Punk-rock godfather Joe Strummer of the Clash may have propagated the idea of a band as a gang. But for members of Canadian experimental hardcore sextet Fucked Up, their situation is more like having rival members of the Bloods and Crips in the same group.
"We fight about everything," offers front man Damian Abraham, rather matter-of-factly in confirming the band's dysfunctional reputation. "There's literally been bloodshed over what songs are being played in the van.
"Oh, and I nearly killed [guitarist] Josh [Zucker] at Heathrow Airport in England last year — [bassist] Sandy [Miranda] threw a roll of duct tape at my head and then started punching me, and Josh tried to keep me from going after her, but I thought he was attacking me and I nearly threw him over the guardrail at the departures area, and he would have fallen like three stories," he adds. "It's things like that, and worse. You know, it's funny because a lot of people think we exaggerate things, but I think if anything, we kinda downplay how it really is."
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Indeed, Fucked Up — or "Effed Up," as radio and TV broadcasters have, out of necessity, taken to calling the group — has reached levels of internal animosity that make the infamous intraband squabbles of Oasis and the Ramones seem like child's play. The members are not even remotely friends. They're rarely all in the recording studio at the same time. They're only together when forced to be, as on a tour, and even then they don't eat meals together or so much as talk to one another.
Abraham refers to his bandmates — Zucker, Miranda, drummer Jonah Falco and guitarists Mike Haliechuk and Ben Cook — as "those people." He's quit and returned to Fucked Up countless times, and insists he has a breakdown before every tour until his wife finally convinces him to go out on the road.
Strangely enough, Abraham hardly seems difficult. Over the phone from his Toronto apartment — surrounded by his two pugs and two cats, and taking a break from cleaning the bathroom as a favor to his wife before heading out on Fucked Up's current North American jaunt — the bald, burly singer (a self-proclaimed "straight-edge record collector nerd") comes off as good-natured and gregarious a person as you'd ever want to speak to. And yet...
"I'm probably the least stable member of the band," he says. "I'm the only one who's sought professional help. I've been diagnosed [as] manic-depressive, but there's definitely people in the band that would probably be diagnosed as sociopaths."
And so the question naturally comes to mind: Why be a band at all? Why, after nearly eight years of this — a span that's already produced a mind-boggling 40-plus releases (a combination of full-length LPs, EPs and seven-inches) — would they even bother to continue?
"It's about the music," Abraham says. "With Fucked Up, we don't really know what the big overall purpose of it is yet, but we're damn sure not gonna let a lack of friendship interfere with the pursuit of that, or the music. You just kinda close your eyes and hope for the best."
This type of thought process is hard to understand, at least until you hear the band's recently released (and fittingly titled) album The Chemistry of Common Life, and you realize it's doing something really special, sometimes even visionary. Like Hüsker Dü's groundbreaking Zen Arcade, this is the sound of a hardcore band bursting beyond the rigid confines of its genre, pulling established tenets — Abraham's Negative Approach-inspired, sociopolitically charged bark-and-howl vocals, and all the loud, chugging guitar riffs and speedy, flailing rhythms — into new and exhilarating places.
Granted, Fucked Up certainly hasn't shied away from unlikely textures on past albums: In one particularly unlikely collaboration, they tapped Owen Pallett (Arcade Fire, Final Fantasy) for string arrangements on 2006's Hidden World, and on last year's Year of the Pig EP, the title track was a sprawling 18-minute collision of chamber pop, psych- and prog-rock, and a full-on hardcore assault. But on Chemistry, the sonics are far more audacious and ambitious — some songs were built with more than 70 tracks — yet it's well focused and thrillingly executed.
The furious "Crooked Head" and the title song wrap layer upon layer of swirling guitar around Abraham's roar in a manner that suggests My Bloody Valentine jamming with Bob Mould and Sick of It All. Opener "Son the Father" launches with a gentle, delicate flute solo before the thrashy riffs and frenzied screams sneak up and flatten it like a bulldozer taking out a meadow full of sunflowers.
Molasses-paced instrumental "Golden Seal" gets Floyd-y with spiraling ray-gun synthesizers and distant rocketship guitars; and the especially curious "Royal Swan" pits the decidedly operatic vocals of guest Katie Stelmanis-Cali against Abraham's caustic holler and a symphony of galloping noise — think Poison Idea tackling an Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtrack.
Live, however, Fucked Up is a different beast entirely — one much more representative of the classic, churning hardcore pool from which the band ascended. To that end, Abraham has a mostly deserved reputation as a confrontational madman not averse to getting nearly naked or cutting his face with a razor blade.
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And from his vantage point, the singer's seen it all: Blood, broken limbs and general mayhem; crusty-punks fucking on a ratty couch as his band performed; and one of his own bandmates projectile vomiting onstage from the stomach flu, wiping their mouth and keeping on playing.
"The live show is where I feel like I thrive," Abraham says. "The first shows we did were real antagonistic. I'd go into the bathroom before we played and psych myself up by convincing myself that everyone there hated me, and then we'd come out and I'd break bottles on my head and stuff like that. The bands that I was being influenced by at the time around Toronto were very much these violent spectacles live, and it definitely felt like it was part of who I am.
"I think there should be a dangerous element to punk rock," he continues. "I don't want anyone to get hurt, but I think there should be that excitement. But after a while I started to feel like I was playing a character, and it kinda felt dishonest. So now when we play live, nothing is pre-planned, it just happens the way it happens.
"As long as it's an honest expression, that's okay."