Choosing a life as punk musician is akin to entering the priesthood. The strictures placed upon musicians working in the genre are almost laughable, and any sniff of success outside the narrowest arenas is looked upon as "selling out." Few bands have had as much success walking the razor’s edge recently than Toronto’s Fucked Up, which has maintained its integrity and experimental ethic through various assaults. Whether the aggressor is Camel Cigarettes (which used the band’s name without permission in an ad that appeared in Rolling Stone) or fans delivering frontier justice amid charges of supremacist leanings, the quintet has soldiered on among the slings and arrows.
The band’s sophomore effort, The Chemistry of Common Life, was released by Matador on October 7. Here, lead singer Damien Abraham — known on stage as Pink Eyes — talks about the album, updates us on the band’s lawsuit against Camel, and explains why he ended up on the Fine Living Network.
Tell me something interesting about the new album.
The most interesting thing to me is that the new album is much more digestible compared to the last album. It feels a lot tighter than the last album. We learned from our mistakes. Last time we felt like we needed to get everything on one record. This time we tried to make more mature decisions. We cut a song from the album and tried to make a complete statement rather than release a collection of singles.
Did signing to Matador have any effect on the recording process?
Signing to Matador really didn’t have a big effect on the process, because we had the concept for the album nailed down before we even started into the conversation with Matador. If Matador didn’t happen, it was going to be on Jade Tree, even if they didn’t want it. The only thing that really came up was whether Chan Marshall was going to sing on the album. They said no and that was that. It wasn’t like some suit was nervously watching our every move. I think that might have helped in some cases. We’ll definitely have an outside influence on the next album. We need to have an argument settler.
What is the writing and recording process for Fucked Up like?
Most of the time it starts with Jonah or Mike having an idea. They develop it and Jonah, Mike and Josh put together a melody. They bring it to me for lyrics, and if I can’t do it usually Mike comes up with something. Then Sandy writes her line and we’re ready to take it to the studio. It’s worked that way for both LPs, but a lot of time all the preparation goes out the window when we hit the studio. A good example is “Black Albino Bones.” Jonah wanted something like the Stooges, and it ends up the closest thing to a pop song we’ve ever done. Then we name the song something like “Black Albino Bones,” which of course guarantees that we’ll get no radio airplay whatsoever. It’s kind of like naming the band Fucked Up. It would be so easy to sell out and make some money, but we keep ourselves safe from that.
How is Fucked Up evolving?
I think physically we’re evolving. I keep getting bigger and we added another guitarist, so Fucked Up is more massive than we’ve ever been. Our music has also been growing the longer we’re a band. I’m sure that some people would say that it’s been a conscious change and that we’re trying to become something other than a punk band. That’s really not true. Basically, we recorded “Looking for Gold.” It was fourteen minutes long, primitive and poorly executed, but we knew that was where we needed to go as a band.
I’m sure there are some people who will think the new records sucks and that we should have done a whole album full of “Police,” but that would have been calculated and dishonest. Change is how we tolerate being around one another. It’s like that one piece of sand that gets inside an oyster to make a pearl. I guess Fucked Up is just trying to make that pearl.
Do you still consider Fucked Up a punk band? What does that even mean anymore?
I still consider Fucked Up to be spiritually punk, which is strange because I have this very narrow definition of punk music. Punk started in 1975 and came out until 1982, and then it was hardcore. Anything that sounds punk after that is revivalist. I don’t think we’re trying to revive anything, but we have gruff vocals, three chords and play fast sometimes. Using that definition, we’re a punk band. Punk is a genre based totally on perception. If you think we’re punk, then we’re punk. If you think we’re not, buy the record anyway.
What is the theme of the album?
I think the ultimate theme is acceptance and subversion. There are so many weird things out there, and we need to figure out ways to get around them. There’s a lot of just seeing what is around and getting used to it. In a weird way, it’s probably our Christian album. I think as I’m getting older I’m having a spiritual crisis that’s being played out on record. Maybe the ultimate theme is acceptance.
Talking about acceptance seems a little strange for a band accused of being Nazis.
We never were white power. It was never about that. It was a nonissue. Someone said there were certain ideas and symbols on the album, and then we were at a show and somebody decided to hit me with a bottle. I couldn’t believe it. As for the questions about the stuff on the album, there are things that fascinate you but repulse you. The misstep was allowing that to become too romanticized by the band. It’s easy to forget, especially in a band liked Fucked Up, that you’re not just doing it for yourself and your peer group. It’s the power of images and symbols; it’s hard to say how people will interpret them. Once you put them out there, images are indelible.
Do you ever regret naming your band Fucked Up?
Never because it has served as a hindrance from commercial acceptance. I think it comes off as a little immature. I think it has helped us from making some dumb decisions. I could see myself in a commercial: “I’m Damien from Tugglefish, and I love Pepsi.” It’s terrible to think about, but the idea of money is so tempting after being poor and in a band for so many years.
Are you financially able to be a full-time musician?
It’s just about there. We’re able to kind of live off the band at this point, but we all have help from different quarters: My wife has made it possible for me to devote more time to the band, and others in the band from having sympathetic employers or being good at saving money. We’re just about at the point where we can pay rent from the band alone. I read somewhere that the members of Mudhoney all have jobs. That killed me. I thought they would all be living fat from that PCU money or something. It’s disturbing and upsetting to think that you can put so much time into a project for so little financial reward.
What is the hardest part about balancing your music career and your daily life?
The hardest part, bar none, is missing my wife and my pets. I have two pugs and two cats, and I miss them a lot, but that’s nothing compared to having to be away from my wife. Everything else is gravy compared to that. When you’re home, you’re broke.
How the hell did you end up on Newlywed/Nearly Dead on the Fine Living Network?
They show that in the United States? I’m never going to live this down. My wife and I got married. A friend contacted us and asked if we would like to go on a show and talk about our pet peeves for a thousand dollars. As we got closer to the date, people were asking us if we really wanted to do it, and then we started having some misgivings. It became more involved than we thought. There turned out to be this social worker that was kind of a low-rent Dr. Phil. They cut the show to make it look like our marriage was in some sort of terrible trouble and my wife and I were on the verge of killing one another. They also made it seem like they were confiscating my records, which was entirely untrue. No records were harmed or taken from my collection in the filming of the episode.
We felt kind of foolish and I get recognized at least once a month for being on the show, but they did pay us the thousand dollars. They also gave us like two thousand in groceries and records, which is always appreciated. They best part was that they showed Fucked Up playing at South by Southwest. I should probably say that the band made me do it for publicity reasons, but the truth is that I was just terribly, terribly greedy.
It says on your profile that you spend most of your money on take-out food and records. Any recommendations?
Both addictions have gotten much better since the show was filmed, but make no mistake, if I was left to my own devices you’d find me dead in a pile of vinyl and pizza boxes. I ate McDonald’s for a year straight when I broke vegetarian, but if I were going to make a recommendation I’d have to say Quizno’s. They just put so much on the sandwich. I’ve never seen that much chicken in one place. As for music, I’m listening to a lot of the Nodzzz, which sound like Pavement if Pavement was a D.I.Y. U.K. punk band in 1980. They’re really good. Of course, they’re nowhere near as attractive as Pavement, but it’s hard to compete with Malkmus. He looked like a teen idol on the cover of his first solo album. I think I might date him.
Can you comment on the lawsuit that you filed against Camel Cigarettes?
It’s still proceeding, and it probably will still be proceeding for the next ten years. This isn’t Fucked Up throwing up its hands, though; we are serious about carrying this through and not letting Camel get away with what they did. We have a lawyer who is doing the work pro bono. His son is involved in booking bands, and he hooked us up. The guy is part of a big firm, so the whole process is very professional. He sends us a bill every so often for what his services should cost, and it’s amazing to think what we could be paying. If it weren’t for our lawyer donating his time, we would have definitely had to drop the suit.
What does the upcoming year hold for Fucked Up?
We definitely have to tour on the record and we’ll be working on recording ‘Year of the Rat.” We’re hopefully going to Japan, which is a personal benchmark for me as a musician. We’ll also be trying to go to China if the visas come through. I think there are also some European dates, much to my chagrin. We’ll be one the road for pretty much a year straight. It’s probably going to end the band.
I’ve read other interviews with your band. How much is truthful and how much is full of crap?
That’s the big difference between Mike and me. Mike lies about everything. I lie about nothing. He makes up these wild stories about everything, and I can’t even lie when it would be better if I did. I’m like George Washington and Dudley Do Right with the physical presence of Chris Farley. It’s a hard way to live.
Photo Credit: Rachel Carr/Prefixmag.com