’re re-recording vocals.
STEREOGUM: Are you feeling any pressure to outdo David Comes To Life at all?
ABRAHAM: Not at all. It’s one of those weird situations where, with everything I go into, I always used to be totally insecure about the reaction, but now I’m just kind of going with it. I think it’s going to be the theme of this record. It’s about living in this weird fantasy world where you have achieved everything you could have possibly hoped to want to have achieved, but at the same time feeling like you’ve compromised your beliefs a little bit to do so. But also finding a peace in being where you’re at and knowing that you’re holding onto it by a thread. Basically, I live and die by a review. Ultimately, that’s what sustains us — maybe not so much now as opposed to a couple years ago, but that’s what it comes down to for a lot of bands. It’s a weird spot to be dependent on being cool. Ultimately, I live and die on being cool by someone else’s definition. As soon as a band’s not cool anymore, it becomes hard to sustain it as a career. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop doing it, but as far as doing it as a full-time gig, there will come a time where it would be impossible to do that and still be home for any length of time. You get this cool moment, but it’s not everlasting, so you have this paranoia of no longer being cool and hip because then the ride’s over. But I’ve had a great ride and have gotten to meet so many cool people.
I think, as a band, we’ve always tried to do what we do and hope for the best. This record is ultimately, for me, a concept record. I don’t know about Mike [Haliechuk] because he’s writing his songs his own way but, for me, this is a concept record. When David Comes To Life was done, we weren’t sure we were going to make another record because it felt weird to try and make a record after that. But now, it’s easy because this is a direct result of being in the band after David Comes To Life, and now I can see where my lyrics are going to come from. I think every record for me has been a concept record in a weird way because, ultimately, every record has been about some area of interest that I found fascinating at the time. I’m really excited to do these songs. Maybe not since really early on, but the stuff I’m saying is really coming from a place I want to say it right now. For David Comes To Life, I was doing that but through a character. But this time, I feel like I’m doing a direct address. I’m laying it out and saying, “Here’s what I’m fucking insecure about, and here’s what I feel weird about in music.” I hope that ultimately comes across, and that this is a record about accepting yourself, compromises and all, and where you’re at in your “music career.”