After forty-five highly enjoyable minutes on the phone with Damian Abraham, singer and dynamic lyricist of Fucked Up, I can confirm that there is something for everyone in this interview. That might be a direct result of interviewing someone who is constantly interviewing other musicians– in podcasts, in zines, and mostly on Canada’s MuchMusic– and doing so quite well. The following is what happens when you have the special opportunity to speak to a musician that not only has an encyclopedic knowledge of punk subgenres, but is incredibly easy to talk to.
Where in the world are you guys right now, and how are you doing?
I’m doing great, actually— it’s my two-year-old’s birthday today, so he’s out with his mom right now getting stuff for his party this weekend. Well I guess he’s not really buying anything himself. So it’s a pretty awesome day. I’m home, I just got back from Europe two days ago, and we leave for the U.S. next week. So we’re having a lot of fun doing the birthday thing.
I just had a two year old and four year old stay with me for a couple weeks, so I have to ask, what is your two year old’s favorite show right now? Because I now know about more of them than I care to.
He’s a Yo Gabba Gabba! die hard. With Holden, our older kid who’s five, he’s kind of growing out of Yo Gabba Gabba! It’s kind of the first thing he’s really been “over.”
He’s decided he’s “too old for it,” right?
Yeah, he’s aged out of it. With Dorian now, we have all this Yo Gabba Gabba! stuff, so we’re like, “great! All these hand-me-downs can stick around!” And he loves that show so it’s awesome. One time when they came to Toronto, I danced on stage with them, so he gets to watch that video now. We were well prepared. It’s a good thing he didn’t get into The Wiggles or something, otherwise we would’ve been kind of up a creek.
I try to do some solid research before I jump into an interview because there are always those questions that have been asked already and way too much, so it’s a bit intimidating to interview you, who are so great at interviewing artists, too. What do you get tired of being asked, and when you’re interviewing people, what do you hate talking about or love talking about?
There’s nothing I really get sick of talking about. For every interview, when it works well, it’s a conversation. I mean, we’re off to an amazing start because we’re having a conversation. So every time you have a question come up, even if you’ve talked about it before—there are conversations I’ve had a million times with people in private life, about punk or weed, or something like that. I never really get tired of going back and talking about the same sorts of things because it’s giving me a chance to go back and reevaluate things and see if I feel the same way.
I can’t really think of anything I dislike talking about myself. In interviewing other bands, I tend to avoid situations at work when they’re like, “oh, you have to ask them about this.” Those weird, tabloid-y sort of things. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like reading about stuff like that.
But you’re not going to be the one to ask them.
Yeah, oh jeez, sorry!
Oh no, no, no, sorry, please go ahead.
I’m just going to take a second here to play into stereotypes and acknowledge out mutual Canadian apologeticism here.
[laughs] You know what? What’s so wrong with an apologetic society? We have a lot to atone for in Canada. But by the same token, please go ahead.
Well, once in a while I’ll ask some fine folks on facebook the kinds of things they’re curious to know, but I try to follow a theme rather than a prepared set of questions. Most of the questions I got this time were about weed or Drake. And god, I don’t want to go and ask a Canadian about Drake. How many Canadian artists are being asked about Drake right now?
Well yeah, but I think Drake is a really fascinating subject. As far as hip, aspirational Canadians? I would say not since Neil Young was there an aspirational Canadian for Americans. It’s like, Bryan Adams, Michael Bublé, Celine Dion, you know what it’s like. Avril Lavigne, Nickelback Sum41. And there have been a lot of great bands out of Canada, like Propaghandi. But here’s Drake finally, who’s this Canadian celebrity that youth want to be like. Not everyone, obviously, but it kind of re-set the metric of success in Canadian music. Because now, the biggest selling hip-hop artist in the world, other than maybe Eminem, is a Canaidan. Believe me, I could go on and talk about Drake. I actually had an awkward run-in with him the other day.
I was going to save this for later, but it seems appropriate right now. It really feels like hip-hop and rap are more personality-driven than any other genre right now. Do you think that’s true?
I think it definitely exists in other genres. But I think hip-hop is in a really interesting stage right now. But I think every genre kind of goes through that stage. Rock and roll went through it with punk, and jazz went thought it with free jazz. Jamaican roots music for lack of a better word, went through it with dub. You get to these points where people understand how a genre works and they start playing with certain aspects with it. Means of production get into the hands of artists, or at least controlled by them a little more, especially now. It is probably the most exciting genre in music right now. There’s so much interesting stuff happening. It could be something like Le1f. Or with something I don’t particularly like listening to, like Iggy Azalea, stuff with celebrity and race coming up there. Hip-hop is a really fascinating thing to look at right now, and that’s probably why so many music journalists are so driven to write these personality pieces.
The personality pieces are very popular in all music right now because social media is making the personality the new medium to play with. They’ll go a lot deeper with people now than you used to be able to. If Led Zeppelin had been a band right now, holy shit, you could go into some deep, dark conversations about their behavior. Because we’d know so much more about them now. It would definitely affect he way we look at those artists. People talk about Chris Brown, and enough has been said about him, but even John Lennon was pretty fucking horrendous by a lot of accounts with domestic violence accusations.
And Hendrix, too. People forget those two a lot.
Exactly, and we tend to look at these guys through rose-colored glasses. People weren’t as privy to what was going on behind the scenes. I’m not saying that he’s a bad person, but if Kurt Cobain had been alive now in the twitter era, he probably would have said some horrendous shit.
And it would have been retweeted around the world in a matter of minutes and not days.
Exactly. It’s a really interesting time to look at all kinds of celebrity.
So you would probably be into the American Cool portrait exhibit at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery when you’re in town!
Yeah, that sounds awesome! Two times ago, we went to the Library of Congress, and we did our running up the steps of the Capitol building shot. It’s cool in parts of the U.S. to have really short drives so you can stop and do stuff like that. When we were in Europe, in certain parts of England, we only had an hour or two between stops so we had time to explore everything. Then we went back to the mainland in Europe and had ten or twelve hours between shows, and had no time to stop and nothing to do, and that’s when it can get a little das boot kind of maddening in that van.
Are you tired of talking to the evolution of punk yet?
Nope. I’m not into that much shit. When you really boil it down, and you go through all my books in my little library and all my records, I’m not into a lot of strands but I am definitely obsessed with those strands and engaging with them as much as possible. So punk rock is never something I get tired of talking about.
The current conversation is that Fucked Up is “back,” or “back to themselves,” and a lot of that is a result of when in your discography people were introduced to you. When people say “back to normal,” I think they mean there’s a more consistent sound and mood through Glass Boys that keeps steady, which might be true, but I don’t think you’ve ever departed from your sound.
I don’t want to speak for the band, but from my perspective, we’ve always just been a band and let what happens, happen. You can’t really think about it, and you can’t really plan it out, because that’s going to make you crazy. You see these bands who make calculated moves, and it’s kind of a best laid plans type of thing.
And those moves are so obviously calculated.
Yeah! It doesn’t ring true at all, so for us, legitimately every time, we’re just setting out to make a record. That being said, there’s always an attempt to push what you do, and for me that was this time, really trying to push what I did. I’m not saying that I’m going to singing lessons or find my vocal range or have legit melodic vocal parts– that’s not what I do, but I did want to do what I do, better. And that’s not to say that the songs or the performance are ringing more true to people, because that’s for them to decide what songs or era of your band they like. And the thing is, I can’t fault people for being like, “oh, I don’t like Fucked Up anymore, I like just this period,” because how awesome is it that we’ve been around long enough for people to have periods of our music they reject or don’t like? Or periods they’re loyal to.
People can pick and choose parts of you they like.
It’s kind of awesome that people do that. I do that with so many other bands myself. And now to be in a band that people do that to. All I think we’ve ever wanted to do in Fucked Up, maybe deep down, is be part of the canon. Be part of the punk rock musical history. And on your shelf, Fucked Up sits between the Fuck Ups and Fuel. That’s all we ever wanted to be with this band, and part of that is having people turn away from you at certain points and not like stuff that you did. So to have people be like “Fucked Up is back, or Fucked up isn’t good anymore,” it’s so cool that people even liked a period of our band.
And by now you know how to deal with the comments that you might not like.
I remember reading a review that was written by a friend of mine in Maximum Rock and Roll, and it was just a scathing review of Year of the Pig. And I’m just like, “this is my friend!” I’m friends with this guy, and he’s just tearing the record apart. I’m still friends with the guy, and it was at that point that I realized that we believe in what we do and we might not be as serious about it, but you just release it into the world and whatever happens, happens.
The new album has a lot of themes of Greek mythology. This time you’re not putting bits of yourself into other characters, but philosophers are part of your own story. How does that writing differ?
Very early on, it was very personal lyrics, very angry personal lyrics for myself, and I tried to drop references in there. My favorite lyricists are those that have a literary feel to their lyrics. Like Morrissey, when you realize that this is talking about that thing, and that thing is talking about that other thing. Or going back and reading a take on Cassavetes, and reading film critiques of Cassavetes, and seeing how words are put together. Integrity is a great example too, because I’d listen to their lyrics and have to dissect them. “What’s that demon he’s referring to? What does that mean?”
This time was an opportunity to go back to the old way I used to write lyrics. The lyrics came really easily to me again. Way sooner than they’ve come in a long time, maybe since the Generation 7”. It’s just the way I used to love to write lyrics, getting everything off my chest. And this time it’s not as negative as I used to be. It’s not as piss and vinegar as I once was.
Which is funny, because in recent years it’s felt like you’ve had a lot of negative feelings about making music again. Or at least more cynical. Even though it’s only been three or four years between albums, the greater “we” has felt like it’s been a long time. Was there a point where you felt like it was the right time to go it again?
Towards the end, it did. I really wanted us to get out there so we could play new songs. Not that we play the same set every night, but there are certain songs that wind up in the set every night. The record came naturally, and it didn’t feel that long to us, because we kept working and touring. Things never really slowed down. I had Dorian, he came in the middle of everything, but it wasn’t until there was this Canadian music industry event that I’ve talked about being at, and I kind realized I was in this room full of people I didn’t like and people that I actively hated in some cases. I think our band started in opposition to them and not wanting to be part of their world. And then I realized I had become part of their world. There was something left to say, something that I needed to have. Another statement I needed to make. We recorded other songs, like the Melvins split and some other stuff.
Which is exceptional.
Oh thank you! That’s one of my highest achievements. You know, I’m never going to win a Grammy, nor do I want to. No one I’ve ever liked has won a Grammy. But doing a split with the Melvins and being a part of the Melvins discography is al the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame I’ll ever need.
But being at that event motivated me to start writing. Paper the House and Art of Patrons were the first two songs that I wrote that came out of that event and being super angry. But as the record went on, it changed from just being a pure angry record in my mind to being something more with what Mike and Josh were pitching, which was more like a record about getting older and reflecting on your life at different times, and reflecting on not being a youth anymore. Wanting that back but realizing you can’t have that back, and some reflecting on the band too. So I felt really motivated to write this time, more so than with the past couple records.
Not that I didn’t like those records, there just wasn’t as much of a driving force. With David Comes to Life, it was a story. I think I dreaded making David Comes to Life at different points. If you look at the writing credits, I kind of check out of writing a lot of the songs after the first side. I’m kind of spotty on the next couple of sides of when I contribute. It was overwhelming. But this time the motivation was there and this was what we wanted to do, and what I wanted to say. We took our time. This time it felt like a less overwrought experience.
You mentioned the Year of the Pig single over, and I think Year of the Ox with Zola Jesus has been my favorite single of yours so far. How much of a crossover is there between Zola fans and Fucked Up fans, really?
I think there was certainly a point where there was a lot more of a crossover before than there is now. She was on Sacred Bones, and we were friends with Taylor, her manager there. We’ve known her for years, since the first time we played chigaco. I remember my friend from Gasface, Jesse in New York who was this hardcore kid that transitioned into being this weird indie punk type of dude, and became a huge Zola Jesus fan. And I remember thinking, “You know what, this is Gasface, These guys from Gasface would fucking love if we did something with Zola Jesus.” That’s kind of where the idea came from.
I didn’t even meet her! We had played with her before that, but I had never met her until I interviewed her for the Wedge after the record had come out. There’s a couple people like that, who we’ve collaborated with and sent tracks back and forth but I’ve still never met. It’s so weird to never meet someone, collaborate, and meet in person way later. But I love her stuff. I think her records are really awesome and I think she’s incredibly talented. I was thinking the other day, wow, we’ve worked with a lot of people. Looking back on everything we’ve done with different people, it’s like, holy shit, we work with a lot of cool people.
So we’ve got Greek mythology and Chinese zodiac. Which is more “punk” in the nature of its stories, and which is more fun to explore?
I think my knowledge of Greek mythology is a little better. My wife was actually a Classics major or minor in university. She definitely knows a lot more about Greek mythology than I do. But my knowledge of the chinese zodiac is limited to what comes up every year for the single we’re gonna do. I think the Year of the Pig was really fun and that’s something we’re gonna do every year, as soon as we stop touring. It’s fun to get together and collaborate with different genres, too. That’s maybe a just a very romantic notion, but I have a lot of fun every year when we get to do one of those records. Year of the Dragon—I think Mike just wrote that for me to be like, here ya go! I think that’s what every Fucked Up record would sound like if I was allowed to do that same thing every time. Getting to do that stuff and getting to have that one record where you’re really free and the only thing you’re limited to is the confines of a 12.” Mike and Jonah would go into the studio and fuck around.
How conscious are you of an album whose sound is evolving within? Do you realize you’re being pulled in a certain direction or is it intentional? You don’t seem like the type to do anything arbitrarily.
I come into the writing process really late. I add the lyrics normally very late. I got a couple songs from Glass Boys in a row that were way too poppy and a couple of those are B-sides, but I can’t really influence the way they’re writing the songs in any sort of real way because I come in very late to the process. A lot of times they’ve already written the song and recorded it, but this time they had written the songs and demoed them, so I had more time with them. But in past records, I mean, there are even David Comes to Life songs that I still haven’t heard. Not necessarily ones I sing on, but there are still certain songs I’ve only heard while I was recording them.
I like to think and hope that it’s all very organic. You can’t calculate what people are gonna want. If you want to hear a song that tries to calculate what people want, it’s that terrible orientalist Avril Lavigne song that she wrote about Japan.
And that’s an entirely different interesting conversation about cultural appropriation. It’s very much a Western idea. If it’s a true homage to the country or culture, you might get a reaction of “cool! For once the West is emulating us!” But most of the time it’s stereotypes and ignorance, and the reaction of outrage is appropriate.
That’s the thing—it’s a very complex issue, and I’m sure that none of those complex issues entered the heads of any of the millions of songwriters who contributed to that song. That song sounds like it was written by the committee, especially with that dubstep part.
Because, you know, that dubstep is so hot with the kids right now, we gotta throw it in there!
Even records within the so-called genre of punk sound like they’ve been written by a committee. It’s what happens when someone tries to predict what the market is going to want. I just think you’re never gonna win if you do that. You might sell a lot of records for a minute, but it’s just going to sound so bad. Just let it come. It’s only when I look back, I know what I think was very different versus what I do now, but I don’t think they sound that far removed sonically. Hopefully they sound like it’s in keeping with each other.
I think they do. I think it goes back to the conversation of, “oh, they’re back to normal, to themselves.” I think what people really mean is that you’re now closer to the standard of punk that we know, but isn’t punk about challenging that standard? There shouldn’t be a standard sound for a genre that is meant to defy and change standards.
Yeah! When punk first started it was like that, but it got codified, kind of in ’82. But if you look at 78 to about 82, the stuff that was called punk is so varied. There are so many different bands in that world before people decided what and what wasn’t punk. You had zines, and you had tapes. The Oral History of Rough Trade book makes it sound like the most exciting time.
If you play the Buzzcocks for your mom, it’s not what she would expect, because it’s not brazen anarchy or rebellion. That’s the stereotype.
I kind of lucked out. I got a lot of records from my dad—he wasn’t a punk because he was kind of too old to be really involved, but he was going to shows and was definitely aware of it. But there was a generation that was given an idea of what punk was based on festival footage or something like that.
I inherited every single Blondie record, and that was considered punk when it came out, but now it’s seen as vague 80s.
They were one of the six original CBGBs bands, too. Television, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and Dead Boys. It was a really free time to experiment with bringing other genres into punk rock, or even rock and roll in general. Punk rock has always kind of been a redactive genre. People are pulling shit away from it or trying to strip it down to its basic roots. That’s what some bands did, but that’s because those bands were trying to experiment with bringing that into rock and roll. They took the world music influence, jazz influences, and infusing those with a raw energy. That was the thing that made punk rock so awesome when it first started.
I’m almost afraid to ask more questions because we could literally talk about this all day. It’s kind of great to be into these strands because they’re semi-obscure or not in the main public consciousness so “nobody cares, but we totally care! It’s our life!” Right?
Yeah! Think about the biggest selling artists right now and the global population—the impact is minute. And it makes these tiny genres look microscopic but that much more important. I went to China and found a Blasphemy shirt, which is this obscure Canadian black metal band.
So I think I’ve gotten over that intimidation; who intimidates you when you’re the one interviewing?
Only pro wrestlers. I get nervous when a pro wrestler comes around. I got hella nervous when I used to interview bands for my zine or for my radio show before I got started, but musicians are now just other musicians to me. I still get really fucking excited. Last year, I met Duff McKagan, and I’ve always wanted to hear those stories and talk to him about punk. Here we are in Australia and I’m grilling him about old Seattle punk bands. But those wrestlers, I get really fucking nervous with. Maybe because I don’t have any commonality with them.
That similar experience is key.
Exactly. With musicians, either someone is in punk, or—actually, if I met Cam’ron. If I met Cam’ron I’d be nervous. But short of a couple rappers, the only people I like are in punk bands or kind of into punk rock. I’m not gonna get nervous about meeting someone that didn’t play in a punk band, because chances are I don’t like their music.
I think we’ve covered all of everything ever, thanks so much for talking to us!
Fucked Up are performing at Rock and Roll Hotel on Thursday, July 3rd. Find tickets here.