Favorite

Damian Abraham traces the improbable trajectory of Toronto's mighty Fucked Up 

Somehow we manage to keep snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," says Damian "Pink Eyes" Abraham of his Canadian punk band's unexpected 650-word rave review in the venerable New York Times.

In this particular instance, the defeat part comes from naming your band Fucked Up. The Times refused to print the offending moniker, or even hint at what it might be. No F***ed Up or Effed Up allowed.

The omission seriously diminished the opportunity to recruit new fans.

"It was one of those amazingly awesome bittersweet moments," says Abraham, who's had more than a few, including getting canned as a FOX commentator (which we'll get to). "At the same time, we never expected any of these victories to happen, so I can't get upset. Because in what parallel universe could a band like us even think about getting mentioned in the New York Times?"

To a singer who's pushing 300 pounds and likes to beat himself bloody onstage while his band assaults eardrums with punk rock pleasure, Fucked Up's first decade has been as shocking as it has to anyone else.

"We never thought we'd be taken seriously by anyone, actually," says Abraham, whose band picked up a $20,000 Polaris Prize last year for releasing the "Canadian album with the highest artistic merit."

Naturally, Fucked Up put the money into a remake of Band-Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas" — the smarmy Bob Geldof single that boasted cameos from George Michael, Sting and Boy George — with all proceeds this time going to organizations that work on behalf of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

A holiday classic

In the Fucked Up Xmas update, guest vocalists include comedian David Cross plus members of Vampire Weekend, Wu-Tang Clan, Yo La Tengo, TV on the Radio and Broken Social Scene. Abraham recorded each of them on a Dictaphone-style recorder while they listened to the Band-Aid original on his iPod.

"It was very bizarre," he says. "Hotel rooms, backstage at MTV Canada, in the back of clubs, bathrooms, I recorded them anywhere I could find that was quiet."

While lots of benefits tend to attract more publicity than actual proceeds, this Fucked Up one looks promising. The band is still waiting for sales figures from iTunes, but Abraham says the 7-inch single (which actually wasn't released until January) is just about gone.

"When we're sold out of all copies, it will be approximately twenty to thirty thousand dollars that we're hoping to get," says the latter-day Geldof. "One thing that worked out really well is that we got all that money from the award we won, so we were able to pay for all the manufacturing and recording and everything. So all the costs were taken care of, and everything that comes in will go directly to these organizations. There's no overhead."

Of course, the project wouldn't be Fucked Up without the requisite tongue-in-cheek element, which was readily provided by the original hit.

"Yeah, it's a classic holiday song," says Abraham, whose favorite lines remain "There won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime" and "Tonight thank God it's them instead of you."

"That song is so much about exporting the Western idea to save these poor people. And the irony is the fact that what we're doing is a benefit record for missing and murdered aboriginal women, and that's sort of what happens when a colonial power does come in and screws up people's lives. In Canada, the aboriginal community is dealing with the aftermath of a post-colonial world, and that song is such a cheerleader for colonialism."

TV Party

Abraham and Co. are no strangers to political irony. Fucked Up's first single, 2002's "No Pasarán," gets its title from a Communist slogan. Not exactly the best résumé item to become a recurring guest on FOX. (Told you we'd get to it.)

The singer was invited to appear on the station's late-night show Red Eye after host Greg Gutfeld declared Fucked Up's The Chemistry of Common Life the best album of 2008. In some ways it was a natural pairing — Abraham's stage name is, after all, Pink Eyes, and the two are both avid punk rock fans — but after a number of return appearances and an offer to become a regular correspondent, the singer managed to commit the ultimate FOX faux pas.

"I've finally stopped getting asked back on after I dissed Glenn Beck on air," explains a bemused Abraham. "I was just mentioning him offhand and they're like, 'He's in the hospital right now.' And I'm like, 'Oh man, I bet you he wishes we had health care now.' I didn't think it was that bad. It wasn't like, 'Good, I hope he dies.'"

Actually, Abraham's proper TV debut came a couple years earlier, when he and his wife agreed to appear on an at-the-time unnamed Canadian reality series for $2,000. Just to open an old offstage wound, I read Abraham part of Newlywed, Nearly Dead's "Lauren and Damian" episode synopsis:

Damian plays in a punk band and spends most of their earnings on take-out food and his record collection ... Is Lauren stuck playing the mom to her husband for the rest of her life?

"Yeah, that's the bane of my existence, that show," says Abraham. "A lot of it was staged. I have a record-spending addiction, I will not deny that, but they definitely played up the drama. Both my wife and I were kind of playing it up for the camera, just hamming it up and having a good time. And the whole time in the back of our minds we're like, 'No one's gonna see this,' because Canadian television is like a black hole that the government throws money into. You know, once in a while you get a Kids in the Hall or an SCTV, but we never thought Newlywed, Nearly Dead would be one of those shows."

Live and learn. On the plus side, when you go to the station's website, the link for streaming the still-married couple's episode just shows an ad for Diamond Crystal Salt.

Rat scratch fever

While its frontman's TV career may be on the skids, Fucked Up's music continues to grow. The nearly ambient first minute of 2009's "Year of the Rat" single barely sounds like it comes from the same band that thrashed its way through "No Pasarán," at least not until Abraham starts roaring.

The goal, he says, is to be "the band that we would be interested in if we weren't in the band." And that, of course, is where everything gets fucked up.

"Unfortunately, we have six different people who all have very different expectations of what a band should or shouldn't be, and that means it's not always the most cohesive process," Abraham says. "So over time, it's become a more collaborative effort, but it's a lack of collaboration that makes it what it is."

Meanwhile, critical accolades keep getting more creative, with Abraham compared to everything from a "Lee Ving with throat cancer" to "Iggy after eating a hundred years of Big Macs." Which does he prefer?

"If I can find some way to be like Iggy in any way, shape or form," he says of the self-lacerating Stooges leader, "I will gladly take it."

Well, there is the whole blood thing.

"This is gonna sound like an insanely moronic namedrop on my part, but when we played at All Tomorrow's Parties this year, [Sonic Youth's] Kim Gordon came into the dressing room and lectured me about hurting myself onstage. Then she actually brought up Iggy Pop, and I'm like, 'Well, Iggy does it.' And she's like 'Yeah, but Iggy's got it figured out so he doesn't actually hurt himself.'"

Abraham notes that his hero's onstage antics included getting strapped to a board and whipped until he was covered in blood, but those were early days. Plus, it was at a point when bands like the Stooges and the MC5 were watching their rock star dreams crumble.

"They didn't think what they were doing was as amazingly out of left field as it was," says Abraham. "All these guys kind of thought, 'This is it, we're gonna have a hit record and be the next big thing. We're gonna be the next Terry Jacks or something.'

"And, you know, it's funny, because that mentality survived. Even these first wave Toronto punk bands were like that. A band like the Viletones, whose lead singer is called Nazi Dog, honestly thought that they were gonna sign to Sire Records and sell millions of records."

Fucked Up harbors no such illusions. Abraham calls the band's latest Matador release, Couple Tracks: Singles 2002-2009, a greatest non-hits collection. After nearly 60 albums, singles and mix tapes, he sees it as "a real overview of the quantity-over-quality approach that Fucked Up is about."

"I blame bands like the Melvins, the Anti-Scene and Poison Idea, bands that just put out so many records. When we first started, we were all big record nerds and we're like, 'One day, it'd be so awesome to have this many records out.' And now we just keep doing it."

bill@csindy.com

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