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Fucked Up: Greater Than The Sum Of Their Parts

Toronto's renowned six-piece band opens up about interpersonal relationships, successes, and aging as a band for 13 years.

by Max Mertens
Jul 17 2014, 4:22pm

When you’ve been a band for 13 years, played almost 1,000 shows, put out three well-received full-length albums, not to mention countless EPs, singles, splits, and a one-off Christmas charity song, you’ve earned the right to wax nostalgic. For Toronto’s Fucked Up — Damian Abraham, Ben Cook, Jonah Falco, Mike Haliechuk, Sandy Miranda, and Josh Zucker — they’ve not only seen their interpersonal relationships change, they’ve also witnessed the city and scenes that birthed them evolve and shift, for better and worse.

While frontman Abraham is often regarded as the de facto spokesperson when it comes to interviews, the hardcore punk band is by and large a democracy, albeit one whose dynamics have been challenged throughout the years. Starting out, they thrived on chaos and creating a trail of misinformation (different monikers, fake backstories, occasional in-fighting, etc.), but with their new album Glass Boys, they’ve closed that chapter of their lives and have started looking inwards on what they’ve become. The record presents a picture of a group reflecting on their careers, but not resting on their laurels. “We’re greater than the sum of our parts,” claims Miranda. Several weeks before the release of the album, we spoke to all six members individually to understand the egos, neuroses, and yes, even (dysfunctional) friendships that make Fucked Up tick.

“I have white hair now, right here,” says Sandy Miranda, pointing to her roots for emphasis. We’re sitting in the living room of the bassist’s Little Italy apartment, drinking Japanese-style iced coffee that she’s brewed herself, discussing the band’s early days. Glass Boys came out almost exactly 13 years to the day the group played their first show at Toronto’s Planet Kensington, which Miranda remembers as “smelling fishy." This was before Falco joined the band and Abraham was just a straight edge teenager (with hair) in the audience. “The band was only supposed to last a couple of seven inches, maybe we’d play Hamilton,” says Miranda. “But holy fuck did it grow legs.”

In 2012 Abraham, Falco, and Haliechuk took Anthony Bourdain to the venue (now a bar named Thirsty and Miserable after a Black Flag song) when he was in town taping an episode of his show The Layover, an allegory for the band’s slow rise to popularity if there ever was one. Thirteen years later, Fucked Up have watched venues come and go, left the city to tour constantly and start achieving recognition, and of course, two members become fathers.

“Toronto has changed, but also I’ve changed, I think I’ve chilled out a bit more,” she says. “Back then we had a lot more energy and a lot more angst, now we’re all in our mid-thirties, we enjoy simple pleasures like a joint in the park, so it’s kind of a different time now.”

For the band’s fourth album, following their ambitious and highly successful 2011 rock opera David Comes To Life, half the group decamped to a town called Bent Harbour in Michigan to record, and later Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago. Miranda laid down her tracks in Toronto, a process the bassist admits to having mixed feelings about.

“There’s something about the way I play that needs to be with others in the moment as it’s being made. I struggle getting inspired sitting alone in my room,” she says. “I beat myself up, like ‘Sandy you’re capable of doing better and writing better lines, why aren’t you doing this?’ And all of a sudden I get filled with all this self-doubt.”

After Glass Boys came out the band embarked on a 10 date June tour, a length that’s practically unheard of for a band at their level of success. Now that both Abraham and Zucker are parents, these shortened stints are necessary on a practical level, but the argument could be made that they’re equally as important to maintaining the band’s sanity. “If we tour more we’re just going to self-destruct, so we’re touring at the pace that allows us to continue,” says Miranda.

This laid-back approach to making music and playing shows suits guitarist Ben Cook, who describes himself as “kind of a loner in the band." “Fucked Up has a lot of cooks in the kitchen,” he says as we sit on the rooftop porch of Dreamhouse Studios, a recording space and headquarters for Cook’s fledging label/collective of artists Bad Actors on Queen Street West. A stone’s throw away is the Horseshoe Tavern, one of Toronto’s longest-running music venues and where many of the city’s first wave of punk bands played. “I like my space and I don’t feel I’m going to creatively blossom holed up in a studio with intense people.”

Ask any of them to point to the moment when they felt like they were truly a Canadian band, and they’ll likely point to Fucked Up winning the 2009 Polaris Prize for The Chemistry of Common Life, yet they still occasionally feel like outsiders to the industry. “It was kind of frustating going to the Junos in 2012 [David Comes To Life was nominated for Alternative Album of the Year, losing out to Dan Mangan’s Oh Fortune],” says Miranda. “Best album, what was it? A fucking Christmas album [Michael Bublé’s Christmas]. Are you fucking kidding me? It was a farce. The musical institution in Canada is so fucking conservative.”

“It was a case where we had to go into the US and UK to get noticed in our own hometown and home country,” adds Cook. “Fucked Up hasn’t gotten FACTOR funding until two or three years ago and we were able to be a touring band without that kind of [government] assistance. Recently in the past few years I’ve noticed that people are realizing Toronto’s not a place to be ashamed of.”

While Glass Boys was released in Canada through Toronto’s Broken Social Scene-spawned label Arts & Crafts, there’s plenty of misconceptions about the band when it comes to day-to-day responsibilities. They have no manager, and Miranda has become the band’s unofficial accountant and bookkeeper, doing everything from booking flights to rounding up receipts for taxes (“Thank god for Sandy holding it down on the money side of things,” says Cook). It’s this same DIY spirit that lead them to creating Long Winter, a series of pay-what-you-can events featuring bands, DJs, readings, art installations, dancers, photographers, and more, to give back and foster community.

“People helped me when I was young in my first band, we just want to be able to do the same. It’s such a confusing and hard time in 2014 to make a living doing this if you’re starting out as a band,” says Cook. “People just need to stop being so screwface and come together.”

Between hosting a weekly show on MuchMusic (which was recently cancelled) and presenting at the odd Canadian awards show, Damian Abraham might be the busiest member of Fucked Up with extracurricular activities, but when Damian Abraham calls to reschedule an interview it’s for decidedly more domestic reasons. When I finally meet up with him at The Vapour Social, an unassuming pot shop and lounge in Toronto’s west end, the band’s frontman and lead singer explains that his two kids have been sick recently and later he has to pick up his cat from the veterinarian.

Abraham is on a first name and fist bump basis with the staff and many of the shop’s clients — he occasionally shot episodes of The Wedge there (including one particularly awkward Action Bronson interview) — and he even recorded his demoes for Glass Boys in a studio space in the back.

“It was definitely the most relaxed I’ve ever had a recording session,” says the singer, exhaling from a bong. “Normally I would always blow out my voice, but this time I had Mike’s songs far enough in advance and knew exactly what I wanted and I took my own way to complete my songs.”

A walking Encyclopedia Britannica of punk and hardcore from A to Z, Abraham has been fortunate to meet many of his musical heroes, though he usually gets more excited finding common ground in an artist’s more obscure early beginnings. For Glass Boys he found himself in a position where he was able to recruit other contributors, though J Mascis (who Abraham counts as a close friend) contributes to “Led By Hand”, the singer was wary of having too many guests on the album. Originally the song was written with Mascis and Bob Mould in mind, but Abraham ended up singing Mould’s part.

“I think we want to have an organic feel to it but there becomes a point where it can take you out of the record a little bit,” he says. “A lot of that insecurity I put on it myself. We didn’t want people saying ‘oh here’s Fucked Up realizing it’s over, trying to follow their rock opera by overloading with guest vocalists.’” Elsewhere, George Pettit — best known as Dallas Green’s gruff-voiced counterpart in St. Catherine, Ontario’s Alexisonfire — another artist who understands what it’s like to leave your hometown to achieve a great level of success.

“We always had that outsider mentality, but then you wake up and all of a sudden you are kind of on the inside but you still want to be outside,” says Abraham of the band being championed by international media. “That’s a big thing for me, realizing I didn’t become the band I hated, but I’m certainly in proximity to bands that I fucking hated.”

The increasing commodification of music is something that he spends a lot of time thinking about. His father worked for Pepsi making commercials in the 80s and he brings up a recent interview he did with Beggars Group founder and chairman Martin Mills. “He had this quote, “The artist should only be worried about making their art”. And that’s very pretentious but it applies to anyone, no matter what you define yourself as, the band, the guitarist, the singer, you should only be concerned about that,” says the singer. “You eventually get to a point in your life where you have to deal with reality and there’s certain times where I have to eat shit to pay for my kids’ swimming lessons.”

Abraham isn’t the only one whose family has expanded since David Comes To Life - guitarist Josh Zucker has a two-year-old daughter with his wife. “When I found out she was pregnant I was in England,” he says over the phone from New York. “For me personally it hasn’t really changed who I am in the band all that much.”

He moved there last year so that his wife could attend school at Columbia, making him the only member of the group not residing in Toronto. While Abraham confesses to having been initially angry when Zucker sat out of an Australian tour with the Foo Fighters — “I think it was just because I was mad that I had to go to China after Holden was born” — having Zucker as an ally in parenthood is something that he appreciates (“Maybe we should go after a Huggies sponsorship,” Falco will joke later).

“It wasn’t like I was coming to the band being like, ‘OK we have to change this and this,’ because I need to be here, a lot of those changes had already been made and it definitely made things easier for me.”

One thing both fathers have in common is that they couldn’t be more proud to share their music with their children. “She likes 'The Other Shoe,' she sang along to that as a very young toddler,” recalls Zucker. As for the group’s profane name, the guitarist says he’ll cross that bridge when he gets to it. “I haven’t really had to deal with explaining the significance of it yet to her, for me the awkward part is telling other parents what I do for a living.”

“It’s a donkey’s work for a hero’s reward.” This is the expression Jonah Falco uses on several occasions to describe his role in the band. You might think being the drummer in a group with five other members, he’d be slightly overlooked, but he’s by no means a silent partner and reckons that he’s does the most press next to Abraham (“Probably because I’m usually willing to make grandiose statements about us,” he says laughing).

For Glass Boys, he added two separate drum tracks, one of them in half-time, creating a psychedelic, disorienting feel. He traveled to Chicago with Haliechuk and Zucker and was present for the rest of the members recording their parts in Toronto. “I come from a musical background so it came really easy to me,” says the drummer, sitting in the living room of his west end apartment.

“Early on, I remember being the only person who could tune a guitar so I would be standing up during the set and tuning people’s guitars. You have to cater your advice and your language to the person you’re working with. There’s no appeal in absolutism for me. When I’m in the studio with Damian it’s far more conversational, whereas when I’m in the studio with Ben, it’s far more musical and technical.”

While Falco is eager to discuss the nuts and bolts of the process, the group’s other songwriter and guitarist Mike Haliechuk is slightly less forthcoming. Much has been written in the past about a combative relationship between Abraham and Haliechuk, though both claim these stories have been overblown (“Mike is a genius and I owe him my career in a very real way,” says Abraham). For the new album, they wrote their lyrics separately, and the resulting songs see them admitting their faults, exploring the moral conflicts that come with fame, and trying to come to terms with aging as a band.

“People always ask us, ‘Are you going to break up? Are you always fighting?’” says Haliechuk over coffee at a cafe downtown one afternoon. “Partly we’re to blame, but it’s just one of those things that people always want to talk about.”

“I wouldn’t say that everyone has their eggs in one basket, but also I wouldn’t say everybody’s ready to admit that they don’t want to make Fucked Up not be the centre of motion,” says Falco. For him that means working with hardcore and punk bands from Ontario and overseas, and playing in Smartboys, his side-project with Haliechuk. He also expresses an interest in public speaking and making documentaries with his filmmaker wife. Adds Haliechuk, “I’m sure a lot of us are past the rubicon now. I’m not going to re-evaluate my life when I’m 50 and decide to be a lawyer, I’m sure I’ll continue making music.” Whatever the future holds for the band as a collective, one thing is for certain - it will be on their own terms.

“Fucked Up is an approximation of itself if that makes sense,” says Falco. “We had no expectations in the beginning, in fact our only expectation was an implosion and in fact it’s an approximation of an implosion. And that approximation is success.”

Max Mertens is a freelance writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.

Solo portaits by Aaron Wynia

Polaris Music Prize
david comes to life
glass boys
Hardcore punk
bad actors
Long Winter