Since 2001, Toronto’s Fucked Up has been pushing the borders of punk rock. Their songs retain hardcore’s abrasive immediacy and their live performances are sweaty and transcendent, but they also traffic in extensive, opus-like and narrative-driven records, most notably their 2011 feat, the conceptual giant David Comes to Life.
As its title implies, the band’s new record, Glass Boys, examines the fragility of human existence. Throughout, frontman Damian Abraham wrestles with the inevitability of change, the trials and triumphs of being in a hardcore band, and the impact — both positive and negative — of seeking the answers to Life’s Big Questions.
We spoke to Abraham about writing the new record, punk as progress, medical marijuana and listening to music with his kids.
How’s your day going?
Pretty great, actually. I was shooting a documentary in Vancouver for two weeks, then I went to San Francisco, but now I’m back in Toronto. So it’s been a crazy past couple of weeks, but I’ve been home for two days. It’s great to be back with the kids.
What kind of documentary were you filming in Vancouver?
I’m hosting a documentary for Vice Canada about [policies surrounding] medical marijuana shifting in Canada, about having patients with the ability to grow their own medicine. They’re switching to a new system, where it’s going to have licensed producers that are big companies that will grow marijuana and mail it to people, and it’s taking their growing rights away in the process. I was in Vancouver documenting some of these licensed producers, these medical dispensaries that are being threatened to be shut down by police, these patients that grow their own. I’m a patient myself. It’s a really interesting documentary. We’re shooting another half in Ontario, where I’m from.
I had no idea that was happening in Canada. I’m only peripherally aware of how it’s shifting in Colorado and Washington, but it definitely makes sense that people want to capitalize on the subculture.
Yeah. And it’s going to be more than a subculture. I think what’s happening in Colorado is that we’re seeing how big it’s going to be once they open it up to legalization. And the thing is, it’s a plant. There’s no real value beyond how much it costs to grow a plant — all the value has been added by the criminality and the risk. So there’s a big emphasis now on controlling supply, by companies that want to control it. I’ve been learning a lot shooting this documentary. It’s been busy, but at the end of the day, I’m smoking weed while I’m working, so it’s pretty awesome.
That’s cool you’re doing more films. I know Fucked Up has scored works before, like the silent film West of Zanzibar.
Yeah. That’s all Mike [Haliechuk, guitarist] and Jonah [Falco, drummer] and Josh [Zucker, guitarist/vocalist] and Sandy [Miranda, bassist]. I think Mike and Jonah scored a video game, too. It was a DIY video game and they wrote a soundtrack for it. We’ve also had songs licensed to movies, but we haven’t had a lot of say in that [laughs]. There have been some weird ones. But yeah, Vice kind of came to me with this idea, I said “sure” and signed up. It’s coming out in July, which is crazy how soon that is. I have another job doing a TV show at Much Music, which is like MTV in Canada. And it’s a lot slower in real broadcast. New media!
If you could score any kind of film, what would it be?
Man, I don’t know. I used to be super into film, too. That was my major in university, and then I switched to women’s studies. So I turned away from watching as many films. But I’d probably want to score a documentary with some really cool subject matter. Any interesting kind of stuff — I look at the kinds of things Owen Pallett has done, and he does really cool movies. Obviously, he’s a genius so it makes sense, but I’d love to do the kinds of weirder, more esoteric stuff he’s done. Japanese film would be awesome to score, too.
I had no idea you transferred from studying film to women’s studies in university — what caused the shift?
I showed up to university just like, “Oh shit, this is just like high school.” I had this fantasy of like, “Oh, you fucking dicks. Just wait until I get to university and I don’t have to deal with you shitheads ever again, I’m going to meet all these cool people, it’s going to be like Paris in 1968, everyone’s listening to Pavement. It’s going to be awesome.”
And then I got there and it was teachers regurgitating stuff from textbooks they wrote. It was watching the same films over and over again. I remember getting deducted marks in a political science class because I didn’t know Chomsky. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I was kind of jumping around. I took a women’s studies class my first year, and it was one that really challenged me. Then I took another one and the professor just totally called me on my shit. That’s what I thought university was really going to be like. So I changed my major to it. I really wish I’d finished it. My wife graduated with her major in it and I was a couple of credits shy.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen on the Internet lately?
I guess I’ve been reading a lot about what’s been happening between Russia and Ukraine. So figuring that out, trying to understand what the sides are in that situation. So I’ve been watching a lot of interviews with Russian gunmen, and hearing what the Russian media and the American media say.
On the more absurd side, Getting Doug With High. It’s Doug Benson, and he’s just interviewing comedians and smoking pot with them. Of course, he is a heavy-duty pot smoker, and seeing the reactions is great. He had Eric Andre on, and that guy just got too high for his own good. Seeing any performer where they’re laid bare by marijuana, being completely honest.
Glass Boys seems like it’s gesturing to the past — lyrics about letting go, being the person you used to be. What were you thinking about when writing lyrics for the record?
It’s weird because it’s a lot more confessional. When we sat down to write it originally, I wanted to make more of an angry, venomous record about the ills of the world. As we went on talking about it and writing lyrics, the mindset changed, and it became about reflecting where this band is, the good and the bad. We had to acknowledge that we’re growing old. And part of that is reconciling where we’re at now and where we were then and trying to find a way to be at peace with that. My mindset definitely changed over the course of writing this record. I think I’ve accepted it.
How does this record compare to David Comes to Life? Is it difficult to go back and listen to that one?
Well, I have to go back and listen to it, because I have to memorize my lyrics and Mike’s lyrics. But I find this one a lot easier to listen to than David Comes to Life. I think I checked out about halfway through, felt really guilty about it. Mike had to write most of the record. I think there are points on it where I think, “I could have done that better.” On this record, I really took my time with vocals. We demoed some of them, which we’ve never done before. Mike and I were in lock-step writing for this one. I’m a lot happier with it. Sonically I think it’s more digestible. It’s more aggressive, but it’s exactly what I want to say. It’s exactly what I want to get across.
How has your music evolved since you started?
I think I’ve learned to enjoy it. It’s something I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to do. I still wrestle with knowing that it’s fleeting, and letting that ruin every experience. I’m just trying to accept where I’m at, as opposed to resisting where I am. Not that you shouldn’t strive for self-improvement, but I’m also trying to find peace.
There was this moment before we started writing this record when I was at an awards show. Some friends of mine were there, and people I respected as well. But the majority of the people in the room were the reason I formed this band — because I wanted nothing to do with what their pop culture offered or preached. I felt no joy, no excitement, no passion in that world. And here I am now, accepted by this community and playing the game a little bit. There comes a point where if you want to do this job, I can’t be like Ian MacKaye. I still feel beholden to that icon. He doesn’t take money, or play festivals that are sponsored by things doesn’t ethically agree with, because he’s able to do that. I think that’s where the ultimate question is — you have to wrestle with that when it becomes a career.
You’ve said that punk rock can be progressive, but it can also be incredibly backward as a community. Do you think this has shifted positively at all since you first began creating music? Has it gotten worse?
I don’t think I’m as actively involved as I once was. But I think punk is just a microcosm for society. For people who were rejected by society maybe, but we are also a product of society. As such you have, you know, awesome progressive things, like the zine culture, then you had all these regressive things, and that’s just the way it is.
If you don’t like a band, start your own band, or start your own label. And that’s one of the most important things you can learn as a young person: You can start your own culture. I’m trying to instill that in my kids. I don’t care what they listen to — I’m sure some of it will drive me nuts — but if they can take that away from punk, that you can make your own fun, your own world, your own scene? That’s awesome.
What do your kids like listening to?
Not because I wanted to, but they enjoy the Misfits, Fucked Up, Bikini Kill. They like anything with a beat they can dance to, things on Yo Gabba Gabba. Mark Mothersbaugh. I think that’s the great thing about kids — they like any kind of movement. You play just about anything and they can get down with it. I try not to impose any one direction on them; my wife and I try and play them all different kinds of music. Ultimately because of what we listen to, they’re being exposed to a lot of punk and rap. But they’re listening to a lot of pop music at school.
What have you been moved by lately, musically and otherwise?
I think hip-hop’s going through a really interesting period, the period that jazz went through with free jazz and rock ‘n’ roll went through with punk, where genre is being played with in an interesting way — Kool A.D., Danny Brown. Perfect Pussy is really awesome. Ceremony’s last record was cool, too. That new White Lung record is really sick. There’s a lot of music and cool stuff happening right now. You can take genre to the furthest places it can go, and you can do it on your own terms. If you’re doing something unique, people find out about it pretty quickly.
It’s cool; people reference such diverse things when you talk to them. You talk to the kids in Lower or Iceage, and one second they’ll talk about Bruce Springsteen and some rave music from 1994 and some weird Danish death metal band. You can be into so much shit.