High Anxiety: Behind The Scenes Of Fucked Up’s Fourth Album
On a freezing December Monday morning, Vapor Central is the warmest place in Toronto. Outside, from the busy downtown sidewalk, the storefront looks like nothing at all: A narrow glass doorway, between a Payless and a health food store, leading to a narrow staircase. But up those stairs, it’s a dark, hazy clubhouse: Wood-and-leather furniture, dim hanging lamps, a snack counter piled high with chocolate bars (both British and American), and air so suffused with weed smoke that you might catch a slight contact buzz before you even plunk down your $5 cover. Once inside, the overhead speakers pipe in a constant stream of stoner-friendly music — Frank Ocean, Action Bronson, Meek Mill — and the wall-mounted flatscreens play a constant stream of stoner-friendly images — old Family Guy episodes, YouTube time-lapse graffiti videos, Walk Hard. With marijuana effectively decriminalized in Canada, a place like Vapor Central exists in some shady legal permissive zone. You can’t buy weed at Vapor Central, but you can rent from an impressive line of bongs, including the gleaming glass ones that the naked models help advertise in the bathroom posters. Vapor Central is a funny place — one where coffee-shop sensibilities meet dive-bar sketch-levels — and for Fucked Up frontman Damian Abraham, it reeks like home.
Abraham shows up outside Vapor Central in the morning, a few minutes before 11, the time it’s supposed to open. A few minutes after 11, when an employee finally lugs down last night’s garbage bags, Abraham is the first customer in. As the place slowly fills up throughout the day, Abraham greets every employee, and a good handful of the customers, by name. He tells stories about past nights at Vapor Central, about all the times he’s brought out-of-town luminaries (like the reclusive guitar legend whom he’d rather I not name) to get baked here. Before he interviews musicians on The Wedge, the MuchMusic video show he hosts, he’ll often bring them here and loosen them up. But Abraham would be here anyway. Vapor Central is his Cheers.
Settling into a bench in the corner, Abraham warns me not to try going puff-for-puff with him; even Danny Brown, Abraham is proud to report, had some trouble on that front. And sure enough, Abraham consumes ungodly amounts of weed in the afternoon I spend with him. Though he carries a bag of high-end leafy stuff, Abraham’s drug of choice is wax — butane-concentrated lumps of hyper-potent weed that really do look like earwax. The apparatus for smoking this stuff is complicated — a glass pipe fitted with a metal bowl, a blowtorch, a long metal nail — but Abraham sets into the task with evident satisfaction, holding the flame to the bowl until it’s white-hot, and then pulling the strong, acrid smoke into his lungs. Over the hours, he hits it again and again, his conversation turning a bit more digressive but his eyes never losing their focus. When he gets up to leave, he feigns a wobbly gait — “Must’ve been that last dab,” he chuckles to the guy behind the snack counter — but he’s walking straight by the time his feet hit the sidewalk.
Abraham stayed straight-edge well into adulthood. He’d only just started smoking weed when Fucked Up made their last album, the triumphant 2011 rock opera David Comes To Life, and he’s already one of the biggest stoners I’ve ever met. The version of Abraham I see in Vapor Central doesn’t much resemble the one I’ve seen tearing half-naked through festival audiences or barking his huge, anthemic choruses into the faces of people in his small-club audiences. He’s still a huge guy, but he’s trimmer now — he happily claims that he’s lost 120 pounds since he stopped taking antidepressants and started smoking weed — and his forehead, scarred-up from slashing himself to bleed onstage, stays hidden underneath a stoned-eyeball Mishka winter cap.
But he’s still very much the same guy, all gregarious posi warmth, and he radiates the same glowing enthusiasm whether he’s talking about his recent-convert love of weed or any of his other obsessive loves (professional wrestling, obscure Canadian punk history, the institution of music TV). And for all the changes his band has gone through — emerging from the willfully shadowy hardcore underground to massive critical acceptance, with Abraham appearing on the cover of Spin and the band sharing stages with Arcade Fire or the Foo Fighters — Fucked Up are the same band as they always were, their surging midtempo churn hitting heartstrings just as they’ve been doing for more than a decade. On the surface, many of Fucked Up’s musical projects — the Chinese Zodiac 12″ singles that run upwards of 10 minutes, the rock opera, the rock opera companion piece where they played fictional British punk bands — are deeply ambitious, even unwieldy things. But the barreling burn of their music is something that touches the inner 15-year-old of everyone who grew up on this stuff. No matter how big their ideas get, they are, and will always be, a punk band.
And with their fourth proper studio LP, coming this summer on Matador Records, Fucked Up are, if anything, stripping away some of the layers of artifice that came with the rock-opera phase of their career. Over my days in Toronto, many band members describe the as-yet-untitled new album as sounding more like the “old” Fucked Up. And for his part, Abraham is writing lyrics that deal directly with his day-to-day concerns — the concerns of an aging dad who never expected to reach his level of semi-fame and who’s worried that he’s fucking up his old scene simply by existing in public, but who’s just as worried about losing that acceptance. “I feel really cathartic doing this record,” says Abraham. “With David Comes To Life, I was singing as a character and I was excited about it but, writing now is more, ‘This is what Damian wants to say, this is what Damian thinks.'”
And with the songs he’s writing now, Abraham is wrestling with the weird reality that he’s become something he’s always hated: He’s a music-business insider. And he needs to hang onto that insider status to support his family. “It’s about being in a ‘subversive’ young people band and waking up twelve years later and being like, ‘We’re not young people any more. Where do we fit now?,” He says. “It’s about recognizing that the idealistic ‘fuck this entire music industry’ person that you were doesn’t jibe with the person that requires the music industry to sustain their life.”
But Abraham isn’t the only one writing songs in Fucked Up. For most of the band’s existence, the primary songwriter has been Mike Haliechuk, the guitarist who also shaped the band’s wall-of-riffage sound. The band has always operated on a certain tension between Abraham and Haliechuk, and when they’re making musical decisions, they don’t even speak to each other, instead sending messages back and forth by way of drummer Jonah Falco. “I think Mike’s version of Fucked Up is clearly different than my version of Fucked Up,” says Abraham, talking about how Haliechuk’s original concept of the band was a mysterious all-pseudonym art-project thing. “I didn’t like Fucked Up being mysterious; I liked Fucked Up for being welcoming and very open and honest. Here I am: a fat guy who has a hairy back and is insecure as fuck and on anti-anxiety pills and smashing shit on my face. I’m loud, and I like to talk, and that’s who I am. That existed in direct conflict with what Mike’s version of Fucked Up was.”
But while Abraham and Haliechuk have always had different ideas about the band, the songs that the two bandmates are writing now share a certain theme. They fit together into a sort of adulthood tableau. “I wanted my side to be a concept record about the death of innocence in the music industry and my death in the music industry and of this band,” says Abraham. “As the record developed, I started to see what Mike was writing, and I think it’s more about maturing and trying to reconcile what you are as an adult compared to what you were as a young person.”
While Abraham and I have been letting the afternoon melt away at Vapor Central, Haliechuk has been at work with actual young people, producing tracks for the Toronto art-punk band Absolutely Free. The next day, Haliechuk will skip out on a recording session with Abraham — Fucked Up members usually record their parts separately anyway — so he can track Absolutely Free in another studio in nearby Hamilton, where the more cavernous room suits their drum sound better. Across town later that night, he’s sitting down to a vegetarian meal with Falco at a high-end Mexican restaurant, and I mention that I’ve spent the afternoon with Abraham. Haliechuk chortles. “Did he talk about anything other than weed?”
Compared to Abraham, Haliechuk’s demeanor is reserved, even icy. Abraham is the one with the wife and kids and music-TV day job, but Haliechuk is the member of the band who exudes a calm control, a certain mastery. With his quilted cardigan and his near-intimidating handsomeness, Haliechuk doesn’t look like a guy who plays guitar in a punk band. Instead, he and Falco — smaller and quicker to smile, but just as reserved in his own way — come off like old friends with high-paying jobs, kicking back after a day in a downtown office. “I think me and Damian are both sort of afraid of each other,” says Haliechuk. “It’s like me and Damian are at the perimeters, and everyone else is filling it out. It’s a little bit like broken telephone, but I feel like that’s how offices probably work. If you think of a band, it’s like running a small business. Information gets funneled through other people.”
When he says that he and Abraham exist at opposite poles within the band, I ask which pole is which. “My pole is in the ground rooted firmly, and his pole is like on a hot air balloon, wildly darting across the horizon, up in the stratosphere,” says Haliechuk. “Everyone can see it, and it’s impressive, and everyone wants to go on that balloon. My balloon is the one that no one wants to go on, but it keeps the other balloon from going out into space.”
There’s a bit of bitterness to that statement, I suppose, but Haliechuk insists that it’s merely the band’s dynamic at work: “It’s like that quote: ‘Every great man has a great woman behind him.’ I’m the great woman. Damian’s this great man, and I’m keeping him in check or something.”
“There is tension there, don’t get me wrong,” agrees bassist Sandy Miranda. “But maybe without the tension, there wouldn’t be the work.”
For his part, Abraham acknowledges that his push-pull with Haliechuk is the only reason the band has gotten anywhere. Every time the band has taken a big career step — touring outside Canada, signing to a label — Abraham has argued against it, and Haliechuk has had to convince him. “The one thing about Fucked Up is it’s Mike dragging me, kicking and screaming, to a point where I’ve achieved all my teenage dreams.”
It’s a fascinating dynamic: Two old friends who disagree all the time, who sometimes can’t even understand each other. Abraham offers an anecdote: “Walter Schreifels from Gorilla Biscuits was in our dressing room smoking weed with us this summer in Belgium. I know Mike because I lived with him and have been friends with him for years — he loves Quicksand, loves Rival Schools, loves Gorilla Biscuits — and I know that some part of him has to be into this right now. But he wouldn’t take his face out of his book, and he sat on the other side of the room and didn’t pay attention at all. Jonah and I are just talking to Walter, hanging out, talking about New York hardcore and records. And I’m looking at Mike, thinking, ‘Does it not faze him at all? Is he just over it?'”
And yet something about that opposition leads to music with a vast unified force to it — guitars, three of them, swarming like armies while Abraham’s titanic bark surges out over all of it, his ferocity preventing it from ever sliding into simple classic-rock riffery. For a hardcore band, Fucked Up has always been uncommonly ambitious, writing long and complex songs with weird concepts and surprisingly juicy melodies. But even at their most experimental, the rush you get from Fucked Up songs isn’t the feeling you get from tricky, twitchy indie rock. It’s a punk rock rush, a fundamentally teenage blast of endorphins that, if you’re wired a certain way, you can’t help but feel every time their guitars lock into a riff and the drums get rolling. Even when it’s complicated, it’s simple.
That direct, elemental intensity has been one of the main reasons that Fucked Up has become a favorite band for old punks. The straightforward punch of their music, and the based theatricality of their live show, are rare things now, and the band members are full of stories about all the times older punk veterans have said nice things about them — when, for instance, a former Blitz member ordered a shirt from Falco. Lou Reed, perhaps the single most iconic old punk, had Fucked Up’s “Life In Paper” on a Spotify playlist that circulated just after his death, and the band isn’t even sure how to take that. Falco wonders, “What if it’s Lou Reed’s housekeeper, or his cousin, that was using Spotify?”
Abraham says he doesn’t think Fucked Up can become any more popular than they already are. “We built these safeguards in, like having fat singer that yells,” he says. “There’s a bunch of albatrosses that hang around the shiny guitars to keep them from becoming radio-rock guitars.”
But according to Haliechuk, older punks mostly think it’s badass that a band will call itself Fucked Up in this day and age, and that’s part of the reason Fucked Up gets invited to, say, open for the Foo Fighters in Australian stadiums. It helps, too, that the band members are such nerds for punk-rock history that they’ll happily gush to famous old punks about their time in long-forgotten bands. Abraham, for instance, was excited to meet Foo Fighters bassist Nate Mendel — not because of his work with Foo Fighters, or even with Sunny Day Real Estate, but because he spent some time with the ’80s Seattle hardcore band Brotherhood, which Abraham calls the greatest straight-edge band of all time. Similarly, when Abraham met Duff McKagan, he didn’t mention Guns N’ Roses, but he couldn’t wait to talk about McKagan’s time in the Fastbacks and the Fartz. When it comes to punk rock history, Abraham and his bandmates are sponges, and that comes through in the music in a million tiny ways.
That absorbent quality stands to serve the band well on the new album, their fourth studio effort. Often, bands go through a sort of identity crisis after doing something as grand and ambitious as David Comes To Life. For Fucked Up, though, following that album up seems to be a matter of digging deep into their own sound, of making their version of punk rock as huge and life-affirming as it can get. In Toronto, the band members play me four songs from the new album, and all of them could fit comfortably onto David if not for matters of rock-opera continuity. These are tough, direct, fun songs, and they punch for the heart the way the band’s best songs always have.
Nobody in the band can quite agree on what the new album’s musical direction is. Abraham says it’s “trippier” than their older music. (He points out that it’s not their first album since he started smoking weed, but it is their first since he started smoking good weed.) Haliechuk thinks they sound a bit more like older Fucked Up — more immediate, more stripped-back. But while it’s true that the songs are a bit shorter and more concise than on previous albums, this still sounds like a band very much tapped into its own core sound.
And then there’s the matter of Abraham’s own voice, a bloody baritone boom. At one point, I ask Abraham if it feels weird using that hardcore-bellow style — a vocal style I most associate with hormonal teenage rage — to sing about complex grown-up feelings. To Abraham, though, that vocal style isn’t limited at all, and he immediately mentions John Brannon, the legendary frontman of the early Detroit hardcore band Negative Approach: “John Brannon is, like, my Frank Sinatra. And like Frank Sinatra, his vocals have gotten better as he’s gotten older. He has more control over it; he hits these low points a little more. I hear his voice now, and it sounds like a monster unhinged.”
If Brannon can find new ways to use that voice without changing the fundamental style, Abraham figures that he, too, can improve. “Sometimes I find it hard to listen to music without that yelling voice,” He says. “I just love those voices. For me, it’s trying to get more in control of what I’m doing and trying to figure out how to push it.”
And on the new album, Abraham shares the microphone with a fascinating lineup of guest vocalists. He picked all the guests himself, and all of them have voices that work as interesting complements to his own full-chested bark. Some have huge, echoing-off-arena-rafters singing voices, and others have feral hardcore grunts. Abraham asks me not to name any of them in this article because he doesn’t want that list of names to become the big talking point before the album arrives.
Falco says, “It runs the gamut from people who are famous, recognizable Canadian rock personalities to literally Damian’s former roommate to people that have been on Fucked Up records before.” For his part, Haliechuk, who wasn’t involved in picking the guests, says, “I don’t even know who’s on it yet.”
The now-defunct Ontario post-hardcore band Alexisonfire had two singers. One of those singers, Dallas Green, was responsible for the “clean” vocals in the band, and he’s famous now. Since Alexisonfire finished its farewell tour in 2012, he’s gone supernova with City And Colour, a band that’s achieved massive Canadian popularity by perfecting a form of slick alt-pop that you can’t really call “indie.” Meanwhile, his bandmate George Pettit, who did the “dirty” — which is to say, screamy — vocals in the band, has taken a different career path; he’s now working to become a firefighter in Hamilton. One guess which of them guests on the new Fucked Up album.
Candle, a small but comfortable Toronto recording studio, is named after the Sonic Youth song, and a print of the Gerhard Richter painting from the cover of Daydream Nation hangs proudly on the control-room wall, next to Final Fantasy posters and not far from a TV hooked up to a neglected Nintendo 64. Everything is dark: wood walls, oriental rugs, beautiful ancient instruments propped up on every surface. (Every surface, that is, except the tiny coffee table, now clogged with Abraham’s weed paraphernalia.) Framed vinyl copies of Loveless and Pet Sounds hang on the bathroom wall. When Pettit shows up, he looks almost sheepish. Pettit, Abraham, and Falco spend a few minutes shooting the shit, and Pettit admits that he’s done barely any screaming since Alexisonfire finished that last tour.
Abraham: “I feel like I’m taking you out of retirement.”
Pettit: “Yeah, I don’t know if I can do it.”
He can do it. Pettit is here to add vocals to an as-yet-unnamed Abraham song, one that’s about the hardcore scene, about the possibility that his own success will ruin the thing he loves. Abraham doesn’t describe any of this to Pettit; he just goes over the text of the lyrics, then dictates a few more to Falco, who’s sitting nearby and plucking at a guitar. (Abraham’s own writing, he thinks, will be too messy for Pettit to read.) But when Pettit descends into the downstairs booth and starts screaming in his allotted places, it’s clear that he gets the severity of the song, the sense that things are at stake — or maybe it’s just that Pettit has the sort of voice where everything sounds like it’s at stake.
The song is a surging, towering rush of guitars, exactly the sort of chugging hookfest that Fucked Up do better than just about any other band on the planet. Pettit’s demonic depths-of-hell high-pitched screech makes a powerful contrast to Abraham’s full-chested bellow — two complementary styles of hardcore roar working in concert, trading off lines, pushing each other forward. In the relaxed confines of the recording studio, it’s exhilarating to hear a sound like Pettit’s voice come out of an actual human being. When Pettit bounds back upstairs, looking flushed but proud, Abraham is ebullient: “Still got it, buddy!”
A few minutes later, Miranda, who cares about coffee the same way Abraham cares about weed, arrives via bicycle with a bottle of the Japanese-style iced coffee she’s been experimenting with at home. She offers the coffee around, and glows when everyone tells her how good it is. (It’s probably the best iced coffee I’ve ever tasted.) Watching Abraham and Falco and Miranda crowded around that studio coffee table together, easily falling into old rhythms, a thought occurs to me: My entire time in Toronto, this is the only time I see more than two members of Fucked Up in the same place, but, as a group, they seem happy together. Often, when you see band members together, they come off like tense work units, with everyone deferring to the most forceful personality in the room, or like old friends who are soemtimes show-offy in their mutual affection. But Fucked Up carry themselves like a family. People aren’t always excited to spend time around their family members — sometimes they’re actively annoyed with each other, or they don’t see each other for months. But families, when all is well, have an ease of communication, a simple basic togetherness, that generally doesn’t occur in band-type situations.
Abraham says that he’s quit Fucked Up more than once, that he’s not sure how long he can keep doing it. The way he performs is too intense, too physically demanding, for him to do it too much longer: “My knees are starting to go, my back hurts a lot after shows… I just don’t think it’s going to go on forever. It would be unrealistic. Physically, emotionally — it’s unrealistic to think, ‘I’m going to be doing this at 45.’ I kind of want to not tour anymore in a couple years. I just don’t want to do it.”
I can’t presume to tell Abraham he’s wrong, but watching him and his bandmates in that studio, I have a hard time imagining him walking, with any finality, away from them. Even if he did want to quit, I have a hard time imagining it would really happen. Families are like that.